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Dangerous Game

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.

GamesIndustry.bizSo 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.

GamesIndustry.bizIs 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."

GamesIndustry.bizThey 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.

GamesIndustry.bizOne 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.