With Xbox Community Games, Microsoft is finally making good on their promise years ago to get garage developers into the mainstream eyes. By developing games using the XNA platform, and getting a platinum game creator's membership, just about anybody can get a game onto the Xbox Live Marketplace. After finishing your game, you submit it to a jury of your peers, and then it gets released onto the masses.
Just like any other user-created or amateur content project, there are some good things, and there are some bad things. Well, the word "bad" is far more negative than I mean it to be. It's best to liken the Xbox Community Games like pictures that your 5-year old draws for you. They've got a lot of heart, and that's where it really matters. The people who are making these games are actually getting out there and getting it done, and for that, they deserve their day in the limelight.
That's exactly what I plan on doing. Over the next few months, I'll be interviewing the people behind some of the games released through Community Games, asking them about their experience with the service, as well as their thoughts on the industry and maybe just some random questions while I'm at it. The people who make indie games are just as important to our industry as the people who work on AAA titles. All of these titles can be found on the Xbox Live Marketplace, under the convinently titled "Community Games" section.
For our first installment, we've grabbed Craig Forrester, the creator of Johnny Platform's Biscuit Romp for a few questions about creating his title, things he wants from the Community service, and a level tip. A full review of the title will be forthcoming.
Blend Games: Just so everyone knows who we're talking to, could you tell everyone who you are?
Craig Forrester: I am Craig Forrester, from ye olde England. I'm at the University of Teesside studying Computer Games Science which is all rather exciting.
BG: What are your hobbies?
CF: This might be a bit predictable but mostly just making games, and sometimes even playing them as well. I did buy a keytar but I haven't put much effort into learning to play it yet. Oh, and drinking coffee!
BG: What is your favorite book? Favorite Movie? Favorite Game? Why?
CF: I usually find it hard to decide this sort of thing, although my favourite film has been decided for quite some time - Lost In Translation. I love Japan so it's already off to a good start, then there's genius acting from Bill Murray, a fantastic soundtrack and of course you can't go wrong with Scarlett Johanssen.
Favourite game is much harder for me to choose, but going for an indie games theme, one of my favourite indie games is Stargirl by Bernie. The pixelart and music is brilliant, and the gameplay is just pure platforming goodness with some really nice ideas. And it has walljumping, I love walljumping.
I think the most recent book I read was JPod by Douglas Coupland, that was ace. Lots of weird stuff going on involving games coders.
BG: How long have you wanted to make games?
CF: Ever since I got my Amiga 600 when I was about 8. I always used to sketch loads of games ideas and stuff like that, then eventually started to learn some coding when I got a PC. I can't imagine doing anything else as a full time job so I decided to go for it.
BG: Did you have any help with the creation of Johnny Platform's Biscuit Romp?
CF: My friend James did the sprites for Johnny and the robots, and I had some help with voice acting, but apart from that it was just me. I'd recently finished the second year of university at the time, so it was nice to kick back with a small project where I could code as dirtily as I wanted.
BG: How long did it take you to make it?
CF: The original DS version was intended as a five day project, if I remember rightly it ended up as just over a week. For the XNA port I was originally like "yeah this will take a couple of days", I think just to justify to myself taking a break from uni work. Inevitably it took longer, three days of hardcore work and late nights, and a few more days for bugfixing and adding all the niggly features I hadn't thought about like allowing the player to use any controller that is plugged in.
BG: What game influenced Johnny Platform the most, also, what inspired the artistic direction of your game?
CF: The main influence is definitely the PDA Games minigame that came with Alien Hominid. I'd been playing it a lot at the time and just figured the DS could definitely use a game like that, and it's the perfect sort of game for a short timescale. A lot of the elements are "borrowed" from it like the crumbling platforms and the enemies, but I tried to add some original stuff, the main thing being the screen-wrapping. As far as I can remember that wasn't inspired by anything in particular, it just seemed like a good way to fit more complex level design into the size of the DS screen.
Here I must congratulate whoever made the music for PDA Games. Even when it's been looping for hours it never gets annoying, which is something that the Johnny Platform music definitely fails to achieve I think.
In terms of artistic direction, I think the Johnny sprite was maybe a bit Psychonauts inspired. It's definitely much less cutesy than the sort of sprites I would usually do myself. The scenery is pretty much bog standard platform game stuff, with various bits of inspiration drawn from games like Wario Land and Yoshi's Island.
