Welcome to the XBLIG Spotlight, a new bi-weekly segment on Clearance Bin Review where we put the focus on Xbox Live Indie Games and the developer’s that make them. These week I had a chance to talk to Frozensoft’s Josh Neider about making games and using the XBLIG service, as well as give the physics based puzzle game, FishCraft a try. Check out my Q&A with Josh, as well as my review of FishCraft below, and you may even get a chance to win a copy of FishCraft for yourself. First though, check out the trailer for the game:
First, tell the readers a bit about yourself, who you are and how/why you decided to start getting involved in making games?
The team for FishCraft was primarily made up of two individuals, Chris our artist and level designer and myself (Josh) the programmer. I also do what I can in terms of some level design and marketing. Barry, Chris’s cousin also had a part in level design – in fact most of the off the wall levels can be attributed to him such as the one with the giant cat featured in the release trailer.
We all grew up playing and loving video games – what kid doesn’t? I actually met Chris while still in high school my sophomore year (about 12 years ago) and the first day I met him we went and checked out his newly imported Sega Dreamcast (before it was available stateside).
Chris has a talent for drawing and went to the Art Institute in Seattle for a short time out of high school. At that time animation jobs were drying up as everything moved to computer animation/3D. He came back to Idaho and started working in the family business – agricultural aircraft.
I received a degree in Computer Information Systems from Boise State in 2008 and got a job with a large software company as a database support engineer, which I love. I’m married and have a 2-year-old boy and another son that’s 2 months old.
When XNA was announced it was Chris that had all of the motivation. He was convinced that this was our opportunity to make a video game. He ended up being right, but it took us a while.
Tell us about FrozenSoft/Not Plan A, your history as developers, previous efforts, etc.
We took a stab at straight XNA and our efforts didn’t get too far. Our motivation sort of died off. Chris then discovered Indie Game Builder, which allowed him to develop a game without much coding. The first title was Dreams of Witchtown. I really just helped at the end of the development to do a few finishing touches and help get it through review.
With Dreams of Witchtown Chris sort of proved to me that maybe we could do something cool. We then discovered Torque X and began our next project, Zombie Sniper HD. It was moderately successful despite the issues that plague the indie channel; specifically the top downloads list constantly breaking and not updating. Zombie Sniper HD was a victim of this. Looking back we see a lot of thing we could have done better with it.
Torque X wasn’t being well maintained by Garage Games (Torque) so a community project started called the Community Enhanced Version (CEV) headed up by Giuseppe De Francesco aka Pino. Among other things the community integrated farseer physics into the engine which opened up a lot of possibilities. We then decided to play around with it and make a quick title – Elite Pinball HD. We really look at EPHD as a practice project that prepared us to make FishCraft.
FishCraft is obviously being planned for XBLIG, but have you in the past, or do you currently have plans to work in any other platform? What made you decide to develop FishCraft for XBLIG?
XNA made developing on Xbox really accessible to anyone. The amount of money to get involved in developing on non-XNA platforms is pretty steep in comparison. With XNA 4.0 we have the possibility of working with Windows Phone 7 and we are very excited about that. We already have a couple WP7 devices in the team. We’ve had WP7 in mind throughout the entire FishCraft development process. We’re also considering releasing FishCraft on PC. For now you could say we’re loyal to Microsoft platforms.
How long have you been working on FishCraft? Can you explain, roughly, how the development process works for FrozenSoft?
As mentioned above Elite Pinball HD was a bit of a starting point for FishCraft in terms of the experience we gained and the fact that we were actually able to reuse some of the code from EPHD in FishCraft.
Elite Pinball HD was released November 4 2010 and we immediately began working on FishCraft. Actually at that time and up until about a month ago the game’s name was Pissed! Fish. Some of our indie friends in the U.K. believed the language was a bit too strong for the platform so we changed the name.
Torque X has a GUI builder that the game code can tie into to expose objects to the game designer. As the programmer I tried to expose as many aspects of the game as I could so that the primary level developers (Chris & Barry) would be able to get their jobs done without looking at code.
Most of our projects start with Chris putting together enough art and animation for me to believe that we actually have a feasible project – or in other words to motivate me to do stuff. For FishCraft a lot of the programming had to be done up front and refined before we started building the 63 levels. So initially we had a set of about 10 levels for testing and once we got everything sort of finalized we began working on all of the levels.
Torque X stores the level information in XML files. With 63 levels if we did end up needing to change something it was sometimes easier to do mass find and replace operations, which saved some time.
If you had to pick one thing that you would improve or simply do differently with FishCraft’s development what would it be?
We’re actually pretty happy with how FishCraft turned out and we don’t have any major regrets at this point compared with previous projects.
We do have a couple improvements in mind for future updates. The first obvious one is more battles. We would also like to implement achievements and possibly some form of global leaderboard.
