XBLIG Spotlight: Esoterica America


Every week we shine the spotlight on an exceptional XBLIG, and the developers behind them, in what we like to call the XBLIG Spotlight.  This week, we take a look at Esoterica America.  A mysterious adventure through the world of America’s secret societies.  Check out the trailer below, our conversation with the developers behind the game, and as always, my perspective.   As usual on CBR, reading has rewards as you may even get a chance to win a copy of the game. Add Esoterica America to your download queue! First, the trailer:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bo4XMr-cgJQ

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 at V7 is made up of a close-knit group of friends.  We all went to school together and worked in the games industry before forming V7.  We’re all passionate about games and working together.  Being part of an indie team is like being in a band, each person has to take on a role and love being part of the drama.  We don’t just like playing games, we love making them because we can share the often crazy insane roller-coaster ride known as game development.

Tell us about your history as a game developer, previous efforts, etc.

V7 formed last year but the team has been working together on various projects for a few years.  We’ve worked on all different types of projects, games, and platforms together ranging from console, mobile, short films, and web games.  Recently, we won office space in a business incubator competition.  But when V7 first started out we worked in a dark room in an old warehouse, moved on to working in a buddy’s small kitchen (one of us had to even work on top of the stove), then over to a garage during winter (crammed in with computers and lawnmowers).  Starting out is hard but a memorable adventure.

If you had to pick one specific game to describe as your inspiration (for this game or in general), what would it be?

We didn’t have a specific game that inspired us for Esoterica America per-se.  However, we were influenced and inspired by many of the old adventure games from long past and a few flash games we found to be hilarious.  We wanted Esoterica America to be light-hearted and about exploring a world unfamiliar to most people; secret societies.

Have you in the past, or do you currently have plans to work in any other platform?  What made you decide to develop for XBLIG?

Yes, we’ve previously worked on various projects and platforms and do have plans to work on more platforms like mobile.  We decided to develop for XBLIG because we created a tool that gets Flash running on an Xbox 360.  We initially created the tool to easily create our UI and such, but we wanted to see if we could push it to create a small game.  The plan for Esoterica America was born and we proceeded to work on it to test out our tool.

How long did you spend on development?  Can you explain, roughly, how the development process worked for you? What tools and programs did you work with?

We spent between 3 – 4 months on the development mostly in our part-time.  We have a few large projects on the go so typically worked on Esoterica America during the evenings.

Our development process is based on Agile and we focus on rapid iterating.  We also focused on creating tools that encourage the tightest iteration loop possible.  For example, with our Flash-in-XNA tool (FiX), our designers and artists were often able to work completely independently to create and test assets.  Flash is a fairly easy and familiar environment to work on so they wouldn’t need to interface with programmers to try out things.  Having good tools for your development team is a huge key and big pay-off when you reach production.

A game’s soundtrack can make or break a game, tell us how you selected yours. Did you produce in house, team up with a music producer or simply purchase royalty free music?

The majority of music in Esoterica America is royalty-free music.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t find the time to write our own music for the project.  However, we found some really good royalty free tracks.  We do have a few musicians on the team, some of whom used to tour with bands, and we do plan on writing our own tracks for any upcoming titles.

If you had to pick one thing that you would improve or simply do differently in regards the game’s development what would it be?

Scoping is always the hardest part of game development.  There’s a popular adage/cliché that’s “a game is never done, you just run out of time” (borrowed from the movie industry). Our initial concepts of the game look completely different from the end product.  Originally, Esoterica America was planned to be a simple point & click game but mid-way through the development we decided we could upscale the experience and create a small world with a character to explore with because we discovered we could pull if off relatively quickly with FiX.  However, in the end we probably had to cut almost 50% of what we had designed because of time and size issues. That’s the challenge with game development and creating new tools because everything is virtually created from scratch.  Meaning every new tool or project has unexpected bugs and challenges which make it very hard to schedule and/or scope a project accurately.

However, with each new project and refinement of tools we’ll get better at accurately estimating our timelines and scope.

How much do reviews, ratings and other feedback of your games affect the development process for future releases?

Reviews, ratings, and feedback can have an affect on the development of future releases.  As developers, we can miss something because we’re too close to the project.  Additionally, reviews typically reinforce our ideas on what was good or lacking in the game.  We typically compile everything into a post-mortem on the game to learn from for lessons on future releases.

