The XNA Creators' Club is being touted as a way for semi-pro and amateur developers to bring their designs to the masses via XNA Community Games, which launch alongside the New Xbox Experience today.
At its recent San Francisco XNA Community Games event
, however, it became clear that a lot of the developers who have created the most polished and ready-for-market games on the service actually do have professional backgrounds.
At the event, Gamasutra had a chance to speak with Nathan Fouts, founder and president of Mommy's Best Games (as well as its only full-time employee.) His game, Weapon of Choice
, is a neo-retro throwback that brings to mind classics like Contra
while embracing contemporary design choices.
Despite its hardest-of-hardcore looks and (nearly) one-man creation, it sprang not from the mind of an enthusiastic amateur, but a seasoned professional.
Though Fouts left Insomniac Games to found his own company, Insomniac CEO Ted Price, when recently asked, called him "an instrumental part of Resistance: Fall of Man
... one of the most creative programmers I've ever met."
What is it that drove Fouts to leave his job at one of the most successful independent developers in the country and strike out on his own, and why through XNA Community Games? The answers may surprise you.
Did you have any sort of professional background in development before you started this project?
Nathan Fouts: I've been in the industry for over a decade now -- I guess I'm getting old! I've worked at Running with Scissors, I've worked at N-Space, I've worked at Insomniac Games.
I actually designed and programmed the weapons on Resistance: Fall of Man
, the launch title. And I did the bosses on Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction
So you actually have extensive experience on high-budget, next-gen projects. You decided to give that up and make your own project?
NF: Yeah. It's kind of crazy. We were making good coin at Insomniac Games.
They still are, without you. (laughs)
NF: Oh, yeah. Everybody there. That place... it's a great place to work. Basically, though, we had a child -- I don't know if you guys are interested in this from a developer standpoint, but because we're getting older, a lot of people, a lot of the professionals I'm friends with have had kids.
We had a baby and we decided to move back to the Midwest to be closer to my parents, so they could be with their grandson. This wasn't going to work, working at a big place. So a couple of years ago I started to think about forming my own place. And we didn't know how, and we knew that we couldn't pull it off until the whole downloadable thing started, with the new systems, basically.
Once Live Arcade started moving, I thought, "Wow, if we can get our money together, this might be possible." When XNA came through, and when Community Games announced that you could make money through it, that's when I knew we could do it.
How many people did you have working on the title?
NF: Okay, that's extreme. But basically, I did original concept, design, art, programming, animation, sound effects, and then I had a really talented musician out of Tucson who did the music. I wrote the skeleton for the story, and then I had a science fiction writer friend write the story and the dialogue. So, basically, 95% of the game.
Wow. How long have you been in development?
NF: Like I said, we saved our money for a couple of years, and then I quit my job at Insomniac, and then I started full time in November last year. So it's almost been a year now.
I can imagine that's been like perpetual crunch.
NF: You know what's funny? Just, again, for the other developers' standpoint, working at home, it's been perpetual crunch that has been doable because I get these, like, mini-breaks.
You have dinner, there's your wife, your kid, and then you keep working. It's not as bad as a real place. I've done plenty of crunch before, and it drains your soul. But this hasn't been as bad. Anyway -- it's just different, working at home.
It's something, as you said, that people are facing. People want to start families. Everyone comes coastal to work in development. You don't really have a lot of choice in the matter.
NF: We didn't love Los Angeles, honestly. We lived there a couple of years. The only reason we were there was to work on games. There are a ton of places there. It's easy to move around. It isn't nice, but...
The interesting thing is, with the internet, it was possible to do our game in the boonies. We live out in the country, in Indiana, actually. And so it was actually possible to keep in touch with people, share files, and actually share the game itself, so that actually made it possible.
And your wife worked on it, too, right?
NF: Well, I did the development side, and she's like business, and producer -- well, quasi-producer. She does marketing, and helps with the press and that kind of stuff.
She's actually a fundraiser grant writer by trade, so she's really good at talking with people and working with them and everything. It's kind of like the Frank Zappa scenario. His wife managed him and did the marketing, and he did the music.
We actually have a couple of guys, very freelance, who helped me with the art, off and on. So I wouldn't mind expanding, but it's a really touchy kind of thing -- you have to be really careful about it.
I heard this story from Kathleen from Microsoft -- she said it's based on a concept that you had when you were 17, and then your wife found the designs, and it kind of grew from there. Can you tell me about that?
NF: Sure. I don't want this to turn into a... what's that Silicon Knights game?
NF: It's not a Too Human
NF: I've always been playing games, and as a kid, as a middle-schooler, I'd do game design. And then I would send in game designs to, like, Electronic Arts, and get refused. And then I'd send them to Tecmo, and Sega, and places like that.