There are some obvious similarities between your game and a certain popular game involving upset fowl. In your own words, how does the game set itself apart from the popular franchise? Do you have any comments to those who would claim Frozensoft has simply “made a clone”?
I guess I would relate it to cooking. Many times you will take a great recipe and add a bit of your own flavor. We’re just happy that we were able to take a recipe for success and not screw it up – it really came out quite polished we think. As with a food recipe, a small change in the ingredients can make for a huge difference in taste. The semi-automatic cannon is our flavor. It allows the player to “fire all your fish at once and explode into space (like a true nature’s child).” We’re also quite happy with our epic music score – we feel it captures the intensity of the war between ‘Epic Rivals.’ As far as “cloning” – just because everyone has access to a great recipe, it doesn’t mean everyone can bake the cake and have it turn out well.
We wouldn’t encourage people to purchase FishCraft in lieu of purchasing the competition. There’s a hunger for more content/levels/battles and we would say there’s plenty of room in the pocket book to own both considering FishCraft is only 80 MSP. We wanted to bring this sort of gameplay to those that haven’t had the opportunity to play similar games. In our opinion it really is the best in class on Xbox 360.
Many gamers dream of starting to make their own games, and it is obviously easier than ever for them to do so. What advice would you give someone hoping to make the jump from gamer to designer?
It’s best to go into it with realistic expectations. A lot of people/teams developing their first XBLIG sort of turn a blind eye to the reality of things – that is the majority of games don’t make a lot of money. Everyone sets out thinking that they’re immune to that, and the first couple weeks after releasing a game can be a big blow to the ego. We sort of had that issue with Dreams of Witchtown. It has sold less than 1,000 copies.
Alright, so if it’s not guaranteed money – you should have a reason for doing it. It’s full of frustration and long nights, but we have a lot of fun developing these games. In the end it gives us something to talk about and there’s always that hope that the next game is going to have some moderate success.
Have you found the XBLIG process to be a particularly easy or difficult one?
Not sure we’d use the words easy or difficult. I’d say sometimes it’s frustrating. There’s a lot of political/social elements involved since the system is based off of a peer review system in which other XBLIG developers are the ones saying yay or nay to your game.
There have also been ongoing issues plaguing the system on Xbox such as the broken lists as mentioned above, visibility on the dashboard, lack of Gamerscore achievement points, etc.
The ease of access is great – it’s really accessible to more people in my opinion than any other platform. That also provides some frustration because of the overall lack of quality on the indie channel. It’s likely that overall lack of polish has prevented a lot of players from coming back for more.
XBLIG have had a mixed result so far, what is one aspect/idea/change you think would better solidify the platform as a contender in the gaming industry? What one thing do you think would improve the service as a whole, from designer to consumer?
It’s difficult to say what would make XBLIG better. I think if it continues to evolve just as we have evolved in our efforts then it will just be a gradual increase in quality of game and eventually popularity. Many XBLIG developers have now been at it for a while and it’s starting to show in the games being released. The Winter Uprising was a great example of some of the more experienced developers coming together to release a bunch of quality games in a short period of time with a single marketing message.
Microsoft needs to fix the issues with the system constantly going down. It has driven a lot of good developers away. It would help to have a system for indies to have Gamerscore achievements.
What is in the cards for FrozenSoft after FishCraft?
We still have a number of things we want to do with FishCraft. Getting it up and running on WP7, additional battle updates, and possibly a PC release. Looking down the road we may consider revisiting Zombie Sniper HD for a second game implementing some of the polish and design from FishCraft.
Our very first XBLIG Spotlight features none other than the physics based, fish shooting, cat busting indie game FishCraft. Does Frozensoft’s take on the physic puzzle game replicate other games in the genre’s success, or is it a fish out of water on the indie channel? Read on.
The fish are striking back. The cats have eaten many of their friends, and presumably family, and it is time to get even! By hurling themselves violently at the forts the cats have built…Ok, so the background story is a little goofy, but at it’s core, FishCraft is a simple physics based puzzle game, similar in game play and style to the wildly successful Angry Birds. Similar enough that if you have played the iPhone hit, you essentially already know everything you need to know about how to play FishCraft. You strategically shoot a variety of different fish, most with various forms of power-ups, out of a cannon in an attempt to destroy the cats’ forts as well as the cats themselves.
The game’s visual design is superb. While it does seem to borrow from the artistic style of Angry Birds, that in no way makes the presentation any less impressive. To put it simply, most games on the XBLIG channel do not look this good or have anything close to this level of polish graphically. The designs are sleek, colorful and fit the game perfectly. Unfortunately, the game’s text is often much less impressive, with many of the game’s initial text instructions far too small and unclear to be easily read without issue even on a large HD TV. The instructions are only really present very early on, so the issue is minimal, but none-the-less there. The only other issue I had with the game in terms of design was the less than clear instructions that appear whenever you are introduced to a new fish. In regards to audio there isn’t much to discuss. The cannon sounds like a cannon, the exploding wood and blocks breaking apart sound like things exploding and breaking apart, and the game’s soundtrack is simple but fitting with a truly epic title scene. When it comes to many indie games the issues with audio often draws attention to the audio, that simply does not happen here as the sounds and effects are simple but well done enough to not overly draw your attention to them.
