When Xbox Live Arcade game Hydrophobia was released to disappointing review scores, Manchester developer Dark Energy Digital hit back. Now, three months after release, DED has slashed the price of the game and prepared what it believes is a "quite remarkable" update, all with a crystal clear message: We have listened.
Here, in a world exclusive interview with the DED triumvirate of managing director Pete Jones, creative director Deborah Jones and senior creative designer Rob Hewson, Eurogamer discovers a mellowed developer prepared to admit its mistakes.
Eurogamer: Why is the update called Pure?
Pete Jones: We called it Pure because it was closest to our original vision for the game. It encapsulates what we wanted to create. We looked through over 250 reviews. Believe it or not, there have been nearly 250 reviews. And we have read and dissected every single bloody one of them. And most of the blogs, well, all the blogs we could find, and all of the comments that were posted.
It's clear that a number of people loved the game and a number of people were really frustrated by the game. In Hydrophobia Pure we believe we've eliminated those frustrations, and therefore it is a pure version of our vision.
Eurogamer: You really read 250 reviews?
Pete Jones: Honestly. We even translated all the foreign ones. I'm absolutely bloody serious. We dissected them into every comment about every functional area and then we used a mapping technique to give those a value. A strongly positive comment was a two. A mildly positive comment was a one. Neutral was zero. Minus one and minus two on the other side of the scale. We could map and look at the community's strength of feeling on each one of the functional areas of the game. There were 70 functional areas we reviewed.
Eurogamer: No one will be able to accuse you of not doing your research, then.
Pete Jones: No. We honestly did it.
Eurogamer: What are the most important areas of the game you have focused on with this update?
Deborah Jones: Controls, cameras and feedback. In fairness sometimes you get a little bit close to what you're doing. You get very excited. We were trying to do something quite innovative with the water and playing with it in a completely different way than has ever been played with in a game before.
Yeah, in some areas we got a little bit close. We mapped the controls to buttons that are not normal button layouts. The map of the buttons was quite complicated for some people, particularly when you have to swim as well. We've addressed those areas. That's the first thing we looked at.
We looked at the fact that you could get lost very easily within the game. We were thinking of it being an immersive experience, but actually for a lot of players that could be really frustrating. We can see that. When you sit back and look at it you do think, yeah, that needs some help there.
We've addressed that issue and we've put waypoints and objective markers throughout the levels. Also we've done it so if the player doesn't want to be handheld all of the time, they'll be able to see all of objective markers all of the time on the map. So they can still have the immersive experience they want, or they could have the objective markers in the world so they know where they're going. Those are the things we've looked at. And I can see how these things can be frustrating.
Pete Jones: I'm reading from Eurogamer's review, actually. You put, "Its cumulative small failings drags the player down into infuriation." It's all those small failings, as you put them, that we've addressed.
In fact, if we took your own review as a benchmark, every single point you raised as a negative in your review has been addressed in this.
Eurogamer: It sounds like you've put in a lot of time and energy into this update. When did you begin work on it?
Deborah Jones: We were looking at the game as soon as it was signed off. We were looking at various things we wanted to improve. We're not a big team. We wanted to listen. We wanted to see what was out there. As soon as we could get some balance on the issues people had, we started to address them. We've been addressing certain things in the background, but then obviously the key points that people raised.
Pete Jones: When we started getting the bulk of the reviews in – because like any game, the reviews come in quite quickly after launch – what we needed was a means of examining all those reviews and clarifying them into a single vision. Otherwise, you read one review, you read a second review and a third and so on, you don't get a coherent picture. You get the highs and the lows and the points that are made, but you don't get them in a systematic way.
We started right from the beginning, right from the first reviews, particularly some of the negative reviews. We took them apart. We started to analyse them, and as soon as we got a critical mass of reviews, which for us was probably around the 50 review mark, we started to break it down into the areas of the game people found frustrating in terms of the feedback. Also we looked at blogs people had put up on the game, and started rectifying it.
We set about it at a very early stage, and it's been a single-minded pursuit ever since.
Eurogamer: Would you agree that early you were angry about how the game had been received, and perhaps now the dust has settled you're more considered and philosophical about the experience?
Deborah Jones: Definitely philosophical. Honestly, we weren't actually angry, even at... Obviously you're disappointed. You can't help but be disappointed. But when you look at it and people have a valid point then you can't possibly be angry about someone's opinion.
Pete Jones: I don't think anger is the right sentiment. We were perhaps on occasion a little too defensive and disappointed. Pride can be a big virtue as well because you need to be intensely proud of something you're creating in any endeavour. And we were proud of it. And we still are proud of the game. Immensely proud of it.
From the start we wanted to make a game that gamers really loved. That was our passion. That's what we wanted to do. And that's still our passion. That's why we created and spent so much time listening to what people wanted.
Deborah Jones: When you play the title update, the camera has seen a lot of work. The camera takes you in so much closer to the screen. Being so far away in the original one caused quite a lot of issues. The camera change, the control mapping, the fact you can get into cover so easily, just makes the game much more pleasurably to play.
We loved it as it was, but in fairness, we were probably too close.
