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Q&A: 3000AD's Derek Smart Goes Episodic

In this exclusive Gamasutra interview, 3000AD's Derek Smart tells us why episodic gaming, and the push to bring the studio's titles to the Xbox 360, are a natural - and vital - step not only for the studio's survival, but for PC gaming as a whole.

Alistair Wallis, Blogger

January 3, 2007

11 Min Read

Derek Smart has been working as a game designer since the late 1980s, and in that time has released eight PC games and expansions including Battlecruiser 3000AD, and Universal Combat developed by 3000AD, Inc., which he established in 1992. At the beginning of December, Smart announced that Universal Combat Collector's Edition, intended to be the final game in the series, will be released in the first quarter of this year. Additionally, a new title, Galactic Command – Rise of the Insurgents, will be released on PC around the same time, and through Xbox 360’s Live network in early 2008. GALCOM is intended to be the first of four episodes, released quarterly, which tie in with Smart’s established universe explored in his previous titles, but utilize a more “pick up and play” style of design. We spoke to Smart about his plans for the game, the challenges of working on a console, and what advantages episodic content has for an independent developer. Why have you decided to develop for the Xbox 360 with Galactic Command? Well, there are a number of reasons, the primary one being that the PC market - especially for indies - is not what it used to be. It is becoming harder and harder to develop, market and sell these [PC] games. Apart from that, publishers are not only shying away from PC-only titles, but also titles which they don't think will bring in the type of revenue that triple-A billed titles do. The retailers are also not very kind to PC games any more, due to the major push with consoles. Also, that whole digital distribution gig is a little slow getting off the ground, primarily because traditional gamers are more comfortable with something in their hands. A box if you will. Regardless of Microsoft's Games For Windows push, I suspect that before long, digital distribution is going to be the only way to sell and obtain PC games. It is inevitable. With that, and given the power of the Xbox 360, the decision to develop a game based on our technologies was a no brainer. We've always wanted to do a game for the console but the original Xbox just wasn't powerful enough to do what I wanted. So we had to pass on that generation and just plod on with our PC games. Once the Xbox 360 specs were revealed, I started looking into moving to that console. What challenges are you facing in developing for the console from a technical standpoint? To be honest, for an experienced developer, none really. Unlike those other guys, developing for the [Xbox 360] console is not that much different from a PC title. Of course, the architecture is different and you have to look at things like asset streaming, audio, memory sharing, and so on, but at the end of the day, the tools are basically the same and familiar. For us, given our Microsoft roots, it was basically a matter of massaging our technologies to work with our target hardware. Then we get to start working in the console specific aspects which naturally are a whole different ballgame from the PC counterpart. What challenges did you facing in getting developer approval for the console, and how did this affect the game's development? 3000AD, Inc. is already an approved Xbox and Xbox 360 developer, so we didn't have any issues there at all. As such, we have access to hardware, software, and tech support. The only issue we - and other developers - face is that only publishers can submit a game concept to Microsoft for 'concept approval'. This is because they don't want to be inundated with submissions from developers as that would obviously be a tremendous challenge indeed. This presents a chicken and egg situation because publishers won't sign a third party developer's game unless Microsoft concept approves it. This is because if they do sign the game and it does not pass concept approval, then the deal is essentially dead. So if you pitch a game to a publisher, even if they like it and sign it, the deal won't go any further unless and until it is concept approved. Some (unscrupulous) publishers tend to use this as a bargaining chip to squeeze developers into doing less than stellar deals or similar. For example, a publisher will sign a game and make it subject to concept approval. They will then not fork out a dime in milestone payments (advances, if you will) until after the game is concept approved. Since only the publisher and Microsoft know if and when that will happen, you find that the publishers fail to tell the developers, and thus stretch things along to suit their purposes. It is no different from when they find every excuse not to pay royalties on time or at all. The funny thing is that, according to insider reports, the turnaround time for Microsoft concept approval is fairly quick and straightforward because, regardless of what people think, Microsoft - while lethargic and bloated in some regards - is a well oiled machine. Stuff gets done. Eventually. Because we are self-funded for the most part, all these shenanigans have not affected our development at all. One of the reasons is that we are developing the game primarily on the PC while making sure all the areas which will target the console are also addressed. Once the PC version, currently in beta, is complete (sometime this March), we then go full bore on wrapping up the console specific aspects of the game. In fact, our fans are used to us making public our development version control files so that they can track the progress of a game in development. This game is no different. You mentioned before that you didn't intend to release the PC version if you didn't get developer approval for the 360 - why was that? Well, apparently (and according to false reports from one publisher, whose offer we recently turned down) Microsoft frowns on games for the Xbox 360 which will also be available on the PC. While I knew this to be categorically untrue, I still wanted to err on the side of caution and maintain a wait-and-see approach before releasing the PC version ahead of the Xbox 360 version. Given the financial