"When people call Microsoft 'evil', it's kind of an undeserved compliment. To be evil, you have to have vision, you have to have communication, execution..."
Rewind three years, to the Eurogamer Expo, London, October 2010. The staff of Rock, Paper, Shotgun are discussing which game from the Indie Arcade we would decree to be our game of the show. Messhof's sadly still-private swordfighting micro-epic Nidhogg ultimately took home the trophy, but we were a hair's breadth from giving it to Skulls of the Shogun. This colourful and witty turn-based strategy game starred undead Samurai, and deftly condensed and remixed what can be a hoary old genre into something fresh, fast and thoughtful. When I played the game then, it seemed slick and surely not far from completion. I anticipated being able to play it just a few months later. I anticipated it finding itself a great many fans on PC. For many and complicated reasons, I was wrong.
It's now June 2013, six months after Skulls' Microsoft-exclusive release on Windows 8, Microsoft Surface and XBLA, and I'm talking to Borut Pfeifer of Plush Apocalypse Productions and veteran of EA, SOE and more. He's one of a small collective of indie studios who collaborated to make Skulls of the Shogun. He was wrong too.
While this laidback-seeming West Coast resident is in reasonable humour and frequently pragmatic about his fearful situation, it's impossible not to pick up on a certain anxiety, perhaps even dejection. Things have not, as yet, worked out well for Skulls of the Shogun, on PC or on console. "My bank account is empty," he admits, as well as revealing that, during development, the team had to take out a loan to keep working on the game as their then-publisher Microsoft had yet to make good on the funding it had promised them.
The last time I spoke to Borut was at Rezzed, almost exactly a year ago, where he exuded a certain confidence that's not quite so much in evidence today. Last Summer, his game was almost complete at last, it had an XBLA release in the bag and it was going to be a poster child for Microsoft's much-hyped new Surface tablets, Windows Phones and Windows 8 operating system. He eagerly defended the fact that the game would, on PC, only be available or playable on Windows 8, convinced that whatever harm this did would be outdone by the profile the game would receive on other Microsoft platforms as a result of they deal they'd struck. He did, however, seem a little taken aback by the surge of controversy from PC gamers.
The anticipated success didn't happen. Surface hasn't been the iPad killer it was touted as, Windows 8 has proven divisive and slow-selling to the point that Microsoft are backtracking on some of the more controversial design decisions, while XBLA has ceased to be the land of indie milk and honey.
"To be fair, we knew we were kind of making a deal with the devil," he tells me. "Probably one of our biggest mistakes was thinking in 2008 terms, where it's like 'if you want to be on console you've got to be a console first', and that's just not true any more." Back then, the Skulls team thought XBLA was the gateway to indie success - despite being well aware that getting into bed with Microsoft was unlikely to be a mutually comfortable experience. "By that point we had heard the stories, like about Super Meat Boy, and then [Braid dev] Jon Blow criticised them as well." They also had their own previous experience of the pain of console certification times and bureaucracy.
"We felt like we knew what we were getting into even though it would take a long time to negotiate. We had something that they wanted, so we thought we'd take advantage of that." He laughs the sad laugh of hindsight. "It was a case where we were like "we know some things are going to be a problem but we think that on some level we'll get something out of them as well," but I think it was an awful lot worse for us than others. We ran into problems that nobody else had got or talked about it."
Foremost of those was an unfortunate side-effect of being caught up in the launch of multiple new Microsoft products and the need to work with multiple cogs in the enormous, monolithic Microsoft machine to achieve this. What should have meant higher profile in practice meant far more heartache.
"We were launching on three new pieces of the Microsoft ecosystem - their new Async and sort of social multiplayer services, we were launching on Windows 8 and we were launching on the ARM tablets [Surface]. Those were new, and we didn't get them until very late. So all the certification and process issues, we didn't just have them, or even maybe three times the amount, it was an exponential kind of thing. You would have issues on one platform which would actually contradict processes or requirements on another platform. We tried to get the different groups on the same page, to tell them that 'this needs to be the same', just to make things better for the next people who had to face it, but yeah, we ran into exponential difficulties on the process side."
