Joystiq interview: Blazing Lizard on Pirates vs. Ninjas vs. Nixon

Ludwig Kietzmann
L. Kietzmann|09.03.08

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Joystiq interview: Blazing Lizard on Pirates vs. Ninjas vs. Nixon

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If there's one thing we've learned about Christopher Stockman, Studio Director for developer Blazing Lizard, it's that he's a very good sport. Not only did he agree to speak with us on the phone (most people regret this instantly), but he bravely ran into our questions head-on. He's obviously rubbish at dodgeball.

Read on for our interview regarding Pirates vs. Ninjas Dodgeball, deceased presidents and Xbox Live Arcade's infamous certification process.

Alright, be honest. How sick are you of interviewers asking you to pick between pirates and ninjas?

You know what, I haven't had very many interviews lately, so I'm fresh. I'm not quite a virgin with regards to pirates and ninjas in interviews, but close enough. Born again, you could say.

Plus, you know, it's obviously PIRATES.

Well, some would say it's obviously NINJAS, so the argument rages on.

How much longer do you give this meme before it's gone?

I hope it stays around for a long time. I mean, it's one of those things that, you know, tends to fall off people's radars and then, in some innocuous post on a forum, someone makes a bold statement that ninjas will always win. Then, boom, it comes online again. It's one of those things that will probably never fully go away, there'll always be the argument. Now they'll just have the avenue in which to represent, so to speak.

What was the rationale behind pitting these foes against each other in dodgeball? Why not a fighting game or an eating contest?

Oh yeah, like the world's fastest eating with pirates and ninjas? [Laughs] You know, I think a fighting game makes a lot of sense, actually, and it's something I know that we toyed around with. Initially, I think that was one of the genres that applied very well to Pirates vs. Ninjas, and we still think that's the case.

As for why dodgeball, the sort of gist behind the idea wasn't necessarily pirates vs. ninjas first and then dodgeball came after. I was sort of thinking one day in terms of games on Live Arcade and where there was a hole to fill, and one of the things I noticed pretty quickly is that there are very few sports games -- there are soccer games, like Sensible Soccer, but that's about it as far as I can think of. There really aren't very many arcade, team sports games. And I always had a fondness for Super Dodge Ball. I always remember it being pretty fun, and I know people have been asking for an update, so I thought dodgeball could be the perfect sport for a Live Arcade title. And then, the pirates and ninjas thing came out -- it was was just one of those spur of the moment things that just popped in my head. I was like, "Well, you know, pirates vs ninjas ... dodgeball ... uh, okay! Put 'em together. Boom. Done."

It just added up.

So that's where we came in. We've always wanted to create a Live Arcade game where we could potentially spawn a franchise, and Pirates vs. Ninjas ... there really is no limit to the types of games you can do on it, using these characters and using the general idea behind it. That's how everything came together.

So, you'd like to see the Pirates vs Ninjas theme branch off into other types of games in the future.

Most definitely. It's something I'd like to think can be brought over to a lot of genres. Anything from ... heck, even RTS games work, like an arcadey sort of RTS game. A puzzle game, a la Puzzle Fighter. How many character-based puzzle games are there that you know of? I know Puzzle Fighter and that's like the only one. So, why not a Pirates vs. Ninjas one?

How about a survival horror game?

[Laughs] Like with zombies, and the pirates and ninjas are working together to ward them off?


A fighting game, that of course is one of those instant things that would sit well. You know, other sports games ... they're a bit of a stretch, because I think we've set the groundwork for team-based games and the way they play out. And there's the combat elements, and the fact that each character has specific abilities. Some of that design doesn't really lend itself well to, let's say, football, for example.

I was going to say synchronized swimming.

Or badminton. Or ping pong, you know? I wouldn't say every sport works.

Pirates win by hook or by crook. Mostly the former, though.

What aspect of Pirates vs. Ninjas are you most pleased with?

