GamerBytes' Developer Reflections: Ace Team, Smart Bomb, Mommy's Best Games

Sister site talked to the creators of Zeno Clash/Rock Of Ages, Snoopy Flying Ace and Explosionade on last year's experiences and console digital download hopes for 2011 - highlight
Gamasutra sister site, which covers console digital download titles, recently conducted interviews with a handful of the industry's most eclectic independent studios, including ACE Team, Smart Bomb Interactive, and Mommy's Best Games. These three developers have found success in independent development in a variety of ways, from exploring unusual visual and gameplay styles, combining popular licenses with unexpected genres, to carving a niche with quality games on digital platforms. As part of a series of interviews with developers from across the gaming landscape, GamerBytes spoke with these independent studios about their best and worst experiences while developing their most recent titles, and what lessons the teams will bring into 2011. The following are excerpts from the interviews with the three independent studios, where the teams discuss their respective projects and their future plans. ACE Team Based in Santiago, Chile, ACE Team is best known for its surreal first person combat title Zeno Clash on PC, which the team later brought to Xbox Live Arcade with Atlus as its publisher. The team is currently working on Rock of Ages, a physics based strategy title that will hit XBLA and PSN later this year. In this interview, Carlos Bordeu of ACE Team discusses the studio's experience on these digital platforms. What were you most happy with during the development of your games? Carlos Bordeu: I think we can say that we are very happy with how Rock of Ages came to be. We worked on a simple prototype and iterated over it until we believed we had achieved something unique mostly in terms of design and visual style. With a very early version of the game we presented a pitch to Atlus and their reception was extremely positive (they really loved it). We never thought that the game would be displayed over the badge holders at E3 with a Rock of Ages logo -that was a great surprise. It was again very satisfying to see that we were capable of successfully generating a completely new IP which maintained the spirit of innovation in game design and visual arts after having worked on Zeno Clash. What were you least happy with, in retrospect? CB: I think we all expected a better performance for Zeno Clash: Ultimate Edition for XBLA. While many factors can be taken into account (like launching the game a year after the original PC release), we still feel that console gamers didn't give it enough attention. The game has been in discounts and offers in both XBLA and Steam long after the debut of the Ultimate Edition, and the PC version continues to outsell the XBLA version even though the XBLA version is a more complete game. This means that the age of the title isn't the main reason why it underperformed on consoles. Another reason might be the type of experience that gamers look for in XBLA - they tend to be much more casual and pick-up-and-play experiences. Maybe the trial of the game should have focused more directly on the action rather than starting slow as it does on the PC. What is the biggest lesson you're going to apply to the next game you make? CB: Maybe two things: The first is to work more on the trial experience of our titles and the initial presentation. The first minutes of your game is what sells or doesn't sell the game to the target audience (especially with digitally distributed games). The second important thing has been moving to a development scenario where we can make multi-platform games and launch our future titles on Xbox, PS3 and PC. At ACE we decided to move to the Unreal Engine 3 mainly for that purpose, and it is one of the most important decisions we made during 2009 which will apply to all our next games. Smart Bomb Interactive Smart Bomb Interactive is best known for creating Snoopy Flying Ace, an unusual Xbox Live Arcade title that combines World War II era flight combat with the Peanuts license, of all things. After releasing Snoopy Flying Ace, the studio began working on the free-to-play multiplayer browser game Sky Legends. Here, Smart Bomb VP Clark Stacey recalls the team's experience developing for XBLA, as well as the studio's plans for the future. What were you most happy with during the development of your games? Clark Stacey: Playtesting this game was not only a lot of fun for us, it was instructive for future projects. There really is no substitute for having core play mechanics implemented early enough that at least a third of the overall dev cycle is spent tuning (rather than seeking) the fun factor. What were you least happy with, in retrospect? CS: The scope of the game we released was reduced from what we set out to build. The first internal demos of Snoopy Flying Ace included on-foot play with some light platforming, an awesome story, a lot of cool exploration and bosses - basically a very deep single-player experience. Unfortunately no publishers would take a chance on the Peanuts license, however, so we went the indie route. That meant focusing on just the multiplayer component of the game, and initially targeting XBLA exclusively. What is the biggest lesson you're going to apply to the next game you make? CS: Great gameplay comes from hundreds of hours of playtesting, and no amount of money, marketing or technology can substitute for that! We're really proud of Snoopy Flying Ace, because we had the time and freedom to execute a focused concept and the highest possible quality level. Mommy's Best Games One of the most prominent developers on the Xbox Live Indie Game marketplace, Mommy's Best Games released the shmup-inspired Shoot 1UP and the 2D combat title Explosionade. The team's next title, Grapple Buggy, has no set release date, but will launch on either XBLA or XBLIG. In this interview, Mommy's Best Games' own Nathan Fouts discusses the studio's previous releases as well as its future projects. What were you most happy with during the development of your games? Nathan Fouts: Overall I think following my design muse but still allowing outside advice to filter led to some of our best work. For Shoot 1UP, I had a vision of a shoot ‘em up in which all the player ships are active simultaneously. Even from the teaser video, there were some very positive and also very toxic comments, including declarations that the game will inevitably be a “clusterf##”. I still felt that one-- the game design was interesting and original and two-- we’d certainly struck a chord getting such a strong reaction just from a video. Working with other XNA developers in the various playtests for Shoot 1UP was great as other developers were excited by what was already in Shoot 1UP and continued to push MBG for more story, more graphics, and even more variety. I did take a lot of their advice to heart and worked to expand the game, though my evil Scrooge alter-ego still had to balance development time and cost. I was also greatly inspired by the work at and and added options for disabled gamer support as well. For Explosionade, splitting up development worked perfectly. After I designed the core concept I took on most of the gameplay work, and my intern Richard Rosenthal developed the level editor. Richard turned out to be expertly knowledgeable in DarkBasic, and was able to put together a very robust editor literally over a weekend. We both built levels with the editor after the gameplay was complete, and we had some magical design meetings in which we’d each draw 10 quick level sketches on a sheet of paper, and then trade and see what the other came up with. I think we had around 60 level designs and pared that down to 40 in the final XBLIG version. Finally, for Grapple Buggy, it’s been a transformative year. We’re still seeking a publisher for the adventure-exploration game and while many publishers have been very excited, we still haven’t been able to finalize an XBLA publishing deal. This has led me to make some big changes to the design which will be implemented next year. It’s a big risk, but I think the reward will make it worth it! What were you least happy with, in retrospect? NF: The demo for Explosionade doesn’t properly represent the craziness that ensues in the later levels. The demo experience in a digital game is critical and while I realized that from our previous releases, I think the difficulty curve for the initial Explosionade demo was too smooth. The demo experience needs more wild bumps, which I don’t think would put off core gamers as much as I originally worried it might. I was trying to ‘teach’ too much in the demo, when ultimately it needed pizzazz and real danger earlier than later. What is the biggest lesson you're going to apply to the next game you make? NF: Once a game prototype is complete, get it into a broader playtest session with lots of different gamers, and listen to their feedback. Don’t hang on to it for so long. It’s been great for Shoot 1UP and Explosionade, and we’ve had Grapple Buggy playtested with lots of gamers, and even the XNA forums a while ago. After our big change to Grapple Buggy, I’d like to get it into some trusted hands for feedback."

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