PomPom Games is possibly the most platform agnostic of all developers. Since the launch of Space Tripper as a downloadable PC title, the mostly two-man design team (Michael Michael does the art, Miles Visman handles the programming, while audio specialist James Drabble is also a regular collaborator) has spent the best part of a decade working on everything from the original Xbox's fledgling Live Arcade service to the iPhone. PomPom's games have even been ported to exercise machines - not a device with a particularly vocal fan-base.
With Alien Zombie Death, a typically frantic new shoot-'em-up, blasting its way onto the PSP Minis roster this month, we caught up with Michael to discuss the evolving face of the indie market, why PomPom rarely has much of a say in which platform it designs for, and what he thinks about Match 3 games (um, not a fan).
Eurogamer: With all these different services and devices knocking around at the moment, how does the market compare to the days when you were just making PC and Mac games? Is it a better or a worse environment for micro-studios?
Michael Michael: From the beginning right up to nowadays, it's always been tough for independents really. Everyone's always looking for that magic formula: everyone looks at games which have done really well, and then we try to dissect them, figure out what makes the market flow. God knows, frankly. It's been difficult the whole time.
There seems to be a misconception that we choose the platforms that we work on, too. It's absolutely not the case. We couldn't make an Xbox Live Arcade game now if we wanted to, most likely. A lot of these channels probably wouldn't take our games any more.
Eurogamer: Why's that?
Michael Michael: It's because the channels have matured, I think. They've become monsters. Some of the games that are on there now are way above our level of production. So, no, we don't choose. It's basically if there's any channel that will let us put a game on there, we'll go for it.
We could get a game on the iPhone easily, so we did Poppi ["wetly charismatic", we said - Ed]. With Alien Zombie Death, we could get a game on the PSP Minis, because we asked and they said we could and we did it. That's the reason we're switching around a lot: because we're forced to.
Things have changed, in other words. Originally, you made a game on PC, you put it out there, you contacted a few websites and then you started selling games. It was definitely simpler back then.
Eurogamer: Is getting in at the beginning important? You were in right at the start of Xbox Live Arcade.
Michael Michael: That's right. We got Mutant Storm out on the original Xbox, and that kept us under Microsoft's nose, so when the 360 came out, that was the idea for Xbox Live Arcade: indie games that were small, fun, different. That's how it was for a while. It was really cool being there at release.
The last few big Arcade games that have come out, though? When I look at the level of content in those games, it's amazing, really. The production values and the content is just amazing. After Mutant Storm, we presented Astro Tripper to Microsoft, and they didn't want it because the scope of the platform was changing, so we went to PSN.
But now as of our latest conversations with Sony, it seems like they're having the same kind of process. On PSN now, the bar is rising, so it's going to be harder and harder to get those kind of arcade games onto consoles.
What can you do? It makes sense, really, because the markets for these consoles are now so gigantic - tens of millions of online players - that the product has to reflect that.
Eurogamer: A game like Mutant Storm Empire seems to have sat somewhere in the middle, then: it wasn't a Shadow Complex kind of experience, but it was much more elaborate than Mutant Storm Reloaded. How did that come about?
Michael Michael: Microsoft definitely helped us with those first two games - Reloaded and Empire - so that was when we had a little bit of funding from somewhere. There's no way that Miles and I could have done something like Empire under our own steam, with our own finances. That's why Empire was full of these little design touches. I'm really proud of how that game went, actually.
Eurogamer: Was there an attempt with Empire to break away from the other twin-stick shooters around at the time? It had a new colour-matching combo system that really changed the way you approached some of the levels.
Michael Michael: It's true that when too many of a certain kind of thing comes out, people tend to be turned off. I see user reviews of games, and it's: "Oh, just another twin-stick shooter". With the combos, the truth is I just like that kind of stuff. Deep scoring mechanics, things you can do to affect your score.
It's always good to put in something that gives the really good players a reason to play the early, easy levels of a game, and still have something to go for. You just put this new layer in that encourages people to go back.
With something like a twin-stick shooter, you have to find these things: things that have the scope to change the kind of score you get in a level, because otherwise it's just plus or minus 10 per cent of the same score each time they play.
So really, I guess it's just me being jealous of the things other developers do, and wanting to try something like that myself. I'm not sure how successful it was putting that in - maybe we should have chewed it over a bit more - but that was our attempt anyway.
Eurogamer: How did Empire sell?
Michael Michael: Not very well at all. God no. In terms of numbers it's hard to know exactly, but it certainly wasn't very high. Probably a quarter of what Reloaded sold. But you have to remember, something like Geometry Wars - which, for the record, I totally love - just did gigantic numbers, so even though Reloaded was profitable for us, it was still a long way behind something like that. That game hit a chord with the public and it was just huge.
Empire and Bliss Island, for the PSP, were both bigger games, and they proved to us that we can't really spend a whole year making a game any more. You just have to make smaller games more regularly and profit off the back of that, because it's not going to work otherwise.
Astro Tripper was a case in point - we knew the game was there, we knew it was already fun, and we knew that a few thousand people had already played it, and it was just a great time to go through and touch it up. Poppi didn't sell very well, but it was the same idea. It was an experiment, really, and we're now going to present it as a proof of concept to a company.
