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The Explodemon Saga - Part Seven

In this, the final part of the Explodemon Saga, we lose our XBLA slot, the game accidentally gets revealed to the public, a new challenger appears, and we finally kick off proper production of the PlayStation 3 version.

You view the other parts of the Explodemon Saga here:

The previous part of the Explodemon Saga left off in May 2008. At that point we were poised to start development on Explodemon with a UK publisher, having first gained both XBLA and PSN approval as they’d requested. However, when the deal fell through, we were left with slots on both platforms, but no cash. Still, we did have those slots, which - especially considering how difficult it was to get onto XBLA as an indie – we highly prized.

In the early stages of producing a PSN title, Sony pretty much leave you to get on with it until the game is roughly at an Alpha stage. Microsoft are a bit more hands-on, assigning a producer to your project and liaising with you throughout production. From pretty early on we were upfront with Microsoft about losing our funding. We told them our plan was now to start production in November. They were supportive of this, and said that the new start date would be fine as long as it didn’t slip into 2009. This gave us a clear goal; get started by November 2008 or else!

So, once more, work had to be halted on Explodemon while we concentrated on our paying work – the phenomenal Buzz! Brain Bender (which we completed in less than six months) and our more experimental work on Project X. We aimed to use the fact that we had approval for both XBLA and PSN to attract publishers, in that any game that already has the support of the platform holders is a less risky proposition. Less risk is good, right?! We spoke to a number of people, including Microsoft themselves, as well as publishers that had previously passed and entered the murky world of green light meetings one last time (note: this was not the last time).

When word did come back from publishers, it was the usual... Everyone liked the game, but, weren’t sure of their digital strategies, or were only able to assign low budgets because they saw the services as not capable of providing the returns that a retail product might. Yeah, whatever! It was just confirmation for us that there would be only one route to market for us. We spoke to Microsoft, too, to see if we could get some funding, but were told that it was unlikely. We were told that it would be discussed at the next title review in the middle of October anyway. We soldiered on with our paying work, and crafted a plan to create an Explodemon team. A few key people were slowly moved off critical jobs in preparation for a November start.

Unfortunately, when we next heard back from Microsoft on the 29th October, it wasn’t good news; Explodemon hadn’t made it through their title review. We’d lost our XBLA slot! Citing (quite reasonably) the lack of progress on the title since gaining the slot as the main reason for the decision, Microsoft were still very complementary about our studio and our game, and asked us to approach them again to be considered for future titles. It was another blow, regardless.

We did ironically start development on Explodemon the very next week with a small team of coders, exactly as we’d promised we would. It wasn’t a huge, bombastic start, but the coders did begin cranking out our in-house tools and technology, soon joined by the project’s lead artist in Jan 2009. We also started creating tentative level designs in the prototype at this point, with the intention of eventually using them in the finished game. We were really upset that we’d missed the opportunity to get the game onto XBLA, but our hands had been tied. Without funding, we just weren’t able to get the game into production.

The game did start to take shape after that though. On the code side, we took great care to recreate the gameplay experience that I’d honed in the prototype. By swapping pixels for meters (32 pixels = 1m) and frames for seconds (60 frames = 1 second), and analysing my stunningly amateur code, we were able to match the exact timings, distances and accelerations between the two versions. With player animations in place, it was possible to control both prototype and PC builds simultaneously with the same controller on different monitors, and see Explodemon leap around on both identically. A small art team was also starting to form, and the enemies were animated, and some conceptual work done on the environments. It was slow progress, but things were getting done!

Things transformed massively when we innocuously gave our website a new lick of paint in March 2009. Since we weren’t able to talk about Project X (and still aren’t!), and had only really released Buzz games to that date, we decided to create a dedicated Explodemon page. While it wasn’t really ready for the world-at-large, at least it would be something that visitors could see that would highlight what we were really about. When we also released an amazingly boring press release about Curve using Hansoft’s project management tools, the resourceful Ryan Langley from GamerBytes.com followed the trail, and uncovered the Explodemon page on our site. Fittingly on April 1st, he created a news post focused on our trailer. We totally weren’t prepared for the press that followed.

The trailer was picked up by Kotaku, Destructoid, IGN, Joystiq and a huge number of other (fantastic) sites, and it was getting a really great response everywhere it was shown. This was great for us! The game was 3-and-a-half years old at this point, and we’d become jaded from one failed publisher signing after another. It was great to see that what we were trying to create was resonating with our audience, who were, after all, just gamers like us. We spent days fielding a huge number of requests for interviews and previews, but because the public release of the trailer wasn’t really our doing, we just weren’t prepared. And while the trailer made the game look close to complete, it was intended only as a target render to fuel interest from publishers, so the game itself wasn’t anywhere near as finished.

