NovaStrike Post Mortem Interview

Let us begin by saying that never in the history of this website have we received such in-depth answers on any topic as we did in this interview with Kevin McCann, President and Creative Director of Tiki Games.

Buried away in last week’s PlayStation Store update was a little known game called NovaStrike. We’ve already reviewed the title, but for those of you who wish to know more about NovaStrike, the ill-fated PSP RTS Galaxy’s End, Tiki Games, self-publishing a title or a plethora of other intriguing topics, look no further than this comprehensive interview.

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PSU: To begin, introduce our readers to Tiki Games. Who are you guys?

Kevin McCann: Tiki Games is a small development studio in San Diego. At the start of 2006 I hired my key team members (people I had worked with in the past). All of us had ten-plus years of experience in developing games and were very capable in our respective areas. Originally our first game (Galaxy’s End for the PSP) was to come out in mid-2007. As you can see that didn’t happen, and instead one year later we’re releasing our new “first” game – NovaStrike.  

Prior to Tiki Games my background was primarily working on massively multiplayer games, although the only game readers may recognize is probably PlanetSide (where I served as the Creative Director and lead designer on the project).

PSU: Now, on to NovaStrike. How did the concept for this free-roaming top-down shooter materialize?

McCann: The concept of a free-roaming top-down shooter materialized when we had to put our first game (Galaxy’s End) on hiatus. We had a good engine and Galaxy’s End was a top-down RTS, so we figured we better put that engine to good use for our next game. And keep a similar perspective. Of course we greatly enhanced the engine from the PSP to the PS3.

While I’ve certainly enjoyed good rail-based shooters in the past, I wanted to make sure that we were free-roaming right away. And then it was looking at aspects of various top-down shooters that I’ve enjoyed in the past, mixing them together, and making NovaStrike its own game – not a direct clone of an existing game.

Plus I enjoy free-roaming games more. I wanted to make sure the game was something I’d purchase if it came out. That said you need to be careful of not making it too exclusive or you may end up not having many customers that will purchase the game you wanted to make.

PSU: On a network crowded with top-down shooters, what sets NovaStrike apart from the others?

McCann: I think NovaStrike’s biggest strength is its objective-driven gameplay. Granted, they are all variations of attack and defend, but most shooters are presently “kill everything while avoiding death to get a high score.” And that’s a perfectly fine goal for shooters – a number of them execute on this quite well. I didn’t want to go into an area where there were already solid games of that type.

So we took a risk and basically said, “Staying alive is assumed – let’s make that the background layer and put objectives on top of that.” There’s not really not a survival-based objective in NovaStrike. Again, surviving is just something you have to do – there’s always an objective to complete. In fairness I do want to acknowledge that there have been objective-driven top-down shooters in the past as well, but we wanted to take our own approach to this subgenre.

There’s absolutely a sense of accomplishment from playing a top-down shooter that focuses on purely racking up a high score (such as Geometry Wars and Super Stardust HD). But for NovaStrike we wanted the accomplishment to come from completing specific goals.

PSU: Why did you decide to produce NovaStrike solely for the PlayStation Network? Additionally, what are the benefits of working only on the PlayStation 3?

McCann: I had already established a relationship with SCEA while we were developing Galaxy’s End (the RTS we had to put on hiatus). As I stated earlier, I had over ten years in the industry when starting Tiki Games (as well as my key team members having 10+ years of experience), but as a new developer you are starting again – you’re a nobody. And that’s where I made a mistake – I figured our collective past experience would be enough to open some doors at publishers. It wasn’t. I had to pay my dues all over again. And I still am.

And since I had that relationship with SCEA it was easier to stick with them. Plus it was more efficient to take our technology and promote it to the PS3. The other factor was XBLA already had a huge selection of games – a somewhat saturated marketplace. I didn’t want to have our first game potentially not even be noticed when it appears. Being independent means we don’t have the resources to market our game very much – in fact, it’s mostly been a few press releases, releasing a couple trailers on Gametrailers.com, and Sony providing some good exposure avenues for us (like their official blog).