Eurogamer: Is it partly that the indie market is just getting a lot busier these days? Everybody seems to be part of a two-man dev team at the moment.
Michael Michael: Yes, exactly. And it was the iPhone that did it. It just came out of nowhere. Nobody was even looking, and it's gone from nothing to being, I would say, the premium handheld games console.
Eurogamer: What's your opinion of the iPhone as a platform to develop for?
Michael Michael: The iPhone's certainly strange - no buttons is just weird. You've just got to change your games and the way you make them, I guess. I don't like iPhone games that have joysticks on the screen, for example. It's a touch-screen, make a game that uses that, and which doesn't need a joystick.
But as soon as we saw it, we knew that this Poppi idea we had would work for it. Poppi was a chance just to try and get those mechanics working on a touch-screen, because we knew once that was figured out we could start thinking about motion controllers and stuff like that.
Eurogamer: So in terms of all these different platforms - PC, the iPhone, the console downloadable services including things like WiiWare - which is the most promising to an indie developer?
Michael Michael: It's difficult. They're all becoming a little bit shuttered, but if you were a small developer and you have a really solid concept, you're probably better to take it to a publisher, and get them to approach a platform holder with it. I don't think people like Microsoft will even listen to you unless you've got a publisher these days.
But then, Microsoft has created the Indie Games, a new layer beneath Arcade. And I imagine Sony will probably follow along with that at some point. But that upper layer, the Live Arcade, and PSN layer? I wouldn't recommend that any small developer have that in their mind for their game. It's just not a great idea. God, this sounds so negative!
Eurogamer: You're charmingly downbeat, I reckon. Arkedo, the studio that made Nervous Brickdown and Big Bang Mini for the DS, has started making titles for Indie Games. Is that something you'd be interested in doing?
Michael Michael: It's an interesting platform. It's certainly easier to get your games on it, and it's still a fresh market. If the news breaks out that a studio made a game for Indie Games and it made a lot of money, I think a lot of the bigger boys will start looking at that channel. It just cycles through, ultimately. As soon as you have some success on any channel, the big guys will start looking at it, and the whole thing repeats.
Eurogamer: Let's talk about your new game, Alien Zombie Death. Do you like the direction Sony's been taking with the PSP Minis?
Michael Michael: I think it comes back to the iPhone thing: the App Store's just scalpelling out huge chunks of the handheld market. Every month that goes by is dangerous, so Sony had to put something out to compete with that. This is all me speculating, of course.
I actually really like what Sony's doing. I know some people don't think Minis are being pushed enough by Sony, but I think that's how it has to be at first: get it started, get the games building up, don't push the platform too heavily, and then get all the problems and teething issues dealt with. I have no doubt they'll start to push the channel at some point, but you have to make sure it all works how you want it first.
And remember, what Apple's doing is just scary. It's taken them 18 months to essentially become the top handheld. That's some serious momentum, and it's not going to flatten out any time soon.
Eurogamer: It may actually get worse, with changes to ActionScript 3 making it even easier to port Flash games directly to the iPhone? That's two over-saturated markets converging.
Michael Michael: Exactly! When that happens, I think Apple just has to come up with a smart way to find things. I want to be able to say to the App Store, "listen, I just don't f***ing like Match 3, I don't f***ing like this or that type of game, and they can just p*** off."
Eurogamer: Cripes. So how does a game like Alien Zombie Death come together? Do you tend to start with a pretty strong idea of what you want to do, or is it more experimental?
Michael Michael: Generally, I get my way. I moan a lot, and I don't stop. When we started making games, I was thinking about how much I love Defender. It had such a feeling about it: you were on the edge all the time. So we made Space Tripper because I wanted that same feeling.
Then I was thinking, "Robotron's really cool too..." It was a ridiculous idea, actually - I mean, who had joypads on the PC? What were we thinking? We sort of shoehorned in this mouse and keyboard control which was f***ing awful.
But anyway, I'd always wanted to make platformers - a platform shoot-'em-up. And I was thinking, where are they nowadays? It's a genre that's gone completely. Metal Slug's been doing well, but it's not really a proper platformer. So Miles and I spoke about it for a bit, and originally it was levels, and complicated maps and lifts and stuff, and then we decided to just strip it down - right down to a survival shooter in a square arena.
We tried that and we loved it. We just loved it, and that's why we decided to carry on with it. It's just chaos - a platformer with the pace of a shooter. You can only fire left and right, so there are these restrictions, but you can move up and down. It reminds me of Reloaded, really. Um, that's not a great way to promote our games, really, is it? "It's just like our other s***! But from the side!"
But that's how it works, really: we sit around, talk about stuff, laugh quite a bit, and then we give something a go. That said, we have now extinguished the three things we always spoke about doing - the Defender, the Robotron, and the platformer shoot-'em-up. That's it then. I'm not tipping my cap to the past anymore. We have to move forward now.
Michael Michael is one half of PomPom Games. Alien Zombie Death is due out on the PSP and PS3 Minis label imminently.