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Interview: NOVASTRIKE Developer Tiki Games

June 26, 2008 Written by Anthony Severino

Recently, Fersis, a PlayStationLifeStyle.net reader and good friend got a chance to conduct an interview with Kevin J. McCann of Tiki Games, the developers of NOVASTRIKE for the PlayStation Network.

Q1: Can you tell us the history of Tiki Games and how the development team is organized?

Tiki Games officially got its start in January, 2006. It began with a small team that included two programmers, an art director, and myself (serving as the producer and lead designer). Our first project was a game called Galaxy’s End, a science-fiction real-time strategy game we were developing for the PSP.

As far as my team is concerned I wanted to avoid as much internal drama as possible so I hired people I had worked with in the past. Drama wasn’t completely avoided, though – it seems to be a somewhat unavoidable element in the workplace.

Still, game development went pretty smoothly for the project – unfortunately finding a publisher didn’t go nearly as smoothly. Once we got Galaxy’s End to a playable state that demonstrated the minimum visual quality and control scheme I went shopping for a publisher – right about the time a number of publishers were backing off supporting the PSP. While Galaxy’s End was received well in most demonstrations, we never could secure funding for it. I’m still hoping to finish it someday.

Q2: How did you approach SONY to be the first self-published game on PSN?

I was actually working at SCEA in San Diego when I decided it was finally time to start my own studio. I effectively gave six months notice to make sure that I could finish the project I was working on and find a replacement and get him up to speed so I didn’t leave SCEA (specifically the project I was on) in any kind of lurch.

It helped to get the ball rolling initially while I was there – getting the proper contact information and so forth. So even before I left to be Tiki Games’ first “employee” I already had it set up as a licensed developer for the PSP.

As far as being the first self-published game on PSN – that wasn’t even a goal. It just happened. It wasn’t until we were getting close to finishing NOVASTRIKE that my account manager told me I should be sure to include that we’re the first self-published game on PSN in press releases and promotions. I wasn’t terribly surprised to be the first – it took a lot of perseverance to finish NOVASTRIKE – and it’s kind of a nice achievement. But again I didn’t actually actively pursue being the first self-published game on PSN – it was a welcome surprise.

If you’re an aspiring independent developer and want to look into making a title for PSN (PSP or PS3) then start here:

http://www.scedev.net/2bldev/

You can send an email to devrel-scea@playstation.sony.comthis will put you in contact with developer relations. Give them some time to respond – they get a lot of email, and they aren’t hugely staffed in developer relations so understand if it takes them a few days to get back to you. Also, don’t send any information regarding your game when you’re just looking into becoming an approved license developer – simply send an email with a subject line such as “How can I become an approved developer for the PlayStation 3?”

Once you’re an approved developer for the PlayStation 3 (or whatever platform you want) you can work out the details in also becoming a self-publisher. Prepare for lots of NDAs.

Q3: How was the development of NOVASTRIKE? What kind of support did SONY provide?

Honestly, it was a pretty long road with a lot of hazards. There were a lot more “dark days” than good ones. I had to wear a lot of hats (which I’m still wearing) – director of development, business relations, legal, promotion (not just press releases, but I had to even put the game trailers together myself on a non-existent budget), wrote all the game design, performed game balancing, play-testing, QA, and so on. I didn’t code (that honor goes to my great programmer), but I had my hands in everything else. And it’s a tiring experience. You really have to keep a cool head even when things seem like they’re falling apart – it is very tough being an independent developer.

Sony definitely provided support as we were developing NOVASTRIKE. Their developer support site was helpful in swiftly answering technical questions, and my account manager at SCEA has always been timely in getting me responses – and I sent a lot of emails asking a lot of questions. I still do that, too. The worst thing you can do is assume you know something when you may not.

Q4: What one thing are you most proud of with NOVASTRIKE?

