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GDC: Ninjabee's Top 10 Development Lessons

GDC: Ninjabee's Top 10 Development Lessons

March 10, 2010 | By Christian Nutt

March 10, 2010 | By Christian Nutt
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More: Console/PC, GDC

Ninjabee's art director Brent Fox shared a top ten list of development lessons learned from releasing games on Xbox Live Arcade and other platforms, offering useful advice for other indie developers during his lecture at GDC's Independent Games Summit in San Francisco.

Based in Orem, Utah, NinjaBee is best known for creating A Kingdom for Keflings, a kingdom-building title that allowed players to drop their Xbox 360 Avatars into the game as playable characters, the first game to use that feature on the platform.

The indie studio has released a number of other downloadable titles on XBLA but has also shipped games for iPhone, Wii, and PC. Its upcoming XBLA games include Ancients of Ooga and a A World of Keflings, the latter of which is a sequel to A Kingdom for Keflings.

10. DLC Doesn't Make Any Money

Though this seemed to bear out NinjaBee's experiences, this wasn't the most convincing part of his talk -- perhaps this is why it was number 10 on Fox's list. "We love DLC. We've supported our games with tons of DLC and we think it's great, and fun to make, and offers a lot to the customer... But we found it hasn't been that profitable."

The company's first XBLA game was Outpost Kaloki of which Fox says, "our two major pieces of DLC that were paid turned out to have an attach rate of 18 percent." What benefit it did have was that "it did have a little bit of a bump in our original game sales, but it didn't turn out to justify the cost of the DLC."

Talking about the company's next game, Band of Bugs, the art director described it as "one of our least successful games... We're really proud of it and think it's great, but for some reason it did not sell. We heavily supported DLC on this... We have tons of content, deep content..." Despite this game's DLC selling among the best the company has ever seen in terms of attach rate, says Fox, "when the base sales are as great, it turns out to not be that profitable."

This means that he's pretty sure "it depends on the popularity of your base title."

The company's most popular XBLA game, A Kingdom for Keflings, has a DLC attach rate 6 to 7 percent, says Fox, "but because our numbers were so big, it turned out to be much closer to profitable numbers." These numbers would be comparable to a 30 to 70 percent attach rate on prior projects. The original game also tripled in sales and landed back in the top 10 when the DLC was released.

However, in the later question and answer session, someone mentioned that they had played Kaloki and didn't buy the DLC because they couldn't beat the game -- it was too hard. Fox did not have data on game completion and how that relates to DLC popularity.

9. MS Avatars Get Attention, But They Don't Sell Games

Though with this point Fox is referring specifically to Keflings, as it was hugely hyped for being a very early game to support avatars, "I think you can extend this into any gimmick that goes along with your game," says Fox. Though people say "you guys stuck avatars in there so of course it'll sell well," being early with avatars merely drove people to check out the game. "Despite that fact, they're not going to plunk down their money unless they enjoyed the game." 

To help boost sales of the unpopular Band of Bugs, NinjaBee added avatars and updated the title. This did improve sales "but nowhere near worth the effort," says Fox, that it took to implement them.

8. Build Relationships with Platform Holders

When it comes to working with the platform holders, says Fox, "You need to get along. I've heard so many stories from big publishers like Sony or Microsoft where they say [in reference to a developer] 'they may be great, but they're jerks.' You're going to miss so many opportunities if that's how you're viewed." Instead, you can retain your principles but "choose your battles... and be easy to get along with."

One major reason to build relationships is not just to smooth out your current projects. People hop around in this industry, and may get promoted -- such as a tester moving into a position where they could fund a game, within a couple of years. "I can't tell you how many times that has happened," says Fox.

When it comes to working with the platform holders. "Figure out what their goals are and help them meet it. If we can find out what they're looking for right now, what their hot thing is, and we can help support that, it helps provide opportunities." 

NinjaBee worked with Microsoft on an advergame project for Doritos, and also Dashboard-based minigames. "One of our goals was that Microsoft wanted it done and needed it done... We met an entirely different team, worked with new technology."