Pete Jones: To just underline the point about getting too close, when we finished it we happened to be playing another game, which will remain nameless, at home, and I kept dying. The reason I was dying was because I'd remapped my brain to the control system in Hydrophobia and kept pressing the wrong damn button all the time.
Deborah Jones: The damage feedback is one very important area we picked up on. Originally you could die from fire in the area and not know why you'd died or what the cause was. Now that doesn't happen. You know where the damage is coming from and it's more balanced. We used to quite enjoy that, but that was because we were, again, too close.
Pete Jones: The fact we've managed to do all of this within a title update is almost voodoo. It's down to the fact the game is created with InfiniteWorlds. It allows us to do huge amounts within an impossibly small memory amount. It really is a huge technical achievement.
Eurogamer: Why are you dropping the price of the game to 800 MS Points?
Pete Jones: We were really hard-nosed about it. Every decision we've taken on Hydrophobia Pure was based on feedback. Part of the feedback, if you look at the stats, there was a desire for the game to be at 800 rather than 1200.
Eurogamer: So you had always wanted it to be at 800?
Deborah Jones: It's not our pricing structure. It's Microsoft's pricing structure and it's not our decision at the end of the day. It has to fit in with Microsoft's vision. It was Microsoft's vision to have it at 1200 Points, well joint vision, really. 800 Points is a fair price for a great product.
Pete Jones: We've looked at the feedback and we've responded to the feedback. Our line to our programmers, artists and designers has been, the defining factor on what happens in this update is the feedback from the community. We've followed that on every single line: on the graphics, animation, camera and damage. And we took exactly the same line on value for money.
The balance of feedback was that it should be 800 Points and we've made it 800 Points.
Eurogamer: You include in your press release a quote from Mark Coates from Microsoft. How did your relationship evolve after the game launched?
Deborah Jones: I don't think it's changed. Our relationship with Microsoft is excellent and they've been brilliant. I must say they've been absolutely superb throughout the whole process.
Pete Jones: These comments are not comments because we happen to be in a conference call with Eurogamer. We couldn't have done what we've done without the implicit and close cooperation of Microsoft. They've been bloody superb in every quarter. That's not a lithe comment, either. We really mean that.
They took our vision of what we wanted to create. They've run with it and they've facilitated a very swift turnaround. And here we are with this quite remarkable title update. There hasn't been any change. They've always been supportive and they've remained so after the game launched.
Deborah Jones: If you ask us, would we have liked to have had this title update out at launch, the answer is obviously yes, but we didn't know at that point. In hindsight it would have been a wonderful thing to have had done all these things initially.
Pete Jones: In many ways it's changed the way we look at our game and our studio and the way we do things. We hired a suite in the big shopping mall that sits in the middle of Manchester, the Manchester Arndale, to interview gamers. We bribed, cajoled and persuaded gamers to come in to a suite we booked. We had a prepared questionnaire for after they'd played through the game, which went into all the areas we'd received feedback on from the community. That was a huge document. We did that over a hundred respondents.
We also booked rooms in Bolton University – they were most helpful. We even did a control group to research what the public thought independently, how their results stacked up against the professional reviewers results. We honestly have done our homework and we've continued to do that.
Deborah Jones: We did get a few things wrong, but we have listened. We hope the community will appreciate the changes.
More on Hydrophobia
Water into whine.
Some staff unpaid for 3 months. New company to pick up pool game.
Aquatic adventure drops next week.
PS3, Steam version shows off upgrades.
Eurogamer: First impressions are very important in gaming. If you have one message for Xbox 360 gamers about Hydrophobia, what is it?
Pete Jones: The first thing you have to bear in mind is the majority of reviews were positive. The majority were over 70 per cent, statistically. The majority of 360 gamers who downloaded the game, their experience was a good one. To them, we're rewarding them with the title update because it works on a game that's already been purchased and updates it in the same way any title would. It provides them with a new experience.
If people had a frustrating element of the game, that's been turned around and corrected and it will give them the experience we wanted to.
Otherwise, frankly, it's damned if you do and damned if you don't. The argument is, if you know there's an element of the game that produced frustration among a proportion of gamers, the opposite argument is, is it the right thing to leave it there and not address it and listen to the community?
We feel, rightly or wrongly, that the right answer is to listen to the community and give the community what it wants, to give something back.
Perhaps other people ought to listen to the community more. There are a lot of games I've played where I've had frustrations with an element of the game, and none of those were ever fixed. Now, in an age where you can download a product so quickly, and we have a technology that uniquely allows us to provide this level of change, it would be inherently wrong if we just sat back and said, "Well that's it. You've got to enjoy what we've produced."
It would be better, frankly, if more games took the same attitude.
Rob Hewson: That's something that will continue as well. For future projects, gamers know we're going to be listening to their input for sequels and other projects.
Deborah Jones: When you get positive reviews, obviously you're elated. When they're negative you do feel it quite personally. Everybody on the team wanted to give something back and say, "Look, here we are guys, we've listened to you, we wanted to improve it for you."
That's for us as well, for our own satisfaction, because you feel for everything you do.
Free title update Hydrophobia Pure will release tomorrow on XBLA.