The thing I’m probably the most proud of NOVASTRIKE is that it’s not a clone of an existing shooter. It definitely has elements from a lot of top-down shooters, but I really wanted to avoid making a game that felt like it was a direct rip-off of another top-down shooter. I’m not saying it came together perfectly, but our plan has always been to release the game when it was fully playable and then provide support. And that’s what we’re working on now.

Q5: You have already stated that a free update is planned for NOVASTRIKE. Could you tell us what is going to be included in the update?

The first update that we’re currently working on is addressing the difficulty. Being a small developer/publisher meant that we just didn’t have the resources to do enough focus-testing. I thought that the game had an easy mode, a normal mode, and a hard mode when we were done. Well, based on community response, I was pretty wrong there – most are finding it very difficult. So I’m sorry to the customers that have been really frustrated by that – we are working on making the game far more accessible to players of varying skill ranges (casual gamer to hardcore gamer).

We also are adding other requested features as well as some other items we’d like to see in the game. For a list of some of the features I’ll just provide a link to our website as I recently posted what the first update will contain.

http://www.tikigames.net/NOVASTRIKE/update_20080623.php

Q6: What plans does Tiki Games have for the future? PSP, PSN?

We’re definitely going to be focusing just on NOVASTRIKE this year. Next year I’d like to return to Galaxy’s End if at all possible, and even finish it for the PSP as a downloadable title and release it on PSN. A lot of that is going to come down to how NOVASTRIKE sells in the U.S. and Europe (we hope to have it out in Europe around September).

But again this year our full focus is NOVASTRIKE, and I have continued support planned for 2009. We’ve promised to support the title, and I have every intention to do so.

Q7: What was the hardest part of developing NOVASTRIKE?

The hardest part of developing NOVASTRIKE was just having extremely limited resources – both financially and in terms of team members (specifically having a very small team). Fortunately I have very good team members or we wouldn’t have made it to the finish line. Because I simply didn’t have any extra money to spend beyond just paying the team.

Q8: Can you tell us about your development equipment?

We initially developed our engine and tools on the PC, and then optimized the engine for the PS3. We’re by no means taking full advantage of the PS3, but over time we will optimize our technology further. The longer we survive the better our engine will be on the PS3.

Beyond the PCs we just have a couple PS3 development stations and some PS3 debug kits. We definitely could’ve benefited from another development station, but they’re not cheap.

Q9: Do you have some advice for all the independent developers who want to develop a game for PSN?

There’s no perfect approach here. But I highly recommend doing as much preproduction on the game you want to make before looking into getting development kits and such. I’m not saying you need to have your full game designed, but you should have a pretty clear idea of the game you want to make, the core game mechanics and how they operate, and your intended control scheme. You’ll naturally iterate on your designs and control scheme as the game is being developed, but it’s better to have given this as much thought in advance before spending money on actual development.

Regarding your game idea – make sure it’s different enough from the existing crop of games available. I’m not saying that you have to come up with a crazy design or such – if you want to make a top-down shooter – go for it – just make sure it’s not identical to an existing top-down shooter in terms of game mechanics. You want to provide something that can differentiate itself among the competition.

Then there’s the engine – do you want to make it yourself or look into middleware? Even though we have our own engine, I highly recommend checking out middleware like the PhyreEngine for PlayStation 3 development. You’ll need to be a licensed developer to get more information on that (see Question 2 for more information on how to apply to become a licensed developer), but if you can find a toolset and engine that fits the game you want to make then by all means give it serious consideration.

Also, make sure to trademark the name you want for your game early on. It can easily take nine months to actually get the trademark approved (provided no one contests the name you want), and I highly recommend having your trademark approved prior to releasing your game. You don’t want someone contesting your game name as you’re about to release the game (or worse yet – after you’ve released the game).

