With the games industry facing the jaws of recession, it takes an admirable level of commitment and self belief to walk away from a job at a major studio to set up shop as an independent games maker, yet that's just what Nathan Fouts did when he left Resistance developer Insomniac to form one-man code shop Mommy's Best Games.
Whether it was a financially shrewd move is something we'll leave to Nathan and his bank manager, but from a gamer's perspective it was certainly fruitful. His debut game, Weapon of Choice, was released in November 2008 to a warm round of applause and a bulging bag of awards. One of the first titles to shine on what was then known as the Xbox Live Community Games channel, thanks to its dazzling colour palette, innovative gameplay ideas and no small amount of old-school brio, it set a high benchmark for the homebrew service that has yet to be topped.
Weapon of Choice will be joined in 2010 by two new stallions from the Mommy's Best stable. The upcoming Grapple Buggy is a vehicular bungee-based platform game sure to invoke lots of Bionic Car-mando puns, while Shoot 1UP, arriving this month, is a vertical bullet-hell shoot-'em-up with a neat twist - every extra life immediately joins in the action, until you're controlling a fleet of up to 30 ships.
With the indie scene still on the ascendant, Eurogamer caught up with Fouts to chat about the challenges of indie development, the nurturing of good ideas and breakfasts for the brain.
Eurogamer: Xbox Indie Games has come in for some criticism regarding its viability as a commercial platform for independent developers - you're working on two new games for the service, so I'm guessing you don't feel too hampered by its structure. What have you found are the pros and cons of the Indie Games channel?
Nathan Fouts: There's definitely a lot of positives to the Indie Games service. XNA makes it fairly easy to develop games that work on the PC and Xbox 360. Developers have basically complete design control over their games. Games can push the boundaries of what is a game, an application, or simply art, yet still get into console gamers' hands. All games, no matter how terrible, get a brief moment of attention by showing up in the New Arrivals list.
As for negative aspects, because it such an easy platform for which to develop, there are a lot of titles coming out. This can mean that though you do get some time in the New Arrivals list, it can sometimes be even less than a week before you're pushed off, into the abyss known as Browse All. But the upswing is, if you can make it into Top Downloads or Top Rated, you get a second life!
And of course, there's still some annoying issues, such as no Achievements (even low count maxes such as 50 gamerpoints) and no global leaderboards. You also can't control what day your game actually arrives on the service. It'd be nice to hold the game after it finished review and decide when to release it, so you could alert fans and maximise your initial sales, hopefully parlaying that into Top Downloads time.
But I have faith that the XNA team is looking into all these issues. They've done a great job so far, and the service is still only a year old. There have been a lot of improvements already.
Eurogamer: Do you think the lowered prices have made a difference?
Nathan Fouts: I think offering a lower price option with 80 Microsoft Points has made a big difference. Having games at one, three or five dollars has been good, but I would still like to have more flexibility, such as offering games at two or four dollars as well.
Eurogamer: At what point would you consider moving your business to Xbox Live Arcade - if at all? Does the freedom of Indie Games hold a special allure?
Nathan Fouts: I love the Wild West feel of the Indie Games service. I spend a lot of time working on my games, and helping give feedback for other games, and I still see odd games pop up now and again I never had any idea about. Sure it's not often very good, but it's often interesting (Herman creeps me out!), and I like finding weird games.
That said there's no question that with the lower number of releases, and more publicity, the Arcade game section has more traffic. Getting Grapple Buggy polished and onto the Arcade service would be fantastic.
Eurogamer: Would you consider porting your games to any other platform? Maybe make them available for PC via Steam?
Nathan Fouts: Actually I'd love to bring some of Mommy's Best to the PC market! We've received a lot of requests from gamers to sell Weapon of Choice for the PC and we may have some good news to share with those gamers soon. It's an issue of having time and money to fix all the issues inherent to the many variations of PCs out there. We're exploring how to handle those issues currently.
Eurogamer: What can you tell us about the origin of Grapple Buggy? Did it come about as an evolution of the spider backpack from Weapon of Choice?
Nathan Fouts: Good guess! I think I've always been fascinated with that tiny moment of weightless you get from jumping, flying upwards into the air. After lots of Bionic Commando playing in my youth, it just seemed natural to want to swing after doing a great sand-dune buggy jump off a high peak!
