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N+: Beyond The Postmortem

What's it like getting a game onto Xbox Live Arcade? N+ creators Raigan Burns and Mare Sheppard of developer Metanet - and Nick Waanders, president of XBLA N converters Slick Entertainment - don't mince words in this discussion of the service.

In this interview, N creators Raigan Burns and Mare Sheppard of developer Metanet - and Nick Waanders, president of Slick Entertainment, which handled the conversion to Xbox Live Arcade, chat honestly about the trials and tribulations of birthing the title.

N+, the popular ninja Flash game recently released in enhanced form onto XBLA, has been somewhat of a hit with hardcore gamers - but the trio explain in this piece how the process of getting it onto Microsoft's service was fraught with difficulty.

The sometimes disruptive creators also discuss how showcasing the game in its early stages allowed them to tweak it before release. Gamasutra caught up with them shortly before the postmortem of the game was conducted at GDC's Independent Games Summit.

Having just seen you guys discuss the process in the postmortem - was the process of getting N onto the Xbox 360 all right, or a bit painful?

Raigan Burns: Extremely painful. (laughs) No, it was good until the end part.

Nick Waanders: Basically, the way we worked is that Mare and Raigan gave me the source code for the Flash version, and a lot of concept drawings of how it needed to look. Not necessarily game drawings, but more style ideas, like, "Okay, we want this kind of style." That's kind of cool, because it's kind of what I like, so I was like, "All right, that's cool. I like that."

From that, I created a C# complete version of the game, where you could run around, and the only reason to do that was to very quickly figure out what the game was about and how it worked, and also because it had to run at 60 frames a second, and not 40 frames a second.

There were some variables that were not really getting across, and we wanted to get as close to the Flash version as possible before we started pouring the C++ concrete basically. That worked pretty well.

After that, we focused on getting multiplayer to work, and getting all the rules and regulations you have to meet from Microsoft to work. That actually took quite a lot of time.

Also because we were two programmers for a while and then it was just me after that, the end phase was quite hectic, because there's a lot of bugs coming in, especially if you have four-player multiplayer, which we do have, and you have 250 single-player levels that they have to test every single time they do a test pass. Word up to VMC. That's pretty hardcore.

NW: But in the end, it was actually relatively smooth, I think, except for the last bit.

RB: We sort of wondered if it would ever come our way.

NW: Yeah. I think the reason was because there were a lot of modes in there, and a lot of slightly different code paths, and that's kind of what broke us up in the end a little bit. It was hard to make sure all of the dialogs were popping up properly, and that's where a lot of the bugs came from.

Was there a lot of waiting around? That's what I've heard from some other people. I don't know if it's gotten smoother since then.

RB: We've been waiting a month and a half.

Mare Sheppard: Since it's been through cert, yeah.

NW: Yeah, that has been a bit of a wait.

 


That's what I was talking about. A month and a half is not too bad, compared to other stories I've heard, like three months and more.

RB: That's true. We actually dodged a bullet. The only reason why we weren't even more bumped is because we spent all kinds of money on the launch party, which was last week, because it was supposed to be coming out the week before. Also they're doing a postmortem [at GDC]... they are doing one of a game that isn't even out yet. [The game debuted on the Wednesday of GDC.]

NW: It's only by one day.

RB: The guy at Microsoft was like, "Because of those things, I was able to prevent you from being further bumped." It was like, "FYI, you could've been even more screwed!"

NW: This is where you really feel being small. You see this giant wave coming toward you and you can't do anything about it. You've got to move.

I'm curious to know what you thought about what Dylan Cuthbert from Q Games [PixelJunk Racers/Monsters] said, about not wanting to do demos any more - due to users who would not purchase the game anyway downloading the demo and generating negative buzz. I kind of disagreed with it.

RB: I thought that was really manipulative. I guess the whole thing is, yes, people complain -- annoying complain-y people. But you don't force someone to spend money so that even if they regret the decision, they're guilted or they don't want to admit it, so then that's why they don't say anything bad. I don't think that's good.

I think every game should have a demo. Who were we just talking to? Oh, flOw. I didn't know flOw didn't... we don't have a PlayStation 3 yet.

