Skulls of the Shogun looks to simplify strategy

After working at big developers like Electronic Arts for years, the team that would come to comprise 17 Bit decided to set out and make their own games. Three years in the making, their first title, Skulls of the Shogun, is nearly ready for release.

Inspired by titles like Advance Wars and a love for 1960s anime, Skulls of the Shogun is all about simplifying the turn-based strategy genre by getting rid of everything that is not necessary. “How far can we go without losing the strategy?” asks Ben Vance from 17 Bit.

Skulls of the Shogun

One example Vance gave was earlier in the development process, players had the option to defend units or themselves to take less damage. The team saw that this made games longer and the project really did not suffer when the feature was taken out. While you may be worried the team oversimplified the game, Vance assured Skulls of the Shogun is one of those titles that is simple to play but difficult to master.

And this is not just an indie game that may or may not be noticed on Steam, Skulls of the Shogun has found a lot of support from Microsoft. When the game releases, it will not just launch on Xbox 360, but also in the Windows 8 App Store, on Windows Phone and on Microsoft’s new Surface tablet with asynchronous multiplayer between all the platforms.

“It’s fantastic,” said Vance on nearing the development finish line. “We all come from big developers and this our first smaller scale project that has our own blood, sweat and tears in it.”

Look for Skulls of the Shogun by the end of the year.

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Kickstarter a gold mine for the right project

It all started in February. Beloved indie developer Double Fine had announced they were making a classic adventure game and were funding through crowd sourcing with a Kickstarter campaign. After asking for $400,000, the project would go on to raise over $3.3 million with over 80,000 backers.

With Double Fine’s successful campaign kicking it off, game developers have raised $50 million this year alone through Kickstarter, up from only just over $3.5 million in 2011, and the industry is taking notice.

Creator of the Twisted Metal and God of War series David Jaffe told me he really likes the platform and would consider using it to fund smaller titles if the project was right, and he’s not the only one.

Obsidian Entertainment, developers of titles like Fallout: New Vegas and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2, launched a BlackspaceKickstarter last month for Project Eternity and have raised over $2.5 million as of this writing.

One indie developer trying out the platform is PixelFoundry with Blackspace, an action real-time-strategy game with a destructible open-world.

Despite the success others have found on Kickstarter, PixelFoundry is not sure if it is right for their game as the project has only raised $100,000 of the needed $350,000 with just a week to go, though the team remains optimistic.”It’s not something that we will just let go of, it just may take a little longer to get there, and we hope our fans will support it even if it doesn’t hit its release date,” said Andrea Phaneuf from the developer.

While some question the intelligence of pre-ordering a game before it has even been made, as well as criticized the platform for promoting nostalgia-laced products rather than fostering innovation, Kickstarter gives developers more control of their products and does not look like it is going anywhere soon.

Humble Indie Bundle proves strength in numbers

With no big publishers or marketing budgets to get their games in the public eye, it can be hard for an indie developer to get noticed. Insert the Indie Humble Bundle, a program that allows consumers to purchase collections of acclaimed indie titles for any price they feel is worth it, even if it is just a penny.

The first Humble Bundle was offered in May 2010 and included such titles as World of Goo and Gish. It would go on to earn over $1,270,000 in the time it was offered.

Bundles have only gotten bigger, too. Humble Indie Bundle V was released in May 2012 and finished with over $5 million raised from almost 600,000 purchasers thanks to a lineup of highly-acclaimed titles like Bastion, Limbo and Psychonauts.

All games purchased through the bundle come free of any digital rights management software and are compatible with Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.

Developers do not offer their up games solely for the money, though, as purchasers are able to choose where their money goes between the developers, a tip to the Humble Bundle organization or to charities like Child’s Play and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

In all, the Humble Indie Bundle program has earned over $20 million dollars with the latest offering in Humble Indie Bundle VI ending earlier today.

Check back next week for my talk with one of the developers of one of my favorite upcoming indie games, Skulls of the Shogun.

Steam not the guarantee it’s made to be for indie developers

With frequent sales and unintrusive digital rights management, Valve’s digital distribution service, Steam, has become the preferred place to get games on PC for many players. It has also built a reputation on being the best place for indie developers to get their games noticed by a large audience.

