Kris Steele (FunInfused Games) interview, part 1

Posted: 2011/04/16 in Indie Games

Kris Steele has produced some of my favourite Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIG). He was kind enough to grant me an interview, one that went well over time and is now being conducted over three parts.

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Writings of Mass Deduction:
How long have you been working with XNA and XBLIG?

Kris Steele:
I started working with XNA just before the XBLIG service (then Community Games) first went live in November of 2008. I’ve been spending the majority of my free time working with XNA since.

WMD:
What attracted you to XNA development?

Kris:
I’ve always wanted to make games since I was little, I used to draw out game ideas on paper and later used several game-maker like tools to create a few of my own games. I tried a few different game programming languages over the years but for one reason or another never stuck with them. I had been programming in C# for a few years at my day job and when I found out about XNA (which uses C#) it seemed like a pretty natural fit. It was easy to get into, easy to setup a game, and I found a great community and many online sources to help out when I struggled.

WMD:
A lot of people cite the XNA community as a tremendous resource, especially for aspiring developers, have you found that it lived up to its billing for you?

Kris:
Oh yeah. There are a lot of tutorials and helpful websites to get started with and a lot of really helpful people that go out of their way to answer questions you might have. When I’ve gotten stuck on something, there have always been people in the XNA community willing to try and help out. The community is fantastic.

WMD:
You’ve released an impressive number of games on the XBLIG channel. Could you describe each one for someone who’s never played them?

Kris:
Our first release Nasty is basically a mashup of Contra and Bubble Bobble. Lots of shooting, lots of enemies, lots of levels. “Abduction Action!” is a game that puts you as an aspiring UFO pilot running amok on Earth. You get to do fun stuff like pickup (and drop) humans, cows, and chickens as you work through many different missions. The game has a funny storyline too where the Alien Commander, your brother-in-law, insults you at every opportunity. “Hypership Out of Control”, probably our best received game, is a 2D shmup that puts you in control of a space ship that is continually accelerating which makes staying alive all the more difficult. I believe this was the first game you reviewed for your website here actually. Hypership has a heavy emphasis on speed, quick reactions, and memorization of levels.

WMD:
It was, I’m a big fan of Hypership OoC.

Kris:
Our latest release is Trivia or Die. It’s a trivia game that features fast questions, numerous insults if you don’t get them right, and death to the losing players.

WMD:
What were the inspirations for each of your games, and anything interesting about their histories that you’d like to share?

Kris:
Many of my game ideas are born out of games I grew up playing. I played tons of Bubble Bobble, Contra, etc growing up. I wanted more so I made more. I used to go to the bars and play trivia every week and so I created a game that captured some of that experience (you’re probably wondering now what kind of bar I go to where people get killed). None of my games are overly complex to play, anyone can really just pickup a controller and start having fun with them. Games should be fun and I tried hard with my games to removing anything in them that wasn’t.

WMD:
In the most recent review of one of your games that I did, for Abduction Action!, I noted a strong similarity in the core gameplay between it and the Br0derbund classic Choplifter. Do you still deny it was a conscious influence on that game? You now have an opportunity to come clean before our readers.

Kris:
I did play Choplifter on my C64 growing up quite a bit. It wasn’t a game I was thinking about consciously as I developed Abduction Action! though. I really started with a basic idea of having a UFO, abducting cattle or dropping them and watching them splat. That in of itself is fun to do. I built the rest of the game around that basic idea. I thought more about Rampage actually in terms of being destructive and also in the scale and look of earthlings and buildings.

WMD:
Nasty and Hypership are games that seemed geared more towards hardcore gamers. Abduction Action! is more of a game that seems like a game that might appeal to a mix of hardcore and casual gamers, like I think Destroy all Humans! did. Trivia or Die seems to have more casual gamer appeal than anything. Do you think about markets when designing games, or do you simply make the games you want to play?

