An interview with Neil Yates of Jagged Blade Games
Your games to date have all been shooters. I guess you must have some strong feelings about shooter games. Traditionally I know they haven’t been the easiest thing so sell to a paying audience. How have you found sales?
Ironically I only became seriously interested in shooters after becoming an indie. Prior to that my favourite games were RPG titles like Final Fantasy, Baldur’s Gate and Morrowind. I’m quite young so I kind of missed the ‘glory days’ of the shmup.
When I originally started out I planned on making expansive RPGs but I quickly realised that I was aiming far too high and needed to have a more realistic goal. I looked at the current shareware games and saw 3 genres that seemed to have any level of success: cutsie puzzle games, cutsie platformers or shoot em ups. Not wanting to compromise my manliness I decided to go the shooter route.
While I was developing my first few games I spent a lot of time researching the genre and playing older titles like Gradius, R-Type and Raiden. It was only at that point that I really began to fall in love with shmups.
And you’re totally correct, downloadable shooters really don’t sell well. Typically my download to sale conversion rate would be about 0.1%. My best selling downloadable shooter was Desperate Space, which after 4 years has only made about $10,000. It took me six months to make and I spent about 3 months on marketing. I don’t know many people in the UK who could live (not in their parent’s basement) on $1100 per month.
After a number of downloadable games, you have switched to a flash based platform that is a sort of MMO hybrid. Can I ask what prompted the move from downloadable to flash based development?
According to Einstein the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting to get different results. By the time I had finished Mighty Rodent I realised that I was literally acting like a crazy person. The message was clear, downloadable shoot em ups weren’t selling and I needed to try something different.
I started looking at different technologies, thinking of different business models etc. I played around with Flash for a while and eventually fell in love with it. I found development to be much faster than anything else and the fact that I could easily deploy to a large variety of platforms made it all the more attractive. By this point I wasn’t really sure what my final direction would be, but I knew that it had to be something involving Flash.
Do you find the flash limits you in terms of the speed of the rendering and the smoothness of movement. I would imagine for shooters, that’s a very important part of the appeal. Having said that when I played Dead Frontier it felt like a slower paced game than your other games anyway. Is this a concious decision to pace the game more slowly?
Yes Flash definitely limits you but it’s getting better all the time. With the advent of AS3 and FP10 it’s actually possible to make some quite hardcore stuff. When I originally made Dead Frontier I was working with AS2 and speed was a much bigger issue. My answer was to try to focus the game more on the horror/suspense side of things rather than pure shooting. Having said that the game does get much more intense later on.
Though being a zombie game I’d really like to have more than 8 zombies on screen without the user’s computer exploding. So I’ve gone ahead and hired a Flash guru to help convert the game to AS3 and optimize everything. We’re aiming to have up to 30-50 zombies and 10 players on screen at once without compromising framerate. I’d really like to go for that “OMG EPIC ZOMBIE HORDE!!!!111″ feeling.
Dead Frontier is a fairly dark game in theme. It is also unusually a flash based MMO. Although there are plenty of those around, they do tend to be fairly bright and happy affairs with a very young audience. How has the public reaction been to a zombie shooter made in flash?
The feedback has been 100% positive. My players love zombies, violence, gore and everything that goes with that. Dead Frontier is the only MMO where they can really get it.
Honestly it feels like the casual/female gamer revolution has gone too far. Right now all MMOs seem to be either anime, cartoony or cute and it drives me nuts. It’s not just MMOs either, this plague seems to have infected just about every genre and platform going.
I think there are a lot of people out there that feel the same and want to play something a bit more hardcore. For a long time I had a naked female zombie on the front page. Sure I got a few complaint emails, but I got many more from people praising my boldness.
Can I ask you about the business side of Jagged Blade Games? Are you a one man outfit? Who does the art, business and other things? Are you full-time doing it? Do you have contract work to support yourself?
For the longest time it was just me. To start with I lived with my parents and basically gave them any money I earned to go towards for my food/rent. Eventually I scored a part time job with ArcadeTown which gave me enough total income to buy a house an start living as an ‘adult’.
When I launched Dead Frontier it started making some money, nothing amazing but still much more than I’d ever made with my previous games. Literally a month later I was told that I was no longer needed at ArcadeTown. At this point I was incredibly relieved that I still had Dead Frontier to pay the mortgage.
Since I no longer had a job I focused all of my attention on improving the game and the income started to increase exponentially. Right now I have two full-time employees, Ian who handles customer support/community management and Nick who handles promotion of the game. I also work with a range of freelancers/part timers: Greg Taylor (art), Jesse Hopkins (sound), Matthew Bowie (server admin) and David Patterson (programming). I’ve got some big plans for the future and I expect the game to eventually grow around 5x it’s current size.
In many ways, choosing shooters as a genre to work in is a very risky move. Many indies choose to try for the casual market, although that has come under increasing price pressures recently. You obviously made a decision when you switched to creating flash based games. Did you not get tempted to move outside of the shooter genre and go more “casual”?
I was seriously tempted to try making a match-3 or time management game a few years ago when I wasn’t making any decent money and you could still sell them for $20. I’m glad I never did it but the whole casual craze did have a big negative impact on me. I always felt like the answer to more sales was to make my games more and more casual as that was the prevailing advice at the time. The closest I ever came was with Mighty Rodent; my only cartoony game. I thought that by dressing a shooter in cute clothes I could get more sales. Turned out I was wrong and it actually made less money than some of my more hardcore games. After that I promised myself that I would never pander to portals again; I would make exactly the kind of game I want and never make compromises.
And that’s exactly what I did. When I was brainstorming for new ideas I said to myself, “what would I really like to play?”. The answer was a survival horror MMO. So that’s what I made.
Looking to the future, how do you see your games evolving? Do you think that you will ever create downloadables again? How about platforms like steam, or consoles?
Well I’ve got some really neat ideas for both MMOs and downloadables but right now I simply wouldn’t have the time to begin work on another project.
The upside with downloadables is that when you’ve finished a game you can generally move on to something else quite quickly. MMOs aren’t like that at all, if they become successful then you’re basically tethered to them until they die or get bought out. Though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing since it gives you the chance to make something really big and really special.
Not really interested in other platforms, although if I were to do a downloadable I’d definitely like to give steam a whirl. They appear to be the only portal where a hardcore game can do well.
Finally, is there anything you want to say to aspiring indies in the UK thinking about going it alone and starting thier own studio?
My advice would be not to set your sights too low. Right now a lot of people seem to think the route to success is by keeping your dev time short in order to get the maximum ROI on time spent. That’s great if you’re happy to just scrape by, churning out endless streams of mediocre titles. That’s what I tried to do in my early years and let me tell you first hand – it sucks.
If you really want to make it big then you’re going to need a big hit. To do that you need a game that’s really special and that simply isn’t going to come from a 3 month development cycle. I would also recommend trying things that haven’t been done before. Nothing better than having an entire niche all to yourself.
Thanks to Neil for giving us such a great insight into his life as an indie developer. You can check out Neil’s latest game Dead Frontier at www.deadfrontier.com and his other games at www.jaggedbladegames.com
Until next week!