I don't understand, first of all, how every game on Live Arcade has a demo, and yet people are buying so many of them that are crap. You'd think that having a demo would be like no sales.

NW: I think there's two sides. You can have a good demo, and that'll really help you, or you can have a bad demo, and that will really hurt your sales. I think that's what he was talking about. It's hard to make a good demo. What makes a good demo? I don't know.

You can have a demo that's too fun, and they don't need to buy the full game. Or you can have a demo that doesn't give you a full...

RB: You don't get what the game is.

The thing that struck me I was hearing was that it sounded like he wanted to put the retail model into the downloads, where you don't get to try before you buy.

RB: No, I love the demo. I think the way it should work is that it forces the games to be good, because you can't just rely on marketing. Marketing will get people to download the demo, but it's not going to get people to pay for it. Then again, when you look at how many games are selling, like, who's buying Pinball FX?

NW: How many games have you bought on Xbox Live Arcade, seriously?

RB: Doom, Geometry Wars, Pac-Man, and one more.

NW: Same here. I can count them on one hand.

RB: There are only five or six good games.

MS: You bought Carcassonne, didn't you?

RB: No, Carcassonne was free. There was one more that we bought. There are okay games, but like with Alien Hominid, we have the Gamecube version. A lot of the games that are worth getting on Live Arcade aren't the originals. Like Pac-Man CE, it's awesome. And Geometry Wars is really good.

NW: To come back to the demo, I've tried a lot of games.

RB: We've tried every... there's like 90 games on PartnerNet, and not a lot of them...

MS: Very few of them we'd purchase.

NW: Yeah. The whole "try the demo and buy your game or not" is the perfect system to weed out games that are shit. The problem is, on Xbox Live Arcade, like retail space, they limit it so much. They should open it up and let people go, you know?

Nintendo has been suggesting that WiiWare is going to be very open.

RB: That's what they said to us, but then they wouldn't explain how that works.

 


But if you think about a hundred games, the quality of most of the DS games, say, what's going to happen? You're going to have a whole lot of crap.

NW: But if there's a rating system in there, it might be okay.

RB: I've literally downloaded every game on GameHippo, and there's one good one for every thousand games. But it's a really good game! But I don't think many people are going to have the patience to slog through it.

And you can't trust the ratings on GameHippo, either, because a lot of people rate up just shooters. Space shooters are popular for some reason. Games that aren't necessarily great get rated up. I think that's way more interesting. I'd love it if it was more like PC. But then again... just play freeware PC games.

NW: There's no real "YouTube for games," though. [Microsoft subsequently announced its Xbox Live community games feature after this interview at GDC.]

But I don't trust YouTube ratings or number of views or anything like that. If there were searching and tags and stuff, and if you could see what your friends like, that would be good.

NW: Which is part of why that's such a big deal in Xbox Live Arcade, seeing what your friends are playing and stuff like that.

RB: I think the thing with Live Arcade, though, is that I remember the last year and the year before. Two years ago was when we were first talking with Microsoft about doing it, it was really exciting, because Live Arcade had just came out, and they were like, "Oh, it's new. It's not going to be like retail. There's not going to be all this crap. There's going to be all these small, great, fun things."

But now it's exactly the same. There's all these big-budget ones with big publishers making them, and the real problem, I think, is that the same people who are deciding what retail games get greenlit are deciding what Live Arcade games get greenlit.

I guess it's because they have a lot of power that no one has pointed out that that's the primary reason. Those decisions that are ruining Live Arcade... it's like, who greenlit Word Puzzle? Who green-lit that hoverboard game that's just shit?

Nick has this racing...do you know Iron Man Off-Road Racing, like the old arcade game? It's four-player, and a little isometric. Nick made a racing game like that, and Microsoft was like, "Well, racing is too saturated on Live Arcade." But that's because they've greenlit like ten really shitty racing games. There's no good racing games.

They have that Yaris game.

RB: Oh my god. Exactly! That's the whole thing. They all suck. It's like, when we started out, we were excited, just like with N. There were 30 games on Live Arcade. If N was one of them, it would stand out. Now there's like a hundred games, and they're all shit.

MS: People are used to seeing crap on there.

