Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The line between Dreams and Business

I have been meaning to post more relevant discussions regarding XNA for quite some time now but just like everything else my blogging takes a back seat to real life as well as are actual game time on our consoles. But every so often, a news article strikes me as something of interest that I feel the need to write about it. And one such news is ‘Bob’s Game’.

In summary, ‘Bob’s Game’ is a classic old school RPG that has a mix of the old sprites and textures in a more western setting (as compared to the default fantasy realm settings of similar JRPGs). This game has been a pet project of Robert Pelloni since 2003, a one man army wrestling with programming code, art assets and everything else that go into a game. Any person who has tried to make a game would sympathize with his plight. Making a game is no easy task. Making a game by yourself is near impossible without putting the rest of your life on hold.

This man apparently intended the game to be released on a Nintendo platform and perhaps that became the biggest stumbling block to his dream. When an independent developer pitches a game to a publisher (i.e. Ubisoft, Activision, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony...), most of the time these publishers want something concrete to play. Even before you ink a deal with any of these guys, you would have already put in a sizable investment of time, hard work and money. And it’s very rare that big publishers will snatch your game in a heartbeat. There is no magical la-la land like those portrayed in Nintendo games when it comes to real world business practices. Most publishers will scoff at indie developers in favour of big budget well known development teams...even if their games scored a spectacular score of 6 on Metacritic. You may have the talent, you may have the passion, you may have the dream but those things are secondary, if not tertiary, once you’re talking to a suit more concerned with brand and the bottom-line than making dreams come true.

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It takes a lot more business finesse to talk to a suit, Bob.

Hence that is the problem of Bob. Having already coded a chunk of his dream game, and perhaps saved up actually enough money to buy the development kit for a Nintendo DS, he goes to the suits at Nintendo and presents his game and gets denied. Nintendo may have their business reasons for denying this man the tools he need to finish his game, but for someone who has dedicated a significant portion of their lives to actually making it, those reasons do not provide enough justification for the last X years he set aside.

Let me make this clear, I am in no means judging Nintendo on the validity of their business decision. The point I am trying to make is how difficult it is to actually pitch a game with little to no credentials.

Being a developer (not a game developer mind you), I applaud this man’s efforts. And like him, I have always toyed around with an idea for a game in my head ever since my mother bought me a Nintendo Family Computer for Christmas when I was 7 years old. The reality is, business people think differently from independent developers and if we are looking at it from a business standpoint, Bob has made a lot of wrong moves and his most recent, 100 day live-webcam challenge isn’t really going to win him the favour of Nintendo.

Personally, Bob’s biggest mistake was to put everything in the hands of Nintendo. Regardless of what marketing spiel Nintendo has, at the end of the day they want money and want to keep their name untarnished. This is the reason why we do not see similar efforts such as Bob’s Game appearing on the Nintendo DS or Wii even if this game has a lot more heart put into it compared to the default Nintendo ‘cash-ins’ like Wii Sports or Wii Fit. Since Nintendo is in the casual market trend, Bob’s Game, isn’t going to make any money. While that in itself is big enough for Nintendo to write-off supporting this man, the other is why should they allow something unknown to invade their space when they literally are crawling with tons of old school JRPG remakes from known companies such as Square Enix and Atlus? And last but not the least, I have no idea regarding the level of Bob’s business skills. You may see Reggie Fils Aime or Shigeru Miyamoto act like passionate gamers and talk about ass kicking...but note these guys are not your friends, they are business people more concerned with the bottom line rather than taking you out for lunch as you discuss the latest developments in the plot of Legend of Zelda.


In the next E3, Reggie should wear a shirt that says 'I'm not your friend'.

So given all that, if you want to be a game developer your options are limited. Some of the more common ways of getting in the game industry means making a flash game or two, a freeware/home brew game, or tweaking a level editor to make a map. Hardly do we hear about independent efforts who have transcended these business barriers and went from indie to commercial developer in small strides. Gone are the days of John Carmack, when games are peddled in convenience stores and sealed with a sandwich bag. The industry is now too big to care for such home grown efforts.

And that’s where I believe XNA comes in.

XNA isn’t all about dreams. It is also a business venture wherein Microsoft wishes to promote the use of its Visual Studio development tools, and consequently Windows, in order to make a video game. Is that evil? Of course not...so many companies do the same thing, case in point, Nokia and Apple with their iPhones. But one of the things that make these guys different from Nintendo, is that they are trying to tap into the passion of the ordinary user in order to add more value to their products. Microsoft, has always been a software company and their earliest battle cry is allowing users to build their own stuff while they provide the tools to do so.

The XNA initiative started a long time ago with J Allard, hinting in 2005 on how “Velocity Girl” can sell her work on the Xbox Live Marketplace. Of course back then, everyone laughed at Microsoft and brushed all their ideas aside. These days, the tables have turned and the same suits who laughed at the whole notion of achievements are rushing to implement it in their platform. But XNA has only started with the most recent Fall Update where the XNA Community games are made available for commercial retail to the millions who have signed up for Microsoft’s XBOX Live Service (both Silver and Gold users can buy items from the XBOX Live Marketplace).

I’m not going to pretend like I’m an XNA guru because I’m not. But the underlying idea behind XNA is one of the key reasons why I continue to support the XBOX 360 despite the numerous hardware failures that have plagued me and my husband for 3 years.

XNA is not a programming language; it is more like an interface between Visual Studio and the hardware which can allow you to port your games with a little more ease. Contrary to popular belief, Microsoft has given away these tools for free. The core development language, Visual Studio C# is available for free with enough libraries to help you get things done. XNA, itself is also free. And making a game for the PC and publishing it for the PC is also free of charge.
The charges will only come if you wish to make the game for the XBOX 360 wherein Microsoft will actually make the game available in their XBOX Live Marketplace. The first charge is the cost of premium membership to the XNA Creators Club, if and ONLY IF you wish to make your game playable on the XBOX 360. The charge for premium membership is a small price compared to the thousands of dollars one would need to actually get their hands on a Nintendo SDK or any other development kit.

Once you have subscribed to the XNA creators club, you can now interface your game with the XBOX 360 and actually see it running on the XBOX. If you’re confident enough to show your game, you can easily share this with the rest of the premium club members. Consequently, you can also download their games to the XBOX 360 and see what other people are doing. If you want to take it one step further, you submit your game to a peer review and thus the road to commercial sales will begin. If you’ve made it through, the royalty fees between you and Microsoft isn’t as heartbreaking as one may think. The fees are fair and in favour of the developer rather than Microsoft. In fact, unlike other companies, you get to retain the full rights to your intellectual property even if the game is sold in the marketplace. While you may not hit the sales of Call of Duty 4 in your first try, it is nonetheless, a good way to actually see if you have the talent for game development and get noticed.

XBOX 360 and XNA is breaking the boundaries on how games are made and is being more inclusive to developers who are fuelled with passion for a dream that they may have been harbouring since their childhood. If Bob had a mistake, it was because of his ‘loyalty’ to Nintendo. But any developer who wants to see their dream come true should be open to other options. And for many of us, who aspire to eventually enter the game industry in one form or the other, the whole idea behind the XNA platform can be seen as a beacon of hope that the corporate and business driven game industry may have room for those who start out with dreams.

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