Xona Games Interview

Halloween Props to Induce the Element of Horror into the Party

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Xona Games Interview

Xona Games has always had a place in my heart (considering the fact that they are so close by!) ever since I read an article in the business section of a local newspaper about them. They were inspiring – heroes. So I had to contact them for an interview about the company and the retro games they make as well as their challenges. NOTE: This interview may be a bit outdated as I asked the questions weeks ago and just recently got the reply – sorry about that.

Tell us a bit about yourselves and how the business started.

Xona Games is a two-man indie game studio that started in 2008 with the coding of a Duality ZF prototype with hopes of winning Dream.Build.Play 2008. Our hopes were high, but we thought we could win the entire thing. Turns out, no. But next year we placed 7th and the year after that we placed 5th. Not bad for a worldwide gaming contest that covered over 100 countries. Our placing 7th in 2009 is what set us off in the media and put our studio on the map. Our first interview, ever, was with CBC News. (You can find a clip of it on xona.com.)

The true story starts many years early, back when Jason and I were seven years old. We got a TI-99/4A for Christmas. It was the competitor to the Commodore VIC-20, which predated the C64, in case you are not familiar with it. We started coding games then, and never stopped.

How is it like being a game developer in an area not really used for game development much (Nova Scotia, Canada)?

We’re asked this question a lot, especially considering all the help we get from Nova Scotia and Canada to attend GDC each year. This is how we have a GDC booth. It’s not free, by any means, and it always is an expensive trip for any indie studio, but we are helped. And the push to go to GDC was from our government. Governments tend to get trashed on but it was specifically a few individuals, Chris Richards and Jayson Hilchie, who taught us that we belonged at GDC, when we thought we didn’t. News to us. We fit right in.

So, the answer to your question is biased, for a few reasons. Firstly, we’d be doing games regardless of where we are from. We just happen to be in Nova Scotia. Secondly, Nova Scotia helped us connect with the rest of the world precisely because they want to grow their tech sector, so being in a non-gaming place is what helps us game. So to answer, it is amazing to be here. And, even without the help, we’d still love it. Nova Scotia is beautiful.

Agreed. Nice beaches. What can you tell us about your latest games and the “intense retro” style?

Our latest release have been Score Rush and Decimation X3, both #1 rated games in Japan on the Xbox LIVE Indie Games channel*. Our games are basically recreations of games from our youth. Rather, recreations of games we wanted to code in our youth. Decimation X has a TI Invaders feel, and we developed many precursors to it. Score Rush is a game mode removed from Duality ZF that we decided to release on its own, where as Duality ZF has a Raiden and Thunder Force feel.

Our games are our own. I feel the need to state that clearly. There’s nothing like them. We innovate, although game reviewers are rarely qualified nor experienced enough to understand the innovations. The shmup genre is 30 years old and has matured. The subtleties within it can only be appreciated by those in touch with the history of gaming, as Jason and I are.

Our games are gameplay centric and skill-based. It is all about the gameplay, and depth therein. This is why we have cult followings of our games in Japan, as the games continue to work with your skill as you get better, instead of against you. It’s a difficult feature to label, but the ability to have your game be challenging and yet able to be dominated is a feature lacking in most video games. I think Jason and I have a grip on this, as we are expert gamers ourselves. We have beaten notably hard arcade games, such as OutRun and R-Type, and I just won the PAX East 2013 Geometry Wars tournament, as examples.
“Intense Retro” just means the merge between nostalgic concepts and modern day intensity and gameplay. To be clear, we bring back the experience that was had 20 years ago, not the games.

*That’s, of course, before our ratings were hacked down. We told Microsoft to fix this as we have to mention this fact each and every time we speak about one of our top achievements, and here I am again jumping on a negative when the feeling should be positive.

What game was your favourite to work on? Why?

Score Rush was, as it was mostly my design as I worked on it while Jason worked on Decimation X3 which was mostly his design.

How have Xbox Live indie games and Windows Phone treated you?

Xbox LIVE Indie Games and the Windows Phone 7 platforms are among the worst well-known platforms out there, for sales. Our sales were so bad, however good by comparison to other games on the same system, that we’ve lost contracts to sell our games on other platforms. So not only did they sting us once, they indirectly stung us again.

I think it’s important to be truthful when the truth matters.

This type of pain happens with most indie developers. We all must find our own way. If it hasn’t happened to a dev team, then they were either lucky enough or talented enough, or both, to skip the pain. Lucky devs.

Counter point, XBLIG and XNA have been amazing first steps for us to make it in the industry. But it would be unfair to let other upcoming game developers think they can succeed on XBLIG without selling out and making Minecraft clones and avatar games. I’m not interested in making games based on the market and also based on the wild west nature of the XBLIG storefront, so that’s why our games did not sell “well”. Others would disagree.

I believe there should exist a place for $1-$5 games that are not sell-outs, on a console platform that connects to a living room TV. I wished with everything I had that XBLIG would have been that solution. It could have been. Microsoft did not support it and poorly executed what was an amazing platform to be with amazing technology (XNA) behind it.

Our Xona Proposal (xona.com/proposal) was pushed to the co-founder of the XBLIG initiative to try to fix the problems, but it was ignored as was XBLIG as a whole.
Windows Phone 7 was ten times worse in sales. And go try to find Decimation X2 on a Windows Phone. You will not succeed. We don’t even show up in the search results. And we were a launch title. Ouch.

The negative side of the story said, XBLIG and XNA have allowed us to make Xbox games. And all three of them placed #1 in Japan, and, for a while, sold #1 and #2 in multiple countries. It’s amazing. People now know of Xona Games and love our work. Publishers are now waiting for our next games to bring them to better platforms. It’s sad that these platforms may not be Xbox’s. I want to make games for the TV. Maybe OUYA will be the solution. I see their “Discovery” storefront is akin to our proposal ideas.

You guys have had a ton of critical acclaim. What do you say to that?

It’s great. The positive response from gamers and game reviewers matters to us most on the days where we questions our own abilities to make great games. People have no idea what their good words and appreciation can do to others during a time of need.
We love it. And thank you all.

Any interesting or funny stories involving any of your games’ development?

Too many to mention! I’ll just pick a cool one. When I first spoke with Imphenzia, the creator of the Decimation X series and Duality ZFsoundtracks, it was over ten years ago. I very loosely promised that if I ever got into making games for real, I’d use his music. It was pretty cool to come back to him and use his music when we started making Duality ZF. Apparently, even though Duality ZF hasn’t been released yet, its success in content inspired Imphenzia to make game music and has done so for many other projects now.

It’s amazing what can happen when you involve yourself into something you love. That goes for both Imphenzia and ourselves.

Do you think you will ever move on from retro games in the future or is that the niche you are sticking with?

We will move on from it, but I believe all our games will have a retro feel and definitely will concentrate on gameplay. I cannot see us ever making a game that runs under 60 fps for example. If you ever see us make one, please ask me why and refer to this answer right here! I’ll be interested to know my own thoughts!

Do you have any tips for aspiring game devs?

Start small. Do what you love. Don’t be scared of failing. Learn from your mistakes and the mistakes of others. Balance business and pleasure if you want to do your day job with it. Make a great game. That’s the path to success as we see it.

Any parting thoughts?

Thanks for the interview. Introspection is always great!

Thanks so much for your time!



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