RB: If I was a consumer, I could see not even looking at Live Arcade games anymore if I had downloaded 10 or 20 demos, because at a certain point, you're like, "Whatever. Maybe there's a good game in here." But it's like GameHippo.

By the same token, one thing is that when they're only releasing one or two games each week, all you have to compete against theoretically for mindshare of new people is that one game, because the graphics in N are really different.

It's not flashy. It's really reliant on people playing it to get it. If it came out with 30 games that week, that might be rough, because it doesn't have a real attract mode.

RB: For sure. Going back to the demo thing, I think if there was no playable demo of N, nobody would buy it, definitely. I don't know. We'll see how it does.

It could go either way. One thing is, we don't have much information about what sells. It's really hard. We keep asking. I know you can get detailed sales. We have one spreadsheet from a year ago with very detailed everything, but they won't give it.

NW: It's not coming from Microsoft.

RB: No. It's like we had to sneak and get someone to give it to us.

Yeah, it's really hard to get industry sales figures anywhere at all.

RB: And we really want to know how many people do follow. The thing I suspect with N+ is that anyone who follows and knows what's coming out that week already knows about N. We don't need to attract those people. We need to attract the sort of people who are like... well, we don't really check.

We know what's come out in the last couple of weeks because they bumped us, but in previous weeks, it would be like two or three weeks since we checked, and we could go, "Oh, what's up?" And there's a list. It's that sort of appeal. If you're on the Internet, and you're hardcore, you're probably going to like N anyways. But I don't know how many people that is.

NW: I hope a lot of blogs and stuff pick it up, because that's usually how I go and check out an Xbox Live Arcade game. I see somebody mention, "Hey, this game just came out and it's awesome." And I'll go check it out. But otherwise, I'm not one of those people who goes back to look at what's coming out.

RB: It's like, how is Uno the best-selling game on there? That really... that doesn't make any sense. It really doesn't. Street Fighter II you can see, because everyone played it and it was popular. But Uno... I didn't realize the 360 was popular with that crowd.

 


I wonder if... because Jeff Minter came out, and he was really upset about how people were buying remakes of stuff more than...

RB: Well...

(laughs) Yeah, I know. But I wonder if Tempest sold better than Space Giraffe. That's what I want to know. That would be the final nail in the coffin.

RB: We saw something recently. It was one of those really inaccurate... I forget what site it is, but they just check the leaderboards.

NW: I saw that too. It was not really fair, because it depends on how long it takes to get a leaderboard score. I remember the Space Giraffe one was really low, but I'm not sure if it's because it takes a while. I basically zoned out after two deaths. I was like, "Okay."

RB: The retro games thing I also don't get, because Double Dragon is not a game you ever need to play again. It was great. It was so good. But who's buying that if there's a demo? So many games since then... it's like, '40s movies you can appreciate, but when you get into the early '20s and the teens, it stops being...

Well, there's some stuff in there.

RB: Oh no, but there's a lot of like, "It's people walking out of a door!" because that was new then. But that's been superseded to the point where you can't do it anymore. I wish... was it you who came up with the idea? Like, why don't they split-fork it so that there's Live Arcade Retro and Live Arcade Original titles? That would eliminate 50 of the hundred things you have to support.

NW: I think that would help anyway. The way you sort through games right now is... they didn't change it.

RB: It's still better than Wii, where it takes five minutes to load each three games or whatever, and it doesn't remember where you were.

They also don't have a hard drive.

RB: Yeah, I don't know how WiiWare is going to work for that. That doesn't make any sense.

They didn't really plan for that, I don't think. But hey, that's all right!

One stupid thing I want to say with the Double Dragon thing -- I did buy some of those little avatars, though, because they were so disgusting-looking that I had to. There's some guy with big giant eyebrows and he was drawn like by a five-year-old. In HD.

RB: The Abobo?

Yeah, I think it was. I had to buy it.

RB: That's another thing. We wanted to put our Gamerpics and themes, like the N+ ones, for free, because we figured, "Who even buys themes?" It's not worth 500 sales. Why not everyone have it for free?

