Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Conversation with Epicenter Studios (sort of)

Recently, GoNintendo reported that GameStop no longer listed "Rock of the Dead" as being released for the Wii. [link] This was indicative of another slap in the face of Wii owners since this game was originally announced as a Wii exclusive.

However, Bryan ("roland13x") from Epicenter Studios made the (possibly suicidal) decision to join in an internet discussion on video games. However, (most) everyone was cool and the two of us were able to have this nice conversation on GoNintendo's post...

Hey guys, Bryan here from Epicenter studios.

First off, I've said it before and I'll say it again, I love the passion you guys have for gaming. Even those of you who are saying "Rock of the Dead is the sux!!1!" :) It's that kind of passion that fuels us when we're making games.

For the Wii version of Rock, all I can say right now is don't worry about it. It's coming. We've pretty much had everything go against us for that game, but we won, and it's coming.

So even for those of you who are hating something you haven't given a chance to...hell, especially for those guys, it's coming. Don't know when, but it's coming!

roland - thanks for being a stand up guy about all this.

Here are my 2 cents and I hope you reply when you get a chance.

Cent #1. I read about this game in (I believe) Nintendo Power a few months ago. As an avid lover of both HotD and Typing of the Dead I was very interested in this title. Psyched? Maybe only in small amounts. But interested? Abso-freaking-lutely.

Cent #2. When I see any company treat the Wii like a second class citizen it bothers me. (In this case: exclusive > delay > removed listing > "it's coming for realsies!")

Why does it bother me? Because I think the best games of this generation have come out for the Wii and as a guy who was very into the PS1 and PS2, that means a lot.

So when I see all this potential for a platform, and then developers and publishers giving the Wii the cold shoulder (watered-down versions, or no release at all, even when it seems to make poor business sense!), I just get frustrated.

There only seem to be 3 reasons why a company would ignore the Wii.
1) lack of HD
2) lack of processing power on par with the PS3/60
3) lack of a "hardcore" image.

Reason #1 seems real weak to me (Pac-Man is still a pretty fun game.)
Reason #2 makes sense, but then again, doesn't that make it cheaper to develop for???
and Reason #3 is stupid beyond all comprehension ... but the sounds from the echo chamber sure indicate a fixation.

So what I'm hoping, what I'm asking from you is, can you explain to us why things like this happen? Perhaps you can only comment on your own experiences - and that would be fine.

Thank you.


Hey NinSage. First of all, a well-written post, so thank you!

While I can't go into detail about the circumstances behind Rock of the Dead's development, I can express what I see happening within the industry in general.

We (Epicenter) has been very supportive of the Wii. In fact, our first two projects (Critter Round-Up for WiiWare and Real Heroes: Firefighter) were exclusive to the Wii. Sure, part of it was because we had smaller budgets and needed the lower-fi platform, but a lot of it was because we believed in what the Wii was as a platform.

However, we've all seen a ton of, well, not great games sell a ton of copies on the Wii. And when publishers see that they can spend $20 million on a PS3/360 title and make $10 million, or they can spend $500k on a Wii game and make $4 million...well, you can see where that ends up. Sure, there are some publishers that put a lot of money into high quality games for the Wii, but most of the Wii's lineup is, well, lower priced titles that have some success. So the cycle continues...

Quick Edit - You wouldn't believe some of the conversations we've had with some publishers. We've been asked to deliver some ridiculously ambitious games at costs that aren't feasible, and then we see these same projects completed (generally poorly) by Chinese or Thai studios. Frustrating.

So while your three reasons are, for sure, valid reasons, I think you're seeing financial reasons dominate what's going on with the Wii software.

Having said that, we certainly didn't intend to treat the Wii with a cold shoulder. We actually really appreciate the Wii because it gives smaller developers with smaller budgets a platform where they can compete. Which is one thing that scares me a bit with the 3DS. The DS might be the last console that will commercially support smaller or 2D style games on a mass market level. But I guess we'll see.


More devs should do what you're doing right now: making a connection with their audience. Honestly, I didn't know the name of your company before this discussion (don't feel bad, I *heart* games, not business).

However, I think I speak for a lot of people here when I say that knowing a fellow like yourself is behind the wheel makes us want to familiarize ourselves with that entity.

Based purely on their, for lack of a better term, "philosophy," I will always check out games made by three people: Warren Spector, Jason Vandenberghe and now roland13x (Epicenter). =P

Plus, I don't see 2D gaming going anywhere. And I don't even mean 2D as in no-glasses. I mean 2D like the way Metal Slug, Muaramasa and ABaHBlob are 2D. Frankly, I don't think the simplicity of 2D gaming will ever fully lose its appeal (to devs AND the audience).

We still have print media, we still have radio, we'll still have 2D games. The sky is never falling as much as Michael Pachter insists that it is =P

If you're still checking this, I have s'more questions to add to our discussion ...

1. I think your assessments of the economics at work are accurate. However, that only confuses me further. Given that relationship between development investment and potential profits, wouldn't that make the Wii very attractive to ... everyone?

