Seattle-based Gastronaut Studios has had a bit of an anomalous rise. Where other contemporary developers have so far seen Xbox Live Arcade as a sideline for smaller and more risky ideas -- or for quick arcade ports -- it's been Gastronaut's exclusive domain since the platform's inception.
Its 2004 block puzzler Fuzzee Fever was Xbox Live Arcade's first exclusive title, at a time when the platform was far less integrated into Microsoft's plans for success than it is today. With extremely limited retail release of the free Live Arcade launcher disc, and without any integration with the original Xbox's dash, the Arcade was largely limited to those who actively sought it out, versus the always-on luxury we know today.
Still, despite the limited exposure, Gastronaut was convinced enough to stick with the program, and is wrapping up work on its second Live Arcade title, Small Arms. Most easily and commonly described as Super Smash Bros. meets Metal Slug, its multiplayer hard-boiled brawl seeks to pack in as many fighting game cliche punches as possible, and do it all with a sense of humor.
Gamasutra sat down with studio founder Jacob Van Wingen to learn more about building a company solely on the back the Arcade, six degrees of separation, and how a taste for ramen might be a key to success.
Gastronaut was one of the first studios to lend its support to Xbox Live Arcade before the 360, and actually the first platform exclusive -- how did you get involved with the original XBLA team?
My first game, Fuzzee Fever had a pretty lengthy development. I started work on it primarily as a resume piece. It was meant to be a really simple game to show off some production skills. Shortly before it became a finalist in the IGF, I brought it with me to GarageGames' IndieGamesCon and had it playing on some computers there. James Gwertzman, who at that time was with Sprout Games, played it for awhile and was impressed. We both thought that it really belonged on a console, and he offered to help me get there. James got me setup with the Xbox Development program and then introduced the game to the Xbox Live Arcade team. When I moved out to Seattle, I worked out of a corner of the Sprout Games office finishing up the Live support in Fuzzee Fever. I moved out to my own offices shortly after it launched in late 2004.
How much success did the studio see with Fuzzee Fever?
Well, I don't think that many people got to play the game, so it certainly wasn't publicly successful. It did, however, introduce me to the XBLA team from the very early stages and allowed me to work closely with them. Given where XBLA has gone with the 360, I feel like getting connected into the process at that early stage was invaluable for me now.
Were you disappointed with the approach Microsoft took in promoting the original XBLA?
I think there were a lot of barriers to success with the original XBLA that more promotion couldn't have overcome. XBLA wasn't integrated into the Dashboard. Xbox Live accounts were pay only. And it was difficult to distribute the launcher disc. These problems were all fixed for the 360. The 360 also added a number of features that I didn't predict would help promote Arcade as much as they have: the Gamerscore/Achievements system and the more centralized nature of Dashboard. Of course, I really wish more people could have played Fuzzee Fever, especially the Live multiplayer.
Do you wish you could have put off releasing Fuzzee until the 360 XBLA? Have there been any discussions in re-releasing it now that the platform has been more firmly established?
No, I'm happy we released Fuzzee Fever when we did. I'd been working on it for a long time, mostly alone, and was ready to get it out there. When it launched to the first Xbox Live Arcade, I saw it as this pretty amazing accomplishment for a project with very humble origins. I was just really happy to see it done and to see it running on a console system. That was a longtime dream for me.
When I saw the exposure that the 360 XBLA has gotten, it definitely made me want a game out at launch. But I knew I had one coming soon after. I'm actually much happier working on a new and very different game for the 360. I'd rather not get stuck always working on the same game. This way, I get to try new things, develop new levels, characters, and technology. So, working on Small Arms has been a lot of fun because of the very different art style and the, in a way, simpler gameplay.
How long has Small Arms been in development?
It's been almost one year in active development, but we had a prototype running very shortly after Fuzzee Fever launched. The prototype was slowly developed while we were doing other contract work. We had early versions, mostly of the physics and platforming systems, running on the original Xbox and then as we got the iterations of 360 development hardware we moved it over.
Are you including any single player component in the game, or is it exclusively multiplayer?
There is a single player mission mode. It's very similar to the multiplayer, actually. You fight against a series of opponents in a format that is familiar to most fighting games. We wanted to have a repeatable single-player challenge that could be completed in one sitting. It should take about a half-hour, I would guess. The progression takes the player through battles with enemies that become more difficult and more plentiful. By the end you're fighting three tough opponents. We also have some cool mini-games that are available in single player mode.
