Developer of the just-released Battle of the Bands for Wii, published by THQ, Planet Moon - founded in 1997 by some of the ex-Shiny veterans who helped created MDK, is one of the more quirkily interesting Bay Area game creators.
In particular, a history of offbeat humor has permeated original IP Planet Moon action titles such as Giants: Citizen Kabuto and Armed And Dangerous.
More recently, the company has worked on titles including Infected and After Burner Black Falcon for PSP - as well as Smarty Pants for Electronic Arts and Battle Of The Bands for THQ - both on the Wii.
In this in-depth interview, Gamasutra talks to Chief Operating Officer Aaron Loeb about Planet Moon's recent titles, and the place it sees for original IP in the industry, which includes a call for an obvious distinction between "blockbuster" games and "art house" games.
You're working on Wii now, having moved away from PSP -- is it the platform you see as being good for original IP?
Aaron Loeb: We will work on any platform where we can explore fun, new ideas. We are currently developing for other platforms in addition to the Wii, but nothing has been announced.
As a company, we’re focusing on a portfolio approach recently. We have a really big game in development (unannounced), medium games (like Battle of the Bands) that takes 16-18 months, and smaller games (like Smarty Pants).
It’s working well for us, as we learn and change our procedures based on lessons from the different game projects. For instance, our company has moved to the SCRUM project management system based on experiments done with it by the After Burner team (a PSP game we made with Sega).
Having multiple teams on multiple platforms enables us to improve or processes, our working conditions, and our games.
What was it that you learned from the After Burner development that led to the move to SCRUM?
AL: We learned that the traditional waterfall schedule doesn't deal with problems with any of the efficiency that SCRUM does. It also doesn't empower the team.
The SCRUM system says that the team will figure out how to solve a problem (and by that, I mean that individual implementers will be responsible for problem-solving, not that it's some kind of group-think).
Rather than having a producer who comes in and says "you will have a jet, and it will have twenty moving parts, and they will look like this, this and this and you will create them in the following way," SCRUM allows for a much more creative process, in which the Project Director might say, "I want the jets to be highly customizable within the following parameters" and the team is responsible for figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B.
I like to think of the SCRUM system as the scene in Apollo 13 when the engineers get the box full of crap that's in the capsule and are told they have to figure out a way to use this stuff to keep the astronauts alive.
The team works in "sprints" in which they have a goal to achieve in a set period of time and they figure out how to achieve it, and the Project Director is responsible for quality -- so he or she can approve or reject the work.
It has a number of rules that are great -- like you can't change the goal in the middle of the sprint, which is hard sometimes to adhere to, but is essential!
At this point, I think we would be hard-pressed to go back to a rigid top-down management system.
What spurned the decision to move away from PSP?
AL: Honestly, developers don’t really get to make decisions like that. Publisher support for the platform waned for a while, so if we’d stubbornly stuck to the PSP we wouldn’t have gotten work doing much beyond ports.
Interest in the PSP is definitely coming back among the publishers, though. That little puppy just keeps on selling!
How do you feel about the titles you made on PSP in retrospect -- Afterburner, Infected?
AL: We’re very proud of them. We wish they’d found a bigger audience, but I think most people who’ve made PSP games wish that in retrospect.
Both projects had really cool, stylized ways of telling their story we hadn’t tried before. Infected was told through what were essentially radio plays, and that actually worked really well. It also had a cut-scene acted out with hand puppets, which I think was a videogame first.
After Burner had some really cool 2D animatic cutscenes, and multiple storylines. It also had a ridiculous array of jet customizations. The games are both quite fun!
If I had one regret about either of them, it’s that Infected’s infrastructure multiplayer was anemic. It was the primary complaint about the game. We had only 1-on-1 multiplayer across the Internet (16-player over ad hoc), and that just wasn’t good enough in the face of SOCOM.
We should have cut the feature entirely rather than taking a stab at something we couldn’t deliver with our budget and schedule.
You're talking about the problems PSP games had at retail. Do you think a major problem of original IP is still distribution?
AL: Original IP is far more risky than licenses or sequels. It’s also potentially more rewarding. Our industry goes through huge swings in its appetite for original IP. Early in a lifecycle, everyone wants it; later on, few will touch it.
Certainly, publishers have problems selling titles the retailers have never heard of. The giant box stores are particularly problematic in that regard; the folks at GameStop, in general, are fantastic and they really get behind stuff they think is good, original, or otherwise.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to money. How much did the game cost and how much goes into marketing it. Someone recently said to me that the biggest way our industry screws itself is by not “opening our books” as Hollywood does.
Because the press and the consumers don’t actually know whether a game cost $50 million or $1 million, games from radically different sources are held to the same standards. Hollywood has the concept of an “art house flick,” but we don’t have art house games.
This creates a problem where all games are reviewed as though they should have the highest budgets (using the Hollywood example, if you expect all movies to have giant transforming robots and explosions, then tiny, English comedies really won’t review well).
One way publishers and developers have dealt with this is to retreat to smaller platforms with original IP in hopes of being held to a less blockbustery standard. There are some highly reviewed original games on the DS, XBLA and PSP, for instance.
I think we would see a lot more interesting, small original IPs if we figured out a way to indicate to the consumers and the press, “this is a small game on a big platform; please don’t compare it to Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s not trying to be like that.”
How is a small developer ever going to make a well-reviewed first person shooter, for instance, if all first person shooters must have as rich a feature set as Halo 3 to be taken seriously?