For example,
High budget Wii -> low or high $$$
HighER budget PS/360 -> low or high $$$
Low budget PS/360 -> low $$$
LowER budget Wii -> low or high $$$

Obviously I'm speaking gross generalities, but it just seems like the Wii would provide lower risks and higher rewards, especially for smaller devs.
But perhaps there is a glitch in my matrix? Care to correct it?

2. Also, I need more enlightenment on just how different the cost to develop on Wii is from the HD consoles?
For instance, if a game like No More Heroes sells 400k units, is that profitable for a studio of their size?
After all, it is a 3D game, it has gameplay and narrative depth, but it doesn't exactly push the technological envelope.

Conversely, how many units would its HD version need to sell before turning the same profit? 600k? Over a million? Ball park figures are welcome.

3. Would the costs of a game like Muramasa or ABaHBlob be significantly cheaper than a No More Heroes? Does the purely 2D really cut the cost? Or does the investment in animation bump it back up?

Thank in advance. And if you don't feel like continuing the discussion here, feel free to write me!


By the way, I'm a HUGE Warren Spector fan. System Shock 2 is still one of my favorite games of all time. I was walking down the street at GDC two years ago and Warren was walking towards me, and I totally choked and didn't say hello and "thank you" to him. Grr....

And I didn't mean to say that 2D gaming was going away, it'll always be around. It's more of the ability for that type of game to A) get made and B) have the potential to find a mass market audience (in other words, be successful) is going to be diminished somewhat with the move to the quite powerful 3DS.

For sure we're speaking generalities here, and my experiences may be different from other devs, so this is pretty much my observations speaking. You are correct, I do think the WIi provides lower risks with potentially higher rewards. But once it's proven that something, for example, Carnival Games, developed at probably 10% of the budget of a lower-end 360/PS3 title, can make itself a 1000% profit...well, you're going to just see a ton of very low budget Wii titles in the hopes that one hits it big. And not that budget and quality are completely directly linked...but that is the case more often than not.

And frankly, I don't think a lot of people still know how to deal with the Wii. When we first started up, the Wii had been out for maybe 2 months. We pitched a couple Wii games to just about every publisher, large and small, and they were all, seriously, all of them, unsure of what was going to happen with the Wii, so they basically ignored it at first. And then they collectively see how successful and "non-fad" it was and everyone jumped on with some good but mostly negative results. The unconventional nature of the platform really handicapped a lot of companies.

So, NMI. If they really sold 400k units, and assuming most of those sales were at the full release price, then most likely someone made a profit on it. The tricky part here is comparing Japanese development with Western development. I've only worked in the West, so most of what I know of Japanese development is through stories or third-party conversations...but more often than not, those guys virtually kill themselves making games. There's a ton of turnover at a lot of the larger other words, it's often not very pleasant, but they do get a lot from a little if you follow. But assuming it costs them what it'd cost us to make a game like that, I'd say someone made money on it.

If the HD version was basically the same game with higher-res models and textures but virtually the same game, then it probably wasn't too expensive to "up-convert", so I'd say another 400k-600k in HD sales would be very healthy for them. Again, assumptions and generalities...

That's a good question, but I would say yes, a 2D game will most often be cheaper than a similarly-scoped 3D one. The added expense of beautiful hand-drawn characters and animations is probably less than the savings on creating 3D models, landscapes and more complex scripting.


Thank you very much for your informative responses.

That's too bad about your Warren encounter. Stick with the biz and you'll get another shot =)

So I checked out the Epicenter website.

I have three things to say:
1. If the Wii version of RotD is not depressingly gimped, you'll have my sale. It would actually motivate me to pick up a silly plastic guitar for the Wii! ... I have two for the PS2 in a closet somewhere ...

As a musician (bass, drums, guitar, piano) the idea of "pretending" to play Sweet Home Alabama never really appealed to me. But the idea of "pretending" to kill zombies with rawk?! To quote myself, "abso-freaking-lutely."

2. Perhaps you were aiming for that broader audience (can't blame you) but "Real Heroes: Firefighters" is really the kind of name that will make long-time gamers ignore your efforts. If only it had been called "Inferno" or "Ember's Glow" or "Disaster: Day of Cri--" ... nevermind that last one.

3. That said, after looking up some videos, there is an infinitely greater chance of me someday playing "Real Heroes: Firefighter" than, say, "G__ of War 5." Take that for what it's worth.


Oh man, let me tell you how much I disliked the title of the Firefighter game. All I can say is naming things is hard. Weeding through trademarks and all that fun legal stuff is, well, not fun.


I understand... the creative process can often be a battle of attrition.

Thanks again for the good chatter!


Benjamin Fennell said...

Fantastic discussion here. Good insights into the industry. A lot of confirmation of my own thoughts and suspicions from things I'd read before, echoing the industry's ongoing problems. And a lot of important dialogue in general. :)

Maxi said...

Sage bringing the inside details of the industry.

Yeah I figured things were happening like that.

coffeewithgames said...

I have heard a lot of games are being outsourced to Thai and Chinese studios now.
It's going to be very interesting moving forward with the internet and the way game's can be developed/distributed.

Anyway, I really appreciate when developers get involved with communities on gaming sites.
The whole reason I purchased my last WiiWare title was because one of the guys helping with the game was involved in a community forum.