Can you tell us more about the Six Degrees of Small Arms?
The Six Degrees of Small Arms Achievement is something we're really excited about. The four of us who developed this game will each have the 0th degree. To get the first degree, you've got to play us. Play first degree players and you get the second degree, and so on. So the achievement spreads virally, depending on who you've played. There are no limitations on getting the achievement other than just playing a game against somebody that has it. This will be an interesting experiment to see how fast it spreads. You can track what degree you have through a stats page in the game.
Will you be publishing your own GamerTags so prospective players can shorten their degrees of separation?
We're still developing a policy on publishing our GamerTags, but I suspect that eventually we will. We're really looking forward to being on Xbox Live and playing matches against new players. Unfortunately, though, I just don't think we'll be able to play everybody who asks. At some point we'll have to get back to work...
Your studio seems to be one of the few trying to innovate with achievements -- do you feel like other studios have been wasting opportunities with their own achievements?
I assume that most developers underestimated the appeal of achievements and the Gamerscore, which is why many of the early titles didn't have the best achievements. I was skeptical when I first saw the documentation, but I think it's been clear since the 360 launch just how clever they are. The achievements are really easy in some games and seem more like afterthoughts than integral game components.
Xbox Live Arcade is different in this area. Our Xbox Live Arcade producer has spent a lot of time with us on designing and balancing achievements. I think that takes place with all of the Arcade games so that the achievements are really interesting. For example, I've always loved Geometry Wars' pacifism achievement, because it actually encourages you to play the game differently, at least for a short period. As for us, Gastronaut Studios has always been dedicated to making very sociable games, so applying social networking ideas to our game in the form of the Six Degrees of Small Arms Achievement felt like a really natural move. I expect to see newer games continue to think creatively and innovate with their achievements.
Do you have any other creative achievement tricks up your sleeves for the game?
I wish I could say we do. I'm afraid our other achievements are much more standard. We've been throwing around ideas for future games, but we had to have our achievement list for Small Arms finalized early on in development. One of the things that has thrown us off slightly is the 12 achievement limit for Arcade. We'd love to track some more esoteric stats and award people for pulling off certain tricks in the game. But with 12 achievements, we'd have to pick only a few of those and then they would look pretty out of place. One of the "Gun Arms" in the game, the Sniper Arm, could be the source of a good dozen achievements by itself, what with all of the trick shots that can be executed with it.
Any thoughts on the recent XBLA Community Club development? Are you worried about an influx of competition?
Oh, I think it's always important to keep an eye out for talented kids coming out of nowhere with an impressive product. What's great is that even more channels are available for these developers to turn their talent into success on their own. The XNA Community Club is part of that. My understanding is that it's very separate from XBLA, however. I always wanted to get a Net Yaroze back when those were available. But this XNA Community Club looks like a more streamlined, public system than that. It's exciting.
Some have cast doubt on the XNA/Club project saying it may give wishful indie developers false hopes of commercial success, do you have any words of warning or wisdom on XBLA development, other than Think Small?
I think a lot of people have false hopes even without the existence of the XNA Community Club. Folks need to be very realistic about how long it takes to make developing games viable as a supporting job. It's hard work, and not all that glamorous either. So you need to be extremely committed and really enjoy the work. It consumes a lot of time and energy long before it ever produces much of a financial reward.
We've heard a lot about the harsh realities of independent game development -- how has a team like yours managed to survive this long with such comparatively limited exposure to your first game?
I'm going to say it's because of our low overhead and fondness for ramen noodles. No, it's mostly because enough of the right people saw Fuzzee Fever, which opened a lot of doors for us. It hasn't always been easy, but we're a bunch of guys who are exceptionally dedicated to what we do and to making it work.
We've also done some contract work that helped pay the bills before working on Small Arms. If Small Arms does well, we can just get started on making more original content.
Are there plans to expand Gastronaut beyond Live Arcade, or are you satisfied that it can be a viable exclusive commercial platform for years down the road?
No plans yet. We want to stay focused on consoles, but we may look into handhelds if downloadable games become possible there. Live Arcade has been really good to us. We've been with it from the beginning and we want to continue making lots of games for it down the road. We're one of the smallest developers making games for the platform, and yet we're taken seriously there and feel right at home with this system.