1) Tell us a bit about the submission process. Has Microsoft known about your game for ages, or did you have it complete prior to submission?
What headaches did you have with the publishing process?
You know, I've barely come within a hundred miles of a Microsoft employee at any point during the process. When I announced the game back in November 11, I think I got a "Good luck" from a member of support staff, though I'd generally put that down more to a genuinely interested person behind that account than to the company as a whole. However, I didn't hear a peep from them throughout the production process and when it came to joining the Microsoft App Hub it was pretty much all automated. It did go a bit wrong and I was forced to contact support there. After a week or so I got a reply, but it was all a bit FAQ-ey and I'd already sussed it myself. The peer review was just that: A QA process completely automated except for the passes, which were given by my fellow indie game developers. Again, no real sign of Microsoft there.
After quite a long winded public announcement that I'd be releasing PowerUp on Friday 13th of September, on hitting the Publish button I found that Microsoft had picked that day to overhaul their XBLA system and to bring it in line with XBox One, so of course, it all fell over. Repeatedly... I sort of realised that this was all out of my control, so I just hung in there while they resolved it, but PowerUp ended up being a day late, seemingly as a result. Again, Microsoft themselves made no appearance over the issue though. I did actually get a Tweet from support the next day, asking me if they could help with anything. It turns out that some of my followers had got their attention over the matter.
I thanked them, but declined the offer as the problem had innevitably resolved itself and PowerUp had been released the following Saturday. I'm not upset about any of it. They're a big, and busy company with huge updates of their system in progress. I doubt as a company, they even noticed one little bedroom coder trying to get his indie game out. What matters is that it got there.
Then again, I've been having trouble setting up my account to get me paid lately. At the moment there's all kinds of Tax treaty issues to sort out and while I'm doing what I can from my end, I'm having very little luck getting in touch with someone who has a clue at their end. It's not ideal really when you've done the work and you need the cash. I hope that dealing with all the big publishers isn't this troublesome when it comes to getting paid. I'm sure it'll get resolved though. I'm not worried.
2) What was your biggest worry from a programmer's POV? What bugs gave you the hardest time?
Two things spring directly to mind with that question. Having made loads of my own little games with Director in my time, I've improved greatly on things like slick controls, solid collision detection and believeable AI. Admittedly, bullet patterns was a subject of some head-scratching when creating PowerUp, as was the issue of aimed projectiles, spacially aware enemies and bosses that fought using numerous, and sometimes slightly randomised patterns. It took a bit of work, but with the bare minimum of Google-searching for help, I managed to get my head around the vast majority of that with fairly little fuss.
One of the less intuitive processes, and one which was hard earned and thoroughly fought for was that of saving data. That took AGES! In the end, I had to cobble together my solution from a number of different how-tos on the subject, sometimes changing my own bits of artist-code (that's my equivalent of coder-art) in the process... It was a few weeks work, and I gave up on the task several times. At one point, I even looked at the option of pulling out all save data and making do with a game that didn't save... but my idea for unlockable paintjobs, and my determination to see that come to fruition drove me on and in the end I came through and made it happen! I've never had quite as many headaches in quick succession as I had while figuring out that save data thing.
...and then, just when I thought it was all over, my Xbox refused to share my PC's solution! I had to learn it all over again, but a slightly different way. Suddenly I was back in headache territory for another few weeks, but I stuck with it! I'd come this far and besides, I'd learned a lot from doing it on PC. I applied a vague understanding of serialisation to the problem (an understanding that fades daily, though if I forget, at least I now have the code to refer to in future) and soon had it working on Xbox too. That was the biggest coding headache I think, as it was an area I'd never covered before.
A close second though, was optimisation. Basically, while making the game, I was throwing in each animation as a seperate image as and when I needed it. By the time I came to test PowerUp on the Xbox device, I had close to three hundred image files loading at the beginning of the game... the problem here being that the Xbox 360 is a pretty old machine. It's slow, it's clunky and it has a real problem with what they call "seeking". This means finding individual files. It was taking around a third of a second to load each one, and as a result, PowerUp was taking MINUTES to load! This would be fine if we were talking about a Spectrum +2 game, but we're not. It wasn't acceptible on Xbox and after some research, I realised that I'd have to pull out all of my graphics, stick them on as small a collection of 4096x4096 sheets as I could manage, then load them in batches, prefarably as the game needed them.
Don't ask me how I managed this. It took me weeks and I was very VERY focussed on the job. The whole time I remember one predominant thought: "What if all this doesn't work?" It didn't bear thinking about, but thank goodness, it did work. Re-routing every single piece of art in the game to sprite sheets, then writing my own little bit of code to include a search for the horizontal and vertical position of specific animation frames into the Animation class (a relatively low-level task that I was really proud of myself for managing), I was able to reduce loading time from around 2 minutes to around 20 seconds. Good enough!
But this was extra rewarded when something behind the scenes happened in the Microsoft publishing process to shave off a further 15 seconds. PowerUp now loads in about 5 seconds, with small 5 second load times between levels. That's really good! Much better than I even expected... in fact, I've just read a review that praises the game for its nearly non-existant load times, and when you've fought it down from two minutes, you can't say fairer than that! That was SO worth the headaches!
3) What's your kickback on each title sold? Does a percentage go to Microsoft?
