Interview with James Johnston and Hamst3r (Ezmuze+)

Posted: 2011/04/10 in Indie Games

Today I interviewed James Johnston and Hamst3r (Jamez Gillman) of the Hamst3r Alliance, who released “ezmuze+ Hamst3r edition”, believed to be the second-highest grossing Xbox Live Indie Game of all time. Over the course of an at-times irreverent interview we discuss the effect Microsoft’s XBLIG pricing strategies have on their products, what they really think about the XNA MVPs, their plans for the Ezmuze franchise, whether a Nintendo Virtual Boy release for their software is in the works, and much, much more in the zaniest (yet still informative) interview you’re likely to read today.

WMD:
Could you tell me a bit about the history of Ezmuze+ for those who know nothing about it? And what exactly is the “Hamst3r” edition as opposed to other editions?

James:
It’s the follow up to Ezmuze: Breaks and House Edition – a basic dance ejay clone I built in one night. Once I realised that it was doing quite well, I contacted Hamst3r – a musician I had known for quite some time (since he is a lot better than I am) and asked if he would like to work with me on a follow up.

Hamst3r:
Initially I was simply going to make the loops for one version of ezmuze. That’s changed though and I’m part of the team now working on all versions.

James:
As we worked together, the follow up became a lot more in-depth, Hamst3r’s ideas really improving things, making it so much more than the first game – so it become the “+” and Hamst3r became part of the team.

WMD:
For those who haven’t used it, how would you describe Ezmuze?

James:
It’s a loop based sequencer – you take the loops that Hamst3r has written and compose them into your own songs, using volume ‘automation’ and re-ordering the ‘slices’ to create your own sounds.

Hamst3r:
It’s just about the fastest way you make decent sounding music. Any faster and you’d just be mashing buttons to make noise. And it’s easier than training slugs to make music. That’s difficult, I’ve tried.

James:
(They only tend to make ambient, so so dull.)

WMD:
It’s impressive software, the most user friendly I’ve used since SID music software on the Commodore 64 back in the day. Is it only available for Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIG)?

James:
It is currently – we are working on several different editions at the moment – and one of them is heading to just about every platform you can mention.

WMD:
Including XBLIG?

James:
Indeed.

WMD:
That’s good to hear. Why did you target XNA/XBLIG for the initial version? And if it’s coming to just about every platform I can mention, I look forward to the Atari Jaguar version. ;)

James:
The original version was made as a C sharp programming exercise for myself – I hadn’t used it before and needed it for the day job – the appeal of releasing on a console was a good incentive to learn the language.

Hamst3r:
Totally. The Virtual Boy version is currently giving us the most problems. It’s really difficult when red and brain tumor are your only color choices.

WMD:
How have you found working with Microsoft’s XNA tools and the XNA community?

James:
The tools and the community are really mind blowing to be honest. The MVPs especially, they are the best MVPs I’ve dealt with through-out my life – and being a systems admin, Ive dealt with quite a few. After playing with the tools for the other platforms such as iOS and android, it really makes you appreciate how good the XNA toolset is.

There have been technical issues due to XNA that wouldn’t exist on other platforms, but if it wasn’t for the ease that XNA offers, I may never have got to the position of wanting to do those kinds of things.

Hamst3r:
The audio stuff in XNA could be better. Needs more crazy. Doing crazy music stuff isn’t it’s focus though, so it’s understandable why it doesn’t have all the madness I want in there.

James:
It improved a LOT in XNA 4 – but we are still struggling with a few things that people take for granted on other platforms.

WMD:
And vice-versa from the sounds of things, it sounds like XNA makes some things easy that are a real chore on other development platforms.

James:
Definitely. Actual core code in XNA, the basic stuff is a breeze compared to the other systems. Its just when you step outside the box you’ve got to get a lot more ‘creative’.

WMD:
Ezmuze+: Hamst3r Edition has been a standout financial success, the sales figures I’ve seen suggest it’s a six-figure success on a platform where a lot of developers struggle, with top quality titles like Hypership Out of Control and Didgery both failing to light up the sales charts. What do you attribute its success to? How did you promote the product?

Hamst3r:
Total fluke. A freak occurrence. A symbiotic commune of brain slugs infecting the minds of everyone on XBOX Live.

James:
I think a lot of its success is that it has no competition either on XBLIG nor XBLA – hell, not even retail.

Hamst3r:
Also, put lots of videos up on the internet.

James:
Hamst3r already had quite a large following due to his music and his contributions at giant bomb – this I’m sure helped a lot.

Hamst3r:
The trailer up on GameTrailers.com got a ton of hits.