incentives, I certainly don't want to release the PC version in March, then find out later that the 360 version won't be concept approved because of the PC version. So, worst case scenario, we may have to sit on the PC version until after the 360 version is released in March 2008. Best case scenario, the PC version will be released as planned this March but the 360 version will have more features and scenarios than the PC version, in order to make it stand out. It may even have a different name. Who knows? None of this matters to me anyway, because the game was always designed and developed for the console. As a small indie developer, we can't afford to ignore whatever revenue stream there is. So if we have a finished PC title, there is no reason not to release it unless we are getting a really - really - good deal on the 360 version that makes it worth the while. It’s the difference between forgoing $1 in the short term but gaining $5 in the long term. With the proper funding, it all works out. Sure the PC gamers would probably rave, rant and scream. But to that I say, get an 360 already; because it's not like everyone has been flocking out in droves to buy PC games, let alone space games and/or niche games for that matter. At the end of the day, it’s all noise. Noise, I can deal with. An empty bank account is a whole different story. What inspired the decision to release the game episodically, and what effect does this have on the way you are developing the title? It was always designed to be episodic because given our size, I no longer want to do the two to three year song and dance with publishers. Given the design of Live and the Microsoft push for downloadable content, the decision was a no-brainer. Since each episode is self contained, even if we didn't do additional episodes, that won't affect the game. What the episodic nature does is allow us to extend the life of the game and gain some residual revenue while we work on our next big game. The episodic nature of the game has no effect on our development because it is primarily content related. If there are any engine revisions, then of course they would be incorporated in a new executable included in future episodes. Otherwise, each episode is just a self contained campaign storyline that runs on top of the existing game engines. How often do you intend to release episodes? Do you feel the time between releases will give you a chance to take on board any comments - whether they be good or bad - regarding the previous episode? We are planning to release a new episode as frequently as every quarter. This will give us enough time to take in the comments as well as see which aspects we need to revise, enhance, tweak for future episodes. Do you intend to release the episodes of the game over Live Arcade, and, if so, how much of a challenge is it to work within the 50MB limit? Apart from the fact that our episodes will be less than 50MB, it is highly unlikely that we would run into this problem, because the episodes will most likely not be released via Live Arcade, but rather through regular content download - similar to how patches and updates are pushed through, regardless of size. Then again, we'll have to wait and see how this goes because it is entirely up to the publisher and Microsoft. What advantages and disadvantages does episodic content present for 3000AD? As I mentioned earlier, the primary advantage is that we get to extend the life of the game while gaining residual income through its life. I can't see any disadvantage to this model at this time. Our scenarios are primarily script (all data) driven, so the resources required are minimal. How is independent publishing working out for you? Well, we've been doing it since 1989. Nine games later, we're still here. It has been tough over the years as the PC gaming scene progressively dwindled, but I've always stuck to a given plan and with what I know works. Part of my new plan is to slowly transition to purely console development. We just completed our final stand-alone PC title - Universal Combat Collector's Edition - for release this quarter. Our MMO game based on those technologies is due out next year. Given how MMOs are handled over the years, I suspect that Universal Combat Online will be our final PC title. What difficulties does independent development present to you, and what advantages does it hold? Well, getting publishers to sign a PC-only title is like pulling teeth. With no anesthesia. With your ex mother-in-law yelling "....you can dooooooo iiiiiiiit" through a bull horn. In other words, it is horrendous. Signing is one thing. Getting paid is clearly another matter. Developers signing these days have to pray that they actually see a dime. It has become a toss up. God help you if you need publisher funding to do a PC game. Or any game for that matter. As far as the industry is concerned, it’s evolve or die. No two ways about it. So, we're evolving because death is clearly not an option. How important is it for you to work within an established narrative universe? It is vital for me because then I don't have to reinvent the wheel. I have an established and rich franchise property. Albeit one that is mired in that whole space sim niche category. GALCOM seeks to take all the good elements from that and wrap a great game around it. Like every franchise, there is only so much you can do before you go and mess with a good thing. Sure, the assets, world, primary characters etc may be the same, but its how you tell the story, use the franchise, portray the world and characters, that matters. How does the development of the game fit in with 3000AD's other upcoming releases? It fits in quite nicely because while we're working on our MMO exit opus, we can also focus on the future as well. What plans do you have for the future of 3000AD? The same as always. That being to go with the flow, stay away from disreputable and/or shaky publishers and just continue developing games that a growing number of gamers want to play. We want to do for the console what we've done on the PC. That being to be recognized as consistent developers who will stick around no matter what.

About the Author(s)

Alistair Wallis


Alistair Wallis is an Australian based freelance journalist, and games industry enthusiast. He is a regular contributor to Gamasutra.

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