How did you go about deciding on the name for your game and why did you end up with the title you have?  Were there any rejected titles that didn’t make the cut?

Our writer came up with the name “Esoterica America” one random night sitting in the garage and it stuck!  Luckily, it was one of the first titles to come up and we liked it and stopped there.

Tell us about your game’s virtual “box art.”  Who designed it? Was there any specific inspiration or story behind the creation process?

One of our lead designer/artists, Elmar Dela Cruz, designed the box art.  It was inspired from an old movie poster for “The Goonies” that consisted of a skull.  The skull is a significant object in esoteric subjects and symbols.  So if you look closely, the nose and teeth for the skull on the box art of Esoterica America is made up of characters from the game.

Many gamers dream of making their own games, what advice would you give someone hoping to make the jump from gamer to developer?

Advice to budding developers out there is to ensure you have patience and passion.  Making games is an incredibly difficult but satisfying experience only if you have a good helping of the two.  Start by grabbing an engine and making small prototypes of anything and avoid making huge detailed design documents before getting a prototype on the screen.

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?

We believe XBLIG to be a great platform to experiment and try new things.  However, access to easier tools and/or engines could improve the platform.  For example, Esoterica America was created mostly by a small team of designers and artists who had no C#/XNA background knowlege because they could use our FiX tool.  V7 hopes to eventually release our tools to the independent community in some fashion to help other indies develop their own titles.  XBLIG is an incredible channel to gain access to the Xbox 360, the next step would be to make platform accessible to those budding developers who may not have all the skills of a top-notch programmer.

What we believe could improve the service as a whole would be to lift off the pricing constraints completely and let developers choose whatever price to charge for their title from free to the price of a retail AAA game.  Additionally, increasing the size limit would help in encouraging to create rich game experiences.

What can fans of your game(s) expect in the not too distant future?

We’re currently working with a new indie team who are using our tools to create their own game.  They plan on launching their title at the end of summer.  We’re working with them to evaluate if our tools are robust enough to hand over more fellow indie developers.  We continue to look for other indies to work with and co-produce titles.

Additionally, we have a major game project being planned out but we have a bunch of small indie game ideas that we want to try producing in our spare time along the way.

Anything else you would like to say?

Glad to do the interview, if anybody is looking for ass-whuppin in NHL (we’re Canadian, so we love hockey) our gamertag is: V7Entertainment.  We’ll gladly play you!

Add Esoterica America to your download queue!

Last week I reviewed a game based around pooping on things that, while built on solid game play mechanics, was still built on sophomoric humor.  This week I do a 180, from poop to a mysterious story involving secret societies and religious cults.  Esoterica America is a stylized, modified point and click adventure that follows a young man’s quest to discover what happened to his father, and the true circumstances behind his supposed death.

To be totally honest I did not select Esoterica America for this week’s XBLIG Spotlight because the gameplay in the demo really wowed me, because, to continue being honest, it didn’t. What did peek my interest though was something truly unique on the XBLIG marketplace.  Esoterica America doesn’t look like any other XBLIG I’ve played.  More so, it is only the second game I’ve played with a large amount of in-game character audio.  Additionally, the game offered much more of a storyline than many of its’ counterparts on the service which are more often simple arcade style, get the most points in a round, type of games.

In this account, Esoterica America does stand above much of the competition.  Clover is the only other game that springs to mind that has a more involved story and more character audio.  The game also packs quite a bit of style.  Most of the game is fairly basic visually, but the grayscale color scheme fits the mood of the game and perfectly contrast the “meditation” moments, which are, you guessed it, brightly colored.  The story is about a character kind of washed out by the real world and when you experience this world you begin to understand why.  One problem visually though was the dialogue of characters that weren’t “cut scenes,” which was small and difficult to read.

Story wise the game does get bogged down in explaining what all the different cults and secret societies are about.  Large sections of dialogue feel more like reading a brochure than natural conversation.  The game also suffers from jumping around rather quickly; with each visit to a secret societies’ apparently not so secret clubhouse going rather quickly.  In each location you will have to meditate (which is a sort of mini game) and then solve some sort of puzzle (another mini game) in order to reach a higher understanding and help the club leader/master with some sort of personal problem.  The general story and concept is interesting, but the process does feel corny in the execution.  Basically a few unimpressive words of advice make one man realize he should accept his gay son for example.

