- Name and position: Chris Walley, Director.
- Time operating: Since Feb 2009.
- Location: Guildford, UK.
- Staff numbers: 2 fulltime and 3-4 part time / contract.
- Discography: World Clock (XBLIG), World Clock 360 (PC), AtomHex (XBLIG), Platypus (XBLIG, to be released)
Escapist Games Links
» What was the reason behind you going indie?
Well, I guess I wanted to make my own games. Which is a little ironic considering we've mostly been doing ports :) But no, it's also probably the same as most start-ups; we wanted to see if we have what it takes to go it alone. It takes guts and it's not been easy but so far, I have to say it's been a lot of fun so I don't regret leaving my secure job to go it alone. I quit EA almost exactly a year ago actually. My original plan was to take 6 months out and make my own game. It's a game that I tried to make at EA that got quite far but ultimately couldn't be made, called "Jumpfight". It's still in development and I still plan to release it. I was going to make it for PC and then probably go back to full-time employment but things didn't work out quite as expected...
» How so?
I wrote a JumpFight prototype in a simple but quite cool language called Blitz3D. My initial plan was to port it to C# XNA and then I could release it on the Xbox360 and PC. However, instead of going for the brute-force approach I decided to write a convertor first, which would do the job for me. So I did that and everything was going to plan; then I met San Shepherd (who is now my business partner). He suggested that the convertor could be used to convert existing games over to XNA and so we started looking into this with existing commercial games, written in Blitz Basic.
Hence, we found Platypus and AtomHex and loads of others. We have contracts signed with various other people, ready to go; 5 products including Platypus in the space of 9 months or so, and it's all mostly thanks to my convertor. It gets you about 90% of the way there. Then you have to massage the code and fix the errors and hey-presto; you hit build and it's quite a minor miracle when stuff magically appears on the Xbox, and you have no real idea how! In the end, with both Platypus and AtomHex I got to know the code pretty well of course because we upgraded them and added features etc. but it gives a great starting point.
» I can see why your plans changed - what you've described to me has set my mind off thinking about interesting possibilities.
Yeah, it is an exciting piece of tech. But we have yet to see if it makes for a financially viable business model, which is why Platypus is such a big deal for us right now. Because, I'll be honest, XBLIG has not paid for itself yet. I think unless you get your game in the top 5, or even 3 you're not going to see a great deal of money.
» I'd heard good things about the new ratings helping games sales - and thought AtomHex was up there.
It is. It's high in the ratings but it doesn't seem to be translating directly into sales I'm sorry to say, because AtomHex is a great little game, it really is. We have people writing in to us telling us how much they love it.
» Do you have any insight on why it might not be succeeding?
That is a tough one. I think we learned a lot from AtomHex's launch. Firstly, it's not possible on XBLIG to set a launch date, unlike the iPhone store for example. So, when it passes peer-review, it's live a few hours later and you don't know when that will be. It could fail, then you need to wait another week to be able to resubmit, or it might pass after a day or two. So we learnt that you really need to make a concerted push with the publicity as soon as it launches and we didn't - we were caught a little off guard. Those first 24 hours are vital - because it's at that time when it has the best chance of succeeding. You really need to pull out all the stops. Having said that, I'd say AtomHex is a bit of a sleeper though, no, what's the word? "ever-green" something or other. It consistently sells without any publicity. We had a 25% conversion rate in September. 25% is better than most Arcade titles, so it's very good - those that find it love it, but it would be great if more people knew about it.
» How long had you spent on the AtomHex conversion, and how much of that was trying to get it through peer review?
About 2 months on the conversion. About 3 weeks on top getting it through.
» Can you give me figures for how many copies it sold? I'm thinking that a game that takes (roughly) two months and needs to support two people for that period to break even needs to sell X copies. X might be quite big :)
Let me just say, its not done as well as we had hoped. It made a lot less than X.
» Are you doing anything different with Platypus to increase sales?
Yes - everything! AtomHex was a real eye-opener. This time we have a much clearer idea of what to do and how to publicize it.
» Doing conversions - you have other parties involved. What agreement do you have with the rights holder? Their cut will make the sales feel worse...
I would recommend that anyone doing something similar should ensure that they have a provision for making back a certain initial sum before any royalties are paid which will cover all or some of the dev costs.
» Excellent idea. Did you find dealing with an individual for AtomHex, and a company for Platypus gave different results?
Indeed. The agreement we came to for AtomHex with Marc Incitti... was quite straightforward to hammer out. He's a nice guy, very reasonable. When dealing with companies I'd expect it to take a bit longer, and it did.
