Joining the Pantheon: How Signal Studios Secured a Keynote Slot at E3
"Sometimes I wake up and think to myself, do I really want to borrow money from my dad again?"
Microsoft's E3 keynote may not have had, Usher aside, so much of the sparkling glitz and glamour of previous years, but for Signal Studios it represented a PR highlight. The Toy Soldiers developer was rewarded for the performance of its action RTS series - the original game of which was 2010's top-selling XBLA title - with a hugely valuable spot in Microsoft's presentation for its forthcoming title, Ascend: New Gods.
Amid the Halo, Gears, Fable and Splinter Cell announcements, Ascend was shown as one of three hot XBLA prospects coming to Microsoft's online service. Exhibiting Signal's trademark ambition and polished visual style, Ascend is also embracing second screen concepts and asynchronous multi-device multiplayer.
Here, we chat to president and creative director D.R. Albright III to discover how his company earned its place in the limelight and what he intends to do with it.
Q: You've come a long way under the wing of Microsoft, from the success of Toy Soldiers to being a big presence with Ascend during the E3 presentation. What sort of relationship do you have with them?
D.R. Albright III: A lot of the individuals at MS are really smart, capable people who are at our offices multiple times a week and I consider them friends now, not just business associates. Our producer, Caesar Filori and his crew are top notch. That said, sometimes I want to pull my hair out working around and through the bureaucracy of the organization itself. People have a tendency to complain a lot and believe the grass is greener on the other side. I sometimes think that with Microsoft, but ultimately Signal certainly wouldn't be as successful as it has been without the support it received from MS and I truly appreciate that fact.
It was rare to receive funding for downloadable games when Signal started and we were trying to convince people to pay for a WW1 game with toys - not an easy sell. Ken Lobb, Ted Woolsey and a few others at Microsoft saved us by pushing the Toy Soldiers concept through despite the doubt . Thankfully, it worked out well for both parties.
Q: How have you nurtured that? Would you say you have a privileged exposure to platform plans?
D.R. Albright III: Ultimately, we do get a shot at doing things a lot of developers don't get to do. For example, Ascend had the only working Smart Glass demo at E3, at least for games. On the surface, this might not seem like a big deal - or maybe we are the only suckers who said yes. Either way, that ends up getting Signal a mention in publications like US TODAY which is a big deal. We probably only have small developer/XBLA level privileged access. I might know more about what's happening than some guy commenting on a Neogaf forum, but I am pretty sure that the CoD and Assassin's Creed folks are privy to a lot more information than me. That's ok. It makes sense from a business standpoint that they would.
Q: Any 'danger' of an acquisition?
D.R. Albright III: Ha. Well, you'd have to ask Microsoft. From my perspective, it depends on what day it is. Sometimes I wake up and think to myself, do I really want to borrow money from my dad again? Or I see a life-size Halo Warthog and think how incredible it would be to have access to all those resources. Other days I wake up defiant and full of piss and think that Signal is indie and we didn't start a company to be engulfed by a giant bureaucracy and have some middle manager define what we will do.
That said, the reality is that you always have a boss and someone is always telling you what to do in any situation. Ultimately, no one understands the stress of this unless they have done it themselves and I completely sympathize with small developers who end up wanting to be acquired - I am happy for the ones that do.
"Sometimes I wake up and think to myself, do I really want to borrow money from my dad again? Other days I wake up defiant and full of piss and think that Signal is indie and we didn't start a company to be engulfed by a giant bureaucracy."
Q: Is Ascend using the same engine tech as Toy Soldiers?
D.R. Albright III: Yes. We use SigEngine to create everything. Tools are by far the most important aspect of game development and that's the primary focus of our tech. We are probably behind the curve on certain features like fancy rendering and lighting models, so it's a trade-off. As a developer you will either spend resources creating your own tech or you will spend them buying, learning, and integrating someone else's. Both of which cost. I am not suggesting creating your own tech is the best decision for everyone, but if you have developers capable of doing it, you should.
Q: Signal Studios' games are well above the curve, quality wise, for a lot of indie XBLA outings - how does your ROI work out?
D.R. Albright III: Thank you! We do have significantly larger budgets than most indies. I don't even know if we are indie anymore. One of my co-workers termed us Crindie. I believe it stands for Corporate Indie. Too small to get a booth babe at E3 and too big to be 'hip.'
There is so much noise out there and so much entertainment readily available through mobile and console downloads that is tough to rise above. We are not only competing against other games, but also Zynga, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, movies and anything else that eats up limited consumer leisure time or money... Not to mention people expect a lot for a buck nowadays - and rightfully so giving the amount of options they have.
We did pretty well with Toy Soldiers, but that's a top 10 all-time selling game on the service. If you go too far down from there, you probably aren't making that much if you have a budget over a million. I am definitely not a genius, nor the only one that thinks this, but in the very near future you aren't going to see very many successful games that don't embrace new business models unless they are of the caliber and budget of games like Oblivion or Call of Duty.
