Exclusive: Interview with Windows Phone game developer 2 Ton Studios

Stephen Danton runs 2 Ton Studios – creators of some of the most popular and exciting indie games currently available in the Windows Phone marketplace. He develops games in his free time outside of a day job as a User Interface designer working on cloud development tools. So far he’s developed Akiak – a fun obstacle-dodging game featuring a penguin, and NinjaBoy – a polished and addictive platformer with some challenging tilt-based controls. Both games are available for free and are well worth a look if you’ve not downloaded them already.

I originally contacted Stephen because Akiak has an interesting popup message which says that because my phone is a HTC model, the controls will function slightly differently from other Windows Phone devices due to touchscreen issues. Given that Windows Phone seeks to deliver the same experience regardless of hardware I thought there might be an interesting story behind that. Stephen kindly agreed to an interview and I had an opportunity to ask him a range of questions about Windows Phones and gaming in general…

Tell us about your gaming history and favourite games!

This is a tough one, I’ve played tons of games across almost every system ever built. My first system was a Texas Instruments 99 which I think my Mum got it at a flea market for a couple of bucks. My brother and I played the heck out of that thing. The games were pretty bad, but that was where it all started. Growing up I was a hardcore Sega fan so my favorite systems are the Master System and Genesis, although every once in a while we’d break down and rent an NES or SNES to play games like Zelda, Punchout and Mario Kart. As I got older I stopped being a Nintendo-hater and finally got an N64 and later a Wii – GoldenEye, Mario Kart and Mario are still some of my all-time favorite games. I didn’t get into PC gaming until I was a teenager, but really loved games like the first WarCraft, Baldur’s Gate, X-COM, Planescape Torment and later on Half Life, Ultima Online, EverQuest and World of Warcraft.

My all time, stand out, favorite games are Phantasy Star, Zillion, Y’s and Wonder Boy in Monster Land (Master System games) – I regularly replay them even today, and just recently re-finished Y’s, Zillion and Phantasy Star. On the Genesis I loved the sports games – Lakers versus Celtics and NHL 94 and 95. On Nintendo: Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Punch-Out!! On PC: WarCraft, Baldur’s Gate, and Ultima Online.

Before delivering Windows Phone games did you work on any other titles?

WP7 is the first time I’ve shipped games as a real product. I’ve built games very much on the side as soon as I learned to program, which was pretty late in life, not until my 3rd year of University.

What made you buy a Windows Phone device?

If you can believe it Windows Phone is the first cell phone I’ve ever owned. I was given a feature phone one summer when I ran a small business, but that doesn’t really count. I got a WP7 because I’d been working on a Silverlight based game, Shadow Spire, and saw the new Microsoft phone as an easy way to get into the mobile gaming race, try out stuff with little risk, and see if my ideas where any good.

What do you think of XNA as a development platform?

My first two games where done in Silverlight. I switched to XNA for NinjaBoy because I wanted to create a more complex game. There is a bit of a learning curve with XNA, but overall it’s pretty great. There is definitely a lot of stuff that makes game development easier and it’s supported by a solid community. However, it’s still got lots of room to grow. The lack of an official 2D and 3D level editor as well as embedding something similar to Silverlight Storyboards for animation really hurts.

I’d also like to see Microsoft rationalize the Silverlight vs XNA mess they’re currently in. I think having them both as independent technologies is just confusing. There is good stuff in each of them and it would be great to see them come together a bit more.

Did you encounter any issues or limitations during development of your Windows Phone games?

The one thing I would love to see made much easier is multiplayer/networking. I’ve got tons of game ideas that revolve around a multiplayer experience, but to be honest I’m not sure I have the programming chops to realize them technically. If Microsoft would step up and provide a great, easy to leverage, multiplayer framework, including hosting (perhaps Cloud), I think they’d really have something amazing.

I guess the other thing would be better augmented reality support. To me the mobile market is a great medium for augmented reality games. It’s too bad that tools for “parsing”real world entities and turning them into gaming objects is not better supported in the frameworks.

Did you notice the 30 frames-per second restriction in XNA on WP7 and does it bother you?

In my experience once you get over say 20fps, consistency is more important than a high frame rate. Of course if you can have both that’s great. Or, if you’re building a specific game like a first person shooter then a high FPS becomes more important. For the games I like to build 30fps is fine.

I did wrestle with getting smooth, consistent movement on my Silverlight games. I’m actually convinced that it’s impossible to do this with Silverlight at the moment. With NinjaBoy being an XNA game it was pretty easy to get the results I wanted. However, WP7 doesn’t seem to be that good at isolating a game from the side effects of other apps, so there are times when I play NinjaBoy or other XNA games where you get some slow down here and there. I’m not 100% sure where it’s coming from but I don’t see that kind of thing when I play iPhone games.

Could you elaborate on the HTC touch screen problem you had with Akiak – what was it?

Pre-NoDo the HTC HD7 phone was just really bad at handling touch events. Basically it would often report a touchdown as a touchup, and even miss touches. I’ve talked to lots of people that struggled with this. At the end of the day Akiak was unplayable on an HTC because it really relied on precise handling of touch so that Akiak could jump over obstacles. I solved this by building a fork in Akiak’s control mechanics so that when a player was using an HTC I swapped the jump gesture from touch to tilt up.

Interestingly, the super popular and incredibly similar(!) iPhone game Air Penguin (released a few months after Akiak) uses tilt for all of their gestures.

It’s really unfortunate I had to do this as I think the touch experience is better. Moreover, it’s really sad to see this lack of consistency across WP7 handsets. As an indie dev I can’t afford to test on all devices, so I really rely on the promised consistency across the hardware. Hopefully we don’t see any more of this going forward.

What do you think of the WP7 marketplace and how happy are you with sales/downloads so far?

