Utah-headquartered indie developer NinjaBee has built up a major catalog of XBLA titles - from Cloning Clyde
and Band of Bugs
through the upcoming A Kingdom Of Keflings
, and has more than broken out of the shadow of its parent developer, the more contract development-driven Wahoo Studios.
With the upcoming Keflings
still shrouded in mystery, and the firm also helping out the winner of the 'Doritos Unlock Xbox' game design competition to create the amusingly unlikely Doritos Dash Of Destruction
, Gamasutra spoke in-depth with NinjaBee president Steve Taylor.
Some of the topics discussed during the interview include the differences between contracting and working on new IP, on working with Microsoft during the submissions process, and on the future of digital distribution for PC.
Is Ninjabee still considered a division of Wahoo Studios?
Steve Taylor: Yep! Wahoo Studios continues to do contract work and NinjaBee is the brand we use for our own creative efforts, usually from one small team within the company working on a self-funded project.
How are the differences between contracting and developing your own titles?
ST: The big differences for me mostly center around money and creative control. With work for hire, we don't have to come up with a bunch of development money ourselves and somebody else gets to deal with the marketing and release. But with indie projects we get to make the game we want!
Having experienced both ways for a while now, I've learned it's not always as black and white as it seems. For instance, if you want to sell your indie game on certain portal sites, you've got to follow a few rules about what you can do with your game, and suddenly you feel a little less indie, since you're not calling all the shots any more.
On the other side of the issue, work for hire doesn't mean unconstrained cash - it means milestones and cash flow and the risk of cancellation and balancing teams from project to project.
Each type of project has some hefty pros and cons, but we really enjoy doing both. We're making games either way, and it's the best job in the world!
What have you contracted on recently?
ST: Well, there's the Doritos Unlock Xbox project, which is public. This is technically a contract job for us, but it's a big collaborative effort between us, Microsoft, Doritos, and Mike, the contest winning designer. This is going well and has been a pretty interesting project. I'm confident people will be happy with the results.
You were one of the earliest companies to be developing new IP for Xbox Live Arcade. How did that happen?
ST: It was a bit of a strange path with Outpost Kaloki X
- we designed a console game, pitched it to 30 publishers, got 30 rejections, and released an adapted version on the PC.
We continued to pitch the game around and finally showed it to Ross Erickson and Cherie Lutz who convinced us to consider Live Arcade for Xbox 360. We considered it (for about 15 seconds) and jumped at the chance to execute on the original console vision of the game and make it even better.
We had to borrow some money, and a chunk of the work was me in a dark room after hours developing a personal relationship with my dev kit. Microsoft supported us with hardware and people, and we got the game done in time for the platform launch.
was a bit different. John Nielson came to a meeting with us to pitch a completely different game, heard the Live Arcade pitch and walked away with little dancing sparklies in his eyes.
A few days later he said, "OK, there this guy named Clyde and he's involved in this cloning experiment with sheep and frogs and stuff," and at that point we couldn't have stopped him if we tried. This was also well before the launch of the platform, but we weren't done with the game until the next summer.
We followed those up with Band of Bugs
(more original IP, but in a very different direction), and we're actively working on more original stuff for Live Arcade, including A Kingdom for Keflings
Can you talk about A Kingdom for Keflings?
ST: Not a whole lot, yet. It's a crazy cool city building game, different from everything else we've done, and completely different from anything else on Live Arcade. Is it a good idea to go so far off the path of what's currently selling on Live Arcade? I guess we'll find out!
What did you think of the recent "delisting games" news?
ST: It's probably not a great idea for me to comment directly on controversial Microsoft policies. I can see some pros and cons. How's that for taking a stand?
Well, how has Microsoft been to work with?
ST: Overall, fantastic. More than anything else, it's the people that have been the best part of the experience. The producers and technical guys working on Live Arcade titles are hard-working and dedicated to the service.
I've gotten many e-mails written in the wee hours of the morning by people at Microsoft who felt that following through on promised feedback was more important than sleeping.
Have you ever felt constrained?
ST: Absolutely. I'll be honest - Microsoft has not hesitated to push us one direction or another where they felt it was critical, or to demand the addition or removal of a feature related to a particular policy. User-generated content, for instance, is still a particularly dangerous area to be in right now.
Microsoft bears the ultimate responsibility for this service and platform, and if I were in their shoes I would probably be pretty demanding as well. I might disagree with some of their policies and choices, but this is their platform and each platform has its own rules - including the PC, if you count big web portals and other distribution services.
