Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Ouya newbies: First-time developers bet big on $99 Android console How 4 indie devs are realizing their dream to get a game into the living room.

Marco Williams never knew how hard game development would be. He and the team at Hashbang Games—which included his brother and his best friend—spent eight months working on Orbital Blaster, a space shooter that pays homage to games like Galaga. The development process was riddled with problems from the get-go, and even the process of making a simple game turned out to be a bigger endeavor than expected. To make matters worse, Williams' effort to fund the game's development on Kickstarter failed at around three percent of its $75,000 funding goal.
“I've never designed and developed games before,” he admitted to Ars over the telephone. “I have a 15-year background of programming, but I've never successfully designed and launched a game.”
It was in the middle of the Kickstarter campaign that Williams was inspired to try his hand at full-scale game development for the first time. His inspiration was based on the promise behind one word:Ouya. The $99 cube-shaped, Android-powered, TV game console has been generating intense interest from independent game developers new and old since it attracted the support of 63,416 Kickstarter backers last year. The system will ship out to its initial backers on March 28 (ahead of a June launch to the general public), so many developers are gearing up to finally see their games on their living room TVs for first time. Heck, many will be seeing their game simply become playable for the first time.
Of the 480 launch titles compiled by one Ouya fan forum, a great number are being made by small-time developers with little to no experience making games. There really aren't any big budget, triple-A titles to speak of unless you count a few indie success stories that are porting their titles over from iOS and Android. Overwhelmingly, the Ouya's first crop of developers are regular people who see the system as their chance to break into the game industry—on a device that's geared toward people just like them.
You might think these developers would want to try their hand at developing for the established PC or mobile platforms. After all, it's a risk to develop for an unreleased console being made by an Internet startup with no track record and no proven market share. But when talking to a few first-time developers who are supporting the Ouya in a big way, the same message is heard again and again. This tiny, unproven box represents a way to fulfill their dream of getting a game on their TV set. It can turn indie gaming into something bigger than it is now.

Mobile is OK, but console is better

“If the Ouya was not launching, I would still be doing mobile contracting right now,” said Zachary Burke, one half of the two-man development team at Hypercane Studios. “My previous day job was mobile development…kind of the hot place to be right now.”
Zachary and his brother Jacob have been working on Rage Runner for the past six months. Zachary handles the development, Jacob handles the art, and the soundtrack is provided royalty-free by an artist named TeknoaxRage Runner is a three-dimensional, fast-paced obstacle avoidance game that feels quite a bit like the mobile title Star Wars: Trench Run. Each level takes about a minute to play flawlessly, but Zachary said that “typically you die so many times it’s more like 20 minutes.”

Hypercane Studios had originally planned on heading straight for the PC and using Steam as its distributor. But when the Ouya came along, Jacob said the duo was “stoked about this console for indie developers." The Android-based console seemed to address a lot of the issues that had the pair discounting mobile game development in the first place. "We've just gotten a sour taste for mobile development,” Jacob told Ars. “I myself, as an artist, hate limitations. That’s why the Ouya is so nice: it allows me to do higher poly counts and a lot more than we can do on mobile.”
For Zachary, the Ouya's physical, dual-stick controller was one of the big reasons the Hypercane team chose the console for the debut of their first gaming creation. “If you compare the amount of control you have on a phone with the amount of control on an old school Nintendo controller, you’re much more accurate on the latter,” he explained. “We were really interested in games that use physical controllers and that are four-player simultaneous on one screen, and that’s something you just can’t do on mobile right now."
Zachary also feels that platforms like the Xbox just don't seem as accommodating to indie developers. "I don't like the Xbox Indie Games [section]...They have that whole thing locked down and then they have a maximum file size you can't exceed." He added that "they kind of tuck away the indie games behind several different menus—I don't feel like they're front and center and I don't feel like they treat you like a real developer. It just feels something that's kind of behind the area for 'sad' games to live."
To keep Rage Runner evolving and to keep the community engaged well beyond this initial launch, players will be able to create their own levels and then publish them to share with others in the community. But the pair is already worried about the long-term financial implications of remotely storing those customized levels and things like players' high scores. “We’re really concerned about breaking even on server cost,” Zachary said. “A flat purchase fee… we would lose money on, and we obviously want to avoid that situation.” He added that they’ll be looking at in-app purchases to allow players to unblock certain features as a revenue model.

The level editor that Hypercane Studios developed for Rage Runner.

Despite this challenge, the brothers remain optimistic about their future—and the Ouya’s. Zachary is particularly positive about Ouya’s recent announcement that it would be launching updated hardware every year. “You know you’re going to be able to unlock more graphics capabilities and have more power to work it,” he said. On the other hand, “it will be a little more work to make sure it runs… At least with the Ouya, it’s going to be one vendor, different hardware.”
Zachary is also looking forward to the opportunities the Ouya will bring. "We were just thrilled at the chance to have our game on people's TVs in their living room. That's not an opportunity that's been available to us in the past." He added that while they hope to be hugely successful, "if we just get our name on the map and we get a couple of fans out of it, I'm going to be pretty happy with that."

