21 Apr 2010

The Explodemon Saga – Part Six

In part six of the Explodemon Saga,

21 Apr 2010

In part six of the Explodemon Saga, we begin working with an unlikely development partner, do justice to our artistic vision and seek approval on XBLA and PSN.We had a phone call one day at Curve Towers that led us down a peculiar path for a time. When you work in video games, you’re often subjected to the unwanted pitch. From the guy who delivers the water who has designed 150 new Pokémon, the Tesco delivery man with his own take on GTA, crazy Europeans who have designed and concepted an entire RTS and “just need programmers”, Dennis Greenidge, and occasionally the people who call your office.

It was our MD, Jason, who took the call. He listened politely to the nice chap on the other end of the phone, who was telling him that he had been calling various developers, trying to kick off the development of his game idea. Jase had heard this many times before and so began to fend off the caller with the usual development sensibilities such as cost, experience, time, etc. Seemingly sensing that he was about to be hung up on, the caller mentioned that he did in fact have access to funding, and was looking for a company to hire. While we were still dubious, it pays to investigate every opportunity when you’re down on your luck (as we were at that time, before Curve was miraculously saved from doom) and so we invited him in for a chat.H, as I’ll refer to him, was an interesting character. H was a passionate games player who, like many, was keen to get into the industry. While his passion had led him to start a games-related degree, H was looking to fast track himself right to the top of the games design ladder. He was able to do this because his father owned an airline, and so he had access to some serious financial backing. H’s idea was to create his ultimate game with his father’s help, and make his mark on the industry in a big way.

We had a meeting with H where we went over his idea to see if it was something we could help him with. As a total amateur though, his concept was typically massive (think the cinematic fight scenes in the Final Fantasy movie, but interactive). He held up a pre-rendered concept movie from Final Fantasy XIII as proof that it was possible, but backed down when we reminded him of Square Enix’s team size, the level of investment required, and of course, that it was a concept movie. We did eventually help him to reformulate his idea into something that could be created as a demo to pitch to publishers for more funding, and gave him an approximate costing to develop it. H went off to reconsider his idea and the realities of making it, but we didn’t really think that we’d see him again.

However, to his credit, H did return, and with a more realistic proposal. He’d decided instead to create an XBLA-sized game with much simpler gameplay, aiming to do something small but polished, but do it well. He’d seen Explodemon on his previous visit and enjoyed playing it immensely. At this point we’d decided to continue on slowly with Explodemon internally with a tiny team, and were looking for a partner to part-fund Explodemon with us. Since H was looking for some experience as well as to fund a game, we suggested that instead of creating an idea from scratch, it would be mutually beneficial if we joint-financed Explodemon, with him joining the team as a junior designer. It was agreed, and H came in part-time while we started to work on the joint financing contract. Suddenly we were self-publishing Explodemon, and it was on again!Before and during this time, we began to revisit the art we’d created for the previous concept doc. We’d learnt from our previous dealings with publishers that we’d not been able to convince them of the merits of the game without properly communicating our intentions for the art style, beyond a few drawings of the main character himself. In the meantime, we’d hired an artist who was a capable concept artist, and so made the decision to deploy him full time as a concept artist on Explodemon to flesh out our ideas for the environments.

We’d also decided that we had to realise our vision of a fully 3D Explodemon running on a HD console. The plan was to take a section of gameplay recorded from the prototype and match it frame-for-frame with 3D assets. We assembled a team of crack artists to get on the job towards the end of 2007, and they began modelling the assets for the enemies and player while the environmental setting was concepted.

While we were working on this, we were also trying to fashion a deal with H that suited both parties. Our aim was to split the development costs and royalties 50:50, but we were adamant about holding onto the IP. We’d put so much work into the game already, even at this quite early stage, so we weren’t keen on someone getting their hooks into it unless the terms suited us. This would unfortunately prove the death of the deal, as H’s advisors were saying that he should hold out for IP ownership. Although H worked with us for about two months, we never received any money from the deal, so a clean break was made. We were on our own again, but I think that really we were all quite relieved to be back in charge.In the middle of February 2008, the teaser trailer was finished (embedded below). The art team had done an amazing job of visualising the project as it had been imagined, and it was really gratifying to see such a high level of polish applied to what had been, until then, a scrappy gameplay prototype. We now had a really powerful tool to use when pitching Explodemon to publishers. The new concept doc was also completed (which you can view here), and was a huge leap above the previous document in layout and presentation. Between the movie, the prototype and the concept doc, we felt that we had finally done justice to our vision of what the game would eventually be. What publisher could resist?!

