In this post, Explodemon! finally becomes more than just a gameplay prototype and comes under the powerful glare of publishers.
With the Explodemon! prototype in its first proper finished state in March 2006, I started to let various friends and colleagues play the game. At this stage it was still just something I was doing for kicks, so it was sent out as a kind of “Look what I made! What do you think?”. I’d had a few people in Curve play the game while I watched silently over their shoulder (still the best way to learn you suck at games design), which had already helped to smooth off a lot of the rough edges, and the general response I received from those who played it was that it was pretty good fun.
In early 2006, we at Curve were still trying to get a break onto consoles. The joystick game work was getting tiresome and the production increasingly problematic. We were struggling to see a future for our company in that area, and the work was hardly creatively fulfilling. During this period, we were frequently getting producers from various publishers’ acquisitions departments in for a chat, trying to get ourselves on their radar so we could pick up some console work.
At the end of one of these meeting with a producer from a large Japanese publisher, Jason, our MD/CEO, decided that we should show him Explodemon! and gauge his unofficial response. I was kinda sheepish about it, since it’s just a sprite-based platform game (and this particular publisher know a thing or two about them), but he genuinely enjoyed playing it, said he could see where we were coming from and that we should keep pursuing it. However, he said that they wouldn’t be likely to pick it up, since they already had a successful platform game character. Still, it was encouraging enough, and he did actually take it back to be evaluated.
As GDC rolled around, we managed to scrape enough money together to pack Jason off to San Jose to see if he could find us some work. Off the back of the promising response from the first publisher, we loaded up a PSP with movies of the prototype in the vain hope of getting some interest. And amazingly, it worked! Showing it casually in a bar to the CEO of a huge independent US developer, Jason managed to pique his interest. A developer himself, the CEO was very interested in the mechanic and the return to 2D platforming roots, and saw potential as a PSP title. He knew publishers who were looking for PSP titles for release in Fall 07 (whenever that is), and wanted to see if he could shop it around for us. However, we clearly needed to flesh the concept out, so we promised to do exactly that. And with that, Explodemon! made the shift to an internal project at Curve.Fleshing out the concept would prove to be more difficult than we’d have liked. As a small company, every single team member was allocated to a project and working on it full-time. We simply didn’t have enough people to spare someone to create artwork for an Explodemon! pitch doc. Our solution was to again scrape together some cash, and hire an external concept artist. We used a friend of ours, a previous colleague, but he could only work evenings and weekends. With a deadline of three weeks to get the document to the US developer, it was going to be tight to produce something we felt did us justice.
By now, the core of the back story and character were already in place. Partially influenced by my initially random choice of placeholder sprites and the comedy placeholder name that I’d attached to it, I’d already decided that it was to be a parody of Japanese action games. The main character was to be a send up of the overly heroic, nonsensical, badly translated and strangely motivated main characters of Japanese sprite games. This, to me, was an extension of the genesis of the project, which itself was a love letter to those very games. It also seemed, well, sort of fresh.
Following this brief, our part-time concept artist and Jaid, our Art Director, managed somehow to get through the exploratory part of the concepting process, and provide enough finished drawings within three weeks to create this concept doc. Jaid’s designs for the Vortex aside, I don’t think we were ever 100% satisfied with what we’d had time to do, but it was fit for purpose, and we pitched this document around for quite a while. (We would however eventually get some more time and resources to revisit it.)With the concept doc sent out into the wilderness to do its work in the US, we started to pitch the title to all of the publishers who we talked to. It entered into the black box of the acquisition process, and we awaited feedback…
By now it was April 2006 and project work was starting to dwindle. As the Avatar: The Last Airbender joystick game finished, our joystick game work went from full projects to just bits and pieces. While we did start our first proper PSP title at this time, a port of Pom Pom’s Bliss Island, it would only be enough work for two people. Amazingly, this would be the first game we were due to be credited on. Everything we’d done to date had been for other developers, and therefore uncredited, and it was making it frustratingly hard for us to build a profile. This pattern would continue for years!