Esoterica America’s mini games work for the most part.  The meditation game is the one that feels most like an actual game (increasing in difficulty with each iteration as well) and the short puzzles vary from somewhat confusing to pretty straightforward and easy.  The key to all of them is to talk to everyone at a location and unlock a new page in Esoterica America, which is the book your character is carrying with him.  Each location basically has one character who will unlock all the info (by info I mean page) that will allow you to solve the puzzle.

There were two things about Esoterica America though that really bothered me.  One was that the main character was the weakest voice actor; not only did the voice not really match the character visually but it was also a little annoying.  Also on the issue of audio, there are some serious quality issues throughout. Parts where the different audio takes didn’t match up volume wise and a large amount of “pops” that come from speaking directly into a microphone with no pop-filter.  Esoterica America would have been significantly better had more time and care gone into recording the character audio and greater effort been made in the editing of said audio.  Pop filters are cheap, and even if using a free audio editor like Audacity (which is great for recording but if you want to incorporate quality audio you should spring for something with more power in the editing department) you simply need to put a fair amount of work into making it sound good.

The second main thing that bothered me was the cliffhanger ending.  Esoterica America is apparently an “episode 1.”  Or so the final scene about what will come next in Esoterica America certainly seems to imply.  The fact that nothing in the game’s title or description states this is really my issue; I thought the game was moving along a bit brisk but was totally caught off guard when it suddenly ended without much conclusion.  I do not have a problem with episodic gaming, especially of this type (I think trying to put too much into the game at one time would have ruined it), but it should be labeled as such.  If it isn’t actually intended to be episodic than the ending was just downright confusing/un-satisfying.

In short, Esoterica America deserves attention for, if nothing else, being a unique offering on the service.  The developers have attempted to offer a very different type of XBLIG and despite flaws, both in game design and production quality, still manages to make a interesting and fun game; emphasis would be on interesting though.  Overlooking the abrupt ending and audio flaws is hard to do, and in fact I simply couldn’t in terms of my final score, but I really do have to approve of the developer’s attempt to really do something different and take a risk.  I’m not sure it paid off entirely as well as they had hoped, but there is a lot of potential (whether in this series or just their future projects).

Final Rating: 7/10

CBR Break Down:
Console Played On: Xbox 360 – XBLIG
Approximate Time to Completion: 2 hours
Gamer Score Earned: N/A
Price Bought at: N/A – Review copy furnished by V7 Entertainment Inc.
Current Price: 240 Microsoft Points ($3)
Recommend Purchase Price: Current pricing limits means it can’t go cheaper
Add Esoterica America to your download queue!

That’s right, V7 Entertainment has been kind enough to give us a couple extra download tokens (codes) so that we can two of you your very own esoteric adventure in the form of Esoterica America! You can gain up to three entries, please read the details on how to enter below:

First entry: Esoterica America is all about secret societies and we all know those are always tied to conspiracy theories, so we want you to tell us your favorite conspiracy theory; and no, we don’t mean that so-so movie starring Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts.

Second entry: Follow us on twitter and send the following tweet:

@ClearanceBinRev is giving away the #XBLIG Esoterica America! #Xbox, Find out how you could win by going to: http://bit.ly/qJKOh4

Remember that you have to follow us; any winner we attempt to DM via Twitter who isn’t, automatically forfeits their win. If you enter via Twitter include your twitter name in your post below, winners who have their twitter listed will receive their codes immediately after winning.

 

 

Third Entry: Like our Facebook page and then simply like the post on our wall for this article.  Simple as that. (Keep in mind the article may be lower on the Facebook page towards the end of the contest and it may take a minute or two to post on FB)

Contest will go until Wednesday at 8pm CST.  A pool of all eligible entries will then be randomly selected from and the winners will be notified. CBR reserves the right to disqualify any entry we feel either violated the rules or spirit of the contest, including attempts at duplicate entries. Winner selected with no twitter name provided will be notified by email and have 24 hours to respond.  We do not announce the names of contest winners, but do encourage them to post about their win.

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About Tristan Rendo

I've made movies, written and performed music, and in January of 2011 got bored and started the awesome gaming site you see before you. My gaming roots began with the original NES, and endless hours spent spilling quarters into machines at the local arcade. I have a personal collection of over 200 Nintendo 64 games, and for many years it was the only system I owned. I re-entered the modern generation of gaming consoles when I decided to purchase a 360. I typically prefer the single player experience of games, so I’m usually playing through some single-player campaign, but can occasionally be found doing some damage in Halo Reach.