Microsoft hasn't lost touch with indies, insists XBLA dev

"It's a huge organisation, and they might be slow but they're definitely heading in the right direction."

Microsoft's relationship with indie studios remains strong, the developers of forthcoming XBLA title Max: The Curse of Brotherhood have insisted - and while it might seem that the platform holder is losing its grip on indie gaming as Sony attracts more and more developers to PlayStation, there's plenty going on behind the scenes to ensure that won't be the case come the next generation.

"It's something we have a hard time relating to," Press Play's lead designer Mikkel Thorsted told Eurogamer when asked about the common consensus that PlayStation's becoming the more attractive platform for indies.

"I think people are wrong if they don't think Microsoft are looking into that, and trying to do what they can to adjust to how the market is changing. Of course they are, and it's actually also visible if you look at XBLA - there are free-to-play games, and there are more and more updates. It's a huge organisation, and they might be slow but they're definitely heading in the right direction."

Copenhagen-based studio Press Play is currently putting the finishing touches to Max: The Curse of Brotherhood, a spiritual successor to the 2010 Wii exclusive Max & the Magic Marker (a game we liked so much we've reviewed it three times across its subsequent iterations.) Shunning the childlike look of the original, the new XBLA game is instead set in a dark fantasy world designed to appeal to an older audience.

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'If you look at a game like Max, one of the things you'll see is that the production level's very high,' says Pedersen. 'It feels like an indie game, but it's got a triple-A look.'

"We're expecting our main audience will be 18 plus," said lead designer Mikkel Pedersen. "We're dealing with, I hope and think, people who have retro love for platform games, Heart of Darkness, Limbo, Trine. There's a huge audience that's younger than that playing the Modern Warfare games, running around with guns, but this is more of a smart puzzle game."

Like the original, Max: The Curse of Brotherhood builds upon basic platforming mechanics with a magic pen that can be used to draw lines and overcome in-game obstacles. Unlike the original, the pen's now more powerful, being able to conjure lines made of earth, wood, water and fire - all of which will behave in a realistic way.

"If you take a traditional 2D game, it's a very artificial world you're playing in," explained Pedersen. "With this, we're trying to tear down those conventions and create a world you can feel immersed in."

There's a darker side to this reboot, too, and one that harks back to fellow Danish platformer Limbo. "When Max dies, he's not just puffing away," says Pedersen. "We're actually showing what's happening. There's no gore, but he's dying realistically within the rules of that world."

Max: The Curse of Brotherhood is the first fruit of Microsoft's partnership with Press Play, after its acquisition of the studio last year. "We've been acquired in what Microsoft describes as a 'light touch' acquisition," said Thorsted. "We're keeping our studio very much as it was, but with the benefit of having Microsoft there. So we're basically as we was, but on the other side we have a lot of resources and insights we didn't have before. Which is a pretty good way to be protected. We're in Copenhagen, and our management is in Redmond, so it's pretty loose management in that sense - even though it's definitely there. Basically, we're describing ourselves as a corporate indie studio."

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Despite being owned by Microsoft and building a successor to a game built around motion control, there's no Kinect in The Curse of Brotherhood. 'For us, the main priority has been that this needs to be gameplay for the core gamers, says Thorsted. 'And we don't want to go in there and be interpreted as some sort of Kinect game.'

Max: The Curse of Brotherhood comes as XBLA appears to be winding down, though, despite the colossal success of 4J's take on Minecraft last year. "Yeah. We're aware," said Thorsted. "We saw Minecraft a year ago having sold god knows how many copies on XBLA, so we know that there's still an active audience. But we're definitely hearing the rumours about the activity not being what it used to be. We're just going to go with it, to see how well it does. We're crossing our fingers, but there's nothing we can really do about it."

It also comes at a time when Microsoft appears to have turned its back on the platform, with another first-party affiliated game - last month's Motorcross Madness - arriving with zero fanfare. "We're kind of expecting to navigate as an indie studio," Thorsted said of Press Play being left alone to fend for itself. "That way we're trying to do everything ourselves to get the right promotion to get the attention out there. Right now we kind of want to take care of that ourselves. And hopefully Microsoft will help make us more visible when it gets out there."

And as for Microsoft's future with indies? "I don't think Microsoft would have acquired us if they weren't interested in indies," said Thorsted. "I think everyone knows that they're important."

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