Speaking of user-generated content, I heard that on Band of Bugs your level editor only allows users to make particularly small levels specifically to avoid people being able to spell out any swear words with their designs.
ST: Sort of - in the end, the size and complexity of the user-created levels was really up to us. We chose those limits mostly for performance reasons (an open-ended editor lets people do some crazy stuff that's expensive to process and render) but we also felt large sprawling levels didn't work well with the game mechanics.
The scale and resolution of maps in Band of Bugs
was a design decision we made early on - we wanted the feel of Vandal Hearts
more than the feel of Halo
, for instance. Now, it is true that this seemed to help when it came time to get the level editor approved. More than one conversation was had about blocky maps making it harder to create offensive content, but nobody pretended that made it impossible.
The bigger issues were related to where the maps got stored, how users got access to them, how we could keep people from seeing content they don't want to see, etc. This stuff is still a pretty hot button, unfortunately.
It was the people we worked with that eventually made this editor happen. We got some individuals on the Live Arcade team behind the idea of the map editor, and they championed it and helped us get it approved, even though it was opening several cans of worms and raising a lot of questions.
There's been a lot of talk about how onerous their submission and testing process is otherwise, too.
ST: Yeah, the more vitriolic complaints have surprised me a bit. It's a console platform, and every console platform has a difficult certification process. It kinda sucks, but was it any less painful on previous or competing consoles? Not in my experience.
Here's another area where the people we're working with matter a lot - the producers and test people on the Live Arcade team work pretty hard to cut down on the complexity and frustration of this process.
How have you felt about the performance of your titles on Xbox Live?
ST: It's a mixed but mostly positive bag. Outpost Kaloki
and Cloning Clyde
have done well. Band of Bugs
has been ignored by some players and very well received by others. None of our games have sold like UNO
, but they've done well enough for us to continue to spend our own money on Live Arcade efforts!
And I'm extremely pleased with the work we've done with the NinjaBee name. I'm more personally proud of these titles than of anything I've done before in my professional career.
What about their performance on PC?
ST: Honestly, we're still trying to figure out how to make sales on the PC. We come from such a console-heavy background, we had to learn a whole lot of new things to release a PC game on our own, and we're still learning. But we'll keep doing it - I believe there's a lot of potential for these games and for NinjaBee in general on the PC.
Can you make a comparison between the performance on each platform? Your games are mostly strategy orientated, and I wondered if you've found the games fit the PC audience better.
ST: Because of our lack of experience (and lack of a hit so far!) on the PC, I feel sadly under-qualified to answer this. I think there's a ton of untapped potential on both systems. Maybe there's a way for us to get at more strategy players on Live. And I'm sure there are several zillion strategy players on the PC that haven't tried Band of Bugs
What do you think of the distribution methods currently on offer for PC?
ST: I'm excited about PC distribution services offering LIVE-like features and community elements, like achievements and friends lists and things. Unfortunately, the people responsible have their own rules about what gets allowed on the service, just like their competitors. In some cases, this'll mean our more off-the-beaten-path stuff may get the cold shoulder.
Well, do you think that those kind of "destination" style storefronts, like Xbox Live, are preferable to the "everything and the kitchen sink" concept of something like, say, iTunes?
ST: A somewhat frustrating thing for us to learn from PC game portals was that some portals pop your game on their front page for one day, and you sink or swim based on that. This hasn't worked too well for us, because we're not usually making the kind of game that people visiting the popular portals want immediately just from a screenshot.
What saves us, I think, is the middle ground of a genre or category list - if somebody's looking for a tycoon game or something in the sim/strategy genre), they've got a decent chance of finding Outpost Kaloki
Fortunately, both destination and kitchen-sink style services offer category listings. I'll take the one-day promotion if they'll give it to me, but after that I just have to hope people who are looking for my kind of game can find it, and in that case I sure hope my game stays listed somewhere for a long time...
Which other indie developers do you admire?
ST: I won't be able to hit all the teams I admire, but here's a few... I bow down to Don and Jake at Gastronaut, who are insanely nice people and who are geniuses pulling off the work of a team five times their size.
I'm a big fan of some guys who I think epitomize key facets of the "indie" approach, like 2D Boy, Flashbang Studios and Grubby Games. And I've met some shockingly open and friendly people at indie conferences and Live Arcade gatherings, including the Twisted Pixel guys, the Reflexive guys, John Baez from The Behemoth, Denis from Load Inc., and a ton of others.
Indie developers are the most passionate yet down to earth software makers I've ever met. At the GDC last year, I found myself looking forward more to the Indie Games Summit than anything else!