Sean Murray on Joe Danger XBLA, Microsoft's exclusivity policy and what he really meant by 'slaughterhouse'
Sometimes, in our industry, there's a little too much PR. Too many layers of obfusication between developers and consumers, giving everything a sort of beige tint - albeit polished to shiny perfection. Because of that, it's brilliant, especially for journalists, when you meet someone who's not afraid to speak their minds, someone like Sean Murray.
However, there's a good reason that people employ PR reps. Sometimes, honesty can go a bit too far. Things can be taken out of context, quotations misconstrued. Sometimes people change their minds.
But when a promising indie developer, who has had great success on a platform, calls that platform's main rival "a slaughterhouse" there seems little margin for error and few roads back.
So, for Sean Murray, whose Hello Games have just announced that they'll be releasing PSN hit Joe Danger on XBLA, "slaughterhouse" has become a bit of a haunting word. Here, we catch with him to find out what changed between then and now.
Q: So first off, let's address the elephant in the room. Your comments at Develop about XBLA being a "slaughterhouse"...
Sean Murray: It's not a good word, is it? [laughs] I've thought about this, there's no positive way I can spin the word slaughterhouse. It wouldn't be right of me to sit here now and say it was taken totally out of context, or that I didn't know what I was talking about. I think it's a fair question to ask.
I actually think that at the time I said that I was talking about how difficult it was for indie titles to stand out on XBLA, if you remember the first couple of years of XBLA - they were this golden period, these salad days, where most titles that went onto XBLA reached a minimum level of success. They all did pretty well.
It was seen amongst indie developers as this sort of golden ticket, because if you could get approval and a slot, you were kind of guaranteed success. Things have moved on from there.
I guess I was trying to warn fellow developers that it's not necessarily a golden ticket. I remember at the time saying 100 titles got released that year and most people can't name five. I think that's still true today. I think that what's still true is that if I ask you to name five titles on XBLA, they would all come from small indie teams, pretty much, and they would probably all be published by Microsoft as well.
"At the moment there's a lot of third-party publishers out there who are putting out pretty low quality stuff and they're actually flooding the market"
I think on XBLA that's the ruling factor, that's hopefully where we see ourselves, as well. We didn't want to bring Joe Danger to XBLA through a third-party publisher who wasn't going to be able to promote it properly or who wasn't really interested in download. A lot of third-party publishers aren't.
I think it's still true that it's really tough out there, and if you're one of those 100 titles to be released this year, you have to work really really hard to stand out. It's not enough to have a slot.
Q: Is there a conflict of interest in terms of what's promoted? Will Microsoft ever give the same exposure to a competitor's product?
Sean Murray: I think that they do, actually. You always see a fairly even split in something like the Summer of Arcade, it's usually about 50/50 Microsoft and third-party publishers. The problem is, without being too critical, a lot of third-party publishers don't really get download, or they just aren't serious about it.
They still see it as this kind of place to put what would have been budget titles before. They release these kind of really low quality movie licence titles on there, or cut-down versions of their AAA titles, but in ways that don't necessarily make sense.
You've got that thing that you used to have in the really old days, on the Commodore 64 or whatever, where Robocop would suddenly become a platformer. That kind of thing. Watchmen as a beat-'em-up, you know.
I think that mindset is changing, but at the moment there's a lot of third-party publishers out there who are putting out pretty low quality stuff and they're actually flooding the market, leading a certain perception from people.
You see people just waiting for Summer of Arcade, to get all of the other rubbish out of the, is what their mindset is. Consumers just pay attention to the big releases on XBLA, I think that's a shame. There's a lot of indie titles, when they try and stand out it's just a bit more difficult. I wish that wasn't the case, but I think it is at the moment. I think actually, topically, Ubisoft buying RedLynx is an example of a big publisher changing their perception of download.
"I can't even say, 'I still look out for the little guy' because I think I am the little guy."
Q: They seem to be keen to get engaged...
Sean Murray: They did Monday Night Combat on XBLA, which has been really successful, from what I know. I remember when we approached them with Joe Danger about two, two and a half years ago, they just gave us a flat-out no, they weren't really doing download titles.
Q: One of the issues you raised before is that only big games get the promotion on XBLA. Surely you're one of those games now - have you changed your point of view?
Sean Murray: [laughs] No. I actually think we worry daily about what kind of promotion we're going to get. I don't think any developer thinks any differently. We never think, oh I'm working on a big title now. We never think, with our small sized team, that we're in a powerful position. We always feel on that breadline, in some way or another.
I can't even say, 'I still look out for the little guy' because I think I am the little guy. I think that fair promotion is something that really benefits games, and benefits gamers, too. I think that's some thing that iPhone does really well - it doesn't seem to matter where a game comes from, it gets an equal chance at being promoted. You get stuff from really left of field springing up on the featured and then rising to the top of the charts.
