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Q&A: CTXM, The Biggest XBLA Developer You Don't Know?

Gamasutra has tracked down Latvian-headquartered CTXM, behind the Xbox Live Arcade conversions of major PopCap titles such as Heavy Weapon and Bejeweled, to discuss the state of the game biz in Eastern Europe, revealing a new 'original XBLA
Latvian-headquartered developer CTXM, which also has offices in the Belarus Republic, has been producing gambling software and casual and mobile games since 2001. In that time, the company estimates it has released the “lion's share of the casual game titles” on Microsoft’s original Xbox Arcade service, and currently has six titles on the Xbox Live Arcade for the Xbox 360, including conversions of Feeding Frenzy, Astro Pop and Zuma Deluxe. The company's most recent release for the service, Heavy Weapon Deluxe, was originally released in 2005 by PopCap Games. The two companies have been working together since CTXM’s port of Bejeweled for the original Xbox, with CTXM’s Head of Games Anatoly Ropotov describing the relationship between “very strong”. CTXM is also involved in publishing, along with Oberon-Media Inc., with an aim to “support Commonwealth of Independent States and Eastern European developers” by bringing its games to a Western market. We spoke to Ropotov about CTXM’s experiences with developing for Live Arcade, its services as a publisher, and the Eastern European and CIS casual games market. When and why was the company formed? CTXM was started in 2001 as a spin-off from a sister company [Com-Te-Co], which develops financial applications. You can't have fun all day and create games with serious and grumpy developers coding business financial solutions in the next room. Furthermore, visiting clients were raising their eyebrows when they heard screaming and laughing from the mayhem of FPS lunch break in the QA room. A separate company identity was established to pursue different business domain goals. We took all the rock-solid processes from financial applications and gently applied them to gaming product development. Our games-focused company has its creative freedom, but when we act as a service provider, we are ISO 9001:2000 certified. We are also being certified by CMMI, which is about solid processes and is quite uncommon in the game development industry. Thanks to such unique blend, in 6 years we've evolved to what we call a G3 provider: we do games, gaming and gambling and have released over 30 titles across various platforms. What is the company's history in the casual games market? We’ve always loved to play puzzle games from Tetris to Puyo Pop and Tetris Attack, and when Bejeweled appeared in 2001, it distracted us from work for months. CTXM was founded with the same accessibility and usability in mind - that is essential for casual games. We were able to become absolute leaders, according to Casino City, of the so-called "soft games" space, which is a blend of casual games and gambling. They aren't your typical SkillJam-style games and appeal to slightly different audience, but still share "quick snack" psychology with higher addiction level. In 2003, with the knowledge acquired from that domain we entered the "real" casual games market. The irony of the moment was that our first released product was an Xbox version of Bejeweled – the game we had really admired years ago. How did you get involved with Xbox Live Arcade development, and what challenges did you face in becoming a certified developer? Our first projects, Bejeweled and Super Collapse! 2, were developed in parallel with the platform, so specifications were evolving. It was a great time; Microsoft listened to developers’ feedback and helped us on a daily basis through the new challenges. Two of the titles developed by CTXM on original Xbox and Xbox 360 made it to the launch of the platforms and we are very proud of that. We didn’t have any challenges becoming certified developers, thanks to Oberon Media which was working very closely with Microsoft and was monitoring the development teams on daily basis. We could talk endlessly about the platform – we are huge proponents of the digital distribution with try-and-buy model where consumers really choose the best games, unless an evil marketing strategy comes into the equation as happens on some distribution portals. Xbox Live Arcade is an absolutely fair platform when it comes to a released game – you are featured for a week, all of the games are split into categories and are sorted alphabetically. Every game has the same presence on the Xbox Dashboard as well. It’s up to players to judge which game is the most appealing; content is the king. The viral element of the XBLA marketing is very important as the community is what drives the sales of the game further in the life cycle. Releasing themes and gamerpictures sounds unexciting, but this allows fans to express themselves and adds to the mindshare and therefore lifespan of an Arcade title. What challenges do you face in porting titles to Xbox Live Arcade? After releasing 14 games from 7 companies we’ve created a very specific process for the pre-production planning that includes both business research points and very deep technical code evaluation. It’s