Now, with my wife, we're actually living with my parents, and she was digging through these old boxes, and found my old drawings.
And the funny thing is, they look similar to the new stuff that I've been working on -- but the game design is totally different in this. It's just the fact that I was doing this old style...
Well, the game is very reminiscent of a 16-bit aesthetic. It was a semi-credible story.
NF: No, it's true. It's fine that they say that, but it's a conscious thing -- I wanted to make a new 16-bit kind of game, that looks better, that plays better, that's more fluid, but it plays like that.
In the game there are a lot of elements that make it more playable, nowadays. It's an instant-kill game, but there's an element called "death brushing." Everything slows down, and you have this brush with death. It can happen as often as it needs to, and it's infinite, and it makes it a lot more possible to not die. It's an old-style game with new influences.
It's such a small thing, but the title screen really looks like a TurboGrafx or Genesis game to me, aesthetically.
NF: Exactly! That was a conscious decision. Another comparison that Steve Wik, of Postal
, the game designer there -- he said, "I'd expect it to be on a marquee for an arcade machine from, like, '87." Yes!
I love that kind of art. I just love that you can see the pencil drawing in it, and you can just imagine the guy laboring over it, and I wanted to bring that through -- and I labored over it.
And the other thing is, and this isn't a negative on Resistance: Fall of Man
, but when you go from one thing to another, that game is, the color palette is really kind of... low-key.
NF: Okay, it's brown. It's Brown World. It just gets to you. Ratchet
was very full and colorful, but that did not cure me. From working on Resistance
, I was like, "Man, I want insane aliens, and I want crazy colors!" I've been seeing forum posts that have been saying it looks like an acid trip, and I've been like, "Thanks!" You know? Cool!
It reminds me a lot of 16-bit games, but more so. Based on what I've just seen.
NF: That's the idea. A lot of the weapons -- the other design idea behind the weapons is that each character has a weapon. It's his weapon of choice. But each character has a weapon, but when you play him, he's a life.
So when you play him, you're stuck with that guy. And even though you think you may not enjoy that weapon, you get to explore it more, and every weapon has a lot of depth to it. So it's easy to use at first, but then there's a lot more things you can do with it, and hopefully you'll grow to like all of the different weapons.
So it sounds like you've definitely put a lot of thought into how to evolve the design of a 16-bit game and make it compelling for a contemporary audience. I mean, we all have a lot of nostalgia for old games, but Mega Man 9 notwithstanding, it's a bit hard to approach them.
NF: And I'm playing Mega Man 9
! And it kicks my butt. And it's a wake up, man. When you start those old games -- I still play a lot of those old games -- but when you start them, they smack you in the face! And in this one I wanted it to be a little bit more of an ease-in.
Again, I studied all of those old games really carefully. This is a game where you restart from the beginning -- which not everybody's psyched about -- but you do restart it from the beginning, I wanted to make it interesting every time you play.
So say you only play 10 minutes, and you fail. Then, you restart from the beginning. But when you restart, there's a lot of different paths to take. And within the levels themselves, you can actually branch and go a whole different way, and the story changes.
So if you keep trying this one path, and it starts to get boring, you can say, "I'm going to try this other path," but as you go, you're also picking up new operatives, so you're picking up new people with new weapons.
So say that one path you didn't get too far in -- it was too tough for you. You manage to save a new guy, you restart the game, and you have four guys -- four extra lives -- and now you are able to get further down the path. And that's how we make it playable for everybody. We've focused a lot on that.
To talk about something a bit different -- you said that your original inspiration was that you thought you could go on a traditional download service -- you made it sound like you were going for Xbox Live Arcade, when you initially had this idea to do it yourself as an independent developer.
But you ended up moving into the Community Games space. That has the benefit that you don't have to wend your way through getting picked, and everything, but obviously you don't have the same level of support.
Can you talk about that decision-making process, and your expectations?
NF: It's a hard thing to talk about, but I'll just tell you, we got refused from Live Arcade. The initial game didn't look as good as this one.
Basically what happened -- and this is for everybody else who's thinking about it -- we went in, we pushed the game through to them, and they thought it was really interesting and fun.
But they thought the art style just wasn't enough, so we actually took that and spent a month and a half redoing just about every single thing in the game, and it was just horrible.
What I did, initially, was really static, and since then I've re-animated everything -- all the trees, all the grass, everything moves. I've had Xbox people say it's even stronger now, and because they want to bump up Community Games, they want to keep it on Community Games!
I'm cool with that, because I like Community Games. But it's been tough. I wanted it on Live Arcade -- or I thought I wanted it on there. But this whole thing's been a blessing too, so it's really come out great. And the [Dream Build Play] contest was pretty amazing, so I'm really excited about the whole thing.