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Ocean Scenes developer gives inside look into XNA platform

We've heard from a number of XNA Community Games developers since the publication of GamerBytes' in-depth look at XNA sales statistics. While these indie devs have all provided some interesting insight into the infantile platform, we were curious to hear what a more casual member of the Creators Club thought about the service.

Adam Holmes, developer of the ultra soothing pseudo-game Ocean Scenes, provided us with just such a viewpoint. A self-proclaimed "hobbyist," Holmes' take on the XNA Community Games service is more optimistic than most. You can check out our entire interview (along with some tranquilizing images of lovely oceanic vistas) after the jump!

How did you first get involved with independent game development?

Actually, I don't really consider myself an indie developer. Rather, I prefer to think of myself as a hobbyist. I've been tinkering with game development now for awhile, and the introduction of profit to the equation doesn't change my outlook on it. If I focused more on profit, I'd lose the fun I get out of it, and that would probably translate negatively into my games as well.

I started playing around with game programming way back in 1993 when I was about 13 years old. For the most part, I was editing pre-existing QBasic (Microsoft's answer to the Basic programming language) programs and games or making my own simple ones. Over the years I tried a few different things, included GBA programming and Flash but never really had the time/motivation to really get into it for various reasons.

When my children were born, I was able to take some parental leave from work and this opened a door for me. I spent the day taking care of the kids as a mild-mannered parent, but at night I became something more - the sleepless game programmer! I delved further into the world of Flash, posting stuff on my own website and Newgrounds, a popular flash games/movie site, and really started having fun with it. This was about a year or so ago, and ever since I've been pretty consistently working on something at any given time.

Why did you decide to publish your game/gadget on the XNA Community Games platform? Have you been tempted by lucrative iPhone App market?

Honestly, I do sigh and get a little starry-eyed every time I hear a news headline reporting "iPhone developer quits his job, becomes rich", and in fact was briefly tempted by the iPhone app market and its monetary promises. I even bought a mac mini and an iPod touch to get in on the game. However, even with a college diploma in programming, I found the learning curve for iPhone development a bit steep. I got extremely disappointed and almost gave up making games - until my wife reminded me why I make games in the first place - because I want people to play my games and have fun. So I got back into the Flash programming and went back to enjoying my hobby.

Then XNA came along and I thought "Hey, why not? This could be fun", which was a much healthier attitude than the "dollars in my eyes" approach I took with the iPhone. As I mentioned before, I'd tried programming some small games and demos for Game Boy Advance before and there's something really cool about seeing your game running on an actual console. This is what initially attracted me to XNA, along with its ease of setup, and the fact that I could install the SDK, play around with it and program an entire game for PC before I ever paid to develop/test it for Xbox.

How would you describe the relationship Microsoft has with independent XNA developers? Did they offer any support during the development process? Is there any contention in the 70/30 revenue split?

I found Microsoft support very accessible during the whole process, from getting started to debugging to working out payment issues. One-on-one support is available through their program manager and other employees. The forums are well thought out, well moderated, and benefit from the hand picked "Microsoft MVPs" who can answer most questions with a very fast turn-around time.

One of the things I really liked about XNA over the iPhone app store is that XNA has wonderful step-by-step tutorial videos, and plenty of downloadable examples and even starter kits (full games that you can modify to help you learn) so the introduction to XNA development is very smooth and not intimidating at all.

As for the 70/30 revenue split, this seems pretty standard with this type of thing, so I personally don't have any issues with that. They're giving us an amazing opportunity with this program. They also provide us with all the tools and assistance we need to get the job done, as well as a huge customer base, so the split seems fair.

Describe the XNA submission process. Was it easy to get your game on the service? Was the process confusing?

The submission process for XNA is quite simple. Basically, you have two options when submitting your game. The first is playtest, the second release. Playtest allows other Creator's Club members to test your game out and really put it through the wringer to make sure there are no bugs. A forum topic is also created to allow feedback, suggestions and solutions from other developers. The release phase is the final review phase. This is where other CC members test your game to make sure it isn't crashing and doesn't contain any prohibited content. If your game passes this phase, it goes live on Xbox Marketplace within a couple of hours.

Generally, it is proper to submit your game to the playtest phase for a suitable period of time before submitting for final release. I found the whole process very smooth and extremely helpful. A number of modifications and fixes were made to Ocean Scenes during the playtest phase that helped make it a more solid and complete product.

Are you satisfied with the sales of Ocean Scenes? Do you think other XNA developers are satisfied with the service as a means for turning a profit?

The whole package Microsoft is offering here is truly something nobody else has.

I am quite pleased with the sales figures. As a hobbyist, this is a nice chunk of change, especially when my primary goal in this endeavor was just to have fun and put my idea out there. I'm very encouraged, and already working on my next project. The profits from OS actually let me have the option of licensing some music for my next project (this one's going to be an arcade style shooter with a unique twist...). I can't speak as to whether the majority of developers are happy or unhappy, but we all know some are displeased with their sales figures, as we learned the day the stats were released.

I realize that there are some who spent months and months working on these games to get what they perceive as a small return. What they have to realize is that there are thousands of indie developers who spend months and months on, for example, flash games on and expect zero returns. These developers do it just to have the joy of people playing their games and are happy just to see their work featured on the front page.

This is the background I come from, and to me, 40,000 views (trial downloads) is amazing! What I'd ask the displeased developers to think about is how many people have seen, tried and likely enjoyed their work. I recently had a flash game on Newgrounds get over 40,000 views and to me, 40,000 trial downloads of Ocean Scenes is just as incredible.

I also come from a fine arts background, and to have your work on display in a gallery where that many people can view it is truly rare and incredible, regardless of how many actually purchase it. When looking at the sales figures, I didn't think about the conversion rate, what I considered were the sales themselves and how amazing that is for an individual to be able to do. Again, the whole package Microsoft is offering here is truly something nobody else has.

What are some of the major issues with XNA that Microsoft should look into?

If I had to name something, based on the feedback I've seen from the community, changes Microsoft should look at would include more advertising for the games, a user rating system would be cool, and possibly a web page dedicated to Community Games from a gamer's perspective. However, this is early on in the program, and I'm very sure these items are already on the way, given how the CGs have already evolved from their debut last fall.

The stuff that matters to a developer is all covered - regular and useful updates to the SDK, as well as new tutorials and helpful hints being added all the time. You can really see the community and the program evolve in front of your eyes.

Overall, from a developer's and gamer's perspective, are you satisfied with the XNA Community Games platform thus far?

As a developer, I'm very satisfied. The most comparable market is iPhone, and the introduction to that is very unfriendly compared to this for a starting developer. Microsoft really holds your hand, if you want them to. Your work goes online very fast, and the stats are now all there so you can track how it's doing. From my perspective, iPhone's entry level tutorials and help videos are either too high level to be useful to a developer, or too low-level to be useful to an entry level game developer. XNA hits that sweet spot in the middle and lets you start out as simple or as complicated as you like, which is why there's such a range of games out there. Give it time - as developers learn, the games will get more and more awesome.

As a gamer I'm not disappointed - more hopeful for the future. You have to remember, this is just the first release of a program that nobody has ever quite done before. And within that first release, these are all the 'first-gen' titles. So we're talking really fresh territory here. I can't wait to watch the Community Games develop to see what we end up with. Look at the early Newgrounds stuff - by today's standard, very simple. Then look at some of the stuff that's being pumped out there by the Newgrounds community today - some really amazing innovative stuff! Ideas build upon ideas and the games get more and more wonderful. Don't give up on Community Games yet, folks - that kind of wonderful game is what awaits in the future of Community Games.

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