It was also on April 1st that the most insane thing happened. Something that I still can’t really believe to this day, something that shows that truth really is stranger than fiction. On April 1st 2009, a few hours after our video was revealed, a totally different developer on the other side of the world independently announced a 2.5D platform game with an exploding lead character. Yes, Twisted Pixel announced 'Splosion Man.

We literally couldn’t believe it at first.

Was this a joke? Was someone fucking with us? I mean, we’d been silently working on this for nearly four years, and the day it gets revealed, someone else announces a game that (to most casual observers) is basically the same thing? It was also announced for Xbox Live Arcade too, on which we’d lost a slot only six months before. I have to say it was the most baffling day of my life.

After I’d come back down to earth, I decided to email Twisted Pixel to share my amazement with them. I remarked on the coincidence, congratulated them on the announcement and invited them to London for a beer. TP’s CEO, Michael Wilford, swiftly got back to me and basically said the same thing (and invited us to Texas for a taco!). I think we were both stunned.

While the ‘Splosion Man madness was kicking off, we were hurriedly preparing a press release to capitalise on the press we suddenly found ourselves getting. We felt that we needed to let people know what our game was about, and do it soon while everyone was still interested. In it, I waffled on about the game’s influences, and more headlines were created.

And suddenly, the publishers started contacting us! After years of flagrantly throwing ourselves at everyone who would listen, and most not batting an eyelid, suddenly we were fielding requests from all kinds of large publishers who’d previously been impossible to reach. This was more like it! Maybe we should have just released the trailer a year earlier?

So, in May 2009, for the final time in the Saga, we entered green light procedures with four publishers (one of which it was our fourth round of discussions with!). One particular publisher wanted it on PS3, 360, Wii, DS, iPhone and PSP for March 2010, with multiplayer modes for each. As a small developer that was pretty scary, but we thought that there were ways that we could deal with that, so we continued discussions. Finally, perhaps, maybe, possibly, we were going to see the success we had so been craving? Ha!

By the time discussions reached their peak, it was early July 2009. We’d been unfortunately unable to progress much with our tiny team since the public reveal. By contrast, Twisted Pixel were starting to release footage of ‘Splosion Man, with their projected release date announced as being for XBLA’s Summer of Arcade. As the decisions came in from the publishers, a pattern started to emerge.

Publisher 1: No. The reason: ‘Splosion Man.

Publisher 2: No. The reason: ‘Splosion Man.

Publisher 3: No. The reason: ‘Splosion Man.

Publisher 4: No. The reason: ‘Splosion Man.

There was no getting away from it this time. This would be the stock response that we would get from now on (indeed, it has been a pattern that has been repeated often since); there would be no funding from any external sources; we would have to make this game ourselves or just give it up forever. What was it going to be? What were we going to do about it?

‘Splosion Man launched at the end of July, to great acclaim and sales. While we were happy for Twisted Pixel (they’re nice guys, and it’s always good to see indies prosper), they were dark days for me. With our tiny team, and massive collection of publisher refusals (about 20 companies), we’d been unable to make an impact on production. We were at a crossroads.

Contrasting the progress on Explodemon, Project X was taking magnificent shape, and our work on Buzz continued to support the company. We could either focus on those two titles and dump all our work on Explodemon so far, or somehow find the money ourselves and take up the challenge once again. Whether it was belief in the game, pure stupidity or just good old British stubbornness is unclear, but there was no fucking way we were going to quit.

In October 2009 we hired our first dedicated Explodecoder. The lead coder started in November, artists moved onto the title full-time, and another level designer moved across. This was the proper start of the game; finally a full-sized, dedicated team working only on Explodemon. Tracking a Q4 2010 release date, we committed financially and emotionally to the title, accepting all that that might mean for our future. It would be finished.

And so we are brought full circle. I started blogging about the game’s history in November 2009 with the first part of the Explodemon Saga. We were still unsure of how it was going to turn out back then, and we weren’t always convinced that it was going to get finished. And because running an independent games developer is very hard and very stressful, it’s true that things haven’t always gone smoothly, but that’s best saved for the Explodemon post-mortem.

One thing’s for certain though; when Explodemon is finally released on its fifth anniversary, I’m just as convinced now as I was then, that our belief in the game will ultimately enrich the lives of everyone in the world and bring peace and harmony to all. Or it’ll just be a great video game, whichever is more important.

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