We set out to create an 8-player online competitive game, and we did it. And not only that, but we did it with basically three and a half people. We have one programmer, we had two artists at one point -- one was only on for about half the project -- and myself. So, it really is three and a half people creating a new game, using a new engine, using a sport that really is untapped. There's very few dodgeball games, so we didn't really have anything to draw from.

I mentioned earlier that I was a big fan of Super Dodge Ball, and it's interesting because when we first set out, I went back and played it. It still holds up pretty well, but one of the things we noticed was that Super Dodge Ball was a two-player game, and each person controlled a team. You threw the ball back and forth and different teams had different powers and different types of shots, but when you start adding in more people to the mix, it becomes kinda boring. People kinda just stand around and don't really do anything, and it's just something that we noticed [about Super Dodge Ball]. But that's not to say we didn't include a regular dodgeball mode in the game -- we do have have a regular dodgeball mode reminiscent of Super Dodge Ball.

That's what I'm proud of. We shipped, I think, a really high quality title. I think it looks amazing, I think it's really fun, it's got single- and multiplayer. The scope of the game is there, considering we did it with three and a half people.

Right. If you look back, the founding members of Blazing Lizard all have a history in RPGs, first-person shooters and other action games. And now you're making a downloadable dodgeball game featuring ninjas and pirates. Is that a strange developmental shift for you?

Well, yes. I mean, coming off of Saint's Row, which was the last big game that we shipped, for Sandeep [Sandeep Shekar, Blazing Lizard's President] and myself -- I was the design director and Sandeep was the technical lead designer on the game, doing a lot of scripting and programming work -- coming into a downloadable game was very, very different.

My design team size at Volition was larger than this company's size. It was actually kind of refreshing in that we could make rapid changes. We focused on iteratively designing the game and testing the game and whatnot. And, of course, we controlled everything. There was no approval process -- we were the approval process. So, whatever we decided went in, of course within the time and budget constraints that we were under. It definitely was a big jump. None of us had experience in designing these types of games, but on the flip side, it was a lot more manageable when coming off of a game like Saint's Row. When we were working on the hardest genre to make, outside of MMOs, something like this was relatively ... I won't say easy, but certainly simpler.

What lessons learned on those big-budget, traditional titles applied to the creation of Pirates vs. Ninjas?

I certainly think that playtesting is a big thing. One of the things in Saint's Row that we certainly did a lot of is focus testing, getting people's thoughts on the experience and sitting down people that never played the game before. And that stuff applies across the board. The problem that you run into is that it takes not only time, but it actually takes finding people to come in and playtest the game in your playtesting lab. That's really hard to do with a small company. We don't have a lot of space in our office, so doing that sort of work .... we're really under incredible time constraints given what we wanted to do with the game and everything. We knew we had to do it. I don't think we did enough -- it's something that I definitely want to do more of in future games. But I think that's a lesson we learned in Saint's Row that we didn't 100% apply to this game, but it should be used across the board, I think, no matter what type of game you're working on.

Other things: Balance is a big thing ... For dodgeball, it was the team balance. We have five teams, four shipping with the game and one's downloadable. When you talk about that, it's very similar to a fighting game. In Dodgeball, you've got four players in a team, and each team has to feel different. And each character has a special ability, so you have to take into account the strength of the team and then their special abilities when you're balancing the other teams. You have to keep all of that in mind. And so, that was definitely, I think, in terms of raw balance, harder than [balancing] Saint's Row. For downloadable gaming, it's quite a challenge.

I certainly don't know if we nailed it, we spent a lot of time with our QA group, a lot of time in playtesting making sure that the teams all had that even chance. It was tough, but I think we nailed it. We'll see when the game releases and what the feedback is, and go from there to adjust things. We certainly have the bandwidth and opportunity to adjust things.

So, what is the downloadable team? Have you said yet?

We haven't yet. Some people are pretty close to guessing what it is. If they do a little internet sleuthing, they'll probably figure out what it is.

It's dead US presidents. Admit it.