Kris:
I’ve become more conscious about markets as I’ve released more games. I want to make games that I want to make but I believe I can still make games that both these groups enjoy. If you make the games easy to get into, the controls simple, and don’t start off with too crazy a difficulty, you can hook casual gamers and they may not even notice as you ramp up difficulty in later levels in order to please the hardcore crowd.

By nature of the genres they occupy, I think Nasty and Hypership had to be more difficult games to play and master and do take a bit of a different mentality to enjoy. Abduction Action! can be played like a sandbox game, anyone can just go in and mess around, cause trouble and have fun. That’s not hard to do at all.

WMD:
How did you promote the games?

Kris:
My basic formula thus far as been sending out press releases, creating a trailer for my games, asking websites to review my games, and talking about my games as much as I can with whomever will listen. I’ve done several podcasts, interviews, etc. While I like to hear myself talk, I do those to promote the games and to try and build a fan base. I have a website, funinfused.com, and tweet a lot on twitter too. I even went so far as creating an HTML5 version of Hypership so gamers can play online, have fun, and hopefully buy the full XBLIG version.

I’ve tried buying ad space before and it hasn’t worked out well. Driving people to the Xbox to buy games is hard and when the games are only $1, it doesn’t pay off.

WMD:
You’re definitely active within the community. I do wonder with tweeting whether XBLIG fans, myself included, do ourselves a disservice to tweet mostly to the #XBLIG hashtag, which is preaching to the converted, when we could be tweeting to #Xbox, or even #gaming, and reach out to a broader market. You have some tremendously fun games, and there are more who would enjoy them if they only knew about them I believe.

Kris:
I think there are gamers that look at the XBLIG hashtag but you’re right in thinking its mostly other developers. A more general tag would likely help as one of the big issues with XBLIG is that it isn’t that well known and trafficked.

WMD:
I’ve recently been tweeting to “#xbox” and “#indiegames” too, and occasionally even to “#gaming”. I’m selective, if it’s XNA development related then I don’t bother, but if it’s a game review I reach out to as broad a market as I think could possibly be interested. I want everyone who might possibly be interested to know about XBLIGs. Developers obviously need to think this way too. We can’t become resigned to the status quo.

Kris:
I should probably start doing something like that too. The XBLIG market isn’t big enough. We need to bring more people in and showing only the people that already know about us isn’t helping to do that.

WMD:
My sense is that the XBLIG market has grown, but the number of games coming out is growing at least as fast as the market is growing so most developers aren’t seeing immediate benefits from this.

Kris:
One of the big things I thought the Winter Uprising accomplished was doing just that. Lots of people that didn’t know about Indie games now do, even if that didn’t translate to immediate sales success for many of those games, I do believe it helped bring in new eyes and also improve the overall perception of the channel.

I’m hearing the market has grown too but I have no idea how much. There certainly are a ton of games available now which means there are a lot more for gamers to choose from. A larger marketplace probably results in higher sales for some of the top games but the trickle down to games lost in the shuffle isn’t apparent.

WMD:
What do you think of the pricing model for XBLIG?

Kris:
I’m not a huge fan. 80 I think is a good low end price, but there need to be more options besides just 240 and 400. No 160? Nothing higher than 400? Bigger than the price points themselves is the fact that we can only change them once every three months. When I released Nasty, it was priced at 400 points. It was obvious to me within 2 days that this was too high for what the marketplace expected. But I had to leave it at that price for three months. After I dropped the price to 80 points, I started selling 15 times more copies. Nasty would have done a lot better had I been able to quickly change that price. Being locked in like this also prevents XBLIG from doing sales events. If you look at games on Steam, those games on sale often make a killing, but we can’t really do that. That would be a good promotional tool to have.

WMD:
Thank you for your time. I look forward to the second part of this interview. That’ll give you one more chance to own up to the Choplifter inspiration for Abduction Action!

Kris:
Ha ha. We’ll see. Thanks for the interview. Talk again soon.

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