Overall the marketplace is okay, but often disappointing. Aside from sales/downloads, I see three sides to the experience: app submission, app purchasing by potential players, and lastly marketplace services.

My sales and downloads are decent. As of this writing we have 100,000 downloads and have made around $1,500 dollars. I think NinjaBoy is a pretty good game, but if I didn’t have a solid day job there is no way I could justify building games on WP7. My sales and download numbers – although relatively good and something I’m proud of – are pretty pathetic when it comes to return on my investment. Microsoft is really going to have to do something about this or I fear many of the developers that prove to themselves they have game dev/design talent are going to leave for greener pastures.

The submission side is a little clunky, with a number of issues that I would consider ship stopping bugs. For instance, when adding screenshots for your app you have to add them in the right order the first time or pictures won’t show up in your submission. So, if you add a picture, delete it, then add a different one, you often get no picture in that slot at all. Super frustrating. Other things that seem like obvious fixes include the automatic checking of submit to marketplace after testing (this should be off by default), the lack of app information persistence when I do an update (I have to reenter that stuff every time), the inability to deliver a “point release” e.g. 1.1.1, and the inability to truly preview what you are submitting when doing an update, it just shows you the current marketplace information, you only get to see what users will actually see after it is done testing.

App purchasing on the phone is pretty bad in my opinion. It’s definitely improved with NoDo (at least the Marketplace doesn’t lock your phone anymore), but that’s not saying much. I think it’s especially bad for indie games and overly weighted towards XBL content. For instance, Top Games is not actually top games. It’s top paid games. That’s just wrong. I think they need the concept of “What’s New” to showcase game updates. App ranking seems to be all about downloads, that seems wrong. Reviews and freshness should also matter. I would also like to see the ability to sort by games with a free trail or require paid games to have a trial mode. Lastly, the review UI is totally broken. I have 100s of 0 star reviews with comments like “This game is awesome!”. People think that no stars is actually 5 stars, this really needs to be corrected.

On the marketplace services side of things I think WP7 is really behind the curve. Support for in-app purchases, paying for a new update, and making sharing of your app a first class task through code, like review, are must haves in my opinion. Right now the only way to reasonably make money is to give a game away for free and support it with ads. I dislike ads in my games, I feel it breaks the immersion of the experience and makes the game look cheap. I’d much rather sell the game for 99 cents, or give the game away for free and have an in-app purchase model for additional content.

What do you think of the Xbox Live branding and pricing for games – is it a good thing?

Overall it’s a big mess. The pricing is just nuts – $2.99 for Fruit Ninja when it’s 99 cents on iPhone. That’s just broken. My guess is they were looking to their experience with XBL Arcade on the 360 console and hoped to map that to the phone. However, I’m not sure that model works on the phone. At the end of the day I’m not sure what problem they were trying to solve through the XBL model. Moreover, I don’t see a XBL as a tool to address the “top heavy” problem found on iOS where anything not in the top 200 tends to do very poorly. If anything, XBL makes this top heavy problem worse and somewhat of a dictatorship: at least on iOS the users, not Apple, votes on what is great.

Aside from passing on increased costs to the user for signing bigger studios to make games, I think it does harm to the indie game movement on the phone. Firstly, it suggests that everything non-XBL is bad. Players don’t know, nor do I for that matter, what is required to get a game into XBL, so they often think if it’s not XBL it must not be that good. As far as I can tell unless you’re a well-established studio it simply can’t be done. I’ve had tons of NinjaBoy fans tell me how great it would be if it was on XBL, and I’d love to make that happen, but all of my mails to Microsoft have fallen on deaf ears. Other than the automatic email response, I’ve still never gotten an official answer from them. I could be wrong, but a game that is currently ranked #6 on the whole phone, with a 9/10 worldwide review score (of 2,000 reviews), should at least deserve a “We love NinjaBoy, but think you need to do A and B until we can consider it for XBL.”

To me Microsoft should bending over backwards to work with guys like 2 Ton to get our unique indie games as polished and publicized as possible. I would be running commercials on us, hosting pod casts, offering us contracts to quit our day jobs so we can focus just on games, and giving us as much support as possible. I believe strongly that people will come to WP7 for great unique content – experiences you can’t find on iOS. They are not going to come for an old version of Angry Birds. They might not leave because of that, but I don’t think that’s a great goal.

Thoughts of the future of WP7 gaming

On the positive side, I think the WP7 dev stack and experience is very solid and Microsoft will continue to improve the experience here. However, there is more to building a game than just developing it. If they can’t figure out how to provide not just good, but better monetization potential than iOS and Android, it’s my belief that the good devs will simply leave.

Overall, I’m hopeful but with some serious doubts. I believe the current trend of porting old content on to the phone and trying to pursue bigger box games is just wrong. To me, the iPhone wasn’t great because of games like Infinity Blade (a great game no doubt), but instead because of games like Canabalt, Cut the Rope, Fruit Ninja and – yes – Angry Birds!

Summary

Stephen raises some very thought-provoking points about the current state of gaming on Windows Phone, and some of his suggestions such as a slick multiplayer API could give the platform the edge it needs to live up to the Xbox branding. I have already criticised the pricing of XBL games in a previous post, and it’s interesting to hear a developer perspective on this – especially an indie developer with the potential to create the next overnight success in mobile gaming. Come on Microsoft – stop promoting XBL games at the expense of indie games. Even the gaming hub pushes them down off the bottom of the screen!

I’d like to thank Stephen for his time and wish him continued success with his Windows Phone games – NinjaBoy is currently riding high in the sales charts as the sixth most downloaded free application.

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One comment

  1. Robert says:

    An informative interview. Thanks. It’s interesting to hear from actual developers how WP7 shapes up.

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