Mike Henry and Sean Riley from Austin-based indie Twisted Pixel used their Independent Games Summit talk to postmortem the six-month XBLA project 'Splosion Man, a significant indie success in the 'Summer Of Arcade' for Microsoft's Xbox 360.
The game was made in just half a year with 8 full time and 4 part-time people. But it already seems to have already been a significant sales and positive critical success, with more than 150,000 XBLA Leaderboard entries in just a few weeks since launch.
Iteration was key in making 'Splosion Man work, the duo noted. In particular, having the guts to regularly check and remove entire levels or gameplay elements helped to "focus our concentration on other things."
"Ugly and quick" prototyping was also incredibly important. In fact, they said that "the game looked really terrible" until the last couple of months of the project. This means they could get the gameplay working, and then concentrate on getting the final art in place.
In terms of focus, the team decided on one simple 'focus point' for the entire project - "polish". So they added another month before alpha, shaved down multiplayer, and set harsh internal milestones separate of the publisher milestones.
So there were significant cuts, including reduction in level amounts and cutting of special power meters and other gameplay mechanics. But judicious cutting meant the title got polished to be fun and shipped on time.
The duo then talked some 'sage wisdom' they learned during 'Splosion Man, focusing on giving individuals total control over certain larger game elements -- such as jump mechanics, for example. This helps the stopping of micro-scheduling for tiny tasks, which ultimately takes more time than it is worth.
A 'Splosion Man first prototype helped iron out many of the early issues and got the team to focus in on the core mechanics. However, there was still major crunch on the game, especially due to its short development time. The duo noted: "Towards the end of the project, 90 hour weeks were the norm", and this "can burn out the team, no matter how excited they are about it." They warned: "Take [some time off] and let your family know you exist."
As for what went wrong, one notable issue with the game was that Twisted Pixel retrofitted networking into the game for multiplayer. This was an imperfect implementation, and the company is working an Xbox Live Arcade patch for it right now.
Although they brought a networking expert in, there were major tech problems that are still being worked out even now with the game's multiplayer modes. Also, adding post-alpha or even post-beta feature additions was dangerous from a testing point of view.
The team did say it was upset that it wanted to add a lot of more complex level geometry, a more complex tutorial, and more elaborate Rube Goldberg-style death cinemas for the scientists -- and suffered from barebones boss functionality. But they warned: "Every cut hurts the game in your mind". But if in the end, the consumer didn't know about it in the first place, "it's not such a big deal", as long as what you have is polished.
In Q&A at the end of the session, it was asked why the team crammed 'Splosion Man into 6 months? This was specifically done to try to make Xbox Live Arcade's Summer Of Arcade promotion, historically "the time of year when Microsoft puts the most marketing into its XBLA games".
But being in what the duo called the summer "doldrums" -- before the big Xmas Xbox 360 retail titles come out -- definitely seems to have helped 'Splosion Man's XBLA success.