BG: How easy/hard was the process of converting the game from the original DS homebrew to XNA?
CF: It was pretty easy really, at least it went more smoothly than it could have done. The main barrier was the difference in programming language, from C++ to C#. I just did a massive copy-paste job and then sat there for 6 hours or so working through hundreds of errors. Translating the DS' features across was a simple job, as in Johnny Platform it basically amounts to "draw sprite" and "play sound".
BG: How's your experience working with the whole "Xbox Community Games" thing?
CF: Overall it's definitely positive. XNA Game Studio is very easy to work with, once you get into using a new programming language, and the submission process is all pretty painless. Seeing my game on an actual games console is hugely rewarding too, it's great to be given the opportunity to release indie games into the console market so easily. Sales figures are a feature that's currently missing, which is quite an important one for people trying to make a living from XNA games. I read that we will get them soon, so fingers crossed.
BG: How has the feedback been from the community? From the press?
CF: It's all been pretty overwhelming. People have shown a lot of support for it, which is all hugely appreciated. The 3rd place in Gamerbytes' top XNA games of the year was brilliant. I did find a few negative comments about it whilst googling which is always nice, stops me getting too cocky!
BG: Am I to assume that it is your sexy voice that speaks to me when I play this game?
CF: Haha, sorry to disappoint you but it's not. I'm only responsible for the coffee slurp - it's a genuine coffee slurp by the way - and the water splash. The other voices are by friends from university, some quality Yorkshire phrases for Johnny by Tom Chambers and a bit of Scottish for the robots by James O'Hare, the same guy who did the sprites.
BG: Thinking about doing a sequel to Johnny Platform's Biscuit Romp? Any chance that any of the other games on your site will see a release on the Xbox Community Games?
CF: A sequel is definitely something I've considered for a while. I've got plenty of ideas for additions to the game, so the possibility is there, but at the same time I want to avoid the feeling of whoring the game out for a cheap sequel, especially now it's in a format where it costs money.
Also there's a massive amount of other games I want to make, so I feel like I'd rather spend time on some of those. The one game from my site that I'd like to bring to XNA would be Treasure Treasure. I have grand plans for turning it into a full game with multiple levels, four players, more puzzle elements and all manner of bountiful things. Unfortunately I think it would really need online multiplayer to work well on the 360, so now it's starting to turn into a very big project which would probably take too long if done purely as a hobby thing.
BG: I'm going to be brutally honest with this next question. Why is your game so much better than everything else released through Community Games?
CF: Hehe thanks! I tried to set it apart by making it feel a bit more professional. A lot of the games on there really feel like homebrew, which is no different to what you'd find on the internet but becomes a lot more apparent when all of the games cost some amount of money. I also put a lot of energy and love into creating it which hopefully shows through. There are games that do this better than mine though, CarneyVale Showtime being the prime example. The level of polish in that is quite impressive.
BG: What the hell is up with Level 50? I hate it because I can't beat it.
CF: I must admit I was pretty chuffed with that one when I came up with it. The trick is to get the cookie and robot to co-operate a bit, if that helps. I'm sure you'll get there eventually, and then you can concentrate on getting your ass kicked by the last 5 levels, hardcore retro style.
BG: What do you think of the next/now generation of game development? It seems we've come a long way since the SNES and the Genesis.
CF: In terms of playing the games I enjoy my fair share of modern day big-budget titles, most recently Prince Of Persia and Mirror's Edge. My point of view as a developer is a bit less enthusiastic; I feel much happier about the idea of working on smaller projects, in a small, focused team. With that in mind it's great that services like XBox Live, PSN and WiiWare are doing well, as they still give developers chance to work on the kind of small games that were common in the SNES / Genesis era.
BG: What's next for Ishisoft? Any exclusive you could give to Blend Games?
CF: I can definitely say my next game won't have any box pushing in as I've had enough of coding that for a while. I'm currently trying to fit in another XNA 2D Platformer based on a character that Tom came up with during our Christmas dinner, Bacon Ninja! Tom's design is still in the early stages but looks fantastic so far.
BG: Thank you very much for your time.
To learn more about Johnny Platform's Biscuit Romp, feel free to check it out at the Official Website. For more gaming interviews, news and reviews, be sure to stay tuned in with Blend Games.