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Posted by: Kenji Hall on April 18
It’s been many years since people stopped thinking of video games as a cottage industry. But as the multibillion dollar industry has matured, the little guys who were its heart and soul got pushed out of the business of making games for consoles. Most games for the Wii or PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 that you’ll find crowding the store shelves these days cost millions of dollars to develop, produce and distribute—a princely sum.
That’s a trend that Nintendo’s WiiWare and Microsoft’s XNA are trying to reverse. Here’s an extended version of an exchange I had with Medaverse’s founders—Jesse Lowther, Lead Designer and President/CEO; Mike Lockhardt Jr., Lead Artist; Robin Larson, Lead Programmer; and Nicole Orso, Character Artist—for the Inside Innovation story I wrote this week about their plans to develop their first video game. They run their company out of a 150-square-foot commercial loft.
You founded Medaverse as a fiction-writing site, which evolved into a gaming fan site, and a forum for discussions about Super Smash Bros. What made you want to develop your own games?
Lockhardt: I had always wanted to bring my ideas to life in some form or another. That was the reason why I had started Medaverse as a fan-fiction site. I never expected I would one day be bringing ideas in to the video game format. After years of discussing video games as a form of art and storytelling medium, it became apparent that video games would be perfect for bringing our characters to life.
Lowther: It was during a time where the gaming media was undergoing some substantial reshaping, right around the time the dot coms started going belly up…Some larger gaming media sites were in the process of closing down their forums to users who weren’t paying. It was becoming clear that the Internet wasn’t going to be the free ride that most had hoped it would be.
I don’t feel this shaped our outlook on gaming itself so much as our understanding of how gaming news traverses the Internet, which is far more important than it seems at first glance. If anything, you might say that I learned to pay attention not only to the ebb and flow of information but to the often unheard cries of gamers protesting the direction of the industry. There’s an entire undercurrent of opinions which are constantly being expressed. More telling than any online article is the list of user comments afterwards. This is a direct channel to players, and Medaverse has already made one very key development decision (one which delayed the release of Gravitronix) based upon the concerns of these players. I cannot pretend to be an expert in this industry, but I’ve watched it grow for 20-odd years and I’ve been a gamer long enough to know the frustration of developers (and specifically publishers) making decisions which negatively impact their customers. Being gamers, we’re developing with gamers in mind, and we’re listening to the concerns being voiced.
When did you begin developing Gravitronix? Why try your hand at developing games now, and not before?
Lowther: We had toyed with the idea of game development for years prior to the launch of the Wii, but it wasn't until the Wii controller was revealed that we began seriously considering it. Later, when Nintendo President Satoru Iwata announced the "Virtual Console", a feature of the Wii which would allow Wii owners to download and play retro games from the libraries of consoles past, he mentioned that Nintendo might one day offer original content to buy over the service. At that point, we entered a discussion with Nintendo. The one prerequisite was the idea needed to revolve around the unique Wii controller. We sat down in August of 2006 at that time and fleshed out an idea which eventually spanned a 33-page PDF, an action-role-playing game which we tentatively dubbed "Wii Heroes". We sent the PDF in and our contact loved it, but then the rules about reviewing potential developers changed. It came down to filling out an application on their developer Web site and submitting it for approval.
Lockhardt: It was decided early on that the game would be better suited for disc and not downloads. We went through a couple other ideas before we settled on Gravitronix. It was mid or early 2006. Work on Gravitronix started in the summer of 2007. We had wanted to create a game back during the GameCube era but the cost of the dev kit and production was way too high for us.
How expensive was the dev kit and production back then?
Lowther: The real issue wasn't even the cost of the development hardware but the fact that we'd need a publisher before we had a prayer of getting our game off the ground. That's always been the biggest issue. I've heard first-hand about how much a publisher can destroy your idea if they suddenly up and demand that the game be shipped within a month no matter what state it's in. Nintendo isn't our publisher but rather our retailer. They've stepped back and allowed us and other similar devs to make whatever game we want with absolutely no hand in the creative process.
Some might see that as having just enough rope to hang ourselves, true, but being able to bring an idea to market on our own terms and at our own pace is something most development houses only dream about. None of this would've been possible without the freedom WiiWare offers.
How did a low-cost development tool like WiiWare change things?
Lowther: It was the turning point. It became clear that we could be more than just a group of friends who sat down and kicked around game concepts on occasion.
Was the fact that Nintendo distinguishes between old arcade remakes on Virtual Console and new downloadable games was a big selling point for you?
Larson: The Virtual Console and WiiWare exist for different reasons. The Virtual Console provides a window into gaming's past. WiiWare is about introducing future game concepts that will be shaping the industry in the coming years.
Lowther: Players should easily be able to determine where to go to find new games as opposed to retro games. From what I've read around the internet, there are a lot of players who aren't interested in the Virtual Console but have had their interest piqued by WiiWare. It stands to reason that separating new and retro into unique categories would help players find what they're looking for.
How will a tiny indie developer like you distinguish your games on the channel from the majors' titles?
Larson: The market place in WiiWare is a level environment. Unlike brick-and-mortar stores where publishers can hoard shelf space, WiiWare offers all titles at equal amounts of availability.
Lowther: That's where the internet comes into play. We plan on rolling out some online ad campaigns, but the point where we plan to grab the most attention in the gaming community will be with the release of the introductory video for Gravitronix. It will be the first time we'll actually show the gameplay of Gravitronix to the gaming media and we'll also be taking that opportunity to reveal a bit of our "style".
According to some developers, flexibility of pricing games is one benefit. Can you explain?
Larson: As a video game consumer I often look at how much gameplay I am getting per dollar. I believe that other game consumers make the same purchasing decisions if only at a subconscious level. With the ability to set the price of a game with out needing to consider covering publishing expenses, we can tailor the price of the game to its gameplay value.