The game’s physics are more than competent for what Frozensoft is trying to do. There are issues; such as the occasional fish bouncing off of a piece of wood like it was rubber, a rock flying off like there was no gravity and in at least one or two levels the entire bottom of a structure being removed while the top portion hung in mid-air without issue, but these are not overly prevalent and in no way ruin the game’s fun in the “big picture” sense. (Although they may cause some minor cursing when they occur in the individual levels)
The Angry Birds style of play maps to a controller exceptionally well, and I honestly preferred it ten fold to a touch screen. And while it does make it easier, to a degree, to solve the puzzles the tighter controls also offer greater possibilities in terms of using shots that are “threading the needle” in order to solve puzzles. Playing through the game’s 63 puzzles won’t take you very long, simply passing them is relatively easy, now getting three stars in each level is a different story. At the time of this review I have only managed to three star all the levels in the first section. Getting that second or third star is likely to be where FishCraft gets the most replay value, as an overwhelming amount of the puzzles can be solved with one really well placed fish, and you are likely to keep trying and trying to get that better score. In that sense, the game certainly has the “just one more” effect that a good puzzle game has; it is simply addictive to keep going or keep trying to improve your score. The game also changes up the game play by allowing the ability to shoot multiple fish at a time; in fact it even seems to require it in some puzzles. The feature is not overly made use of, but certainly adds a ton of potential depth for how to solve puzzles in completely different ways.
And yes, FishCraft is a lot like Angry Birds. There is no point in denying the similarities, but I personally didn’t care while playing the game and don’t care now as I write this review. The game is fun and at times challenging. It is an exceptionally well-polished indie game that packs in hours of entertainment into an inexpensive package while simultaneously offering an experience that people clearly seem to want on a platform where it is not currently available to them. So in some ways is it a “clone?” Yes, but in that same vein if you remove the colors and some relatively minor improvements, Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2 is nothing more than a fancy version of Asteroids, StarCraft was Command & Conquer in space, and so on. Developers will always copy the things that worked in other games while adding relatively minor improvements, and over time this very process turns Goldeneye into Halo: Reach. If nothing else, FishCraft serves as an extra dose of a gameplay that is clearly popular with, well just about everyone. That is my two cents on the issue, and I think Josh says it best for himself in our Q&A.
In short, whether you’re looking for a distraction between matches on COD or to just get caught up in a puzzle game for a couple of hours, FishCraft is certainly a fun way to spend your time. The visual design is fantastic, the game play is solid and the experience is overall positive. FishCraft would of certainly garnered a slightly higher score if not for some of the physics issues mentioned before, but they were so minimal it felt wrong to take off more than a half a point for it. If you have never checked out any of the games on the XBLIG channel before, FishCraft may be a good place to start. It is well polished, fun and bound to be familiar to a lot of gamers out there. Additionally the value of the game is likely to increase as the already impressive 63 levels are set to increase with two already planned updates for the game, (visible in the main menu), which may or may not result in an increased price down the road. So, think of FishCraft as an investment in your free time’s future.
Final Rating: 7.5/10
CBR Break Down:
Console Played On: Xbox 360 – XBLIG
Approximate Time to Completion: Roughly 3 hours to beat all puzzles, more to 3 star
Gamer Score Earned: N/A
Price Bought at: N/A – Review copy furnished by Frozensoft
Current Price: 80 Microsoft Points ($1)
Recommend Purchase Price: Can’t get much better than 80 Microsoft Points Add FishCraft to your Download Queue
So how about it, you’ve read what the developer has to say about it, you’ve read what I have to say, how about we give you a chance to make form your own opinion? Frozensoft has been gracious enough to give us three codes to download FishCraft so that we can give them away to you! Entering is easy, all you have to do is comment on this post and tell us what you would like to see in future editions of the XBLIG Spotlight. That’s it! Everyone who comments will be entered and a random drawing will occur on Monday at 6pm Central time to decide the winners.*
One entry not enough? Ok fine, gain an additional entry by following us @ClearanceBinRev and tweeting the following message: @ClearanceBinRev and @GiftInteractive are giving away 3 copies of the XBLIG FishCraft! Find out how to enter here: http://bit.ly/gB41BM
Thanks again to the guys at Frozensoft for being our lab mice on this new segment and providing codes for a giveaway. Nothing left to say but good luck and… go!
*If winners fail to respond within a given time a new winner may be picked. XBLIG games require a connection to Xbox Live in order to play.