And so pitch we did. We arranged some meetings for GDC 2008 and flew out to San Francisco with pitch materials for Explodemon and a number of other concepts. Many of the meetings were our first with some of the US-based publishers, and so we were a little in the dark about what they were looking for. Since most of our pitches were for XBLA/WiiWare/PSN games and we also offered ourselves as a developer-for-hire with a lot of PSP experience, there were quite a few dead ends because most publishers simply weren’t looking for either.

There was also an incredibly rude company that had previously arranged a time to meet, but not a place. We spent a number of days before the meeting trying to contact them for the details of where to meet, but were roundly ignored on all of our attempts. The time for the meeting came and went, but still we got no response. In fact, we have not heard from that company since. This is what it’s like when you’re trying to build yourself a profile.

It wasn’t a wasted trip though; we managed to pitch two of our ideas, including our Project X, to some development heroes of ours, which was a geeky boyhood fantasy. At the time we thought it a fruitless exercise, but things panned out differently later that year.

The main Explodemon opportunity that arose from our GDC trip was a new UK-based publisher who were aggressively looking for games. We’d pitched three of our titles to them, and they had whittled it down to two: Project X and Explodemon. Project X was pretty much a done deal, but with Explodemon they were asking that we obtain concept approval for either XBLA or PSN before they would go forward. One more hoop to jump through seemed to be all that was required, and so that’s what we did.Approval for Xbox Live Arcade is actually pretty tough (and arguable more so now than in 2008). With limited slots, and the larger share of the console download market, Microsoft can be very picky about letting titles onto their service. As an indie developer too, there were even fewer slots left for us to fill. The approval process in 2008 was very interesting. Once we were past the initial concept form, the process was largely done by email and conference calls with Microsoft’s very supportive and motivated producers. The guys we spoke to were always passionate and knowledgeable and did everything they could to keep us informed about what was going on. They read a lot of our GDD, played the prototype in depth, and commented positively on the movie.

The concept approval process for the PlayStation Store was quite different, and much more of a black box. Sony have a series of well written documents designed to get you to think about their most important criteria when applying, and you apply via a web interface. Once you have submitted, you have to wait for two weeks while Sony’s European and American teams dissect your application away in their labs. It’s not as personal, but with a higher volume of applications likely on PSN due to it not being as closed a service as XBLA, it’s quick, efficient and clear.While the approval process was going on, we got word back from the development heroes we met at GDC that they were interested in moving forward with Project X. We were dumbfounded! We’d never expected to hear anything back from them, since thinking anything else would have been a bit of a pipe dream. Yet, here they were asking for more details and a budget for developing the project!

So things were already looking up when, on May 1st, we gained concept approval for Explodemon on PSN. Yes! Yet things only got better on May 5th when we were also approved for XBLA. This was amazing news! Project X could be signed with the dream partner, and now that it was approved for not one but both platforms, Explodemon could go ahead with our new UK publisher. It seemed like things had finally gone our way.

The UK publisher unfortunately didn’t see it that way. They’d always been interested in both Project X and Explodemon, and said that that had always meant both of them. They maintained that if we signed Project X with someone else, that they’d walk away from the deal, meaning that Explodemon would remain unsigned. We found ourselves in the horrible position of choosing whether to go with the dream partner for Project X and let Explodemon die, or pass up the best opportunity we’d ever been handed in favour of signing two projects with a new, unproven publisher.

And so it came to pass on the 8th May 2008, barely a week after it had been approved for both PSN and XBLA, that we moved forward with Project X alone and Explodemon found itself without funding once again. We gritted our teeth and continued on…

In the next part of the Explodemon Saga, the game is accidentally revealed to the public, we get yet more publisher interest and the PS3 version finally enters full development.

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