» In putting all your info together - you've got a great product (the converter) that is hampered by the delivery mechanism (XBLIG), and where the traditional second sales route for those games (PC) is already fulfilled. Do you think it is feasible to get to a stage where your ability to quickly port games is enough to offset low sales?
Well, we're waiting and seeing now. If Platypus is a success then our business model will be validated. If it's not, then I really don't see how to make money from it (XBLIG) without commiting to a serious gamble. ie. you need to be very lucky and hope your "big" product hits a sweet-spot with consumers. But - that's hypothetical right now. We think Platypus *will* be a success because it's such a great game. To address your point about the PC platform not being a second avenue of sales... the convertor converts from Blitz Basic into C# using custom XNA functions to replace the Blitz commands and that's an attractive proposition to anyone with some old Blitz code lying around; it allows you to have much more optimised code, is much easier to expand upon, can use all the latest technology (like graphics shaders etc) and quite simply you'll be able to to do a lot more with it. You can convert your old PC game and it will work much 'better' under XNA on the PC. But of course the cherry on the cake (and it's a very big cherry) is that it will also run on the Xbox.
» This makes the software sales of the converter sound pretty appealing. Perhaps the cost to handle the conversions yourself are too high, but for other people to get a second chance at income for old projects - they have less invested in it (in a project's success) so could do it themselves.
Yeah, as I said, we are certainly considering it, and we can use Platypus and AtomHex as examples of the fact that yes, the tecnhology does work.
» For Platypus - will you be doing any promotions for it? how will you use your 50 free game tokens for it? (50 free copies of your game donated by MS for distribution to review sites or friends)
Many of the tokens are already spoken for: press. We issued a pre-release press statement this time (again, learning from AtomHex) and so we've had quite a few responses from people eager to review it when it comes out. And yeah, some will go out to friends.
» Ultimately there's quite a lot of opinon that XBLIG isn't the way ahead though - does that seem fair given your involvement in it?
I actually think it *is* the way ahead. Just maybe not the way ahead from a standard business point of view. So, for your average hobbyist, it's an incredible outlet but as a business venture, it's a gamble and I'm glad I didn't (haven't yet anyway) bet the house on it. But I do believe in the idea, and I'm looking forward to the platform maturing and gaining wider recognition.
» Do you think changing the instant releases to a staggered one would help?
I'd actually like to see Microsoft implement a system that lets the developer set their own release date once it passes peer-review, so it passes and then you get the choice of when to release it - say, any time in the next 3 months. (I'd also add gamer-points for Indie games, but that's another kettle of fish, ie. they'd have to be vetted. But I think just doing that would see sales increase dramatically)
» Even if AtomHex had been a massive success there is a lag until you get paid. How have you survived financially?
I had some savings, I've sold the car and I have a very supportive wife. Starting a new company is never an easy thing I guess - there's a certain amount of pain at the start to get through, but I'm very optimistic about the future.
» And finally... how much should finances occupy a company?
You need to make money otherwise you won't be a company for long... so of course they are important but if you believe in your products... then hopefully they'll be financially successful. Personally, I do what I love: I make video games. The finances are a very necessary evil.
» What gives you a competitive advantage over other products / companies?
Between me, San and the various other people involved, we have an awful lot of experience: we know good games, we have an eye for quality - everything we've done so far I'm proud of and I believe that we are all really, really good at what we do. And you've got to believe that, haven't you? :)
» If you could travel back in time to when you started the company: what advice would you give?
Tricky one. I'd probably give myself very specific advice, but nothing like "don't do it!" or something more exciting. Actually, I'd probably take back a sports almanac, if I was thinking straight! I wouldn't change any of it really - I'm not a person who has too many regrets, I guess. So everything we've done so far has been learning, and yes we've made mistakes, and I know that we've learnt an awful lot from those mistakes. You've got to make them, in order to learn from them.
» At what point would you give up on the company?
I'll give up when I don't think we'll make any money and that I can't afford to keep it going. So far we have no debts - and I plan to keep it that way.
» My own opinion is there's quite a lot of people who can make fairly good games. But can they make them in a financially viable way? Your case is incredibly interesting. I'd almost go so far to say that if you can't make money reliably out of XBLIG then no one can.
Well, that's my thinking as well actually :)
» You can develop high quality, already known games quicker than people creating original games and no one else can really emulate you - so I'm hoping it works out! Can you say what game you are working on after Platypus?
There are a few possibilies right now but actually I will be cryptic... and say that no one should put all their eggs in one basket...
» Joypad Massager 7?
Oh if only I could - if only my conscience would let me.
As of 19 Oct 2009 Escapist Games' next release is the XBLIG conversion and upgrade of Platypus, with a street date of "imminent".