New Zealand's largest game development house, Sidhe, spent most of the last decade producing licensed titles for Windows and various consoles.
However, many key Sidhe titles, like Rugby League 2, are probably more familiar in its home territory than with American audiences. Newer work, like Speed Racer a PlayStation 2 and Wii movie game based on the 2008 movie of the same name however has reached a global audience and brought Sidhe more visibility.
Its first internally developed original property, the puzzle-racing hybrid GripShift, first appeared on Sony's PlayStation Portable in 2005, migrated to the PlayStation 3 as one of the first PlayStation Network games in early 2007, and finally arrived on Microsoft's Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade in 2008.
Now Sidhe pronounced like she or shay is back on the PlayStation 3 with its second original title: Shatter [YouTube link]. Building on the foundation laid by Breakout-style games like Taito's Arkanoid, Sidhe has given the player various powerups, control over the number of balls in play, and a paddle which can suck and blow to alter the trajectory of balls and bricks on the field.
Shatter has attracted a lot of attention online, including a featured PlayStation Eye interview on the Sony's U.S. PlayStation Blog, and has reviewed well among the enthusiast press. (As of this writing Shatter has an average score of 87 on Metacritic, with reviews from IGN, GameSpot, and GiantBomb.)
Below we talk with Sidhe's Managing Director, Mario Wynands, about sales of Shatter in the first week after release, the experience of bringing a new game to life on the PlayStation 3, the benefits of a simultaneous global launch, pricing strategies and much more.
GripShift was Sidhe's first original IP, and now Shatter is the second. You said in a recent interview that the current work-for-hire environment is "very, very value-dollar conscious". Does Sidhe's work-for-hire experience define how you approach the development of an original IP, knowing where to spend and where to trim?
Our history has definitely made us very dollar conscious and we carry on that sensibility today. We started the company with only a few thousand dollars between us. We couldn't even get a $1,500 credit facility from our bank at the time.
Every dollar counted then, and every dollar counts now, whether we are working on a work-for-hire project or our own IP. When margins are tight and publishers are trying to squeeze you, you can't afford to waste anything. It makes sense to apply that same discipline to your own products.
In order to take this approach, over the years we have created strong pre-production and production processes, built flexible and reusable multiplatform technology, developed strong QA, automated tasks, and run production with a philosophy of doing things right the first time and "getting to the fun" early.
That long term investment has really paid off in allowing us to deliver quality in a time when budgets are under massive pressure.
You've engaged in several forms of outreach to publicize Shatter: a video interview on Sony's U.S. PlayStation Blog, forum engagement at sites like NeoGAF, and getting the game into hands of big online media reviewers at sites like IGN, 1UP, and others. Which of these forms of publicity do you think have been most effective?
I don't think any single channel is effective on its own. There are so many games on offer, that you really need to engage consumers on multiple levels to stand out.
Previews and big review sites build awareness, developer interviews build insight, participating in forums like NeoGAF builds credibility and trust.
With all the noise out there, I think to be truly successful in accessing the consumer you need to a comprehensive approach and the effort needs to be ongoing.
In particular, does Sony's U.S. PlayStation Blog help energize the base of likely consumers? Was there a difference in response from European PS3 owners given the lack of publicity on Sony's EU PlayStation Blog?
The developer interview with the US PlayStation Blog was one of the first major opportunities for us to talk openly about the game. It was a great format, and being able to respond to questions and feedback directly on the Blog really helped add to the interview itself.
We probably didn't leverage either the US or European PlayStation Blogs enough, certainly not as much as what was on offer by Sony. But we feel like what we did do was very useful to the overall publicity effort.
How much do you think your prior relationship with Sony factored into the help they provided you? Is it your impression that other developers, especially those doing their first PSN release, are getting similar attention?
I believe we have a good reputation within Sony, but I have no reason to believe other developers aren't being given the same opportunities.
I think the key issue other first developers might face with respect to promotion is that they tend to be smaller and don't have the manpower to devote to promotional activity. That unfortunately means they may not have the ability to take advantage of all the opportunities on offer.
Launching in Europe and the U.S. simultaneously was probably a challenge. What can you share with us about coordinating a launch that size? Where could the system be streamlined to make it easier for smaller developers to get their wares online?
We actually went out of our way to have a simultaneous release by delaying one of the SKUs to line up with the other territory, on the assumption that a simultaneous release creates more online buzz.
Overall, the process was possibly even slightly easier by giving us a little more time to line up some coverage and only having to work towards a single date.
There isn't really much that could be done to make the process easier given Sony is already taking the initiative to more closely align SCEA and SCEE. The only thing that stands out are the differences between the US and European PSN Stores which impacts the format and delivery of assets.
Shatter has equal-value pricing across the various territories. Was that your choice or is there a policy in place which guides pricing? Some publishers have used prices of different value in different territories. What's the advantage there?
Being based in New Zealand, we have long been exposed to the price disparity between videogame products in North America versus the PAL territories. Our approach is to view the digital space as a single market made up of many different demographics, so we chose to maintain the same pricing across all territories.