The problem here is a vicious circle. The GTA IVs and the Halo 3s of the world need the least plaudits from the press and the least PR because they are established and have giant marketing budgets. It’s the small, original games that desperately need those 90% reviews to get people to try them, but they can’t get them because they don’t have level editors or join-anytime-16-player-co-op-multiplayer, etc.
The result is that the publishers make a few big, huge original IP bets (Rock Band, BioShock, Assassin’s Creed) where they invest the same kind of money as they would with a giant sequel, and fewer small bets on original IP. The aggregate effect is that our industry makes fewer and fewer original games.
Do you think some of the problem lies with the end unit pricing, then? An original IP title might be great, but if I know it's only got that limited feature set compared to Halo and Halo is the same price - how can the consumer not be expected to go for what they see as "better value"?
AL: I honestly don't think that's how the consumer is making their decisions -- or, at least, not the only way. The truth is, Halo 3 is more feature-rich than, well, just about anything. It's a freaking onslaught of features.
And yet, the consumer also bought quite a few copies of the other major FPSes last year, which were no slouches in the feature department, but if this all boiled down to "feature check list = VALUE" in the consumer's mind, Halo 3 would win.
The issue for the first-time developer in our scenario is that the big boys won't publish their original game unless they can get 85% or higher, and our industry now seems to have a kind of barrier on smaller games -- no matter how good or creative their ideas -- on the big platforms reaching those kinds of review scores unless they are also super-polished, which only comes with a lot of time and money.
So, you have to spend more money and more time to make an original game successful. And, if you're the publisher, why spend that money, when you can spend the same amount on a license or a sequel and have less risk? It's a negative feedback loop.
All that said, we had more hugely successful original IPs last year than we have in years, so it's not as bad as I'm making it sound! It's only that it is harder now to get a really big, original idea off the ground than it used to be, and it was pretty darn hard already.
So what are the state of affairs at Planet Moon right now?
AL: Well, we just shipped our first game with THQ, called Battle of the Bands, which is an original IP that was pitched by one of our staff members in a company pitchfest.
We made a game with EA last year called Smarty Pants, which did very well for us, and reflected the fastest game we’d ever made -- the concept was discussed at GDC last year, and the game was on store shelves by Black Friday.
In addition, we’re working on a huge, super-secret project with one of the industry’s largest publishers that we are looking forward to announcing.
A company pitchfest? How often do you do that sort of thing?
AL: We do them at least twice a year. Everyone in the company has an opportunity to get up and pitch an idea. Sometimes people pair up and make demos, other times they do simple one-sheets.
These games are sometimes then polished up into fuller pitches and presented to our publishing partners.
In general, we take a "good ideas can come from anywhere" approach. The job of our executive and creative staff is to be able to hear a great idea and figure out how to make it even better. We've found, over the years that the "only designers or producers have ideas worth making into games" model is terribly inefficient and, frankly, wrong.
That said, our designers and project directors (the people who oversee the game from cradle to grave) are the ultimate authorities on the ideas. We aren't big fans of designing by committee.
Battle of the Bands was originally pitched by Ian Slutz, who became senior designer on the title. The original idea was marching bands of robots fighting each other, and it eventually morphed into bands of various musical styles fighting each other musically.
One of the pillars of the game is what we call “music switching,” where the dominant band in the battle is the one whose music you hear. There are five musical styles represented in the game -- rock, latin, country, hip-hop and marching band.
The switches in the music are not authored (as they often are in dynamic music systems). The songs can literally switch on a per-note basis. The game ships with a music player which allows players to experiment with this feature. We felt that for the more casual consumer on the Wii, this was an essential idea -- Battle of the Bands is a fun (and ridiculous) party game, so we focused our attention on quick “get in and get out” features.
Moving backwards, how was the experience working with EA on Smarty Pants?
AL: Excellent - the project itself was difficult because we had 20,000 questions to manage on top of making the game. But it’s not just 20,000 questions, really.
You can’t localize trivia -– especially trivia targeted to children, as they know totally different things in different countries. So, together we had to manage 120,000 questions (20,000 per territory) and all the potential headaches of that much data.
The game itself was built in its most basic form, and playable, within 4 weeks of the project’s beginning. We knew early on it was very fun, and EA gave us the chance to see all of its focus tests. Usually, game focus tests are depressing because you watch as people show you the 5,000 different ways your game is utterly baffling.
The Smarty Pants tests were fantastic: people jumping up and down, laughing, screaming. We knew we had a really fun game early on. From there, the goal was making it as fun and accessible as possible.
It seemed like a very out of character game for Planet Moon to take. Why take it -- and what do you feel Planet Moon gave to the project?
AL: One major factor in the decision was age -- namely, that we’re not getting any younger. Most of the people at Planet Moon have kids now, and making a game for the whole family sounded really refreshing. And boy was it!
It is really rewarding to play a game you made with your 8-year-old child or with your 70-year-old parents. One of the great things about the Wii is that, as a platform, it’s an ambassador to people who don’t usually play games. With Smarty Pants, we enjoyed tapping into that potential.
I think we brought a lot of ingenuity and know-how to the title. The co-op trivia mode is unique and a great bit of design. The way the game incorporates a layered approach to its design - you can ignore many of the features if you want the most basic trivia experience, or embrace them and add complexity if you’re a more core gamer -- was clever and definitely takes the game beyond simple.
We made the game on time for the holidays despite significant data challenges of a trivia game that adjusts its questions based on your age and performance. There’s quite a complex little data model under the hood on Smarty Pants.
Do you see Planet Moon returning to the very "out there" story led games you began your existence with -- like Giants?
AL: Oh, my, yes. Very soon now, all will be revealed. (And before this starts any rumors, I’m not referring to a sequel to Giants.)