Yeah! Exactly, Nixon, you know, throwing up the peace sign. [Laughs] Nixon, Reagan, Washington and Lincoln. Those are the four. That's a good idea, actually. I wish it was, it's actually a good idea. No, I'm actually pretty happy with our first downloadable team. A really cool team, another sort of gaming icon that everybody knows. It's got a really cool level, and their special abilities are just kick-ass. I think we'll demo them to the Austin GDC crowd at the independent games festival pavilion. If they stop by, they'll be able to check out the team.

Is the ease of distributing downloadable content one of the reasons you picked XBLA over Wiiware and PSN?

At the time, we had no insight into Wiiware, so it's something that didn't really enter our thoughts. PSN was in its infancy, and the install base of the PS3 just wasn't there yet for us.

You've got the Wii version coming out, so are you considering a PSN version as well?

Yes. So, choosing XBLA was primarily down to install base and adding downloadable content. Their system is designed for it.

The PSN version -- are you definitely working on that or is it hypothetical at the moment?

It's not hypothetical. But I can neither confirm nor deny that it's in progress ... but it's not hypothetical.

We don't think there's a single XBLA developer out there who hasn't had something to say about the dreaded certification process. Is it really that bad?

No, I'm not gonna complain too much about the certification process ... Okay, I think that maybe while we were doing the certification process, I had plenty of bad things to say, but, in hindsight, I look back and I'm like, "Well, it really wasn't all that bad." The first time we went through we failed on two issues, that's it. One of them was an interpretation issue that we lost out on, and then the other was definitely something that we should have caught. So, for this type of game, an 8-player multiplayer game, that's actually pretty good, considering we passed all the esoteric ones -- pulling the memory card out while you're playing the game, that sort of stuff.

Other than that, I guess the only thing that frustrated me personally was the release of the game. It's not Microsoft's fault, it's just the way things fell into place. We were officially approved July 3rd, that's when we were ready to go out, certification was complete and all that stuff. The problem was another dodgeball game -- the Double D Dodgeball game -- that was approved before us, and so they were released that month. Microsoft doesn't like to release similar games in a genre within the same month for obvious reasons, and then August was their Summer of Arcade promotion. So, those games were already chosen and we couldn't be added to those, so we picked the next best one, which is Sept. 3rd. It's just bad timing, really. It's neither ours nor Microsoft's fault or anything like that, but it's basically a two-month waiting period.

No doubt a bug eliminated during the certification process.

But in your defense, the other (also: poorly received) dodgeball game didn't have pirates, nor did it have ninjas.

Correct. Or zombies or robots.


They had Space Invader-looking dudes.

Now that you have your foot in the development door, is it on to bigger and better things for Blazing Lizard? A retail game perhaps?

I don't even really know if we have much interest in retail stuff. To compete in the retail space, you really have to go big or go home. We certainly can do a big-scale game, but one of the things I'm a proponent of is being able to create IP and retain it, to actually own it. I think that when you start talking about really big-budget games, your chances of actually doing that when a publisher funds a game are slim to none. You really have to do a substantial amount of funding to develop, and we're certainly not in that position yet. I think downloadable games is where we're gonna stay.

We may venture into the iPhone realm, just because I think it's an interesting platform and it poses interesting design changes, with only having to use a touch screen and accelerometers. It's something that's definitely a challenge but could be quite fun, and who knows where that may lead to. And of course, we'll probably stick with XBLA and PSN ... Wiiware is, for us, probably not in the cards anytime soon. I know I'm certainly in a kind of wait-and-see mode to see how things do on Wiiware. For XBLA and PSN, our engine is really designed for those sort of platforms. We are in the midst of porting it to the Wii, and our engine actually scales pretty well down to the Wii -- maybe doing a Wii retail game might be in the cards. I don't know, we'll see what comes up.

Pirates vs. Ninjas Dodgeball is now available on Xbox Live Arcade for 800 ($10).
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