no surprise that many games do not reach production stages for various reasons – from the lost code and asset sources when the amount of effort to accurately reproduce the original title exceeds creating several brand new games, to having a title that doesn’t fit the platform portfolio. Xbox development must conform to strict technical certification requirements; every milestone goes through acceptance testing by several parties including IP owner, QA company and the Microsoft team. Internal post-mortem statistics for every game usually include more than a thousand performed micro-tasks on a single title. Some of the most time-consuming elements include eight language localization and thousands of game sessions to tune multiplayer and widescreen experience. Most of the game features are approved by IP holder and sometimes proposed by external QA and even the platform owner so if you are really annoyed by the way achievements work in some of the games we did – don’t (always) blame us! The most verbose public information about the platform comes from Gamefest 2006: Casual Games Track where Katie Stone Perez, senior games program manager and a founding member of the Xbox Live Arcade team takes a deep look into the development process details. As an outsourced developer, how much of your business comes from clients with very fixed ideas of what they're after, and how much comes from clients who ask you to come up with your own "new gaming ideas"? Do you outsource any elements of the development yourselves? CTXM has 120 people dedicated to game related projects and we do most of our production in-house. Our Xbox production unit never outsourced any content and our in-house casual games team sometimes outsource music. We have a separate creative unit with years of experience – it is responsible for game design across all the platforms and handles weekly review board for all the products. This unit works closely with our producers to focus on what’s hot on the market. Our internal Xbox QA team is permanent and still remembers every quirk from the past years. We value our teams and our personnel turnover is very low. Client management is a tricky part as every project has different level of client involvement. We’ve gone through the projects when we never heard a single word from the client – they wanted a presence on the platform and trusted us to perform all the work. Some clients have their own product roadmap for a new platform and want it in a very specific way. The shining example of two-way creativity is Heavy Weapon from PopCap Games, where we’ve revamped the entire game and had constant client visits to our premises and brainstorming sessions in their offices. We’ve implemented several new gameplay modes; PopCap was reviewing every single bit and always proposed the most creative and sometimes unexpected solutions. We had dozens of midnight - don’t forget about Europe-West Coast time difference - gaming sessions and the game was basically polished up to a moment when not a single person in either development team could point out a flaw. How did you become involved with PopCap Games, and what is your relationship with the company like? Our relationship with PopCap Games is very strong. Our two companies see each other as valuable partners, and we have worked together in a number of capacities over the past few years. As to how we first started working with PopCap – I mentioned before that our first casual game was an adaptation of Bejeweled for the original Xbox Live Arcade, so we’ve been working with them on the platform since its inception. At the time, Microsoft was using an aggregator for their new service and we had negotiated contracts with them to do the ports of the PopCap titles. We developed extensive technical expertise in Xbox development, Xbox Live Arcade process, as well as with the PopCap Framework, which we had adapted for use on the Xbox. Working with PopCap Games directly to remix their games for Live Arcade on Xbox 360 was a natural evolution of the relationship. Are the majority of the titles you develop casual games? We are working on short-term based projects for online and downloadable game space and this is a part of our current strategy. Most of these games are casual, but some of them are not and I would call these “short-session”. The longest Xbox project we did so far was Heavy Weapon, which took more than a year from inception through all the iterations of the remix. It wasn’t a classic casual game, but more of a simplified approach to shoot ’em up games of the past. We’ve spent over half a year tweaking all the multiplayer aspects to make it really stand out on Xbox 360 and, as players have mentioned, it turned out to be a superb multiplayer online experience. This year CTXM will release an original Xbox Live Arcade title. As for the mobile platform, we’ve recently finished remixing a long time sleeper hit for Hudson Entertainment. Our newest in-house casual game Archipelago is coming out this month on Windows. With this title we’ve set a task to create a first accessible casual game with true 3D mechanics and highest production value. We are also oriented towards casual market in our publishing activities. What kinds of publishing services