Yeah, basically, Microsoft take 30%. I think the UK government take something similar, and I've got a lot of tax treaty forms to fill out if I don't want the US government to take YET ANOTHER 30%! It's a minefield! ...and just so we're clear on this, there's NOBODY to walk you though it. Believe me, I've done the 40 minute Microsoft calls, finding that out. I'm just having to read, re-read, and absorb what little info there is viw tha App Hub site on what needs to be done. I'm kinda half way through the process but getting guidance from somebody who'll take ownership really is a blood from a stone scenario. I've got a bit of time to get it sorted because Microsoft hang on to your cash for as long as possible. They pay quarterly with the first payment coming 45 days after the launch-quarter ends. That's a month and a half after the end of September I think. Financially it's not ideal for a penniless indie like me... things are probably going to get worse before they get better. Again, I hope it's not always like this for indies when publishing through big corporations.
4) Did your KickStarter fund everything you needed? Or were there unexpected bills? How did you like that whole process?
It did, sort of. I was careful to price it all properly. There were a few disapointments though. For example, I really wanted a hard copy of 3DS Max but the reseller, whose details I got directly through Autodesk only dealt with digital copies and even then it took a bit of negotiating to get the price down to a reasonable one. I don't mind though, as long as I own a copy of the package which I can access whenever I need to. If they withdrew it for some reason and tried to make me pay again, I'd have to make a fuss... still, when you're a small operation like myself, it's issues like that that keep you up at night. If only they could all be like Steinberg: You make your order, you pay your money, and a few days later, a boxed copy of Cubase arrives in the post! Perfect!
But overall, I got all the software I set out to get. I also got the Mac Mini I'd stretched for, so it was all good there. I can't remember the particulars of it now, but the taxes and costs came up to more than I expected. That said, that may have been my own fault for not accounting quite as thoroughly as I'd previously thought so I have to take some responsibility for that. One area that this may have affected is the cost of postage. I did account for it in the actual campaign. I went to the local post office and picked up the cost of posting an A3 print/drawing internationally, then I included it on the cost of those tiers... but I think that this cost got lost in the extra overheads. One thing's for sure, I haven't since recieved it as a seperate payment from the Kickstarter site. It's ok though. I'll just cover it myself. I get paid at the end of the month for my part time work. Hopefully I can cover printing and postage with that. It's worth it to be square with what I owe my Kickstarter backers.
5) Now that it's out, what are you thinking? How was that first hour? Do you get to see how many sales you've made? Are you satisfied on that front so far?
Well at first it was amazing. On the Friday night, Jo (my partner) and I went to bed a little downbeat. the day had pretty much passed and PowerUp was a no show on release day. Saturday morning however, was another story. At 5AM, I bolted up in my bed, grabbed my phone and checked my Twitter feed. It turns out that at about 1AM (GMT), tweets had gone from "MICROSOFT, YOU ******!! WHERE IS POWERUP???!!!" To "OMG! IT'S HERE!!!". then much to my delight, this soon turned into "OMG!! IT'S GOOD!!". That was it. I raced downstairs and bought a copy. (I'd given all my free ones away). For a good hour or so, I played PowerUp like I'd never played it before and a feeling only comparable to those early childhood christmas mornings came over me. The rest of the day was just wierd. While the outrside world was talking about PowerUp, in our house it was just a normal Saturday. I read a rave review, then went to buy the dogs some pigs ears. I saw my game at the top of the highest rated XBLIG games..... then I did the dishes. It was that sort of a day, but throughout it I was buzzing. I mean litterally buzzing!
Jo's been obsessively checking for sales, but believe it or not, there's no report of that yet. Officially my sales are at $0. Gosh, I hope that's not the case... in fact I KNOW that's not the case as I bought a copy myself! I think it has something to do with this long winded Microsoft payment thing. It's early days yet though. Maybe they update it weekly or something. What we did get is the daily report of downloads. Over the first week end it was at almost 800 trial downloads. On monday, it slowed down a bit but I'm comfortably over a thousand now. Not bad for the first few days. I hope it keeps up. I'm told it typically slows in the week and picks up in the week ends... I'm told that the XBLIG store is a bit unpredictable and things really pick up when you follow up on PC... I'm told a lot of things. Untimately, if the Xbox version, alongside my part time day job makes me enough to pay the bills while I make the PC version, and the PC version in turn makes enough to sustain me while I get the Mobile versions out, and the whole lot combined make enough to keep me going while I get into my next project, I'll be happy with that.
6) What next? Port to other systems? Sequel? Another genre? Power Up: The Movie? Or are you running away screaming like a little girl from the entire industry?
Haha. Nooo! I've been through and learned far too much to just back out now. The worst case scenario is that when all's said and done, I end up not getting paid, or I get paid so little as for this not to be a realistic career path.But if I can keep the part time work coming we'll still be surviving and I'll still get to make my own games for the sheer love of it. I'm optimistic that all this work will pay off though and that Jo and I will have a better lifestyle than the current, somewhat desperate scratching of a living common to too many people these days.
Whatever happens, my plan is to stick with the programme. I'm going to get PowerUp to PC this year. I've commissioned the iOS, Android and Ouya versions over next year and while they're in the works I'll be looking at my next project. I'm thinking of tackling another retro genre with another audio/visual style. The idea I'm settling on is quite different to PowerUp, but I think you'll like it. I still might change my mind between now and getting underway, so I won't go into any detail yet. Just keep an eye on my Twitter feed in the new year. You know me. I'm not secretive. I like to learn and share as I go.