Because then it's good as marketing, and it's people who are fans who get something. It's like, everyone wins. But apparently they have a policy where you're not allowed to. But apparently that's a lie, because you can get Halo...

MS: The Live Marketplace page says, "Some of these you can get for free, and some of these will set you back a few."

NW: You can get Halo themes for free and Grand Theft Auto themes for free.

RB: Oh, really?

I imagine the reason those are free is because Rockstar paid for free themes. I'm not sure.

MS: But it's not an option for us. Just blanket not an option. It's so superficial.

RB: It seems retarded to charge. Who buys those? Why not make it... how much money are they making? It's like a hundred dollars.

MS: Then again, I guess they're pretty desperate for money these days.

RB: If they changed the 60-watt bulbs in their offices to 40, they'll make like ten times more money than if they made all the themes for free.

NW: That's awesome. I like that.

 


I think that Nexon is going to release a full game for free. Have you heard of their MMO Mabinogi?

RB: No.

It's a game that's out on the PC in Korea and it's just launched here, and they're going to release it on the 360 in Korea. I'm pretty sure it's going to be the "free to play, pay for items" model. I think that's going to be the first one. Maybe it'll change after that.

RB: Xbox Live is perfect for that. As far as I knew, it was always like, "No, you can't do that." But I guess if Nexon's behind it...

Nexon wouldn't do it if not for that, and also Microsoft Korea wants to get stuff going. I think there have only been like 20,000 360s sold there.

NW: But we have Korean as well!

MS: That's right! N+ will be up there.

RB: It's worldwide. Now the four people in Japan who have Xboxes... We've met one of them!

MS: They'll be all over it.

Did you have to do all the localization stuff on your own?

RB: Yeah. Well, we had to pay for it.

MS: Because we published.

NW: We tried doing it like... do you remember that Japanese version?

RB: Yeah. We Google Translated for Tokyo Game Show. We really wanted to get them to show it at their thing. But the people we hired to translate it, the deadline wasn't for like a month later, so we tried to do it ourselves.

NW: You only had to have the main menu, remember?

RB: The stupid thing is, Microsoft said, "No, there can't be any English." But if you look at even Japanese games, there's English all over. There's "Start."

MS: We went to see them at the Tokyo Game Show.

RB: We took pictures of what they did show, and there was English all over it. It was more like, there was another "us getting dicked around," so it was an excuse to not...

Did it wind up becoming embarrassing?

NW: Actually, yeah. But they never showed it in the end. We did the translations, and then it went through some internal person who actually knew Japanese and he like, "Yeah, you know, 'back' in the menus is actually 'somebody's back'. So let's not put that in."

MS: It was not good enough. Unfortunate.

RB: But we did show the game at PAX, which was fun.

MS: That was awesome.

Yeah, I saw it there. Was the reaction good?

RB: Yeah. That was, though, when we first realized that we needed to make the demo easier. We made it so much easier. We went four passes through all the levels, flattening all the bumps in difficulty.

MS: Compared to the Flash version, Xbox is a piece of cake, in the beginning.

RB: Well, except for the end. It still gets up there. The beginning is so smooth. But there's still people at the launch party who still could not get past the first level. It took them half an hour. It's just not good when you see that.

But definitely at PAX, there was nobody who could beat the first level, because it needed wall-jumping. But there's a tutorial now. Hopefully someone will look at the tutorial.

So what are you guys going to work on now?

RB: Well, Nick's got that racing game.

NW: We're trying to self-publish at one point. We're just going to build it. It's like, "Let's build it, and then see what we do with it." We don't want any outside...

It's good that you can do that.

NW: Well, we can only do it for so long, of course. But for the time where we don't have to get outside money, that also means that we don't get outside opinions, which is great. That's what we want. Hopefully we'll get there.

RB: We're doing [recently announced next title] Robotology, hopefully.

MS: Not hopefully. We are!

RB: Well, hopefully we'll get back to it soon. Since summer, we've put it on hold to do N+. We figured it would be like, "Okay, a couple of months." That sort of ballooned. Also, the handheld versions are dragging...

MS: They keep getting delayed.

RB: They were supposed to be in December. Now they're out in April.

MS: We'll get back to it eventually.

RB: Yeah. But definitely Robotology.

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