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Q&A interview with XBLIG developer Jason Chase

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The Xbox LIVE Indie Games channel is often overlooked by many gamers. There are literally thousands of games available on the marketplace with new games being released every day. I recently spoke with Jason Chase, also known online as "ZOR," who is an indie developer responsible for creating Punch That Face about his recent game and the XBLIG development process in general.

So you recently made a game on the Indie Games Channel called Punch That Face. It has a rather...interesting...art style. Tell me about the game.

Punch That Face is a simple button-mashing game that goes "out of control." The game starts simply enough, Punch That Face! However, once the player "immerses" themselves far enough... they can unlock weapons, unleash their feet... adding to the player's arsenal, power up, and eventually fight the final boss! It's even got a bonus game to give the player something to do after the game is "completed".

The art came from necessity: "Interesting" is a great word to describe it. It's also been referred to as "punk rock". Whatever way you look at it, it still makes ME laugh, so it SHOULD make others laugh too.

The art is a "side effect" of developing a game with no team, I have no artist. Many old games were made by programmers and electronic engineers. They had hardware that needed games. They developed a simplistic game, and worked the art out on-the-fly. I did the same, drawing the first face as a demonstration of game-mechanics.

Since the art developed a sort of "punk" or "gritty" feel to it, I took the whole game in that direction. I took two sound effects I had created for a promo piece I did a few years earlier, threw them in there (the "wooooo!" and the "psh!!" punch noise), and the game began to take shape. Once I recorded the guitar track, I knew everything had to look "interesting", so I kept with that.

Switching between tasks became the hardest part, because you're doing four different skill sets almost simultaneously (art, programming, game design/interface, music/sound), which all utilize different tools, and different brain functions.

Punch That Face is an adventure, and should be played as such. The game first comes across as "simple" but once you're more into half the jokes and can view the process of the game's development through playing the game, it becomes an experience!

What is the development process like to create an XBLIG?

Punch That Face was a solution to a problem: I want to make a game. Every developer, everywhere, no matter the scope of a project, faces this question. What do you WANT to make? The answer (many times) is determinate on the scope of the game. How extensive of a game do you want to make?

The development process for an XBLIG can be exactly the same as any high-end development house. A lot of time and planning goes into a lot of games released as indies.

The development process can also be short. A lot of school projects or six-week camp projects or tutorial book projects also get released, which is why you see so many "Massage Apps" and whatnot.

Nevertheless, every developer should be forced to deal with the same developmental hurdles, no matter which project. These include, but aren't limited to:

  • User Interface (menus, controller inputs, rules or goals, interactivity aka something to do)
  • User Experience (graphics, sounds, content, text, etc)
  • Programming (making it all work!)

The first leg of developing a title is figuring out what that title will be. Punch that Face was (as I said) a solution to a problem. "What type of game?" I figured, I'd start with a button masher. Keep the scope small, and finish the project. Game mechanic, check! The rest of the User Interface fell into place once that was determined, but determining "what type of game" can take quite some time. If you're not happy with the project, if you're not smiling when you're creating it, chances are you won't finish the project... and it definitely shows in your work. Finding the right project at the right time in your life can be difficult... and can derail a project almost immediately.

The second and third (User Experience and Programming) many times happen concurrently, but the third highly depends on the second. No matter how interesting a game is programming wise, it doesn't come together until the blips start bleeping and the pictures begin their animated dances.

Developing images and sounds are asset creation. This can be done in any variety of ways, and all are as acceptable as any other. If you need a cow sound, you can go record a cow sound from down the street. You can use Audacity, or any other sound editing program. Need a brick wall? Take a picture. Throw it into GIMP, or even MS Paint. While you're there, draw yourself a few RPG sprites.

Asset creating is true for any project, game or otherwise. In the end, everything we do comes down to a lot of images and sounds. .pngs and .wavs, .mp3s or .jpgs. Whatever you like, however you like. It's all in the presentation.

Programming is a lot of presentation. Even if you're programming a large-scale 3d game, you're still presenting models and textures in a scope and scale. You're building pictures, still which move in succession... or you're building a camera to (effectively) film a real-time movie the player directs. Programming also is the only way you're going to get that controller to affect the images on the screen.

