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Joystiq interview: Hitting the open road with Vigilante 8 dev Isopod Labs

Jason Dobson

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After a number of false starts, the re-imagining of Luxoflux's late-90s car combat title, Vigilante 8, finally crashed headlong into Xbox Live Arcade, a release that has so far been met with both rubbernecking and a handful of mixed reviews.

The game's developer, Isopod Labs, was co-founded by both Peter Morawiec and Adrian Stephens, the same two individuals behind Luxoflux, in January 2007. Vigilante 8: Arcade represents the studio's first title, and on the heels of the game's debut we cornered one half of the founding duo in Adrian Stephens to speak more in-depth about his company and why it was important to the team to revisit their past.

Vigilante 8: Arcade
, which was just released this week, is a game that, at least as an outsider, looks to have had something of a rocky road to travel to get to retail. Is this accurate from your perspective?

I would say that most of the development went pretty smoothly. It took longer than we'd hoped, but these things usually do, especially when developing a new engine from scratch. The main reason for the delays was the online session management working reliably and getting through QA and certification.

"The certification issue is a tricky one and more could be done to smooth the path towards certification."

We're heard numerous stories of what an arduous task is can be to make it though Microsoft's XBLA certification process. Was this your experience as well?

It was a bit of a bumpy process. We worked with an external QA team which created more waiting time than expected but we're still very proud of the result. Microsoft certification is set up so that XBLA games go through just about the same process as a full featured game. So, while it might appear to be a small fraction of the overall time and effort when compared to a full game, it represented a huge portion of our total timeline.

So, as an independent developer, is there anything you would like to see changed, not just with XBLA but with digital distribution as a whole, to help get games in the hands of the public?

Well, we definitely believe services like XBLA can create opportunities for smaller developers (like us) to self-publish, but it does feel like there are some obstacles which require the role of a traditional publisher. The certification issue is a tricky one and more could be done to smooth the path towards certification.

The original Vigilante 8 was created by an almost impossibly small team of individuals, some of whom, like yourself, now call Isopod Labs home. We're curious, how does game development compare now to that of a decade ago when the original Vigilante 8 shipped for the PlayStation? Having experienced both, which do you prefer, if you had the choice?

Vigilante 8: Arcade was also created by an almost impossibly small team. On top of that, our scope was much larger this time around and there are many high expectations from gamers and the media! We really felt that by being small and focused, and working more intelligently, it was still possible to create a AAA game with the 5 or so people we had.

In the end I think we all look back on those days as being one of the best development experiences we've ever had. A decade later we decided to try the same experiment. In a lot of ways the experience was very similar, but with significantly more complex hardware. The major difference this time around was that we knew what the final result should look like.

In general, video game development has gradually become a larger, more business-like undertaking. Individuals have to specialize a lot more as each component of a game becomes so complex in its own right. Use of third-party engines is much more widespread. For better or worse, we've decided to ignore conventional wisdom again and go old-school!

So, why bring this franchise back?

Good question. Peter [Morawiec] had been to a GDC where he attended some talks about XBLA and casual games. I suggested that V8 would probably be considered a casual game by today's sometimes over-blown standards, so we thought we'd just take a crack at it.

Over the years we got tons of fan mail begging for more Vigilante 8 games, so we knew that we'd be making the fans very happy. Our hope was that there would be enough of them, along with new audiences, to make it a worthwhile experiment.

"...V8 would probably be considered a casual game by today's sometimes over-blown standards."

But over-the-top, crash-centric racing games has been something of a crowded sub-genre of titles for years, and is even more so now than it was when Vigilante 8 was first released. Given that, what is the title's relevancy in today's marketplace?

The most important distinction with our game is that it does not involve racing. Although players will be running away from or chasing after other players, which has elements of racing, they are competing against each other in total demolition.

Car-combat titles are more akin to free-roaming shooters, just with cars. The skill involved in maneuvering the vehicle while firing at the same time is what makes these games so unique. It does take some getting used to and it's not for everyone, but there are many gamers who love this dynamic. It is a very different experience from first-person shooters or traditional racing games.

Why not invest your energies in a new IP? As a spin off from Interstate '76, Vigilante 8 is somewhat known, but certainly not well enough to bank on nostalgia alone.

It's quite a recognizable name so it seemed like a good bet for XBLA. Being a new self-funded startup, there were also practical reasons why working on a title with a pre-established gameplay and feature set made sense – it allowed us to focus more on execution. We hoped that given the price, both the fans and enough new players would have a go at it. It definitely stands on its own and we really hope that players unfamiliar with the original will give it a shot!

Finally, are you still aiming to release DLC for Vigilante 8, and is it ready now? The reason I ask is because a disturbing trend has come along with DLC, particularly with downloadable titles, where features and content are kept out of the final release with the express intent to nickel and dime players post-release. We realize these are not mandatory purchases, but the perception is nonetheless one of greed.

Yes, we completely understand that perception, but sometimes developers make decisions for reasons unbeknownst to the common public. The foremost reason for our DLC pack was the fact that we were unable to fit all the planned content within the previous 150MB limit for XBLA.

By the time Microsoft increased the limit to 350MB, we were too far along the development timeline to make adjustments – the game was virtually complete. Thus, the plan always was to price the main game very reasonably to avoid this very perception. We are simply offering more content for people who like the game enough to want extra. I think when compared to the recent 1,200 point trends, our pricing is a great value.

Thanks so much for your time. We look forward to running you off the road in the near future.

No, thank you. And bring it on!

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