Interview: Aussie Dev Halfbrick Talks XNA Community Games

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Halfbrick is a Queensland based development studio. After a number of years producing DS and PSP editions of the Star Wars, Spyro, Avatar and Ty the Tasmanian Tiger franchises, they've made the jump to focus on downloadable games for Xbox Live Arcade, WiiWare and PSN. We caught up with Phil Larsen to talk about their Halfbrick Fridays initiative, XNA Community Games and how life as an indie studio is treating them.

Halfbrick recently announced Halfbrick Fridays, a series of four games coming to the Xbox 360's XNA Community Games channel. The first title, Halfbrick Blast Off, has just been released, while Halfbrick Echoes, Halfbrick Thrusts (ooh-er!) and Halfbrick Zombies are on the way soon. They're also bringing the exceptionally cute Raskulls to Xbox Live Arcade. Halfbrick's Phil Larsen tells us more.

Tell me about Halfbrick. How did the studio form and what have you guys worked on?

In 2001 a group of developers decided to branch off and start their own company, and now that we employ over 30 staff members and enjoy working in a sunny office with a killer view, it seems to have worked out pretty well!

Halfbrick started developing for the Game Boy Advance, including the Avatar games and also Ty the Tasmanian Tiger. Natural progression moved the studio onto the PSP with Heatseeker, and the DS with a new round of Avatar games and also several other yet-to-be-announced licensed titles. We're in active development on several platforms at any one time.

Why did you decide to develop for Community Games? What was the attraction?

Well, we decided last year to launch Halfbrick Fridays, which is the brand name for our smaller, original games that we develop in the studio outside of our normal contract work. We all get together a pitch a bunch of different ideas, then after a few weeks we will whittle it down to the best few ideas, and simply start making the games in small teams when we have spare time.

Around this time, Microsoft was announcing its CG launch and we decided that it would be a great place to release the first batch of Halfbrick Fridays titles. It's on an established console with a huge user base, and as a professional studio we have the chance to really polish our original games and become one of the most prominent developers for CG. Since then, we've been working on our first four games and getting involved with the XNA development community.

Tell us about your experience with Community Games thus far? What's the dev community like behind-the-scenes?

It's a really great community, and most of the active XNA developers really seem committed to making their games the best. You do have the occasional oddball who wants to release their unfinished game and won't take no for an answer, but the Peer Review system allows the other XNA developers to prevent unplayable games from going live.

The Microsoft team is keen to support the community with technical advice and software updates, but a few key issues are severely limiting the consumer response. Namely the lack of any ratings system which gives the more acclaimed games better exposure. After a game is pushed from the New Arrivals section, it's lost in the archives forever. Gamers don't want to dig through the catalogue because they assume most, if not all of the XNA games are lousy, and without a rating system to show them that many are actually really good, there's no reason for them to think otherwise.

We've seen recent reports of Community Games developers being disappointed with sales. What's your take on this situation?

Well, here's an example. You have on XNA developer who basically releases a glorified screensaver, and another developer who spends 12 months full-time making this awesome polished platformer or shooter. Here's what will happen. A customer will look at the screensaver and say "cool, that looks kind of neat, for $2.50 (200 Microsoft Points, the minimum price point for all CG) I'll give it a whirl". Then they will look at the shooter for 400 Microsoft Points, and say "Well, there's better shooters available on XBLA, so because this is on Community Games it must be crap."

But really, that's the challenge as a developer. It's a free country, people can buy whatever they want. It's just that we're in a good position, in that we have the resources to release some games and see how they go. We're not sure where it will take us at this point, but we're happy to support the service and try our best to make it work.

Would you say that developers looking to Community Games as a reliable revenue stream are perhaps missing the point?

Not exactly. Microsoft has proclaimed that Community Games will be the "Youtube of Games". It's an interesting analogy. When you upload a video on Youtube, you never expect to make any money from it. You want to get some exposure, show that you've actually done SOMETHING with your skills, and network with a few other interested video-philes. Or maybe you just want to upload crappy mobile phone footage showing 17 seconds of a Pink concert from fifty rows back.

But anyway, XNA devs could look at CG the same way. They want to show some of their skills, add something credible to their portfolio, and hopefully get some exposure. However, to say that they are missing the point by expecting revenue is unfair, because the fact is CG does generate revenue, and they are right to want to get paid. If Microsoft said, "We will release these games for free download on Xbox Live" then absolutely, it would still be a valid development platform. However, since Microsoft's business model generates revenue, there's no reason the developers shouldn't get their piece. There's no reason it can't generate even more revenue, but that's dependent on the quality of games available and the way the consumer base perceives them.

Would you recommend aspiring developers look at Community Games as good way to kick off a career?

Why not? It's a guaranteed way to get at least some people to download your game, and there is no restriction on the amount of content you need to have in order to be listed. You certainly won't be able to quit your job from it, but it's a good community that will provide honest feedback and you may pick up a few bucks on the side. Of course, you may strike gold and have thousands of downloads worth tens of thousands of dollars (a select few have done this), but in the game development industry, experience and prior examples of work are essential. If you have a game, get it out there!

Halfbrick [official site]


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