Luckily, programming has become (slightly) simpler than it used to be. Instead of needing to develop tools to talk to hardware from the ground-up every time, programming has become a collection of scripts. For an XBLIG, we use C# as the base language. This, coupled with the XNA toolset Microsoft provides for us, means we can talk to a controller with something as simple as : if (pad1.buttons.A == buttonstate.pressed) then : (do a bunch of stuff).

They've pre-written classes which have pre-written functions.... thusly, instead of having to write a lot of code to get the current time, and then create a list of numbers which are generated through a mathmatical formula which will give a number seemingly "random", we have to merely assign a variable name of the type RANDOM, and it comes pre-written with dot-extensions which have pre-written functionality.

However simple it CAN be, (making XBLIG releases accessible to a single-person team such as myself), an experienced team of programmers can go in there and write whatever they desire. XBLIGs can be nearly as complex and impressive as a full-release title. The limitations of development are close to the Xbox360's full capabilities as far as graphics and memory are concerned.

If you need to write a game that deep and detailed, you're gonna want the full-price development kits anyway. You'll want access to everything the Xbox has to offer, in that case. You won't be using XNA, you'll be using something different... the concepts will be the same, only the lexicon will change.

Programming an XBLIG isn't for everybody. This isn't some cut and paste, construct your own simple flash game through a web interface. You still have to deal with code, and your game still has to adhere to standards (i.e. not crash and give the player an experience, not a static image).

After all is said and done, your game has to clear a peer review, where other XBLIG developers check your game over for problems. This test is not nearly as extensive as Microsoft's Certification Process for full release and Xbox LIVE Arcade games, but we're pretty thorough.

You never know what a user is going to experience when the game is completed, so this step is essential. The most confusing (seemingly) one-time only occurrences can take days to sort out, but sometimes will shed light a problem which would have made the game impossible to play for the end user.

The development process never ends, even when the game is released. You're always figuring out other things you're not satisfied with. Also, the market almost nearly demands it. The most successful games are the ones that are continuing to update, keeping up with their users, and developing themselves a niche consumer market of their own.

So you worked on Punch That Face by yourself?

If there were a realistic percentage that exceeded 100%, that would be how much of that game was done by me. Every sound effect, voice sample, the guitar track, all the art, the font, and every line of code was painstakingly developed by me.

How long did everything take you?

I had designed the base game mechanic over Christmas, 2011 (eight months before release). That took me one night to program and three nights to draw the first face, arm, and other screen elements (win/lose/POW/lifebar,etc). Once that was completed, you could punch one face until the game became "impossible" through scaling difficulty.

After that, the game was shelved until August. From there, I worked on the game for one month straight.

one person + one month == one game.

That's pretty much as fast as you can turn it out. Whether or not it comes through, there are a LOT of assets that needed to be generated for Punch That Face (ten faces consisting of four pieces with four states a piece == 160 individual images, plus each menu element, plus each line of text had to be spaced and placed, plus every sound effect for every input).

The code has some fairly interesting elements to it (that star field isn't an image. Each of those stars are tracked individually, and can be moved individually and treated as impact-able objects for... say... a bullet-hell shooter).

Everything was developed or constructed as needed, and when the needs ran out, I just started adding new content to the game while tweaking and cleaning and modifying it until it became what you see... it's final form.

How much of each sale from an XBLIG goes to you and how much goes to Microsoft?

We get 70 percent and MS gets 30 percent. That's rather good, especially when you consider putting out a disc title with a big studio, you'd get way less than that. Music artists would kill for 70 percent, almost literally.

They're putting up a marketplace that we don't have to upkeep, they transfer the data to an expanding user-base, they built a great tool set, and we're able to publish straight to console! And you get $0.70 for every $1.00 of sales!

Do you think it is possible for Indie Games to one day compete against big name titles in terms of sales?

