Interview with James Watton (PuzzleLights)

Posted: 2011/04/06 in Indie Games

Recently I brought you the strange story of an Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIG) developer “who was asking people not to buy his game”. What’s the story behind it? What happened to his sales after he made his plea? Read on.

Writings of Mass Deduction (WMD):
What was the inspiration for PuzzleLights?

James Watton:
I started with XNA just over a year ago and jumped in head first trying to make the big, epic games everyone dreams of making, and then after 5-6 months or so, I still didn’t have anything anywhere near finished. I decided to go back to the start with what I’d learned in those months and work on something small and manageable, and puzzle games are great for that as you don’t need loads of artwork.

There seemed to be lots of Tetris clones and such, but I remembered the handheld unit from my childhood, so I created that. Adding in extra light colours and grid sizes seemed like the natural way to improve on the original.

WMD:
This was an Tiger LCD handheld, the kind that plays a single game?

James:
Yeah, that’s right. I must have spent hours on that thing. I looked on the internet for a bit of research about it, and saw people had made little java applets of it that had up to 3 different colours and up to a 7×7 grid of lights. I basically took the idea and made more colours and bigger grids available, and tried to make it look as good as it could.

WMD:
So this wasn’t meant as a project that would set the Indie Games world on fire, just something to flex your XNA skills and get you on track for something more mainstream.

James:
It was more of a project to actually finish a game completely, to get something onto the marketplace. It only took a few weeks or so to make the actual puzzle part of the game, but then there were things to do like saving and loading games, making a trial mode, and proving to myself that I could get a game through the peer review process, those were the parts I was really after.

WMD:
And you thought perhaps 10 people would buy it, those few that happened across it, maybe one or two that were as nostalgic for that old Tiger handheld as you.

James:
Haha yeah, I knew starting it that puzzle games don’t do too well on the xbox marketplace, and I thought you know, the random puzzles in the game might keep someone interested, or maybe for the younger kids, but I always expected sales to be low. Just having it out there so when I looked on my xbox and saw it, that would have been good enough for me

WMD:
I see. A feather in your cap, not to mention a boost of confidence and a way of introducing yourself to your fellow developers.

James:
I think it’s helped, if only a little. Of course I’m still waiting to finish a project that really gets other developers, and myself, excited and talking about, but it’s a good first step to have something published on the marketplace.

WMD:
But you were at first ecstatic about your sales target of 10 being exceeded, then dumbfounded. As the sales continued to rise you first seemed apologetic, and ultimately encouraged people to spend their money on other games, even recommending one (“Didgery”). Why was that? Your game seems polished, and the user reviews on WMD are at an average of 4/5 stars so people seem to be enjoying it.

James:
Wow, I hadn’t actually checked for any reviews of it so that’s a bit of a surprise to me. I think it was either yourself or one of the comments on your blog who said that we’re our own worst critic, and I can see why. Even though the puzzle part of the game is quite polished, I actually think the menu’s and such could be a lot better.

If I could have priced the game lower, I definitely would have, because right now it’s 80MSP, and I look through the indie games and see loads of great games for the same price, and then some of the devs saying how their sales are low, and yet people bought my game, it was quite surprising.

WMD:
Pricing is a funny thing in our industry. There are puzzle games selling on Xbox Live Arcade selling for 800 points, but for that kind of money you could get two full-sized RPGs (“Breath of Death VII”, and “Cthulhu Saves the World”), plus you could pick up “Final Rift” (a gigantic spacefaring/trading/combat game in the style of Elite) for a total of only 400 points.

Put another way, most retail releases are the same price ($60, 60 Euros, etc.), whether they have tremendous multiplayer options like a Halo release, whether they have a tremendous singleplayer campaign spanning a huge play area like a Mass Effect game, or whether it’s a kids game like Naruto with middling reviews to its credit.

James:
Yeah, most of the indie games aim for the 80 points price, but because the minimum you can buy is 500 points, nobody is going to buy 500 points just to get an 80 point game, yet the higher price points seem reserved for those games that have almost as much playtime as AAA games

And with the Arcade games too, I’d much rather get an XBLA game and an indie game than a AAA retail game that I’ll play once and not pick up again for months (which seems to be happening more and more often)

WMD:
When a game costs $1, give or take depending on local currency, it’s an impulse buy and people don’t necessarily compare it to other 80 MSP games. It’s just whether it winds their watch enough to get them to hit the “A” button twice, or not.

James:
That’s true, I thought that maybe when the trial expired on PuzzleLights, people would buy it just to finish the puzzle they were on! I might be right, as it’s nearly up to 100 sales total now

WMD:
That was going to be my next question, how have sales been since your pronouncement that people should buy other games than yours?

James:
The sales have actually slowed down, but I think that’s more down to the game not being high up on the New Arrivals list anymore rather than my tweet to find a better game. It’s averaging between 1 and 5 sales a day roughly, and the conversion rate of trials to purchases is slowly increasing, so it looks like it’s people browsing the puzzle genre on the dashboard who are the ones buying it. The game’s still clearly visible on that list, thanks to Microsoft’s update of the lists.

WMD:
And why did you specifically recommend “Didgery”?

James:
Didgery was the first indie game I purchased from the dashboard, actually. Before it released I remember posting in the XNA forums about playtesting, and the developer mentioned that Didgery had been in and out of playtesting for about a year. So when I saw it on the marketplace, I checked out the screenshots, skipped the trial and purchased it straight-off. That game has some crazy polish, and yet the developer on his blog said that the sales were somewhat lacking. The game has such a high standard of quality, and is also very fun to play, if any deserved recommending it’d be Didgery.

WMD:
What game (or games) are you working on now?

James:
I’ve got two games that I’m working on right now, I’ve got a great artist onboard for the one, but we’re keeping that low-profile until we have something great to show for it. The other is a side-project that I work on now and then for fun, the best way to describe it would be Limbo meets Final Fantasy 7, yeah, it’s an RPG, but I’m not expecting to complete that anytime soon. It started as just a little project trying to recreate FF7’s battle system, but one day it might see daylight.

WMD:
Thank you for your time. Was there anything else you wanted to say to our readers?

James:
Yeah, thanks for my first interview, and to anyone reading who bought PuzzleLights, my next one will be a whole lot better!

WMD:
Thanks again.

If you want to see what all the fuss is about for yourself, click here to download “PuzzleLights”, then please come back to review it.



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