Making games for a better cause

Across the Pacific Ocean from Hypercane's efforts, Kamil Czajko and the first-time developers at Australia's Kactus Games are putting the finishing touches on an Ouya role-playing game called Legacy of BarubashThe game puts players in the role of Kaleb, a young hunter who is forced to venture out of the small village he always called home in order to save it. The ambitious team is trying to combine the story mechanics of a title like Dragon Age in a two-dimensional, classic Square Enix-like package. “All of the team members have grown up with video games,” the game's website says. “We wanted to best of the JPRG with what we enjoyed from the western style RPGs, as well as to make something more complex than a casual game for the Android platform.”
Kactus Games consists of Czajko and his wife Sue, who acts as art director, writer, and world creator, along with art assistant Jonathon Morald and a couple contractors in the Netherlands and New York who work on sound and art assets. The team is devoting significant resources to its first indie title. A blog post on the site details how Gina Zdanowicz, the New York-based contractor, recorded the theme music for one of the characters using the live recording of a harpist and a soprano at Serial Lab Studios.

Czajko admitted that while the project has been stressful at times, the team works well together regardless of the oceans between them. He also noted how well he and his wife work together.

In building Legacy of Barubash from scratch, Czajko said the team ran in to some limitations with the Android platform. “Initially, we were making a much smaller game,” he told Ars. "The way that Android handles memory, combined with the way that we had designed the game, caused issues." To get around this, Czajko moved the resources out of his handmade engine and into Open GL. This required coding up an entirely new engine. “There was significant work required to make a real 3D Open GL world accept our fake 3D (isometric) objects and have everything sync and line up correctly.” He later explained that the engine he built could "fit the assets after the requirements changed [for Android], before the Ouya was even announced."

A photo from one of Serial Lab Studios' recording sessions for Legacy of Barubash.

For Kactus Games, Legacy of Barubash is not just about breaking into gaming, but about simultaneously trying to make that world a bit better. The company will share some of its revenue with partner charities. “At the moment, we’re an authorized fundraiser for Medicins San Frontieres [Doctors without Borders],” Czajko said. The team hopes to work with other charities as well, but Czajko explained that “[Australian] regulations on collecting funds for charities have complicated things, and some charities are completely uninterested in receiving funds from video games.”
Kactus Games hopes that it can send at least 20 percent of all gross income directly to charity, but this isn't entirely settled. Sales made through the Ouya Store (or the Google Play store, for the phone and tablet version) get 30 percent of the price taken off the top, which leaves Kactus Games with only 50 percent of the revenue after the charity cut. If the players go through PayPal, the team gets a bigger share since PayPal only charges 2.4 percent off the top. Right now, Czajko and his wife are paying their contractors and covering all expenses by borrowing against their mortgage and relying on a bit of help from their family. It's safe to say that there's a lot riding on the team's success.

 A quick look at how Czajko edits Legacy of Barubash.

When he’s not working on the game, Czajko works as a VOIP engineer and contract programmer. Though his hours on the day job are flexible, Czajko still ends up devoting the equivalent of a full-time job working on Legacy of Barubash. “I’ve always wanted to make games, and if I can do it while helping charity, then that’s even better,” Czajko said. “I really want to help the bottom billion, and I realized that working a nine-to-five job and spending 10 hours a week driving to and from work limited what I could do.”
Czajko is hopeful that Ouya will help evolve what is expected in Android gaming. "[Ouya is] one of the first devices that fills the niche of playing your Android games on the couch in front of the TV. Hopefully we will see more developers move away from making gambling games and games you can only play for five minutes at a time." He believes the biggest strength of the Ouya is that it's built around the standard Android platform. This in turn makes it easier to develop for. "I know there will be resistance, since controlling the store is where the most money is made, but giving choice back to the people that buy the games and systems to use in the way they want will be beneficial for the ecosystem as a whole. This is a future I'd like to be a part of."

What dreams are made of

“I’ve always wanted to be a video game designer, since as long as I can remember,” Ethan Redd told Ars. The 19-year-old game developer delayed his first semester at New York University to work on producing his own title for the Ouya console—and he’s doing it all by himself. “I’m actually composing the whole [soundtrack] myself and using mostly open source software right now,” he explained. Redd includes Blender 3D,, and Linux MultiMedia Studio among the software in his arsenal.
Redd's project is called 8-bit Ninjas, and he refers to it as a “neo-retro arcade game designed to be like what you would expect to see in an arcade cabinet.” It’s played with a bit of a twist, however: the player can only kill enemies by destroying the environment surrounding them. “As you destroy the level, they fall into a bottomless pit,” he explained. “You can’t directly hurt the enemies—you have to be sly about it.”

