Humble indie fumble: an XBLA horror story
The Adventures Of Shuggy is by all accounts a buoyant little platform-puzzler with ever-changing mechanics and a cheery sense of its own nonsense. To deal in crude numbers: on this website it rated an enthusiastic seven, and we were trailing a little below the critical average. But then there are those other numbers – the ones that really matter: sales. For all the goodwill towards it, the game has barely troubled the charts since it became available for download on XBLA in June. It’s a disappointment that punctuates a painfully protracted four year development, with principle developer David Johnston now thinking of hanging up his game-dev hat for good.
The conventional wisdom is that it’s now easier than ever to be an indie developer. More avenues onto home console exist now, via indie friendly download channels, and with self-published Flash titles and the mobile market offering lower barriers to entry, the one-man-band stands a better chance of making it big than at any other time in videogame history. But Johnston, a veteran of Net Yaroze and Rare with no small amount of indie experience under his belt, has somehow beaten those odds. It’s a cautionary tale for fellow bedroom coders, and the ominous takeaways seems to be: publish yourself, promote yourself and pray that Microsoft puts you on the dashboard. But perhaps the biggest lesson of all is this: don’t take too long.
“I started working on it at the beginning of 2007, a long time ago,” Johnston recalls. “By the end of that year, I’d entered into the Dream Build Play competition. The time travel mechanic was there, the rotation was there, the rope swinging was there. And this was all before the release of PB Winterbottom and Braid and Lazy Raiders and all that. It was frustrating to see those games get released which were obviously going to take away a bit of the thunder when Shuggy came out.
“On reflection, once I entered into Dream Build Play, I probably should have released it as soon as I could,” Johnston continues. “It could have done with a bit of polish – but not three and half years’ worth.”
Johnston’s bad luck was to find a publisher: Sierra Online. It had a decent track record on XBLA, and was willing to issue milestone payments which were generous enough for him to give up the day-job and work on the game full-time. Things were good for a time. Then Sierra Online was acquired by Activision Blizzard.
“I knew they’d been taken over but everything just went very quiet,” recalls Johnston. “I couldn’t get a response, but obviously I was still bound by the contract, so I couldn’t approach anyone else. The game was pretty much finished by that stage. The contract got terminated in December 2008 and it took almost a year to find another publisher – and when Valcon took over in October 2009 there were things they wanted to change about the game. It involved going through the whole process again. It feels like its been a very long drawn out development process for what should be a simple game.”
But it’s not just the missed opportunity of pipping Braid and its ilk to the mark that scuppered Shuggy’s chances. The deal with Valcon has resulted in precious little publicity.
Tags: David Johnston, Indies, Marketing, Microsoft, Platformer, Product management, QA, Smudged Cat Games, Software sales, The Adventures Of Shuggy, Xbox Live, Xbox Live Marketplace