Compounding this was a further, yet more painful obstacle presented by the implacable corporate behemoth - not getting paid on time. "We thought 'well, it's Microsoft, they have bankroll, they can afford this stuff.' But because of their processes seeming so fucked up, they couldn't actually do that. Even though they were partially funding the game to completion, we had to take a loan to cover the fact that they hadn't yet paid us what they were supposed to."
Despite his painful experience of working with them, Borut refutes any assertion that Microsoft are actually malevolent. "When people call Microsoft 'evil', while I don't want to defend them, it's kind of an undeserved compliment. To be evil, you have to have vision, you have to have communication, execution... None of those are traits are things that I would ascribe to Microsoft Studios."
He also draws a distinction between Microsoft as an overall entity and Microsoft Studios, the game publishing arm the Skulls team primarily worked with. "They came across as though they were institutionally incompetent. I think they're not really set up to be a decent publisher. I do feel slightly bad saying that, because there were people there who worked hard on our behalf, but at the same time there are systemic problems with the way that division is setup and run."
On top of that, "I think maybe Microsoft as a whole were taking on a lot more than they can chew with the Windows 8 launch, and there were so many different pieces of the puzzle - Xbox Live, different operating system, interfaces, the tablet, all those different technologies. Any one of those gets late, it pushes the other ones."
He doesn't subscribe to the idea that Microsoft has become anti-indie, however. "There are people there, like Chris Charla, the portfolio manager of XBLA - though that's probably changing, because XBLA is going away - who are great champions, but as a whole, it's not that Microsoft loves or even hates indies. It's just that they're an indifferent machine to it all."
These revelations have me wondering why the Skulls team publicly seemed to champion the new Microsoft products at the same time as they were having this awful experience. Did they believe it, or did they feel they had to disguise any concerns for fear of worse consequences? "There was certainly an aspect of that in general," Borut admits. "We just tried to focus on the positive things. To their credit, they never tried to interfere with us creatively, they were very good to work with on that front, but with Windows 8..." The sentence, perhaps just at the mere mention of the notorious OS that has inadvertently come to define his game, tails off into a heavy sigh.
"The thing is, we never saw it as [adopts announcer voice] 'this is the new desktop operating system!' I think that's why we were a little surprised by some of the hate. We thought of it as there were going to be new tablets, they'd probably sell several million of them... Windows 8 was for tablets, really. I got a Samsung one when it first came out and used it from when it was first available. There was a week of, like, pain, but after that I actually quite liked it, on the tablet.
"It was always a tablet-orientated operating system to us, and I appreciate the goal of wanting to bring it together, it's very forward thinking." Surface RT, the ARM-powered cheaper version of Microsoft's Tablet met poor reviews and reportedly low sales, while the more positively-received Pro version, able to run any and all Windows programs, took far too long to arrive. "We hoped they'd sell a few million tablets, and from most reports they did, but either those people are not buying games or they're not buying games for more than a dollar or two dollars."
Conversely, the traditional PC version of Windows 8 was never much of a priority, despite the exclusivity agreement. We were always "well, it's going to come out on Steam later" to ourselves, we didn't really care if nobody bought it on the PC. Then the public reaction to it was..." Another sigh, and he summarises his own response at the time. "Alright, well, yeah, damn."
In fact, the Skulls team had anticipated a different response entirely. "We thought we'd get more hate for coming out on XBLA first and having an exclusivity period at all." Mindful of this, "We had worked so hard to bring down our [Xbox and Windows 8] exclusivity period to the point where we knew it would take us longer, work time, than that period [to bring the game to other versions of Windows] and sure enough it did. We thought 'ok, that should be good - people will have to wait a little bit, but it shouldn't be that bad.'"