do you provide, and how much demand exists for these services? We receive dozens of game submissions in various stages of development each month from studios all over Eastern Europe and Russia. Each developer is looking for a different service - from help producing a game experience that has been casual-ized for the traditional North American casual market, to funding creative ideas from talented studios and connecting developers with the right people in the West. We take every developer very seriously because, in our experience, development studios here produce several titles per year and mature very quickly. To generalize a bit, after reviewing hundreds of the titles by CIS developers, we have diagnosed the root of the problem the development community in this region is having. It can be broken down into a couple key points: The current generation of Russian game developers was reared on two games: Tetris and Lines as IBM PC compatible computers were a privilege of engineers and bookkeepers that tend to like logic and puzzle games. This is a binding social mentality factor that drives the development community. We still have several “falling bricks” and “match-5”-type games submitted every month, even though these have proven to sell poorly in the casual space. These game types have been replaced in favor of much simpler and obvious mechanics, however CIS-based developers are making hard logic & puzzle games instead of a simple relaxing content. The message that we are constantly pushing to the developers in this region: "You are making toys for grown-ups, not hardcore games”. But they still remember the shareware days and consider the casual game space as the “downloadable shareware market” – receiving a casual game submission with an unappealing "Alien Worm Adventures in Space" theme isn’t a rare event… 2006 proved that games from this region could be top-notch – Mysteryville from NevoSoft was #1 for three weeks on RealArcade, but the language barrier is still a huge limiting factor preventing most of the developers from reading publicly available IGDA white papers and the Casual Games Association’s magazines that make the state of the industry a very accessible information. A lot of developers still simply do not believe the fact that buyers are predominantly women over 35! The mental gap between regions is enormous. We are actively educating the community by translating all of the pertinent materials into Russian language and have recently launched into beta the first casual community resource in Russian. Last November we teamed up with our partners to organize the CGA’s Casual Connect - EUROPE: EAST 2006 conference in Kiev, Ukraine where more than 300 CIS developers met with publishers and distributors face to face for the first time. When did CTXM become involved in publishing, and what is your relationship with Oberon Media? We’re involved with casual game publishing since 2003. Oberon is a distinguished client of ours with regards to a number of activities in that domain. We cannot disclose all of our activities with them due to NDA, but as it was mentioned on several occasions by Oberon, you may note that we are involved in bridging Eastern European developers with West. What kind of market exists for mobile and casual games in Eastern Europe? We are not working in that market for the following reason: game revenues from the CIS region and Eastern Europe are minor compared to the leading world markets. Casual games sell for $5 on the biggest portals in Russia and majority of the payments are SMS based so the revenues are split between money-hungry carriers, portals, aggregators and developers. Credit card payments are quite rare in that region, e-wallet solutions are more popular, but SMS is the most casual way to pay. Some developers are still saying that retail distribution deal makes more money for them than online, but the profit barrier from online will reach that very soon as the market grows quickly. As for the mobile market – it is extremely oversaturated with cheaply made low-quality games. Everyone on the Russian market is a self-proclaimed portal distributing endless outdated content through affiliation deals. A lot of the content is adult and consumers are really confused by such a garbled offering. It’s very tough for real deluxe games to compete in such unfair conditions. What possibilities exist for growth within this market? It all comes down to the pricing and monetization. Even though the market grows steadily, prices are staying at the same level largely because of the need to compete with the cheap pirate black market. The revenue stream is miserably small for such a huge region. Any kind of talks regarding ad-revenue sharing by portals in the region are years away. What plans do you have for CTXM in the future? We are moving towards next-generation online entertainment platform with unique content and concept. This year you’ll also see multiple innovative in-house casual games released by CTXM on various platforms including the newly emerging ones. We are focusing on the creation of new unique IP and bringing best of the best licensed content to the wider audience whenever it’s possible.

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