The biggest benefit to working on a single platform is being able to optimize your game specifically for that platform. I’m particularly proud of my lead programmer who basically did the engine from scratch and all of our tools. Our engine isn’t by any means taking full advantage of the PS3 right now – we’re continuing to optimize it over time – but we are utilizing SPUs and continuing to optimize it over time.

For a single programmer to do this is pretty impressive. And he implemented all the game systems based on the designs I provided. We did use Havok for physics, but even here he had to integrate it. I’ve known the lead programmer since my first game (a multiplayer tank game called Tanarus from way back). It was very good to work with him again on this – without him there’s no way we would’ve reached the finish line.

PSU: Many may not know this, but NovaStrike is actually the first self-published title on the PlayStation Network. What are the pros and cons of taking that particular route?

McCann: Wow. This is an involved question. Let me start with a bullet list response to each (self-published versus using an existing publisher).

Self-Publisher Advantages
-You retain ownership of the IP (Intellectual Property)
-More creative freedom in developing the title “your way”
-Maximum revenue-sharing percentage between your studio and SCEA

Self-Publisher Disadvantages
-First game as a new developer? Again, you’re a nobody – you’ll pay your dues all over again regardless of your past experience in the industry (unless you happen to be well-known in the industry, in which case you’re not reading this and are probably well-funded by a publisher)
-Full financial risk – if the game doesn’t do well then be prepared to incur the financial damages
-Marketing – unless you have some hefty financial resources chances are you won’t be spending tens of thousands of dollars on marketing your game and you’ll likely need to rely on the goodwill of gaming sites to post info about your game, as well as sending out some occasional low-cost press releases
-Playtesting and focus testing – much harder to organize and pull off a number of focus tests – one, you won’t just have ten PS3 test kits with TVs, and two, you have to watch every cost. I wish we could have done more of this with NovaStrike

And now for the advantages and disadvantages of having an existing publisher release your game.

Existing Publisher Advantages
-Likely to fully fund your game’s development which removes the financial risk from your studio (the only question is if you’ll still have another contract once your first game is released to carry your studio forward)
-Marketing muscle – what you lack financially they typically don’t, and they’ll spend money on marketing your game. Sure it won’t get a massive campaign as a high-profile title that ships to stores (remember – you’re developing a lower-budget downloadable game), but any marketing is better than none
-Potential to have lasting relationship – now this is far from guaranteed, but if the publisher is doing well overall and you do a good job for them then it’s quite possible they’ll want to use you for another project – ideally approaching you with another potential opportunity before your first game ships. But again, you can’t rely on this – your main contact may change, the publisher may change its approach to downloadable games, etc
-Access to much more thorough play testing and focus testing – this is really important when developing a title. Not just receiving written reports from focus groups, but watching them play – where are they stumbling, what’s causing them to swear and threaten your dog’s life, and so forth

Existing Publisher Disadvantages
-Don’t expect to own the IP (Intellectual Property) – hey, they’re footing the bill and taking the full financial risk for your game – don’t expect them to let you keep the IP (hint: they won’t)
-Less revenue – again, they’re funding your game, so they’ll understandably take the lion’s share of the revenue
-Less creative freedom – no matter how sound you think your game is they will have input, and as much as I’ve dreaded that in the past as a designer, they are paying for the development of the game so they do have the right to request and even demand design changes – pick your battles; don’t fight each request – give them ones you feel won’t hurt the game, and fight the few that you feel are potentially damaging to the game (but remember, you still may not win here)

Now keep in mind it’s more involved than the above bullet points, but I just want point out some of the main advantages and disadvantages to both publishing routes.

PSU: You’ve promised that an update will be released for NovaStrike in the near future. What’s on the top of your planned feature list? Trophy support perhaps?

McCann: I promised? Crap.

Seriously, though, we are working an update, and we’re looking to release it later this summer. It will be a combination of things we want to add, and addressing items and issues that players are wanting for the game. Trophy-support is pretty high on that list – we want to support them once Sony has support for them (where players can see each others’ trophies).