We probably could have jacked up the price for the PAL territories and would have gotten away with it. Many publishers take advantage of disparate pricing and milk the customers a little more.
We hope that the good will and larger initial sales generated through price parity will pay off for us in the long term.
$7.99 isn't terribly common on the PlayStation Store. How did you arrive at that particular price for Shatter? Were you trying to split the $5/$10 gap to position your game as a superior value without projecting a cheap game image?
The price point was definitely a combination trying to beat the $10 standard while at the same time trying to avoid being thought of as a "budget" download title. Just like with GripShift, we believe we have delivered good value for money at that price point and consumers seem to be responding favorably.
GripShift started out on the PSP, moved to PSN, and then to XBLA. You've suggested Shatter will also go multiplatform. How did it end up on the PlayStation 3 first? Was there any negotiating for exclusivity? Other than iPhone and XBLA, what other platforms do you intend to target? WiiWare? DSiWare? PC and Steam?
We have always had a very platform agnostic approach, but have moved quickly when opportunity arises. Shatter is not exclusive to PSN, but Sony is offering the combination of good royalties, strong technology, and a well defined process for getting content to market. PSN was an ideal first landing place for Shatter.
We haven't ruled out any other platforms at this stage.
However you did create Shatter using Sony's PhyreEngine. Doesn't that choice suggest that Windows and Xbox 360 are quite likely, given the engine's Direct3D renderer? And, for example, iPhone would be less likely?
Our tools and technology are very cross platform, and we have also ported PhyreEngine to the 360 which we used for GripShift XBLA. We already have working builds of Shatter on PC and XBLA but are reviewing the situation to see whether it makes sense to continue investing in those versions to bring them to completion and release them.
So far, it is looking likely we will bring the game to other platforms.
Publisher bandwidth fees on PSN became public earlier this year. How significant are those fees in the figuring of your publisher margins on a game like Shatter?
The cost of bandwidth is minimal in relation to margins, especially for a relatively low download footprint game like Shatter.
What were the key reasons for opting to launch without a demo? Did bandwidth fees figure into it? (Demos are required for every game on XBLA.) What's your philosophy on demos in general? How does a demo figure into your business plan?
The development team for the most part was only 4 to 5 people in size for most of the project including post production. We decided to focus on the actual launch of the full product to get the game out there and start earning revenue. We will be making a demo available down the line for those gamers on the fence.
Does that timing have to do with PSN bandwidth fees, the shape of the sales curve, or some other combination of factors?
As above, limited available resource is the key factor.
Online distribution services like the PlayStation Store and Steam periodically have price breaks on older games.Does your business plan for Shatter involve periodic price breaks to keep the game in front of consumers?
We have long term plans about how we can keep both Shatter and other games in our portfolio relevant from different kinds of promotions to adding functionality and content. Discounting is an option, but it is far too early in the product's lifecycle to be talking about that.
How has Shatter sold so far? How have the sales broken down across the territories where it launched?
We have sold around 30k copies to date, which is split 60/40 between North America and Europe/Australasia.
How does it compare to your expectations?
Those are pretty solid figures for just over a week and in line with our expectations. The game itself was put together by a relatively small team, so we are well on the way to recouping our dev cost, and are very happy with the performance so far.
Sony allows game-sharing for some games on the PlayStation 3. It is allowed with Shatter, but disallowed for some games like Warhawk. Did you have to make a choice about allowing sharing or not?
Gamesharing has the dual purpose of both supporting installation on multiple machines by consumers and sharing with friends or strangers. Not allowing game sharing would probably incur a backlash from consumers because it is expected functionality.
Given the sales figures compared with leaderboard entries, how large is the relative effect of game-sharing?
We are yet to line up leaderboard entries with time stamped sales data, so we haven't been able to get a close read on that yet.
Based on the figures I do have, it is looking somewhere around 5 to 10%, though that could be out by a wide margin given the timing of the data points isn't lined up well. We'll gain much better insight in about a months time when sales have stabilised.
You've worked on the PSP before, with GripShift, and you have an interest in working on the iPhone. With the PSP Go out in October and Sony making a push to put as much software for it online as possible, what's your view on the PSP's future? How much does eliminating the used-game market and piracy help strengthen the platform for developers?
I think the PSP market was unfortunately heavily damaged by piracy. We released GripShift just when the PSP firmware was cracked so were looking closely at the uptake of piracy which was immediate and large.
It didn't help that hackers swiftly and continuously added functionality beyond the capabilities of the official firmware such as unlocking the CPU which incented PSP consumers to try out hacked firmwares and exposed them to temptation.
Sony has a real challenge bringing the PSP back from this position but has made significant progress in making an out of the box PSP an appealing, feature rich device. Providing a digital distribution option is also a good move, but it remains to be seen how successful this will be in the face of equally convenient downloadable pirated software.
Seeing the PSP Go perform well and success of the PSN PSP Store would certainly make us take another look at the PSP as a possible key destination for our products.