When the Ouya was announced, Redd figured that this would be his shot at actually breaking into the gaming industry. He was particularly intrigued by how open the platform seemed. “It’s really the first time a no-name could actually go out and develop for a new platform without all of the corporate rigmarole that you have to go through on an average project,” he said.
The original prototype for 8-bit Ninjas was developed as a Blender 3D project back in 2009, when Redd was dabbling with game design in high school. “It wasn't really made for anything; it just sort of ran on my computer,” he recalled. He’s spent the last year rewriting 8-bit Ninjas twice over: once to get it out of Blender’s open source software and into Unity (which supports Android/Ouya exporting) and the second time to optimize the gameplay.
When asked why he didn't just pursue mobile development, Redd answered that smartphones didn't interest him because of the complexity and dissociation between controls. “You have buttons on an analog stick; you know exactly what’s going on as a player. When you have a touchscreen there’s a lot more interpretation going on. There’s a lot less directing you can actually do for how the game should be played.”
Because Redd didn't make the deadline to sign up for an Ouya developer kit, he uses a Nexus 7 to test all of his gameplay. “Ouya is basically like an overclocked Nexus 7 from what I get. Between that and some PS2 controllers, I get a general gist of the feel.”
When compared to many other game developers using Ouya to break into the market, Redd literally has nothing to lose. He’s currently living with his parents in northern New York state and working odd jobs for quick cash. “[They're] supporting me in the non-virtual world,” he joked. As for NYU, Redd explained that the university is holding his spot for him until later this year per a special deferment program offered to newly admitted students. To get that deferment, Redd had to submit a plan for his "off time" for approval by the school authorities, who eventually decided that making a game for the Ouya was a legitimate reason for putting off school.
After school starts—and after the Ouya has hit store shelves and the Kickstarter funders have their time with their long-awaited consoles—Redd said he’ll continue developing for the platform (though according to his site he has plans to distribute to the PC, Mac, and Linux as well). “I really believe in the concept for many reasons,” he said. “The price is opening up a whole new market of gamers who would love to participating in this stuff but just can’t afford it… with Ouya you get a full console that’s at least PS2 caliber for $99.”
Even if the game is a flop, Redd said he'll be comforted by the fact that this was a genuine learning experience in game development. After all, it's what might be in store for him when he finally graduates college with a planned double major in computer science and electrical engineering (he's also hoping to pick up a minor along the way). “I got to learn what a real launch is like... to learn what it's really like to be in this industry that I intend to make my career. If it takes off, that's an early start."

Waiting to launch

After running into a funding and developmental wall with Orbital Blaster (the first game highlighted here), Marco Williams' brother and best friend left game development and switched gears to begin development for the Ouya. He has since hired a team to work full-time on development while he continues working his day job. Their new project, Gravi, is an intense puzzle-platform that Hashbang's site says will "test your tolerance for pain." Oddly enough, after months of constant problems onOrbital Blaster, the team managed to build a working prototype for Gravi in 10 days at an Ouya-focused game jam.
Williams chose the Ouya precisely because it’s catered to this very niche group of gamers and programmers. “[We’re] taking a risk and thinking that it’s going to be a successful game console…[The Ouya team are all] working really hard to make the best product possible and they listen to what the developers are asking for, what the consumers are asking for, and they're incorporating as much stuff as they can in that box."

Gameplay footage from Gravi.

A month after the first conversation, we spoke to Williams again. It was right after Ouya announcedthat it would switch over to an annual hardware upgrade model, just as Apple and Android have managed with their smartphone and tablet devices. "To be quite honest, I was not excited about this announcement at all," he told Ars. "I truly feel that this decision defeats the purpose of calling it a game console." At best, Williams wants to see Ouya pull back the reins on the upgrade model and spread out console iterations across a couple of years. "This affects how games will be made for Ouya as developers will have to develop at the lowest common denominator. Even when you have faster hardware, the games really won't improve at the hardware rate because the developer will need to develop for backwards compatibility."
Hashbang Games is now targeting a PC release for Gravi before the Ouya shows up on store shelves in June, and the game is up on Steam's Greenlight (you can apply for a private beta if you're interested). Ideally, this should allow some time for beta testing. "We actually made a big breakthrough on some performance items, so with any luck we just might make that March 28 Ouya launch after all," said Williams. "If we don't make it, we'll for sure make it by June." Despite his disappointment in the upgrade model, Williams looks forward to the expected "big boom" that will inevitably follow once the device hits store shelves. His bottom line: "we are still excited about the Ouya and all of its opportunity for indie developers."

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