Eurogamer: Grapple Buggy seems like the kind of game that would sink or swim based on the tactile feedback to the player. The game itself combines two enduring gameplay features that people love to play with - they love driving bouncy buggies and they love swinging. They're also both things that can be horribly frustrating if they don't feel just right. Is it challenging, as a solo developer, to hit that physics sweet spot where simply navigating the gameworld is a pleasure in itself?
Nathan Fouts: It's a really rewarding challenge. It's the most important part of the game, the part on which I have spent the most time honing, listening to feedback, and tuning things again, and finer still, to get it right. It's the veritable core of the game, and for me it had to be really fun, but it also had to 'justify its existence' in a sense. The swinging and buggy controls in Grapple Buggy had to also be original. With this game, I wanted to make sure the player experienced a new kind of fun way to swing and drive.
While the game is still in the middle of development, it's been tested with a lot of gamers, and already people are saying they like the controls and the feel of the game. I think it's on the right track, now there's just plenty more game to get done!
Eurogamer: What about Shoot 1UP? Does it start with a flash of inspiration - "Let's have all the extra lives at once!" - followed by attempts to fit it into a gameplay template, or do you start from the basics of a genre and try to work out what can be done differently?
Nathan Fouts: Shoot 1UP did start life with a flash of inspiration which came from a combination of internal machen lust and recently discovering the Experimental Gameplay Project . I thought it would be neat to award power-ups based on a numerical method of destroying enemies, and then build a fleet from those power-ups.
It got a good response from the meager 7-day sketch I released, and so a full version began! I grew up playing shmups from the R-Type, Gradius, and Thunder Force series as well as others, but am also fascinated by the danmaku shooters of the past few years. I think seeing a phalanx of ships spread out over a landscape made more sense, and thus the vertical format in this case, instead of a horizontal scroller, though I'm generally partial to those.
Eurogamer: Your games seem very focused on the single-player experience, but Shoot 1UP has local co-op. Manic shooters would be killed by online lag, but are you interested in exploring the potential of online play at all?
Nathan Fouts: Well, bringing two-player coop to Shoot 1UP has been really educational and exciting, as I do like playing shmups with friends. I've actually been kicking around some ideas with friends, to come up with an interesting twist for traditional shmups that would be fun online.
Eurogamer: You seem very interested in taking the accepted mechanisms of classic arcade games - particularly extra lives - and turning them into new gameplay concepts. What can you tell us about your approach to game design, and how it ties in with the games you like to play. Is it a question of, "If nobody else is going to explore these areas, I'll do it myself?"
Nathan Fouts: It definitely comes in brief, exciting collisions of inspiration and innovation. Getting excited about an idea or general area to explore, and then actually finding something on which to innovate is exhilarating.
I grew up playing 8- and 16-bit games, and loving 2D gameplay and art. I want to continue to create 2D games, as I think there's an unending number of interesting things to be created, as with any artform.
Eurogamer: Weapon of Choice received a lot of attention - have you been inundated with offers from developers looking to poach your talents? And do you see Indie Games as an end in itself, building Mommy's Best Games into a viable standalone business, or does it work best as a showcase to the industry at large?
Nathan Fouts: Mmmm... breakfast. Nothing warms my cockles more than a bowl of tasty, poached talents.
I left Insomniac Games to work on my own. There's definitely a fat-laden comfort of being wrapped up inside a big studio, but working on your own games, should you be so inclined, is hard to beat.
We continue to get a good number of people wanting help with their projects but also looking for work. We definitely have not made a ton of money yet, but I am always on the lookout for developers interested in collaboration in bizarre future projects.
Eurogamer: What do you make of the competition on Indie Games? Have any titles jumped out at you as examples of the channel's potential?
Nathan Fouts: I've seen a good number of enjoyable games available in the past months. Some recent ones include Arkedo Series (Jump, Swap, Pixel), Leave Home, Square Off, Dark, and Ninja Bros. Try them out!
Eurogamer: And, following on from that, what are the big commercial games that you've enjoyed most this year?
Nathan Fouts: I've enjoyed plentiful rashers of gameplay from New Super Mario Bros, A Boy and his Blob, and Raiden Fighters Aces. Still need to get Muramasa, at least for the art!
Eurogamer: Final obligatory question: do you have anything planned after Shoot 1UP? Any more brilliant ideas percolating upstairs?
Nathan Fouts: There is a coffee filter's worth of uvula-tickling stuff bubbling around, that's for certain! I've always got a kettle full of design ideas cooking, but I like to let them simmer for a while, and possibly age, before I try them out. There could definitely be some more shmup action if this goes as well as I plan.