[Speaking at local dev gathering Boston Post Mortem -- attended by Gamasutra -- Fire Hose Games shared the challenges it faced with releasing Slam Bolt Scrappers, and how the PSN outage "hit [Fire Hose] really hard."]
Boston Post Mortem is a monthly gathering of Boston-area game developers at the Skellig Irish Pub in Waltham, MA. While the event sometimes host guests from outside Boston's local development circle -- Sony sent a team in May, 2010 to demo the development potential of PlayStation Move, for example -- the meetings are usually held to promote the area's own.
Recently, Eitan Glinert, president of Fire Hose Games, based in Cambridge, MA, presented a postmortem of the studio's PlayStation Network downloadable title, Slam Bolt Scrappers
is a mash-up of brawlers, Tetris
, and tower defense mechanics developed by Fire Hose and published by Sony Online Entertainment. The game was released on March 15th of this year.
Fire Hose went through five iterations of the game. "Each iteration was an order of magnitude bigger and more work than the iteration we had before it," Glinert said. "This is actually a really hard decision to make along the way. When you're making a video game, if you have a pile of crap, it's easy to say 'Okay, let's go and make something good.' But it gets really dangerous when you have something mediocre, because then you start lying to yourself."
"You starting thinking, 'maybe if I put a fresh coat of paint on this, maybe if I tighten up the graphics on level three,' all of a sudden I'll be able to make this something that is really, really awesome. The truth of the matter is that something mediocre is never going to get really awesome," Glinert said.
PSN Outage "Hit Us Really Hard"
One of the most common complaints about Slam Bolt Scrappers
was the lack of online multiplayer capability. Critics felt that the title was much more fun when played cooperatively with four players, but this was only possible locally. According to Glinert, there was nothing to be done for this state of affairs.
"We got slammed for it, and deservedly so," he said, "but there was absolutely no way we could have done networked multiplayer. We did not have the capability, we did not have the bandwidth, and we did not have the money. If we had tried to do networked multiplayer we would have gotten bogged down, and the game would have never come out. Realizing that we couldn't do this, and not doing this, was totally the right thing to do."
To a point, the problem was moot, because the PlayStation Network went down shortly after Slam Bolt Scrappers
was released. "Who cares if there's networked multiplayer if you can't use it, right?" Glinert joked. The euphoria at Fire Hose Games of seeing their first original IP finally on sale quickly died when the Network -- and the online PlayStation Store -- went down, and sales were throttled for six and a half weeks. "That was unfortunate for us, and hit us really hard," Glinert said.
Indies Need To Step On The Soapbox
When PAX East came to Boston in 2010, Fire Hose submitted Slam Bolt Scrappers
to the Boston Indie Showcase. The title was accepted, and caught the attention of the press, most notably in a Kotaku preview
. "Penny Arcade then went and took that article and mentioned it, and then other people started writing about [the game]. Getting [Slam Bolt Scrappers
] into PAX was the domino that started everything else. You really need to get on your soapbox and tell people what's awesome about your game."
"I hear a lot of indies say they don't want to tell people about their game because it's secret and people are going to steal it," Glinert said. "What I have to say to that is: balderdash! Nobody's going to steal your crappy game, it's a piece of shit, and don't you realize it? Nobody wants that game! Yes, it's a risk that people will steal it, but it's even more of a risk if nobody notices who you are and nobody is going to care. You have to take some risk showing off early versions so that you can get some attention."
Going exclusive with the PlayStation 3 was a double-edged sword for Fire Hose. The PlayStation Blog gave the title good publicity with articles and a video. "We even got a Kevin Butler tweet," Glinert said. "We had a shrine set up to him in the office with candles burning in front of it, and praying to it apparently paid off."
Glinert admits that his company got lucky, however, and that an exclusivity arrangement isn't necessarily a good choice for most indie developers. "When you only have one sales channel, and [someone] comes around and hacks it, you have a problem," Glinert said.
"The Game Was Still Ours"
The game mechanics in Slam Bolt Scrappers
are chaotic, and the control scheme is complex. In Glinert's eyes, Fire Hose dropped the ball on the game's tutorial. "It took too long to get to the fun," he said. "Nobody wants to read a textbook, and nobody wants to have their hand held. They want to go and start beating up monsters."