Lowther: The ability to set our own pricing allows us to present potential customers with a chance to try our creations with little risk to them, and that's easily the most important aspect of what WiiWare is offering. Gravitronix will retail for 500 Wii points ($5). Not because we think you'll only get $5 worth of entertainment value out of it but because this is our first impression upon the gaming industry and it needs to be a good one. We want to be in this for the long haul and it's more important to get our name out there than to make as much money as possible off the starting line. As a player, I'm naturally hesitant about games from developers I've never heard of because I have no idea what to expect in terms of quality. For $5, I'd be a lot more willing to give a new dev a try, especially when they're going out of their way to show me what they have to offer instead of trying to make as much money as possible off of me. In essence, we're treating customers how we'd like to be treated as customers.
Did you consider developing on the other platforms, such as for PCs or using Microsoft’s XNA or XBLA or Sony’s PlayStation?
Larson: From a programers standpoint, it is always best to develop software to be able to function on any platform with comparable abilities. However, the Wii's unique human interface makes none of the other platforms comparable. From the start we were intrigued and inspired by the Wii remote. Other platforms would not be able to support these ideas.
Lockhardt: We did have a backup plan that saw us creating at least one or two games on the PC/Mac and XboxLive if we were unable to get a Nintendo devkit.
Lowther: I badly wanted to work with the Wii, especially since Gravitronix and most of our other ideas would only work with the Wii's control setup, but we weren't certain if we'd make the cut. We'd talked about falling back to the PC, but even a mouse couldn't do what we needed for Gravitronix. Honestly, we never even looked at the licensing for similar services.
How big is your team? Your budget?
Lowther: As of now, we still have six to eight people...Two of them are out in California and help out whenever they find some spare time. As for our budget, as of now, we're still under $15,000 and every penny has been from my own life savings.
Your Web site calls Gravitronix an action/battle game for one to four players (possibly eight, and possibly online) in which you defend your territory from enemy players while trying to assault theirs by using different projectiles. Any more details?
Lowther: Gravitronix will revolve around twisting your controller (either the Wii remote or nunchuk) and pressing two buttons. You'll be in control of a "Gravity Platform" which you'll navigate back and forth along your territory line via twisting your controller. This platform can fire two beams, one to attract and one to repel, which will be used to manipulate the projectiles which appear inside the single-screen arena which you share with the other players. Your goal is to prevent a projectile from passing through your territory line while simultaneously trying to send a projectile through your opponent's territory lines. The game will be easy to pick up and play, but with a surprising amount of hidden depth to master. At this point, it won't be ready in "early" 2008, due to some of the changes I mentioned earlier. We're shooting for a June/July release, depending upon how long it takes to fine-tune the game.
Any other ways you think WiiWare lowers the barriers to entry for a small outfit like yours?
Larson: Publishing games for the most popular console would be impossible without the support and funding of a large publisher. So many of these publishers are more concerned with producing games from tried and true formulas from developers with successful reputations. New and innovative games concepts from independent developers are a risk that these publishers are not willing to take. Self-publishing is the only way to get past this high cost of entry. WiiWare is a place where self-publishing becomes possible.
Are you considering a downloadable game or will you also sell it in stores as a packaged media? For a small developer, is there a risk of not reaching the mass market since not every Wii is connected to the Internet?
Larson: Right now, physical shops make up the most popular retail channel. However, over time the online game marketplace will gain more and more acceptance from casual gamers. Just look at what Amazon did to the retail book market place.
Lowther: There's definitely a tradeoff involved. Downloadable content has nowhere to go but up. At the same time, we do miss out on the walk-in retail market. There's a certain percentage of potential customers who don't use online services. However, one of the key advantages to online distribution is that we don't compete for shelf space. Your average retail game has only a month to sit on store shelves and receive the mainstay of its sales before it's taken down for next month's game releases. Not only does WiiWare remove the risk of printing too many copies of a game for retail sale, but it also means our game will stay on the service for as long as the service runs. Years from now, new Wii owners can still find and buy Gravitronix without much difficulty.
Are you considering releasing games in episodes or stages, rather than as a single complete package?
Lockhardt: We have an action game in a really early stage of developement right now that would be set up like a TV show and have 13 episdoes per season. We have the idea on the table. I personally see this being the next step in videogames and TV. As much as I enjoy long games that can span anywhere from 40 to 100 hours, I find that I don't have the time to sit down and enjoy them. So I see episodic games being a good replacement. Give the player a game that they can finish over a weekend and release a new chapter every few weeks.
Lowther: I hope that no one else has explored the idea by the time we get to the point where we could undertake such a project. It would be truly amazing to be the first ones to have this out the door.
Do you remember when you got the confirmation email?
Lowther: We first submitted our application on April 4, 2007, and we got the confirmation on August 15th of the same year. We were watching "Futurama" in the living room when I checked my email and there it was. That was actually a stressful time because we still weren't 100% sure we'd make the cut. It was almost more a feeling of relief than happiness to finally see the email. All that time was spent waiting and wondering if we'd make the cut. Nintendo was busy with all the new interest WiiWare was generating, but it still didn't make the wait any easier.
Orso: I remember the day Jesse got the confirmation email verifying us as a licensed Wii developer. He started shouting "Developers! Developers! Developers! Developers!"
No longer child's play, the booming global games market is worth billions of dollars. In Games, Inc., BusinessWeek Innovation writer Matt Vella and Tokyo correspondent Kenji Hall analyze emerging business trends in video games and interactive entertainment. They’ll examine everything from button-mashing, chart-topping, console games to serious games commissioned by big corporations to train staff. They’ll also map the evolution of expansive virtual worlds and go behind the strategies at companies that are turning play into big business.