Instead, they found themselves fighting a more unexpected fire. "We learned a lot about how to phrase that sort of stuff. Like, we tried really hard not to say 'Windows 8 exclusive' but that was inevitably the line in publications." Including here, where staff and many (but not all) readers alike were highly dubious about Windows 8's attempts to brute force a touch interface onto a desktop PC.
The promised Microsoft money did eventually arrive, but "we're sort of at the end of that now. The funding was to complete the game, we tried to scrape and save and now Jake at 17-BIT's working on the next thing, that's kind of going on some level. But my bank account is empty." He laughs again, one of those laughs that starts hearty but goes on just a couple of seconds too long and sounds very different by its end. Nonetheless, the team had been prepared for this outcome even if they'd desperately hoped it wouldn't happen. "We knew there was a pretty decent risk that we wouldn't make any money back on the consoles and Microsoft versions, but we would get the ability to finish the game. That was the main draw, and now we have all the publishing rights for other platforms and hopefully we can start surviving a bit better."
And so to Steam. Fortunately for the Skulls team, they don't have to run the Greenlight gauntlet as a final insult. "We were talking to Valve right at the same time we were talking to Microsoft, just trying to secure everything according to the plan. So we had that sorted perhaps before Greenlight was even a twinkle in Gabe's eye." What if that hadn't been the case? "It would be more challenging, especially like switching gears to sort of uber-marketing. Not PR like [adopts amiable mumble] 'hey, we're on Steam, we're launched.' It would be much harder for sure."
Hindsight is 20/20 - so knowing what he now knows, what would he have done differently? "I personally would like to go back in time and kick myself in the balls. I'd just like to have that year and a half of my life back." That hearty to forlorn laugh again. I feel bad for him, and I can't help but tell him that I think it's going to be OK now they're on Steam, available to all PCs. I'm not the first to do so. "People keep telling us "oh, you'll do fine." They told us that on Xbox, now they tell us it about Steam and I'm 'oh, I want to believe you, buuuut...'"
That said, the current situation is, in a way, still part of the original plan. "Our goal was sort of console and PC combined. Not just to sell more units, but more that we wanted more people to play the game, which would help set up our next game where people would have heard of it, build an audience. I mean that's true, more people will have played it on console, but I don't think that affects the Steam release one way or another. People will have heard of it already or they'll hear about it through [this interview] or somewhere else. So it's still hard to tell if the strategy will plan out." Other, as yet undisclosed, platforms are planned. I don't think I'm being too speculative to observe that iPad would be a great fit for the game, but of course getting noticed on the App Store is a whole new, brutal meat market.
For now, all eyes are on this week's Steam release, and what Borut feels is "the definitive version. There are new levels, a new character, the multiplayer is there and async multiplayer will work across all future platforms." The Microsoft platforms remain "their own little ecosystem" that no other platform can play against, but the Steam release and whatever comes later are in theory able to buddy up without issue. The new mini-campaign, afforded an opportunity for the team to try something new, too: "We wanted to experiment a bit, so in those levels, and just those levels, you'll actually have regular progression. You start and you can buy a certain amount of units, and then you can take them through the whole levels, and everyone stays with you but anyone you lose, you lose.
Out of all this mess, can he still feel fond and proud of the game he helped make? No question. "I've played the game throughout development, and always really enjoyed playing it. I would play it after a late night at work, and just the depth of the strategy, especially in the multiplayer... I still play the multiplayer online, and there's just a lot of variability to the situations and the strategy. You've really got to stay on your toes, a match is never just you losing or you winning for many minutes. I'm really happy with the system design and how it turned out, and how much depth we get from something which looks pretty simple."
I agree - I think it's a fantastic little high-speed strategy game that does an awful lot with relatively few elements, and keeps up steady wit throughout. While I was always among those who raised an eyebrow at going Windows 8-only on PC, I'm glad it's finally open to everyone. "Now it's just a matter of getting more people to play it," says Borut, nervously. I mumble again that I'm sure everything will turn out just fine now. I hope I'm right.