There are always anomalies such as Minecraft, Castle Crashers, or Trials, but I don't consider those in-line with the reality of the market for most developers. I might be an idiot, but I would feel more comfortable spending $5 million and releasing a downloadable console game with an alternative business model right now then spending $1 million on a game and asking $15 for it.
Q: The reorganization of the dash came under some fire from indies and smaller developers - how has it affected the way you work?
D.R. Albright III: I don't actually pay much attention to that from a development standpoint. As an Xbox user, I found the new dash slightly confusing, but I am used to it now. It's never been easy to find Arcade or Indie games on Live. Curiously, most Xbox users don't even know Arcade exists so I am sure burying it further isn't helping. Obviously, it's great to be featured in the dash and the more people download your game, the more it will sell. There's no doubt that when Toy Soldiers is prominent in the dash there's a huge uptick in sales. That said, just because someone can find your game doesn't mean it will sell. You still need those conversion rates.
"I don't think retail is dead, I never thought PC was dead, I don't think consoles are dead, and I don't believe it would be easy to make money on IOS."
Q: Was the presence of three XBLA titles onstage at E3 a reflection of a changing focus for the platform?
D.R. Albright III: I hope so. I don't subscribe to any one idea. I don't think retail is dead, I never thought PC was dead, I don't think consoles are dead, and I don't believe it would be easy to make money on IOS. It' s odd to me that people argue that mobile or downloadable games are going to kill other markets in a few years. We are nowhere near the point where broadband and wireless is accessible and consistent enough to handle that shift.
I couldn't even send a text message while I was at E3, let alone download a AAA 8Gb game. What I do see is there's a trend towards more and more people downloading games and entertainment and that isn't going to reverse. Therefore, money and attention to this market will keep increasing and the games available for download will just keep getting better and better and become more viable and competitive with retail.
Q: Your mobile strategy sounds like a fairly clear implementation of the Smart Glass policy - was it worked with that in mind?
D.R. Albright III: We are currently using Smart Glass as a way to help augment the features in the main game. Similar to a dynamic Bradley game guide where a user can see more information on a 2nd screen which would be helpful to them on the 1st screen. We are also exploring ways to make this more interactive by the time we release. We also have a mobile game that is separate from Smart Glass and completely connected to the console game. All of these packages interact with each other in discrete, but connected ways. It's pretty cool to get a message from your friend on your phone, pull it out, and push a button that sends a gift of loot to their console game.
Q: Can you tell us a little more about your parallel multiplayer ideas?
D.R. Albright III: It's tough to describe in less than 15 minutes. Ultimately, the Ascend parallel multiplayer features are about not being alone while you play a single player game and not having to be tweaked out to play a multiplayer game. The compelling thing for me about Demon Souls wasn't how deep the RPG was or hard the game is, it was seeing the ghosts of the other players dying and knowing that was a real player. It made me feel connected to the game and it's players in a way I hadn't seen before.
We wanted to expand this idea and come up with ways that players could affect each others games, asynchronously or synchronously, in compelling ways. There's still a storyline, RPG systems, etc in the game. However, eventually, the whole game slowly becomes one big dynamic war between 3 factions that a player can either participate in actively to gain prestige in the world or not. Either way, your actions have an effect on the global outcome of the game and everyone's game is in some way affected dynamically by the combined actions of all players. This doesn't mean that we subject players to some jackass coming into your game and griefing you constantly. That would be counter to the point.
At E3 we showed the example of people passing loot back and forth between games and phones. We also showed players 'banishing' the enemies in their game to someone else's. There are literally be hundreds of these interactions that can take place between players.
Also, all of your stats are being tracked and fed to the MetaWar. So if light players are collectively dominant in the game, everyone's game changes somehow - as an example: The dark wolf enemies become light wolf enemies in everyone's single player game. We are also planning on rewarding Prestige in some pretty cool ways. As an example if you were the first to become the most powerful Light, Dark, and Void player in the world, maybe you become an NPC enemy boss in everyone's game across the community.
There's a lot more to it and as I said, it's tough to describe briefly. We will be releasing more and more information about the systems and mechanics over the summer.
Q: DLC seems to be a solid part of your release strategy - Is it important for a small studio to be able to iterate existing properties in this way?
D.R. Albright III: The DLC for TS did really well but to be honest, there's not a lot of money to be made in DLC unless your user base is extremely large. We use it as way to keep awareness on the game. Sort of a shout out to let the fans of the game know that we aren't going away and we will continually support our games with new content.
Q: One final thing. Can you say anything about the rumours of Ascend being the first free-to-play game on XBLA?
D.R. Albright III: I can only say that we are exploring alternative business models! I wish I could share more. There's a lot of cool stuff on this one.