Ben There, Dan That

Despite the crude art style, the Ben There, Dan That series has sold well on Steam.

One developer that has found success on the platform is Dan Marshall of Size Five Games. Size Five’s game, Ben There, Dan That, its follow-up, Time Gentlemen, Please!, were packaged together on the platform and were a favorite during the most recent sale.

According to Marshall, he owes all of his success to Steam. “I wouldn’t be here doing what I do without Steam – they’ve completely revolutionised the indie industry and made digital copies of games a reality,” Marshall said.

Not every developer has found the success that Marshall has, though.

Despite a positive reception on the PlayStation Vita, Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack from Drinkbox Studios sold under the developer’s expectations when it was ported onto Steam.

Co-Founder Chris Harvey cited the game’s style and tone not matching up with the PC platform and Steam users as one of the main reasons for the game underselling.

Indie games are certainly better off on the PC platform than others, as the exodus of developers shows, but though much of the hype would lead you to believe Steam is a magic fix that wil make every quality indie game sell well, Drinkbox is a prime example that the platform is just as unpredictable and risky as any other.

Drinkbox Studios finds success on Sony’s new hardware

When Sony launched the PlayStation Vita earlier this year with titles including a new entry in the acclaimed Uncharted series, the publisher probably did not expect a sequel to a little-known PlayStation Network game would be one of the most well-received games for the system. As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened with Drinkbox Studio’s Tales From Space: Mutant Blobs Attack.

The game’s style and tone had critics raving, with one exclaiming Mutant Blobs Attack “stole his heart” and another calling it “one of the must play games” for the system.

Drinkbox Studios impresses on the Vita

Drinkbox impressed Vita owners with Mutant Blobs Attack.

A team of 12, the Toronto-based developer has no plans to grow anytime soon. “You feel like you have a lot of input and control” when working with a small team, Co-Founder Chris Harvey told me. “Everyone on the team can contribute.”

Over six months after the Vita’s release, the system is not selling well with only 2.2 million handhelds purchased as of Sony’s last update. For Drinkbox, however, the Vita is doing very well and Mutant Blobs Attack has already outsold its predecessor, Harvey said.

What little Vita owners there are seem to be happy with the game, too. “This game has more variety and panache than some $40 games,” says Reddit user Naphthos on a thread dedicated to singing the title’s praises.

The developer isn’t done with the Vita just yet either, as the studio is working on a luchador-themed brawler called Guacamelee for the system.

While Drinkbox has found success on Sony’s latest handheld, it surprised me to hear their port to Valve’s digital distribution platform, Steam, has not sold up to expectations. This puzzled me given Steam’s reputation as an indie game developer’s dream. Check back for my next post where I compare Drinkbox’s results and those of a developer who found success on the platform.

Update:

Braid, Minecraft Prove Indie Games are Worth Your Time

They may not get the retail space at the local Walmart or Target, but independent developers are proving their games are just as worthy of your time as Halo or Mario.

Before the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, indie games were a niche market enjoyed only by those playing their games on the PC. All of that changed with Microsoft’s emphasis of online play and the Xbox Live Marketplace with the launch of the Xbox 360 in November 2005. The Marketplace allowed smaller developers to reach the console audience for the first time. As of September 5, Xbox Live Arcade, the section most desirable for indie games, hosts 522 titles.

In 2008, the platformer Braid became one of the first big success stories of Xbox Live, receiving critical praise upon release and selling roughly 55,000 copiesin its first week of release, according to developer Jonathan Blow. Braid is still tied for the 13th highest rated game on the Xbox 360, including retail releases, when ranked by Metacritic scores.

Braid

Braid is one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time.

Indie games are not just reaping critical success but also seeing big sales numbers.

Earlier this year, a port of the PC indie game Minecraft to Xbox Live Arcade sold more than any other title in the first 24 hours on the Marketplace. It has since gone on to sell over 3 million units on XBLA, a feat even more impressive when considering the game has already sold over 7 million copies on its original platform.

Independent developers are garnering critical and commercial success with their games and people are taking notice.

Check back next week when I introduce Drinkbox Studios, a talented developer that is leading the way on Sony’s newest handheld, the PlayStation Vita.