[One-man studio Radiangames aims to release one game per month on the Xbox Live Indie Games channel. Gamasutra's Simon Parkin caught up with founder Luke Schneider to find out how the plan is working out.]
When Luke Schneider lost his job following the closure of Outrage Games in 2004, he was thrown into the deep end of independent development. Despite completing a Game Boy Advance game and almost finishing a port to Xbox, Schneider ran out of money before he was able to secure a publisher, and returned to mainstream studio development at Volition Inc.
But the indie dream did not died with this first failure, and earlier this year, Schneider struck out on his own again in order to set up Radiangames.
The story of a veteran developer leaving a high-profile studio either through choice or redundancy to pursue the indie dream is a familiar one in these days of self-publishing and digital distribution.
But unlike so many who flock to iPhone or the high profile platforms offered by PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade, Schneider has chosen to focus solely on Microsoft’s Xbox Live Indie Games channel, where the playing field between amateur and professional developments is level and the risks and rewards are that much higher for it.
“I narrowed my initial choice of platform to options that didn't require a publisher so I could focus on what I do best: making games, not selling them,” he explains. “I decided on Xbox Indie Games over other platforms, because most of the games I wanted to make were best suited to a console.”
Despite the fact that extremely low price-points for games, a high rate of releases and the near non-existent press attention make XBLIG one of the hardest markets to succeed in, Schneider has found a way to potentially make his business viable by aiming to release one game per month -- with three debuting so far, JoyJoy, Crossfire, and Inferno.
“I knew from following other XBLIG games that large projects were too risky,” he says. “And I like small projects, so it seemed to just fall into place that I should do a series of games like Halfbrick and Arkedo had done.”
Taking a game from conception to release in just four weeks is a tall order for even the most experienced developer. Schneider explains how he does it: “I've always been very efficient and productive, so creating the games quickly isn't much of an issue. Some things that help include trying hard to keep the scope of my games under control, using tools and processes that I know, and employing a simple but effective art style that doesn't require a lot of asset creation time.
“With most games I don't prototype too much,” he says, “as I usually have a good idea of what I want the game to be when I start. But I change direction a lot through the course of a project as I see how things work and get playtest feedback. I'm not afraid to make major changes at any time, so long as it is the right thing to do. I've even stopped working on a game after a week because I didn't feel like it was going well.”
The response to Schneider’s project has been positive, albeit from the relatively small group of critics and gamers aware of his work. “The small group of press that covers XBLIG specifically has been very supportive,” he says, “but still not afraid to provide critical feedback on areas that my games are lacking.”
Schneider has fast learned the importance of listening to feedback and responding when dealing with micro-projects. In particular, gauging an appropriate price point for his games has been a challenge. “Crossfire has received the majority of the negative response so far,” he says.
“Aside from the difficulty curve being too steep (starts too easy, ends too hard), the major complaint was the price, which is 240 MS Points ($3). It's a little sad that $3 is too much for a XBLIG for a lot of people, but if my games get played by a lot more people and make more money at $1, then I can't really complain.”
Schneider, unlike many developers, is open about his sales performance: “It appears this whole gamble will pay off,” he says, “but only once I get a couple more games out. September will hopefully be the first month I actually cover my living costs from sales of my games. Because of Crossfire's failure at $3 and JoyJoy and Inferno's success at $1, all my future XBLIG projects will be $1.”
Schneider reports that JoyJoy has sold more than 6,000 copies over 4 months; Inferno has passed 2,500 sales after just more than a week; and Crossfire has yet to sell 1,500 after 2 months. "Even though those Crossfire sales are at $3, the current sales rate is very low compared to the other two games,” he says.
The importance of securing the correct price point on launch is exacerbated by Microsoft’s strict price-changing policy on the XBLIG service. “The first day I could drop Crossfire's price to $1 is October 5th,” says Schneider. “I'm not sure that'll be the exact day, but I'll definitely be finding out how a price drop affects sales in early October.”
As well as learning the dark art of price points, I ask Schneider what else he has learned a lot through the Radiangames venture thus far. “The first big thing I learned was that it can be very stressful to launch games on your own," he says. "When JoyJoy launched, I was constantly checking the user rating, re-reading reviews and buzz on the web, staring at sales numbers, and looking for anything else I could find about the game."
"I literally couldn't sleep the first night after it released. Secondly, I learned was that real success on XBLIG is determined by the long-term, not the short-term, so I was quite a bit calmer when Inferno released compared to JoyJoy. I continually re-evaluate what I've learned about how to be successful and make fun games during this process, so every game is a learning process.”
Even though success appears to be on the horizon for Schneider, it has been hard won. I wonder whether he has any regrets? “I think the long-term strategy of building up a brand name through quality releases works, but I wouldn't recommend XBLIG as a platform of choice due to the combination of the relatively small audience it reaches, the huge number of games released (about 20 a week), and the low price points required. What I'm doing really only works if you're really productive and very small, and even then it's still a challenge.”
“Probably the most common question I get is whether I'll be bringing my games to a different platform (iPhone/Android, PSN, or PC)," he says. “I do look into other platforms and development tools on occasion, but I'm sticking with XBLIG for at least a few more games because it appears that the Radiangames brand is gaining some positive momentum. Not only that, but I like doing fast projects, and I'm faster with XNA than anything else at the moment.”
Even so, it’s been difficult to ignore the lure of the big-time publishers. “Earlier this summer, I spent a bit of time entering competitions and trying to get a publisher for an upcoming project,” he admits, “but in the end all that did was take time away from the games I was working on, so now I'm just making the best games I can and sticking with my original plan. I'm not opposed to a publishing deal or working on other platforms, but it's not something I'm actively pursuing.
Now that Schneider is fully-focused on what he is doing and the way in which he’s hoping to achieve it, I ask him on what basis he will gauge the venture a success or a failure. “If I run out of money and have to get a real job next year, it will be a failure,” he replies. “If I start making a little money and get to continue making the games I want, then I succeeded. That's the simplistic view, but the one that I care about at the moment."
"It's not all about making money, because if it was I would have stayed at Volition or looked for a new job; a senior technical designer with a dozen years of experience pays pretty well," he continues. When I hit the point where I don't have to live in fear of running out of money and still get to make the games I want, life will be really, really good.”