Interview: Novaleaf's Swearingen Talks Injecting Biology Battle Onto XNA Community Games

With Microsoft's Xbox Live Community Games project set to launch on November 19th and open up the Xbox 360 to a multitude of diverse titles, Gamasutra talks to the CEO of an interesting indie participant, Bangkok-based Novaleaf Game Studios -- discussing
With Microsoft's Xbox Live Community Games project set to launch on November 19th, and a plethora of amateur and indie titles likely to be available on day 1, it's going to be interesting to see what titles pop up on the service, which is an attempt by Microsoft to truly democratize console game development. Though you only need a $99 yearly subscription to the XNA service to test and upload your own games on the Xbox 360, there will naturally be higher-end indies using the service, since you can charge up to 800 points ($10) for your XNA Community Game download. One of the most intriguing of those is Bangkok-based Novaleaf Software, which has completed Biology Battle! as a launch title. We sat down with Jason Swearingen, the CEO of Novaleaf, which has created the XNA shooter (also available in demo form on PC) over the course of 11 months. The game, which cost just under $100,000 to develop, was originally planned as an Xbox Live Arcade title, before shifting to XNA Community Games, and the Novaleaf Game Studios division is part of a 20-person IT outsourcing and contracting company founded by Swearingen in Bangkok. In this chat, the company founder answered questions on how the shooting game, in which you "take control of a medical nanobot during its mission inside of a target cell," came about, the local game development scene in Thailand, and his hopes for an upcoming planned ninjas vs. pirates magnum opus. When was your studio founded, and who are the principal founding members? The studio was founded by myself. In 2006 I left Microsoft and moved with my wife to Thailand, where I started Novaleaf Software. Novaleaf started off as an enterprise software and consulting company, somewhat because my business partner Cyrus had some outsourcing leads that brought in a quick revenue stream. But the reason I started Novaleaf was because of XNA. It convinced me that there’s an opportunity to build an indie game studio off the beaten path (here in Thailand). An easy language like C#, and the power of DirectX and writing games for Xbox 360? I was sold! So in September 2007, Novaleaf Game Studios was officially founded, and it’s been my primary focus since then. Were you planning this title for Xbox Live Arcade, or has it always been designed for Xbox Live Community Games? Biology Battle started of as an internal prototype, just to validate our internal business and development processes, and make sure we can actually create a game of export quality. After we had spent about five months writing the prototype, the game was (actually to my surprise) quite fun. So we decided to send it to Microsoft’s XBLA publishing. They actually found it interesting too, so we got some ways in their process, before ultimately being rejected. At that point, we had spent about seven months of development on the game, and with XNA Community Games on the horizon, we decided to damn the torpedoes and shoot for an XBLCG launch title. What are its inspirations - are there particular titles or genres that it owes a debt to? Nothing. The game is totally unique in every way. A perfect gem of innovation. OK, seriously, the initial prototype was basically Geometry Wars-inspired. It was an idea from Nick (one of our devs) to prototype an arcade shooter. We even used little vector graphic looking shape for the player. I hope that graphic isn’t still buried in the source! That bit of doppelganger-ism only lasted until about month two of development. At that point, I had been pushing heavily to make the game as unique as possible, but still appeasing to the hard-core otaku gamers out there. Speaking of otaku (the international definition of the term), we had a demo of the full game setup at GCAC in Singapore last month. A Japanese businessman, with not a word (he probably didn’t speak English) came up and started playing Biology Battle, and kept playing for 30 minutes straight, eventually getting to about 5th place in the local topscore list. It was awesome to see him in action, as it really made me happy that there are people out there who can really love and master the game. We really put huge amounts of effort to make the game play easy for noobs, but competitive for the hardcore players. I personally don’t have any substantial experience with Geometry Wars, so I have to say my primary influences are the games I grew up with: Smash TV, Kid Icarus, and R-Type are probably where most of my inspiration for Biology Battle came from, though there was never any conscious decision to borrow ideas from any of them. What's Thailand like to develop games in, in terms of available staff and expertise? Before I moved here, I knew that Thailand’s software industry is small, and the game development industry was virtually non-existent. That’s actually why I focused so heavily on using XNA, because modern games are basically graphically intensive, realtime simulations, one of the hardest challenges any developer could face. I assumed (rightly so) it would be difficult to hire seasoned game developers. Using C# and XNA, we do not have to deal with things like memory management and pointer arithmetic. When hiring a team of entry level developers, this might make the difference between success and failure. I suppose in retrospect, we have to wait until November 19th to see if it’s a success, but it does feel like the right decision so far. I admit the lack the industry professionals in the Bangkok workforce is a bit of a challenge. My past life was as a DRM (digital rights management) developer at Microsoft, which is really worlds apart in culture and expertise from the industry here. One of the things I learned at Microsoft is the importance of a good interview process, and I can quite proudly say that our six-hour interviews are in stark contrast to the standard 30-minute interviews found at other software companies here in Bangkok. I feel that this has really helped us select the right people so far, and will help us keep finding more in the future. How many people worked on this project and for how long? Biology Battle was completed by 4.5 developers in 11 months. I say 4.5 because I include myself half-time. The other half of my time was spent doing businessy things that CEOs do. The total costs of development (inclusive of expenses like office space and electricity) run a little under the USD$100,000 mark, which might sound a lot (or little) depending on the person, but I think it’s pretty reasonable considering this is our first game, and we needed to learn from square one. Also I’m personally pretty impressed in the team, because I’m the only one with prior professional experience, and that was writing security SDKs, not games! I forgot to mention, but Novaleaf Game Studio is part of Novaleaf Software, which is a 20-person company. So, if anyone reading this is trying to calculate how much money they need to start their own studio, keep in mind my expenses are a little lower due to resource sharing. Do you do contracting for other game companies in addition to your own work? I’m personally not a fan of contracting, as it generally doesn’t provide a strong incentive to all parties to put their best effort in. I think that’s exponentially more important in game development, where that elusive “fun factor” isn’t something a design doc can ever specify (not design docs written by mortals at least). That said, I’m interested in exploring collaboration ideas with anyone, art studios, hobby devs, or even other game studios. A great example of this is Victor from Krazy Games, who wrote a midi player up on the Ziggyware XNA site. I contacted him, and he ended up writing Biology Battle’s music engine. Your upcoming projects (according to your website) include Aarr! Ninjas Beware. Could this be a Ninjas Vs. Pirates game? Is this a real genre now? I just love the whole ninja/pirate animosity. When we decided on the ninja/pirate theme, I hadn’t heard of any related games either out or in development, but Pirates Vs. Ninjas had already been an internet meme for a long time, so it’s only natural that others gain inspiration from that totally awesome mashup. The game mechanics for Aarrr! are based on a pitch sent to me by a guy, Ben in Seattle. It’s a fantastic idea, and I would tell you more about it, but my undead monkey tells me that I should wait. Oh, don’t forget about the robot-spacemen-cowboy-zombie-werewolf subgenre too. Pure gold there be.

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