The tutorial was separate from the campaign, such that anyone who went straight into the campaign would be met with the chaos and complexity of the title with no training whatsoever. Even if players found the tutorial, its setup was at odds with the nature of the title. "[Slam Bolt Scrappers
] is fundamentally multiplayer, with the exception of the tutorial," Glinert said.
The other benefit of Fire Hose going exclusive to Sony was getting support from Sony Online Entertainment. "They didn't give us a ton of money, but they gave us enough money to buy those bulk, Costco packages of ramen, and that was really nice," Glinert said. "They didn't sit on us ever. The game was still ours. We got to choose what to do, we got to choose what features."
"They gave us feedback, but we asked for it, and very rarely gave us unsolicited feedback," he said. "It was all the benefits of being indie, plus getting a little bit of money." Glinert didn't suggest this sort of quasi-indie relationships was right for everyone. "We happened to luck out and get a really good publisher deal because of all the press we got," he said.
Slam Bolt Scrappers
was developed on the Gamebryo engine. It worked really well for what Fire Hose wanted to do, and Emergent, the developers of the engine, were the ones who introduced Fire Hose to Sony Online Entertainment. The company also died halfway through the development of the title. "It didn't really matter too much during [development of] the game, but it matters now," Glinert said. "In terms of taking that code base and using it in the future, it's not the best thing in the world.'
The game featured very bright cell-shaded visuals, which could make the display extremely confusing. During development, Fire Hose made constant comparisons to Nintendo's Super Smash Brothers
, but Glinert posited that Slam Bolt Scrappers
is even more chaotic than Smash Brothers
, as it can be very difficult to make sense of still images of the title.
"If you're posting this stuff online, it's hard to get people excited if they don't understand what they're seeing," he said. "If your game's not somewhat understandable from a screenshot, you're probably failing on some level. That definitely hurt us."
Local Boston support was instrumental in Fire Hose's development of the game. "If it wasn't for the local community, if it wasn't for Boston Indies, if it wasn't for Post Mortem, all the local developer support we have, this game either wouldn't have happened, or it would have been a crappy version of what it was," Glinert said. "We're so thankful to the testers who volunteered their time to play the game over and over again for us. Even the people who just came in once to play the game and give us some feedback and tell us how stupid we were while eating our pizza."
For whatever else might be said about Slam Bolt Scrappers
, its mash-up design is fairly described as thinking out of the box, but this cuts both ways. "Slam Bolt Scrappers
does things that people haven't seen before, and haven't tried before, and it feels really different when you play it," Glinert said. "People like to talk about new things they haven't seen before, and it got us that early press, and it got people excited. People who are sick of playing the same games over and over again were drawn to our game."
"That was really great that we had this innovative angle, because we wouldn't have gotten noticed without it," Glinert continued. "At the same time, a lot of gamers claim they want innovation, but what they actually want is very small bits of innovation which are done in intelligent ways." Glinert cited Portal
as an example of a game that introduced one, key innovation and gradually introduced players to it until they understood.
"That's the perfect example of how it should happen," Glinert said, "versus Slam Bolt Scrappers
where we dump the innovation on your lap and say 'Make of this what you will, because you have four other people punching you in the face right now.' There's a lesson to be learned there about how you ease people into innovation."
Glinert finished the post-mortem with a lament about the name his company gave to the title. "You have like 350,000 hits for 'Slam Bolt Scrappers' when you do a Google search for it, and the top hits are 'Fire Hose Games' and other details on how to get the game," he said. Then Glinert showed the results of a Google search for Slam 'Bot' Scrappers.
"That had 175,000 hits, meaning that a third of the people writing about the game on the internet misspelled it. And the top hits go to things that are kind of interesting, but [video] we didn't shoot, or that weren't the actual launch [materials]. Not ways for people to figure out how to get the game. That's a mega-fail right there if there ever was one."
Fire Hose is currently exploring a release of Slam Bolt Scrappers
on other platforms, and announced a new game at the meeting called Go Home Dinosaurs