As for me, I was finding this period quite difficult. I was no longer actually assigned to a paid project, working hard instead to help bring other opportunities in. However, there wasn’t really enough to keep me occupied and I was losing my mind a little. I wrote to a friend of mine that “I don’t seem to do much all day, go back feeling like I should’ve stayed at home”
The knockbacks from the publishers started to come in around this time too. One said they’d “had quite a few similar looking titles through the doors” and had “struggled with all of them”. The feedback from the first publisher we talked to claimed that the “response was encouraging and the premise raised a smile, but not sufficient for us to commit our resources to.”. A third publisher returned a more detailed evaluation, praising the gameplay, and original design, but raising an issue with the visual style:
“The real concern here is not a question of Explodemon’s original design but its appeal as a very anime driven concept. The aesthetic is greatly inspired by Japanese animation and this could ultimately be detrimental to the overall attractiveness of Explodemon. “
The report from a fourth publisher also praised the gameplay, but encouraged us to look at the DS as a better home for the game. They, too, were a no, though; their concerns stemming not from the art style but from “the worry that an exploding humanoid character might be misconstrued in the current climate with fears over suicide bombing“. To alleviate this issue, they suggested that we change the character, and offered examples of an exploding frog, sheep, balloon or demon.
In August, a number of projects that we were pitching for fell through, and we were forced to let some of our staff go due to lack of work. Alongside the port of Bliss Island, we were helping out on some PSP projects for Sumo Digital, but there was very little in the pipeline, and it was looking grim. With little for me to do on paid projects, I spent most of this time writing the GDD for Explodemon! , and coding and exploring new mechanics. At the time I felt like I was pissing in the wind slightly, but it later transpired that I managed to create a very usable body of work, with a large number of new game mechanics fully formed and a GDD completed. (I also created another concept during these months, one I’ll just call Project X. We would pitch Project X to a number of publishers and ultimately sign with a really great partner. Watch this space!)Then a curious thing happened; companies who had previously turned Explodemon! down were showing a renewed interest, but this time in the digital download space. While still relatively young, Xbox Live Arcade was starting to gain ground – with a few big sellers to the early adopters – and Sony were about to release the PS3 with its own “electronic download initiative”. It was apparent that the game was better suited to the ‘snack-sized’ games being delivered online to consoles, and publishers were hungry for content.
We did an XBLA costing to develop the game directly for the big US developer, who had remained interested in the title throughout the year, but been unable to make it stick as a PSP game. The big Japanese publisher we spoke to originally got in touch again, after a producer there played the demo at one of my friend’s houses. One of the others who rejected the game started talking to us about doing it as an XBLA title, their concerns about the Japanese graphical style not evident for a download title.
Another producer who was looking for download projects also came to talk to us. We sat him down in front of the demo, not expecting much (since that company had already turned it down, although he had not seen it) but after 10 minutes, we had to prise him off it. “I could play that all day”, he said, deadpan. This time we thought we were actually getting somewhere; people were proactively discussing moving forwards with it and it was conceptually a much better fit as a downloadable console game.
While the game would get an 8/10 for gameplay from one publisher’s evaluation department, they hadn’t defined their strategy for download releases, and so it was refused once more. The publisher who could play it all day, too, eventually declined again on the project after a couple of months because, since the game had an old-school vibe to it, they felt it clashed with the older or remade games available on the download services. Through Jason’s contacts, we managed to pitch to the VP of development of another big Japanese company, but that unfortunately lead nowhere. Finally, the US developer were unable to fund the game internally, since their procedures weren’t set up to work with external groups. Their last idea was to take the game off us and develop it themselves! It was nice that they believed in it that much, but there was no way we’d go for that!
As the year drew to a close, Bliss Island was finished, as was the two months of pre-production next gen work we’d been commissioned to do for a publisher. We were waiting back for the go ahead from them, but they were dragging their heels. We had essentially run out of projects and time. Things were so bad that we directors didn’t pay ourselves so the staff could be paid what we owed them. With Xmas looming, the Jan 31st tax deadline not far behind that, my wife 7 months pregnant and my mother-in-law about to move in for 2 months, I’d chosen the wrong month to give up smoking…