7. No Doesn't Always Mean No

"Band of Bugs has a level editor that's really cool," says Fox, but originally Microsoft said no to the idea. NinjaBee's answer was to go back build it anyway, and show it off -- and MS said no once again. But thanks to getting some people on their side, eventually MS updated their policies, and "we were the first game to launch with a level editor you can share with your friends."

With the company's new game, Ancients of Ooga "we had it prototyped... We submitted it and we got a red light. [Microsoft said] 'Nope, sorry, not good enough for our system.'" However, rather than give up on getting the game on XBLA, NinjaBee spent five or six months on improving the prototype. "We went back and showed them the prototype, and everything was happy," says Fox.

6. A Picture Is Worth $1 Million

"The industry is very visual, and people are very visual," says Fox. If someone tells you that they evaluate demo with temporary art and look past it, he says, "they are lying. They may tell you that, but they are lying."

NinjaBee always produces highly polished mockup screenshots, including the game HUD and interface. When they do that, people "don't even question -- 'can you really do that?'" because it looks like it's there. They had to do mockups for Keflings with Avatars because it was prior to the launch of Avatars -- and MS was skeptical at first, but upon seeing the mockup screens, they thought it looked great and the game moved forward with Avatars.

Fox also believes high quality videos produced for meetings are crucial. "There are so many times when someone can look at a video of your game, whereas with a controller they'd have to pass it around." 

5. XBLA is Hit Driven

"Everybody kind of knows this, but I think it's amazing how much this is so," says Fox.

"If you go to, and you sort by bestselling, there are 20 games on the page and this is where you want to be. These games are making some money. The difference between page 2 and 8 is not as big as between page 1 and page 2," says Fox, and this is based on experience with NinjaBee's own portfolio.

4. Focus Testing Is Huge!

"It really is -- in our case, one of the places where we've really demonstrated this... Was our trial experience with Keflings. We get an amazing conversion rate with our trial experience, and I believe it's because we did a lot of serious focus testing on the trial experience," Fox says.

The three key questions they asked were:

Would you buy it?
Would you spend real money on it?
What do you think the real game is like based on this experience?

Fox also believes that the trial must not end on a note of "completion" but instead with an expectation that there's more to complete -- don't end on a finished task.

3. Plan to Go Over-Budget and Take More Time

Though developers always plan to take more time than they think they need, you "add that cushion to your schedule and you're still going to go over. What I'm talking about with planning to go over is to be on a position that if that happens, you don't die." You need money and human resources to continue to be available past your completion date, says Fox.

And despite the fact that the company has made several games, "it happens every time! Every time we think we've got it better... but it happens every time."

2. View Everything As A Sales Pitch

Fox's demeanor seemed to suggest he was aware that people wouldn't quite like this suggestion, but he clarified that he's talking about genuinely enthusiastic about a good project in all conversations about the project.

"What I mean by this -- it's actually something that I'm bad at. I've seen other people do an amazing job at this," says Fox. "If you love your game, and you're behind it, you need to talk about it and promote it in every case. We miss opportunities because I'm not talking about how great my game is all the time."

From talking to marketing people at the platform holder to meeting contacts who might recommend friends for positions at the company, it can have many knock-on benefits, he suggests. "I've seen other people be crazy successful at this."

1. The Game Industry is Always Changing

Fox jokes that this means "everything I told you, next week, you might as well forget."

But kidding aside, says Fox, "the rules change, the people change -- everything changes." And when you work on new games, "it's different every time" even if you've used to the processes and people you've used before. "If you get good advice, it may not be good advice next week," he warns.

And his major projection for change is that digital distribution is the future. Many people say that, he recognizes, but "I think GameStop is not going to be around shortly..." within three years, in fact.

As proof for this, Fox thinks the EA closure of Pandemic and acquisition of Playfish is the best case. His advice to indies is "Don't let them take over your domain!"

"Rather than going head-to-head, if we keep making these creative and interesting games it's going to bring people to this space we're already in. We need to take advantage of the fact that we're ahead."

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