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Learn The Way of the N+
Posted on Wednesday, February 20 2008 @ 16:03:39 PST

Indie games tend to get the shaft - a tight budget, little attention from large corporations like Microsoft whose priorities understandably lie with the dollar, and a constant fear of being cancelled. N+ overcomes these restrictions - not that its developers didn’t deal with getting the shaft, but that even as a small fish swimming with the sharks, it has managed to get its name out. In fact, it will be coming out for the Xbox Live Arcade today. Quick as lightning, eh?

To an anxious crowd at the Independent Games Summit during the 2008 Game Developers Conference, Mare Sheppard (Metanet Software Inc.) and Nick Waanders (Slick Entertainment Inc.) gave their advice and recounted their experience developing their bite-sized ninja platformer. Many indie games, despite their continual commitment to innovation - which nearly all gamers clamor for - hardly see the break of day. Needless to say, a few attendees furiously scribbled on their notepads during the session.

Mare Sheppard, a part of only a two-person team for Metanet Software Inc., first spoke about their luck and hardships. As an extremely small Canadian company based in Ontario, Metanet did not have much clout to convince Microsoft to get N+ on the market, but on Xbox Live Arcade, that prospect becomes more feasible and commercially viable. She advised indie developers to secure a loan, or even better, a grant (Canada supplies plenty), particularly since it has among the best royalty deals, there aren’t many financial risks, and the developers could retain their IP, copyrights, and their souls.

Metanet also didn’t have to start from square one. N+ is essentially based on the original arcade-style N, except modernized with collision, physics, multiplayer, next-gen graphics and sound, and a smoother difficulty curve. A simple 2D platformer, N+ has a black ninja leaping over obstacles in a retro, geometrical environment, avoiding traps, lasers, and everything the level throws at him. One hit and the ninja is dismembered into the pieces he’s made up of. Metanet already had 250 levels at their disposal; all it took now were the bells, the whistles, and a new stylish presentation. Ninjas like to look their best.

To accomplish this, Metanet combined forces with Slick; that is, it outsourced. That word has a negative connotation, but outsourcing is sometimes necessary for smaller companies. This is especially in the case of Metanet, which had 56% of its costs on N+ come from production, marketing, testing, QA, office costs, hardware, and localization alone. Getting the project done swiftly is a priority.

The key is to make the partnership deliberate and synergistic: a collaborative partnership rather than a work-for-hire contract or simple license deal. Sharing royalties with both parties is also important so that each is equally invested in a successful final product. Most significant is that the developer thoroughly understands what makes the original game work, a person like Slick’s Nick Waander.

Translating any title into one that is ready for the Xbox Live Arcade is no easy task, as simple as the game might seem. Luckily, they already had a working reference point: the original N. Building a prototype in the less nitty, gritty language C#, creating in-house programs, getting the biggest problems - multi-player and localization - out of the way first, and outsourcing early so that the collaboration yields more constructive feedback all contributed to an efficient workload for a team of only three programmers. In fact, the basic build of N+ was completed in about two months, allowing for more iterations for tweaking and giving them an opportunity to get user feedback at a top-secret booth at PAX. They even had an interior designer, who had a different and valuable perspective from someone not embedded in the industry, help stylize its simple, silent-yet-deadly graphics.

Much of the process which takes an egregious amount of time, however, is usually not recognized by players and even critics. Outside of the predictable frustration of having to compete for Microsoft’s attention with larger, more profitable companies, there’s a lot of paperwork. Ratings submission requires a second-to-second, click-by-click, action-by-action breakdown of what happens with this, that, and this, and that. Just gathering and filling out all the forms Microsoft needs takes about four days, and certification can stretch to a “don’t take a vacation” amount of time if any bugs arise.

Other details are more visible but still underappreciated. Creating both a trial version and a full version of the same game takes a lot of attention; specifically, what features are enabled and disabled on-the-fly and what happens when a player upgrades to the Full version. Pop-up dialog boxes - when they appear and disappear, how long they appear, and the numerous languages they must accommodate - involves a lot of tedious gruntwork. The same goes for incorporating the numerous variations of multiplayer modes and connection types, so that everyone can play without a hitch.

That indie developers must confront many of the same obstacles as well-financed, well-established, well-oiled developers do, but without the security and power of an extensive workforce and bank account, makes them the equivalent of the small business in the gaming world. Sort of like us, I suppose. Just for them to have some semblance of an impact, they need to have an exceptional understanding of the pipeline of creating a game to take advantage of its relative agility to their multi-billion dollar contenders, beyond the competition in the indie market itself. They need to be as swift and strong as a lone ninja, and in that regard, N+ looks to deliver a stealthy deathblow.
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