Interview: Microsoft's Woosley On What It Takes To Be Published On XBLA
[Xbox Live Arcade first-party director of publishing Ted Woosley tells Gamasutra that would-be XBLA devs need to have an individuated game concept, have passion, and must "practice the pitch" to get on XBLA.
Ted Woolsey has had an interesting history in games. He began as a localizer of Square Enix games (then Square), working on titles like Final Fantasy II
in Japan), Final Fantasy VI
, and Chrono Trigger
He then joined Big Rain, executive producing Shadow Madness
which followed in the JRPG vein. When Big Rain (later called Craveyard) shut down, he joined up with Real Networks, though the company's RealArcade division, which was responsible for a number of casual titles.
Nowadays, as director of first party publishing for XBLA, Woolsey has a line in on what Microsoft is doing with indie game developers, publishing on downloadable platforms, and the organization in general. What does it take to get published by Microsoft first party? What's going on with Kinect integration into Live Arcade? We discussed this and more with Woolsey during a sit-down interview.
What would you recommend to developers that are hoping to get published by your group? What do you wish that they would know before coming in and screwing up?
[laughs] Well, first of all we're optimistic; we assume that they're not going to screw up, and most of them don't. The main thing really is to be prepared, to have a game concept that's individuated, that's exciting, that's not like something currently on the platform. To have passion for it, to have some supporting materials, some graphical targets in where they want to take the art. The more we can see and not have to guess, the better in some ways.
But we definitely green light everything from just a paper based concept through to games that are nearly complete. So we're open to really anything. Practice the pitch, too, just make sure that you as a developer get all the great ideas you have out and make sure that they're understandable. You'd be surprised how people just kind of gloss over things or don't get to some really important parts of their pitch. So I think a lot of it's just make sure that you're prepared.
How big of a difference does it make for you at Microsoft if the game is mostly self-funded versus asking for your money? How does that change the relationship?
There are business terms that change but really the production side doesn't change much. I mean we're not really a pass/fail publisher; we like to spend time working with our partners. In either case there's a dedicated producer, a dedicated test lead, and we do our best to work to bring the best of the game out with the developer. So the business terms are just one of the variables there, but ultimately it's all about the game, so that's really what we focus on.
How do you manage how many games come out at one time? I mean obviously you want to get as much content out as possible without drowning out new releases, and you have these marketing-driven Summer of Arcade and things that push certain games in a group.
Yeah, in a given time we have around 50 games in development and ship about 30 a year, including games on Windows 7 for example as well. We certainly try to line up well in advance the games we think will be suitable for the right promotion.
It's not just Summer of Arcade, we also have House Party; it used to be Block Party. And we also have other custom promotions that we run throughout the year. We did one in the holiday right around November last year. So we certainly want to extend the cycle of releases and to evolve promotions, and we're working on that; it's not just Summer of Arcade and everybody has to get in there.
But the other thing, too, is making sure we work with our partners. Essentially, customers want to know from the developer what's hot about the game; they want to hear from the developer, see the passion and... Certainly they'll listen to us as well, but we're trying to work more closely to make sure developers are communicative - that they're out blogging, they're talking about their games. They do the best job talking about them because they've engendered them.
We know that's really important now, and I think in past years - as you well know - a lot of games just shipped and there was kind of this whisper release because there wasn't much done in terms of communication either way. So we're really working to make sure that developers are empowered to talk about their games. And we're trying to line up the best games for the right release periods, and so I think we're doing a better job at that.
But with that much content and with the fact that for the third party publishing titles we have no visibility into that, there's a Chinese wall that separates our business from the third party publishing stuff. We don't really know what's coming, but we just do our best to make sure we don't run into conflicts. We use the Live programming team who does all the decision making there to help us kind of block and tackle.
It's kind of weird to have two groups putting stuff in the same space and not really being able to coordinate.
I felt like that before, but I also understand it because if we had visibility into the lineup of, you know, Square-Enix and EA and all these different companies...there's sort of an unfair advantage, too, so... It kind of keeps everybody on an even playing field, like there's definitely some value there. It's a hard thing to juggle, to know that there's a tremendous library of great content coming that we have almost no visibility into other than what comes out for you guys.
You've got a line to developers right now through this interview - anything else you'd like to tell them?
We really welcome more ideas from developers. We're very open to concepts that haven't shipped before, and we want to keep the door open. We know there's definitely more competition out there now for the better games but... We're looking at different business models and certainly haven't announced anything yet, but we're aware of what's going on out in the greater games community. And you know, we look forward to pushing out a little bit further than we have to date. The Exocet missiles where you fire and forget have been a great business for us, but we're interesting in some other games that may be more service-based down the road.
There really hasn't been Kinect integration with Arcade games before. Is that going to happen more going forward?
It is, and in fact [we've got] Fruit Ninja Kinect
. We've got several games in development, but that's the first one that folks were playing. So we're really excited, I mean we see some really brilliant stuff coming out. Our stuff is more geared toward the core players; it's a little edgier. And so we got started a little bit later than the retail folks, but you will see several titles coming this fall.
The Xbox 360 dash has been changed slightly - how much do you see it being shuffled around again?
They're iterating on that, yeah. What you'll see now when you go to games is you'll see a Games On Demand product...you'll see an Xbox Live title and a Kinect title. So they're still thinking about how to position games, how to market them. And soon you'll see Arcade on one, you'll see Kinect on another, but I don't believe that's at all really stopping; there's definitely a whole plan for making it easier to shop and find content.
I definitely am still, after years of owning the system and purchasing things on it, getting confused about where to buy things.
We're aware of that, and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised with the next major dash.
Do you want to talk about the Super Meat Boy situation at all? [Where Team Meat felt slighted by Microsoft.] Or have any kind of response to it?
Not to use corporate speak or something, but we enjoyed the experience of working with those guys. We saw the brilliance in the game, we were happy we'd signed the game and shipped it on our console first. It's unfortunate that they feel like they weren't well taken care of, but bottom line is I just think that we did the best we could.
And they're a smart team - Team Meat's got big chops - and we're just looking forward to see where they go and wish them the best. It's hard making a game - we all know that - and it's hard coordinating efforts to get a game to ship on time on a platform et cetera, and I think they did a commendable job. And anyway, we'll see where they go. I think they'll go into some interesting spaces here for the next products.
I know you are all trying to push a cross platform strategy with XBLA and Windows Phone 7, things like that. Is there more that's happening there?
Definitely. The team that we're in now, the connected experiences team, really is charged with looking at that and doing a lot of experiments. There have already been some games that ship with some limited connectivity. For example, Full House Poker
is on the phone, and it's on the Xbox as well, and when you play on your phone, basically the winnings will go up to the platform. And when you go boot up your Xbox you'll find your chips up there.
It's kind of early days but definitely, personally I want to see a lot more of that new dynamic relationship between what you're doing on the phone - which you could play 15, 20 or 30 minutes - but also have that kind of playing into your living room experience. I want to see value for the time I spent training a character or doing something, I want to see that at home so I can kind of go and get the ground running in order to either replay an area or get any benefit there. So there's definitely an effort underway right now to experiment some more with those connections with what they should be, and again, early days.