I think it's already there. "Indie Games" can refer to independently developed titles not released by a big studio (EA, Ubisoft, etc) or XBLIGs (Xbox LIVE Indie Games). In both cases, it's true. Easiest case-in-point is Minecraft and its XBLIG clone, CastleMinerZ. Minecraft was not put out by your big studios (EA is the FOX of gaming). It was put out by an "indie" studio. Instant success, even during it's Alpha... programming in JAVA, on the PC. Fast forward to the Xbox LIVE Arcade release, which sells like hotcakes.

Not to mention that during the year that Minecraft was not on the Xbox, CastleMinerZ took the voxelworld idea and released it through XBLIGs. In one year, CastleMinerZ has sold one million copies. That's a lot of games.

There you have both Indie Games and XBLIGs being a success. The "blockbuster game" still has it's place. The Avengers tore it up in the box office, and Modern Warfare and Halo do the same. However, independently made and released games are a reality now, due to digital release platforms. The game no longer has to fight for shelf space and shelf-life (company controlled). It only needs to fight over users.

Do you have any current plans to make more games in the future?

Hell yes! Not just for this platform, but for various platforms. (iOS, Arcade, Windows Phone, even PS3 when their independent network picks up).

I've got plans for a few fun titles already, and I've thrown my hat into the Kickstarter ring (Indiegogo, actually), so I can try my chances to get the money to pay an artist... so my games will improve. However much I like the one-man-games (and I'll continue to release them), I'd love to make some 2-5 person games!

Being as Indie as I am, I have no budget and am barely living paycheck to paycheck as it is. That's why crowdfunding is the natural friend of independent productions. Microfinance is possibly the future of the "free economic world", as my Global Business minor speaks out... and crowdfunding is microfinance at it's core. There are no bank loans anymore for hopes and dreams.

Independent developing should be viewed like it is the cable public access of gaming... which can be a great tool. Sure, there's a lot of just... stuff on the channel. However, it allows experimentation on an unprecedented level... as well as handing the reigns over to more "renegade" production. The film industry underwent this in both the latter part of the 60's starting with Bonnie and Clyde and moving through Easy Rider and on down... as well as in the 90's with Pulp Fiction and El Mariachi.

Gaming started simple, and it's returned. I started "gaming" when games were published in magazines or books and you typed them in yourself. We're almost back to that... and I want to start putting interesting titles out there!

Tell me about your website Geeks and Dorks.

Geeks and Dorks (http://geeksanddorks.com) is half a farce. It comes off as another Media Regurgitation site (Screwattack, IGN, etc.) that reports on games, but in reality it's home to real people that have varying Geek and Dork related interests who want to talk without the standard comment spam you see on other sites. The mainstay of the site is really it's forums. They're kinda tucked away, but that's where the site flourishes. It was started pre-Facebook revolution, so it really was a social nexus when people needed it.

We have NO ads, and we're paid for out of our own pocket. We have no advanced equipment, and post on the front page only when time allows (which isn't very often since we do this on our personal computers AND not as a job).

We haven't actually sold any merchandise, since we've never actually had any. One day, we will... but it's more of a banner of pride, rather than anything. It's a brand, one that stands for "truth in everything".

We're real gamers, and we REALLY play games. We can't just play a game without playing it well. We don't just think we're playing it well, but we actually put ourselves out there, testing ourselves through scores or competitions... and we don't shy away from a game if we're not good at it (or don't like it). We'll still test ourselves.

We don't just watch Anime, but we listen. A lot of great audio production goes on (as Anime is more audio drama than people think). We don't just watch Kamen Rider, but we look at production values. When we watch movies or television, we watch the actors... and get involved in the scene, and the fun they must have had (especially in comedies).

When we listen to music, we can listen to individual interests. Most of us are 25 and older (I'm 34), meaning that we grew up pre-internet, and most likely cassettes and LPs.

Geeks And Dorks is a movement. "Don't just consume; consider." Stop viewing passively, stop playing passively. If you're going to bother picking up a controller, put some concerted effort into your actions. Look at textures, enjoy someone else's work. If something's bad (or could be done better), call it. If they do something really cool the next second, acknowledge it.

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