Frozenbyte, the developers behind the Shadowgrounds games, have found a niche in which they’re almost entirely alone. Which is strange, when you consider how very popular the top-down shooter once was. Too many have assumed it a dated concept, replaced by the first and third-person views. But Shadowgrounds nails it, providing non-stop shooting that replaces fiddliness with fun, but still looking awesome. The recent sequel, Survivor, pushed their home grown engine far further, showing off the improved physics and lighting in a game style that could have gotten away without including either. We took the chance to chat with Frozenbyte’s Joel Kinnunen, to discuss working outside of the mainstream, public perception of smaller budget gaming, the role online distribution plays in game development, what's next for Frozenbyte, and the possibilities of a small-scale indie revolution.
RPS: Many people have asked you whether you were surprised by the success of Shadowgrounds. This always appears as a somewhat tacit insult – as if they can't believe that a top-down action shooter could possibly have broad appeal today, and are asking you to defend it. Why do you think people are so resistant to "simpler" games?
Joel Kinnunen: It's interesting. I think it's a very human reaction; I've noticed people tend to want the same thing all over again but with a little bit of added flavor each time. So a generic first person shooter with one more weapon than the last one can be enjoyable, and thus more or less worth the money. Many people don't like to change their gaming taste willingly. Shadowgrounds is on the borderline of niche and mainstream, and I think it could cross over to mainstream if we had the same marketing muscles as the big titles do. But it probably wouldn't be as appealing to many as the next big FPS game.
Ultimately though, the games business is very much driven by publishers and their marketing campaigns. If you look at the biggest gaming sites, all you see there are the biggest games. Sure there's the occasional indie "hit" but it's nothing compared to the press the biggest titles get. And it's hard to blame the sites, because that's what their readers want too. Hell, even I want that most of the time - there's been some great games lately and the horizon looks very nice too.
RPS: Obviously Shadowgrounds is far from simple. The physics and lighting are often remarkable. Do you ever feel frustrated that your code is almost hidden, perhaps under-appreciated?
Joel: Sometimes the fact that people may overlook the game because of the top-down perspective is a bit of a let-down. Usually people who try the Shadowgrounds games can appreciate the technology behind them, so it's really the gamers who don't even try that cause the most grief to us. Most of our fans appreciate all the technical stuff, so I don't think there's been much frustration from that, really. It only takes a couple of good comments to put a smile on our programmers' faces, I've spied on them in the dark. [He grins]
RPS: Would either of the Shadowgrounds games have been possible without Steam? While you're on other online distribution sites now, I think it was Steam that gave the game the initial push.
Joel: Steam has been very important for the success of the games. We probably would not have made Shadowgrounds Survivor if Steam hadn't given us a certain confidence that the game won't end up as an utter failure commercially. Steam is not a miracle maker, though. It's in my opinion the best online distribution channel currently, but you couldn't make a game that relied just on Steam sales. It's not there yet. Retail is still more important on the whole than online for us, mostly because Europe still has a reasonably strong PC retail following. North American retail seems to be getting tougher and tougher, though.
RPS: Do you see download sites like Gametap, Steam, Direct2Drive and so on, as changing the possibilities for gaming? While the shop-based products become an increasingly massive financial market, is there hope for an expanding indie market of high quality games getting mainstream attention?
Joel: I do think that online distribution will grow bigger and bigger. The systems have developed quite far and it's getting to the point where buying is extremely easy and secure. As for indie games in online distribution, well that's happening already. There's probably room for a few more big online distributor sites, so it'll be interesting to see if one such site would put more focus on indie games. Manifesto Games is doing something like that so they're one contender.
I think a small-scale indie revolution in the mass market could be possible too. I think it still requires a brand of some kind, though, and that's of course where the problems start. If indie developers could join up and take up arms together, the end result could lead to good results. The console manufacturers could chime in too, giving publishing rights to such an indie label.
RPS: Something we've all missed from the Shadowgrounds games has been online co-op. Was this a deliberate decision? Asking people to gather at the same PC to play co-op is an entertainingly old-school approach.
Joel: Yeah, it was a deliberate decision - in 2003. If we had a time machine, that's the one thing we would change in our past. At the time we were making some technology and an innovative RTS game, and figured that we couldn't survive the extra months of time it would take to write the code in a way that supports multiplayer. In hindsight, we would have survived and the game that eventually became Shadowgrounds would have been a notch better. Now it's many times harder to add multiplayer, it would require an almost complete rewrite of the whole game engine. That said, it's something that always comes up when we think about new games...
Same screen co-op has nothing to do with multiplayer code, so that was easy to add (and it was a late addition in fact). We just figured it would be fun, and it is if you're used to that kind of playing and can manage a little bit of control setup. We even added multiple mice and keyboard support in Shadowgrounds Survivor.
RPS: Do you keep a close eye on the indie scene?
Joel: Depends how you define indie - we do keep an eye on developers who are in a similar position as ourselves, e.g. companies that employ 10-35 people and deal with the same kind of things that we do. It's tough to make the jump to the next level but I'm glad we seem to be doing just that. As for the "proper" indie games, we don't really follow that on a company level but a lot of us do it on a personal level. We've got some friends in the indie scene, which is a bit of a world of its own, quite different in many accounts - but I think that's great. There's a lot of great ideas in that space and it's not so risk-averse (if at all), and for example I also think there is more of all kinds of humour in many indie games than in the bigger titles, which is really
RPS: What about you personally?
Joel: I tend to enjoy the big blockbuster games the most. It also applies to other forms of entertainment like music and movies - I guess I'm a bit mainstream like that. I could spend way more time than I have available playing Mass Effect, Halo 3, C&C 3 and all the other big titles that have come out recently. That said, I used to be and hopefully still am informed enough to sometimes find and try games that are very mainstream-ish in most respects except marketing spend (a bit like the Shadowgrounds series I suppose), stuff like Metal Arms: GiTS a few years back, or Original War and Rage of Mages way way many years back, but it gets more difficult the less time you have (to research/try demos). But I made a New Year's resolution to try to play more games, so let's see how that holds up... [He grins]
RPS: What's next for Frozenbyte? I think we've all been rather spoiled by Shadowgrounds, and are now expecting you to create something completely different.
Joel: You got that right. Shadowgrounds is a nice franchise and there will definitely be new Shadowgrounds games in the future, especially if some new opportunities arise (multiplayer, consoles). That said, I can confirm that our next games are, like you put it, something completely different. The first one will be released in Q4 2008 for the PC, and then we have two games for 2009. We've got some incredible creative talent and it's great to see a new concept go from the basic idea to a fully-fledged game that is unique and doesn't feel like a me-too title. I'm quite confident that our new games will be pleasant surprises to a lot of people once they are announced. They might please totally different gamer types, though, but I think that's great. We want to have a "diverse portfolio", if you will.
You can try out the Shadowgrounds demo here.