Microsoft first-party studio Carbonated Games
was officially founded just over a year ago, though the team had been working together for some time before that as part of the MSN Games Group, where they had developed puzzle game Hexic
and its Xbox 360 version, Hexic HD
More recently, the company developed the highly successful Xbox Live Arcade title UNO!
, as well as its Windows and MSN Messenger counterparts. Additionally, the company is working on an updated version of the game for later this year that will take advantage of Microsoft’s cross-platform Live functionality.
The company’s latest project, Aegis Wing
was developed alongside three Microsoft interns at the end of last year, and will launch for free today, though its download is restricted to North American Live users only.
Gamasutra spoke to Joshua Howard, head of production for Carbonated Games about the company’s position as a first-party developer, the MSN Messenger games market, and the Live Anywhere push.
When was Carbonated Games founded?
We have formally been a studio called Carbonated Games for a little over a year, but our group has been working together for about the last three years. We grew out of the MSN Games group. Over time we went from building just games for MSN Games to building games for Windows Live Messenger and Xbox Live Arcade, at which point we started thinking of ourselves as Carbonated Games.
What were your first projects?
Some of our earlier projects included Hexic
, a puzzle game by [Tetris
creator] Alexey Pajitnov, a computer version of Settlers of Catan
for download and for play on MSN Games, and the very first games for Windows Live Messenger including a two player Minesweeper game, which to this day is one of the most popular games in Windows Live Messenger.
How did you get involved with Alexey Pajitnov?
Alexey had been working at Microsoft for some time, in a variety of groups. After finishing a set of larger projects Alexey joined the then MSN Games group, specifically to develop original puzzle games for the download and “try before you buy” business model that was really taking off at the time. Hexic
and Mozaki Blocks
were the two products we did with Alexey during this timeframe. We still stay in touch with Alexey, and continue to discuss what our next joint project may be.
Does being a first party developer - especially in regards to your work with Windows Live Messenger games - mean less pressure for sales?
Being a first-party developer means that we have several competing goals, and don’t have the luxury of focusing only on sales. While we are driven to be a successful business for Microsoft, returning on the investment made, we measure that return on investment in more than just sales. We are often asked to deLiver against strategic goals – the early games for Windows Live Messenger were an example of this. We were asked to help kick start the games section for this initiative; before you can have certainty around any revenue stream someone needs to give it a try.
By building games into Windows Live Messenger we were able to prove that there is an appetite for games on that platform – at the time this was not a given. We did have revenue goals for the games in Messenger, but we also had usage goals, knowing that usage drives the revenue stream. From the early investments we learned what our users wanted, and have continued to partner with the Windows Live Messenger team to deliver new games (like UNO!
, two of our recent releases.
Other strategic investments we get asked to make include working with a platform technology early in its development to help ensure that when we deliver that technology to developers it’s really ready for use. We also get asked to try new business models. Often times, we get asked to build products that target a specific customer demographic so that some other revenue stream can benefit.
What were your goals with Hexic HD, considering that it's pre-packaged with Premium 360s?
Our goal was to deliver a great pack-in, knowing that it would be for many people their first game experience with the Xbox 360. We thought it was important to deLiver an approachable and solid game that everyone could play, from the hardcore Xbox 360 user to the more casual user. Hexic
was also a great way to show people the power of the Xbox 360 services, like leader boards and achievements, so we wanted to really capture how leader boards and achievements could improve a customer’s experience with a game.
Also, while it was not something we really expected, it turns out Hexic
was the very first game to go through the various quality control processes that every Xbox 360 title needs to go through; having Hexic
in the pipeline helped those teams to tighten up their processes for the benefit of every Xbox 360 developer.
Do you find that you approach a game for Xbox Live Arcade differently to the way you would approach a Windows Live Messenger game?
In some ways, yes. We always think very intentionally about how to use what a given platform can do very well to its utmost advantage, and XBLA has a whole different set of things it does well as compared to Windows Live Messenger. Important things come into play, like the controller, the lack of a keyboard, the possibility of voice and video. People deal with the Xbox 360s differently then they do their PC, and different experiences work in different settings. We at Carbonated Games feel lucky to be able to do games for both platforms.
What challenges exist in creating games for Messenger?
Windows Live Messenger has some great advantages – it’s a huge worldwide connected community that has a very diverse set of demographics. These very attributes lead to some of the challenges with building games for Windows Live Messenger. We need to build games that are much more universal in their world wide appeal; we need to build games that appeal to an even broader audience than that of the large gaming portals on the Web.
There are interesting cultural aspects of Windows Live Messenger as well; in some countries it’s seen as rude to send an IM to someone out of the blue, never mind to invite them to a game. Some countries use Windows Live Messenger as a social tool and in others it’s more of a business tool. Respecting all of our users is important, but not letting this result in our games being bland for everyone is a challenge.
From the actual development side, Windows Live Messenger is a dream to develop for. It’s nice that we as game developers get to focus our efforts on the experience, and not on working with a difficult platform. Making great platforms is something Microsoft knows well, and building games for Windows Live Messenger is no exception.
How accurate an idea do you have of the market for casual games on XBLA?