James:
The product also lends itself to spreading to friends – if you write a good song you want to share it with your friends – so you get your friends to buy it too so you can share.

WMD:
I read the App Hub forums every now and then, and I saw a thread where you discussed the (at the time) forthcoming price drop from 800 Microsoft Points, down to 400 MSP. Your old price had been grandfathered from when XBLIGs had to choose 200, 400, or 800 price points. You rolled out an impressive new update, but it required you to lose that grandfathering. How has this lower price effected the financial success of the product?

James:
Sales have stayed on the same decline they were before the price drop – we may have partially slowed the downward trend, but at half the profit we are getting half the revenue. Ezmuze is the sort of product where price isnt a defining point of purchase.

Hamst3r:
It hurt and I want to punch the new price point in the face.

James:
The sort of person who wants it will pay $1, $5 or $10 – that’s not WHY they are buying it. We were very tempted to not release the update due to the price situation – but we had made promises to our customers.

WMD:
It was ballsy to release the update, given it was a significant enhancement to the product, but enhancing the product wasn’t necessarily going to improve your financial bottom line. I remember asking myself at the time whether I would do it in your shoes. If it makes a difference, I personally purchased (and reviewed the product on WMD) specifically because I was so impressed with that decision.

James:
While its my day job and financially I rely on Ezmuze+ – I felt that it was the morally right thing to do – we had made promises and they had to be kept. I am banking on the fact that if I keep the customers happy, when we bring out new versions, the upgrade will be a no-brainer.

WMD:
With other products on the way, maintaining that good will with customers is definitely important. What can you tell us about the upgraded version(s)?

James:
Which one! we have many buns in the oven. ;) The most immediate one is a basic upgrade – new automation features and a whole new set of loops.

Hamst3r:
We’re hoping to get stuff like filtering and reverb in there as automatable effects.

WMD:
A title update to the existing product, or a sequel?

James:
Sequel – ‘second edition’ is the title we are with at the moment but considering the number of name changes Hamst3r Edition had it may change. ;)

Hamst3r:
Ezmuze+ Beyond Hamst3r Edition

WMD:
Ezmuze+ Hamst3r Wheel edition, perhaps?

James:
Ezmuze+: Hamst3r Harder.

Hamst3r:
Ezmuze+ Hamst3r Edition with a Vengeance.

WMD:
Can you talk about what’s coming further down the pipe?

Hamst3r:
I believe you mean the fabled…”Pro Edition”.

James:
Following that we have Ezmuze+2 – which will have an ‘infinite’ channel system – allowing you to have as many channels of any type as you want – loops will be sliced how you want rather than in 1/4s and they will no longer be locked to solid positions. And then yes, Ezmuze pro… the dream version.

Ezmuze pro is what me and hamst3r want from an audio package – it’s a tool for pro users that we hope will compete with products like protools/garageband/logic/cubase etc. That version will not be loop based like current versions but have full pianoroll editing with software synthesis.

WMD:
I suppose one advantage you have from starting with the Xbox 360 was a captive market, something you wouldn’t have had if you were on Windows or on the Mac. Now you can take your notoriety in eventually attacking those kinds of platforms (if you can ever finish the Game Boy Colour version, naturally).

James:
PC version has always been worrying for 2 main reasons: competition and piracy. On PC, Ezmuze+ wouldn’t bring much to the table (other than Hamst3r’s AWESOME loops) that doesn’t already exist (though I still haven’t found a program that does automation as easily as Ezmuze+ ;) ).

With pro we hope to change that and finally make use of our contract with a certain PC distribution service we have.

Hamst3r:
As the closest thing we have to a PR guy, I command you to speak no further about your shady underworld distribution connections to whom you communicate about things perfectly legal and in no way strange or dangerous. It is uncouth.

There will be more on that later.

WMD:
Piracy is indeed a huge problem on the PC, I can see how that could be a problem (especially if some pirates might have otherwise been forced to purchase the XBLIG version).

James:
XBLIG actually has the best anti-piracy on the Xbox because of the limitation of requiring you to be online when you play (this has probably caused some loss of sales – but deterred pirates a great deal).

WMD:
I honestly hadn’t considered that as an anti-piracy measure. I have seen some complaints about that restriction in the past, but honestly not entirely understood the concern since they’re distributed exclusively online anyway. You think it has a material effect on sales?

James:
I have had a few people mention it – some people aren’t online at home so buy XBLA titles when they visit friends – this isn’t an option with XBLIG.

WMD:
With the success of Ezmuze+, have you considered an XBLA or a retail release? What would the pros and cons of changing your Xbox distribution be for you?