As far as team members are concerned, try to recruit people you’ve worked with and where there’s a good team dynamic in place. Understand that it’s a real shift for a lot of people to go from the security of a larger game studio to a small independent studio, and some people don’t realize they prefer the larger game studio environment until they see how much more stressful of an environment a small developer can be at times. You want people that are as reliable as possible, but don’t expect people to be perform identically as you may have seen them on prior projects where you worked together.

We’ve had a lot of ups and downs at Tiki Games. I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep on pushing forward no matter how much crap you encounter on the way – if you go in with the attitude of “we’ll keep on going unless we run into too many problems” then you won’t make it. You have to understand that there will be problems no matter how proactive you are, and you just need to be ready to take a deep breath when they surprise you, and calmly figure out a way past them. Let me just tell you there were a number of times I had to spend a few minutes staring with a vacant expression out of my office window before addressing a new unwelcome issue. But you’d be surprised how many problems you can get past if you just stay calm and collected.

This last part is very important as well. Despite your personal experience and your team’s collective experience in game development once you start your own studio you’re starting over again. You may have a lot of contacts that respect you but don’t expect them to do anything. You really need to make sure you can make it to the finish line yourself (in this case self-publishing the game). You and your team’s experience are pivotal in making this happen, but again, understand that when you start your own studio you’re basically a “nobody.” And you’re going to work hard to become a “somebody.” And Tiki Games hasn’t even reached that “somebody” state yet. That’s more hard work which begins with proper support of our first title.

Now the last paragraph isn’t intended to dissuade anyone from trying to do their own thing – I’m just trying to paint a realistic picture of what to expect. Don’t go in expecting to cash in on favors and such – you need to make sure you have both a plan and a means to get the game done yourself.

Being able to do your own thing can be extremely rewarding. If you’re in a game development studio then you know just about everyone wants to do their own thing – most unfortunately won’t get a chance. I’m still optimistic with regard to the future of Tiki Games – if pessimism ever becomes your attitude when you have your own studio then you’re doing your team and your studio no favor whatsoever. It’s important not to be blindly optimistic, but nothing good comes of being negative.

I don’t really know how useful this is as a response to the question overall – developing a game and self-publishing it is a very involved process that can’t be answered with a page of paragraphs – but at the very minimum I just want to give some insight to those looking to potentially develop and self-publish a game on PSN. With that said thanks for the interview, and thanks to the readers who made it all the way through.

——–Final Note:————————————————————————————-

We would like to thank Kevin J. McCann for his time as well as his honest, detailed answers. It was a pleasure speaking with him.

Fersis writes:

“Also as a hobby game programmer/designer/director (And current game programmer for a company) I would like to share my thoughts with all of you who wish to get in the game industry :

It’s hard. It’s hard as hell.

I’ve spent many of nights sleeping on the office, fixing bugs and documents.

I’ve worked 12 – 14 hours a day on projects where I didn’t have any creative input, working for another’s vision is something that many enthusiasts don’t count.

To reach the point were you make your vision true , you have to go through a lot of work. Your first job might not be your dream job but it’s important , it’s key as Kevin said to not lose the optimism, to not lose sight of the finish line.

Hang on to your passion. And if you don’t have passion, well you will notice it and you will follow another path.

It is my dream to develop a console game , I’m far from it, but I won’t let my passion die, I won’t at least for now.

So you know now , it’s not all Mario Galaxy and Metal Gear.  All the games you hate , all the games that you’ve called ‘broken’ have been done by a lot of people, who suffered or enjoyed the development, and probably that game wasn’t their dream job, but they’re fighting for their passion, dreaming of some day to make his own Metal Gear or Little Big Planet.

It’s hard. It’s hard as hell.”

Sev1512 writes:

I want to personally thank Fersis for being our first guest contributor, and doing such a great job on the interview. Also, on behalf of all of us a PlayStation LifeStyle, want to thank Kevin, and the rest of the development team over at Tiki Games, for their hard work and dedication. We wish you the best of luck with NOVASTRIKE and all future endeavors!