Many of those at Microsoft who were integral to starting XBLA, as well as Carbonated Games, had strongly held beliefs in the power of casual games. We believed the approachable accessible content that delivered “15 minutes of fun” while still being able to suck you in for hours would prove successful on as many portals as we could offer this kind of content. Even with this belief and enthusiasm I think it is safe to say that we were surprised at the voracity with which players took to XBLA; it started strong and has only been getting stronger.
Are the games that you create for MSN Games and Windows Live Messenger dictated by Microsoft, or do you pitch ideas to them?
As part of Microsoft the answer is really both. Sometimes we are asked to build a specific game to meet a specific business need. We were formed as a group in part to rebuild the classic card and board games that MSN Games has, so which games to build was defined for us in this effort. But there have also been times when Carbonated Games pitches a game to our management, either for its own purpose or to meet an existing business goal of one of our partners.
For example, 7 Hand Poker
- one of our games for Windows Live Messenger - was an original game we developed and pitched as a way to introduce a unique quick play offering, as contrasted with the bulk of the selection of games in Windows Live Messenger at the time, which were mostly classic games and a few licenses.
as a game we proposed to do across all of our platforms, in response to the desire to bring great well known IP to all of our audiences. As our products demonstrate success Carbonated Games is being asked to pitch more original ideas, something we are very excited about.
How did you get involved in developing the UNO! game?
The Xbox Live Arcade team was looking for a mass market IP game that could leverage a (then) soon to be released technology, the Vision Camera. They discussed the business need with us as well as with others, and we decided to pitch the idea of doing a version of UNO!
for XBLA that would ship with built in camera support.
After considering their alternatives the Xbox Live Arcade team agreed that our proposal hit on all of the right attributes, so we moved to put the project into production. We were comfortable pitching UNO!
because we had already been discussing with Mattel how we might partner with them to bring UNO!
to our audiences, and they were very supportive of our proposal to use UNO!
as a great broadening title for Xbox Live Arcade.
How did you approach the project?
We wanted to build UNO!
the social experience, not UNO!
the math game. UNO!
is a great game because it brings people of all ages together; just about everyone remembers playing UNO!
and enjoying it. We wanted to capture that memory – and by deLivering on what a player remembers, we hoped to get a more powerful experience then had we simply translated the core mechanic to a console. As simple as the game is we found that deLivering a similarly simple, and obvious, set of controls was challenging – we erred on ease of use and approachable. We knew that a game like UNO!
is played lots of different ways, and asked Mattel for the right to do various house rules – they loved the idea and were very supportive of it.
We knew from the beginning that we wanted to do theme decks, so we had to balance the default look of the game against the full breadth of theme deck customization we wanted to offer. As an example, we spent considerable time on the card flip used in the game. We were quickly able to get a good looking flip by animating each card on its own, but this would have meant theme decks would have been much more expensive to build. We ended up finding an algorithmic solution to the card flip that looked almost indistinguishable from the hand-animated version, but was considerably more flexible and less expensive in the long run. This kind of attention to detail that’s easy to understand is important, but knowing which details really benefit from that extra polish is much harder to truly understand.
How do the three versions differ at this time?
Ultimately there is much more in common then is different, as we built the game from the very beginning to be as portable as possible. We have always believed that doing versions across platforms would eventually happen.
How integral do you feel the integration of the Vision Camera is to the game on XBLA?
Vision was an important consideration of the game from the outset. UNO!
is a great social experience, and using the voice chat of Xbox Live greatly adds to the experience. But we wanted to take it even further by supporting the camera. As one of the very first Xbox Live Arcade titles to use the camera we were able to experiment with the best ways to use the camera in the game, and in the end developed a model of how to use the camera that several other titles have learned from.
Were you surprised by the sales of the game?
We were confident that UNO!
would be a strong seller, but even we were surprised at just how strong and how fast UNO!
sales were. This is the kind of wonderful surprise you want, to have a better selling title then you expected.
What challenges are you facing in the development of the Live version of the game?
The actual Live integration is easy – any developer who has done any amount of Live work for an Xbox or Xbox 360 title will feel very at home with the Live on Windows toolset. The challenges involved are typical PC issues, like ensuring the game works on wide enough variety of hardware - video cards, CPU speeds, etc. - something you don’t have to worry about when developing just an Xbox 360 title.
Do you think cross-platform casual games like UNO! have an easier task of bridging the two communities than titles like Shadowrun?
We believe that cross-platform gaming is something everyone can benefit from. By having both Shadowrun
we are able to show how to bridge the communities with two different kinds of games. We felt it was important to have both to really illustrate how cross-platform benefits a wide variety of players and games.
What kind of adoption rate are you assuming for Windows Live?
I’m not the best person for this kind of question. As Carbonated Games we have the luxury of focusing on building great games.
Will the cross platform version be a separate download for Xbox gamers who already own the game? That is, will they need to buy the game again?
No, Xbox Live Arcade titles are already built in with Live functionality. All you need to do is to download the Live-enabled casual title from the Web and then you’re ready to play head-to-head with anyone playing that game on Xbox Live Arcade.
What other titles are you working on, and will you be working on further cross platform titles?
Carbonated Games is definitely looking at the future with an eye towards developing cross-platform experiences, although I can’t comment on specific titles at this time. We are also discussing our success with UNO!
and our experience developing the Live version of the game with other developers who are looking at doing cross-platform development.