James:
XBLA has been big on our mind for a long time. When you consider there is over 20 million Xbox subscribers, but the biggest selling XBLIG has only shifted 300,000 copies, you realise how hidden XBLIG is. XBLA also offers up a price point that makes sense – and gives us some features we are crying out for.

The con is the huge time and money investment that comes with XBLA.

Hamst3r:
Also, requiring a publisher as you can’t self-publish on XBLA.

WMD:
Because of that you don’t get to keep as high a percentage as the 70% you get on XBLIG. Also, title updates are free on XBLIG but each update on XBLA has to go through Microsoft Certification and costs money.

Hamst3r:
Yeah, that. :P

James:
We like being totally indie – it fits us perfectly. Going with a publisher is a big worry – especially as a lot want to take control of the IP when they publish.

WMD:
How many copies have you sold now?

James:
25,000. While this is low compared to quite a lot of titles – due to it being 10x the cost of most of the other big sellers for most of its life, I believe this puts us as the second highest grossing title on the service. This is something I am quite proud of.

WMD:
How have the new sharing features been working out? Any teething pains? You had to set up your own server to allow people to access their songs from their computers, if I understood things correctly.

James:
I think it proves if you have a truly unique product that is well put together, the race to the bottom need not apply. The server system is a work of genius if I say so myself – however, due to the way it works, it often is unstable. It actually requires a server Xbox and a server PC – it communicates between the two using Morse code!

Hamst3r:
We need way more servers.

James:
With the fact that Xbox can sign itself out for no reason at all, audio can magically get quieter and other mystic things… I have to constantly keep an eye on the server. With the added fact that when its working, the server is on 24/7 – we have Xbox deaths to deal with too. So far its cost 1 Xbox and 1 powersupply. It also means my office is constantly toasty. ;)

WMD:
You’re probably one of the few that gets to write off a RRoD as a tax write-off!

Speaking of the XNA community, the great MVPs, etc., you must have some XBLIG titles that you would recommend our readers try, or that I should review in the future. What XBLIGs would you recommend? (Thanks to @SuperDiki for suggesting this question on Twitter, expect it to be a regular feature of future interviews.)

James:
All of Jamezilla’s titles (obviously), “Lumi” was a LOT better than I expected – beyond XBLA quality in my mind. There’re quite a few good music titles out there too – all of them very different scope from Ezmuze+ – but interesting none the less.

And for pure insanity, you have to check out Techno Kitten Adventure. Its the first game on the service with a licensed sound track (despite what “Shield the Beat” says ;) ), and is just so intensely random that it goes round the scale all the way past awful back into awesome.

And of course, Insane Bash is the best game on the service.

WMD:
Thank you. Anything else you want to share with our readers about the above topics, or any other topic?

James:
Hamst3r has a very popular series of ‘lets play’ videos (even Notch has tweeted about them) – and if indie devs can get a PC build to hamst3r, there’s a good chance he’ll have a bash at doing a video.

Hamst3r:

http://www.youtube.com/hamsteralliance

I’ve also got a ton of free music on my site: http://www.hamsteralliance.com/

Also, become astronauts. We need to go into space. More space exploration!

James:
Also, we have a funding drive – trying to drum up some money to stay indie but make pro level stuff – you can find out about it here: indiegogo.com/ezmuze

WMD:
Are you guys now the Ezmuze people forever due to your success with that, or is there a chance of you ever working on another project?

James:
We released Insane Bash a few weeks ago for WP7 and 360 and we have been contributing audio to a few other games (such as Lil Demons: Splatter – which you really should check out). We REALLY want to get into games but unfortunately our team is only 3 strong so it becomes a balancing act.

We know that Ezmuze products fund us so we tend to concentrate on those but we all have a million and one game ideas in our heads.

WMD:
Who’s the third person?

Hamst3r:
Bacon!

James:
Our first employee!

James:
We employ Tiago, guy from Portugal – he is a programming wizkid (and a dab hand at 3d code and modeling).

WMD:
What are the full names of the three of you, and where are you located?

James:
James Johnston, South of the UK

Hamst3r:
Jamez Gillman, Colorado

James:
Tiago Carvalho, Portugal

WMD:
And here I am in Canada. A rather multicultural interview. Thank you both for your time.

James:
It was a pleasure – and thank you for doing it. What you do is great for the XBLIG scene.

Hamst3r:
Who are you?? How did you get inside my head?!

WMD:
Definitely the most unusual interview yet, thanks again. :)

Hamst3r:
Thanks!

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