We’ll definitely be adding the ability to customize controls (as this is definitely one of the higher requests from players), plus looking into the overall difficulty of certain modes. We want to make the game more accessible in general while still having challenging modes for those players that want them.

I’ll be providing a more detailed list later on Sony’s official blog. We’re still ironing out everything we can accomplish during our update development time frame, but we definitely want those.

PSU: When can we expect a demo of the title to arrive on the PlayStation Store (if ever)? Also, when should our friends across the pond expect to see NovaStrike launch in Europe?

McCann: We do want to get a demo out. Right now we’re focusing on the update and the European release. Since we’re working on this update I’m trying to synchronize the release in Europe just having the updated version from the get-go, and simultaneously updating existing customers in the United States. I don’t have a specific date for this yet, sorry.

PSU: What’s your favorite title currently available on the PlayStation Network outside of NovaStrike?

McCann: This is going to sound bad, but I really haven’t played any PSN title that much. We’ve been so involved with NovaStrike (small team = long hours) that I haven’t even been playing games that much anymore. When you work all day on them (and lots of weekends) the desire to go home and play a game is often absent.

Of course I’ve played some of Super Stardust HD and Everyday Shooter, and I’m pretty sure I’d enjoy PixelJunk Monsters – those tower defense games are fun, and it looks like they did a solid job on it (and the reviews have been very favorable toward it). I’ll pick it up at some point, as it’s probably the title that interests me the most right now on PSN.

PSU: While NovaStrike is your studio’s first completed title, you originally worked on a promising science-fiction RTS for PSP dubbed Galaxy’s End as you mentioned earlier. Why did the studio decide to halt production on that title, and will you be resuming work on Galaxy’s End in the future? If not, what’s next for Tiki Games?

McCann: I’d personally love to finish Galaxy’s End. The simple truth behind halting development of Galaxy’s End was because I made a dumb (and financially costly) mistake – I thought that by having a full design done (almost five-hundred pages of real design documents, a script, 39 missions completely detailed, multiplayer detailed, etc) combined with a playable prototype then I could definitely find a publishing deal. Surely some large publisher would appreciate the detailed planning and proof-of-concept and want to publish my game! Well, I was wrong. And that almost killed my studio.

Here I’d like to take a quick moment to warn any independent studio or team that’s moonlighting to make their own prototype to try to sell to a publisher – it’s tougher than you imagine. If you’re not incurring any costs other than your time then feel free to keep on iterating until maybe a publisher picks you up.

However, if you are spending money on the project then don’t bank everything on landing a publishing deal. Again, this was a naïve mistake I made with Galaxy’s End that almost shut my studio down.

We developed Galaxy’s End to the point where we had a playable demo which demonstrated our control scheme (which is very pick-up-and-play oriented), how to issue and attack orders, how to acquire resources, and how to construct units. It also demonstrated basic combat AI.

All in all, I thought we did a pretty darned good job in condensing the principle mechanics of a RTS to the PSP. But when we started shopping it around publishers really weren’t looking for original IPs for the PSP, and I actually think the RTS-angle hurt it from a publisher’s viewpoint. Sure, they’re an extremely popular genre on PCs, but it was a tough sell to convince publishers that if it was done well and not dumbed down that we could find a good audience on the PSP.

In the end we simply didn’t have the financial resources to finish Galaxy’s End. So I had to figure out what we could finish with a reduced team size. Welcome to being independent. Thus NovaStrike was born.

So again, for you independent developers out there – try to make sure you can reach the finish line on your own and self-publish if necessary. I really do recommend self-publishing if at all possible – sure, the risk is very apparent, but the potential rewards are there as well. I actually do feel that Sony is the best avenue for a self-published title at the present time. And no, I’m unfortunately not getting any kickbacks from promoting Sony here – I’ve been through the full process and feel they’re more accessible for an independent developer seeking to self-publish a game.

Right now our focus is supporting NovaStrike. That’s really going to determine what we can do in the future beyond NovaStrike.

I want to thank PSU and the readers for their interest in NovaStrike. We’re by no means done with it yet.

PSU: No, thank you Kevin. We wish you and Tiki Games success in all your future ventures.