There's lots of bad things about iPhone, but I think that's really great.
Q: What are your sales expectations for XBLA? Similar to PSN?
Sean Murray: That's a good question! I can't answer that, you'll just hold me to it! I honestly don't know what to expect. I mean, we actually kind of came back to this. We're a bit of a strange bunch, as you know from talking to us previously. There was a feeling in the team - we loved the original Joe Danger, but also we had released it just because we kind of ran out of money, we didn't feel it was finished.
I don't think most teams would feel this way, but we actually jumped at the chance to re-visit it and to actually fix everything that was wrong. It's been a really cathartic process. It's been lovely to go back. We've kind of watched all these hundreds of thousands of PS3 players go through now, we've gathered stats and things like that.
It kind of eats you up, the problems that you know that you left there, the things that you left unfinished. I guess we kind of jumped at the chance, without even thinking about the economics of it. XBLA is obviously a very large market, it makes business sense for us - I hope that players respond to it.
We do what we've done before, which is to make the best game that we can and hope that everything else falls into place.
Q: Has this being a new and improved version made the relationship with Sony difficult? Did you have any contractual obligations to consult with them?
Sean Murray: I don't think I can go into the details of contracts between us and Sony, but they've actually been really good. Obviously we wouldn't do this without their blessing. I think that the relationship is still good, I think it still is. We've got a title that's still on their platform, that's still selling well. I think the thing about Sony is that it's actually quite a small group of people that we work with - we work quite well with them.
I think this is just another step along that path, we see ourselves as publishers.
We all kind of get along together so I can't imagine something like this getting in the way of that or being a problem. They would always have known our ambitions, I guess.
One thing I would say is that we were part of the Pub Fund, and the whole point of that, which I think is really forward thinking, is trying to, rather than funding an indie title and trying to manage it themselves, they take a very hands off approach and they're trying to support an indie to publish their own game.
The whole thing, which they always said to us, was that they were trying to create electronic publishers, the next breed of publishers, in the same way that they made real stars out of certain studios when they started up PlayStation, they always reference that.
I think this is just another step along that path, we see ourselves as publishers. I hate to use the word, but we see Joe Danger as a 'franchise' now, an IP that we own. I think that's really positive. Loads of people have said to us that they've considered PSN because they've seen us do well, and we're held up by Sony as a success story and this is actually part of that success story.
Hopefully! Fingers crossed we don't crash and burn. It's a positive thing - good for everyone I hope.
Q: Microsoft allowing this seems quite contradictory to the way that they're moving at the moment. Will it set a precedent?
Sean Murray: I would love to think that it's going to become policy, or that it's going to become the rule rather than the exception. But I guess it all depends on how we do and whether we're terrible to work with!
It's been a really strange couple of months for me, because we've been working on this but I've been reading all this stuff in the press that I've had to bite my lip about. About restrictions tightening and how no games from other platforms are going to get released on XBLA. Honestly, and I'm going to sound like Microsoft has inserted a chip in my neck or something, but they've been really open to deal with so far!
We've actually added a whole bunch of content. A surprising amount. We've doubled the size of Joe Danger, which is something that nobody asked us to do. It just comes from our attitude towards what we're doing. Maybe if we'd just wanted to straight port it they would have insisted on more, but I don't think so. That's not how they've been to deal with so far.
The feeling I get from XBLA is that they're very much driving for quality, AAA download games and selling them at that higher price point.
Q: Do you think that Microsoft has been taking the criticism they've had recently on board? Does developer feedback have the same weight as consumer feedback?
Sean Murray: I think they do listen, obviously internally they care about that - I've seen some mails go back and forth about different things - like when Ron Carmel posted some stats and was saying that developers are moving away from XBLA.
I think it's difficult to pitch yourself within the digital download space. I think Steam runs something that's pretty similar to iPhone, perhaps a little easier to get on to. Most of their sales happen at a low price point - they sell volume but not necessarily the revenue.
Something that is strange: something like Castle Crashers, say, that sells a couple of million copies each. If that's on XBLA at $15 each, that's $30 million. It's going to take an awful lot of sales on iPhone to reach that. I think XBLA is still a very large marketplace, still very much a leading marketplace, but there are still choices you need to make depending on how large a subset of the market your game appeals to.
The feeling I get from XBLA is that they're very much driving for quality, AAA download games and selling them at that higher price point. I think that's a decision, and a decision they're very happy with. I think there's a lot of other stuff that's been said about promotion, and the cost of getting a title on to XBLA that's valid, but it's still a very big marketplace.
From some of the comments I've seen, it seems some people think that it's a shrinking marketplace, and I don't think that's true at all.