Settled in inspiring Quebec City, Sarbakan is a fast-growing game developer with over 600 games under its belt. After 10 years of white label servicing and online gaming, leaping into console gaming was as thrilling as it was scary. Sure, we had 10 years of experience in game and IP development, but that experience was generally limited to broad audience, casual online games.
We had but one DS title under our belt, and a budget one at that. What we were doing can only be described as diving into uncharted territory with nothing but a dream. We were working with a new engine (3DVIA's Virtools), a new IP, and a new platform. We knew there would be production delays, that the risk level was high, and that the flow of the project would be hard to predict. Nonetheless, we saw this game as an opportunity to make a statement to the industry: to prove that we could make a high-quality product.
The process of pitching the game to publishers was slow and laborious, but we finally found one -- only to lose it halfway through the project.
When this happened, instead of crying over spilled milk, we rolled up our sleeves and decided to publish ourselves in partnership with Microsoft. With Microsoft's help and expertise, Lazy Raiders (then still called by its original title, Dig it Up) took on a new twist.
What Went Right
1. The Pitch
For an independent developer, the pitch process is probably the most important. In 12 years, we forged strong partnerships with major web publishers, but none that were directly involved with console publishing.
Our first DS game, Wordmaster, was actually an advanced prototype that was closer to a Gold Candidate, and we sold it as-is a few weeks after presenting it to a publisher. This led to signing more deals in the same year, deals that would pave our way into the console market. Our modest DS experience served to prove that we could indeed deliver quality products within allotted deadlines.
This game gave us the confidence to pitch Lazy Raiders [YouTube trailer] at a major game convention in 2008. At that time, we hadn't decided on a platform, so it could easily have been for DS, Wii, XBLA, or cross-platform.
And if there's one thing we learned from our internal pitch process, it's that words and images don't speak loud enough to explain a concept like Lazy Raiders. That's why we built a playable prototype. On paper, Lazy Raiders looked interesting, but hard to grasp. With the prototype, people went "Ooh! Now I get it!"
The prototype included three complete mazes and some core mechanics, and the visuals were advanced enough to give a good overall idea of what we were shooting for. Before booking meetings with a couple of publishers, our sales and marketing team mastered the prototype and were thoroughly briefed on the whole game concept.
The publishers' reaction to the prototype was exceptional, and even generated a small buzz around the game at the Casual Connect. When we left, we had netted a publisher, we were keeping the rights to the IP, and Lazy Raiders was headed for WiiWare and XBLA.
2. Working With Microsoft?
Lazy Raiders was our first experience with Microsoft, and I must say it was a surprisingly pleasant and educative experience. Our wonderful producer at Microsoft, Scott, provided us with support and counsel.
He pushed us to make the best product possible for their customers, and we asked for more, spurred on by his counsel and encouragement. Scott understands XBLA's audience, both in general and in specific, and helped us hit the bull's-eye with Lazy Raiders' target audience.
Microsoft also provided us with all the tools we needed to facilitate the production process, from live meetings to localization and test support. We even got our first usability test for free! That's not even counting the live training we got for services to which we were new, namely the Avatar Awards and Live Party. All in all, working with Microsoft is pretty sweet, and we'd do it again in a flash.
3. Gameplay Experience
Don't you hate it when you play a game and there's so much stuff on-screen that you have no idea what's going on? I know I do. When we finally decided to focus on providing the players with a memorable gameplay experience, the first thing that came up was "we gotta clean things up."
In a game like Lazy Raiders, visibility is vital. When the whole maze spins and flips, you have to be able to keep track of where the boulders and dynamite crates are going, which way the walls and rotating rooms are sliding, whether the fire traps are active or not, and, most importantly, where Doctor Diggabone, the Thieves and the Minions are. So we set to make the backgrounds as sober and unobtrusive as possible while maintaining their visual appeal.
We also subdued the music in favor of sound effects. All this voluntary toning down really served to put the focus on the actual maze and enhance the gameplay.