PowerUp, a Game in the Making by a TINY developer…One GUY

PowerUp is an Indie title is a wee bit special, now out on the Xbox Indie Arcade service.

PowerUp is special, as it has been developed by a single person. This isn’t so strange for a Xbox Live Indie  title but Mike Hanson, the developer, has been working very hard to create something which is not rough around the edges. Sure it is a small game, but he has worked hard to make it as perfectly formed as he can get it. His story is inspirational for an budding game designer.

We have played it, and enjoyed it. PowerUp is a side scrolling shooter, in the vein of R-Type. As with Xbox Indie Arcade games, it is cheap, but for the money it’s really good.

We caught up with Mike, and asked him about the process…

Q) So you made this 100% yourself?

Yep. I sure did. I’ve dabbled in making my own little indie games for years but never with much success. Back in November 2011, I was determined to make my own console based game. I knew it was going to come from the games I played growing up and knew the importance of good controls and collision detection from my previous efforts. Having found some helpful tutorials and how-to’s for making shooters, I decided to dust off a few previous attempts at this genre and go at it again. I used 3DS Max and Photoshop for all the art, I used Cubase and Audition for the sound and music (not to mention my little iPhone audio-notes app thing for singing tune ideas into) and I coded the whole thing while learning the XNA framework in C#. All in all, took me just under two years of spare evenings and half-days.

Q) Where did you work before, i.e. what is your gaming background? You used to work in games, right?

I did… I still do, sort of. Basically, while I was in school / 6th form college I was lucky enough to get a bit of work experience with a couple of liverpool based games companies. I started in QA but also managed to get a bit of Junior art work on a number of Amiga and SNES titles. I left university with pretty good drawing skills and some self taught coding tricks using Macromedia Director, with which I’d managed to make a number of my own, simple, but relatively impressive games. This bagged me a role as a Junior artist creating GBA games for the Cartoon Network amongst other companies. Making background tilemaps and character animation to the strict limitations of the device built up my technical knowledge a great deal, not to mention my confidence.

I took a knock to that confidence however, when shortly after, I failed miserably in my part in starting up a Liverpool-based games company. Sure, I was a decent enough artist, but I was no Creative director yet. The long hours for little to no pay played tricks with my head after a couple of years and I was forced to take something of a hiatus… and a heck of a lot of prozac. Still, I got to work on a few good titles including a Lemmings licence and the third installation of the PGR games as an outsourced track builder, so it wasn’t all bad.

After taking a few months to get myself together I left town and looked for work elsewhere. I was employed as an artist for a solid, reputable mobile games company who dealt primarily in casual and puzzle games… and there I stayed for over six years. My ever improving organizational skills and my self imposed, self discipline (probably a reaction to the chaos of the long hours worked in my previous job) became something of an asset as they seemed to be transferable to managing the workload of the company’s other artists. I was promoted to the in house Lead Artist in 2009 and a good time was had by all!

However, in late 2012, the tide of mobile gaming turned very much against my employer and redundancies were the order of the day. As the art department was well ahead of its quota, it was completely closed in quite an extreme bid to save money while the company’s coders caught up with the workload, and I found myself out of work. By this point I’d started on my current incarnation of PowerUp as something of a learning-hobby. I decided to pursue it with a little more vigour than before while I waited for the job market to pick up.

It has picked up a little now, and I currently dedicate half of my working day to my part time artist job with another small mobile games company, while putting the other half of my time into my Psychotic Psoftware work. Currently, that consists of prepping PowerUp for a PC release later this year.

Q) I assume working in games really helped – what did you take from it, and what did you decide to leave behind?

I actually started PowerUp in the hopes of getting back to my roots.

I was getting a bit lost in the multi-resolutions and commerce-based mechanics of the mobile gaming market. Games were losing the charm of their pixelated counterparts. In fact, pixel art was becoming a style-over-content way of dressing a simple game as “retro”, platformers were bogged down with How-To-Jump tutorials, Shooters were suffering from purchaseable upgrades and the great strategic isometric games of the past had been completely lost to the freemium model. Other than that, in my professional life, I was navigating a minefield of Solitaire and Casino apps designed for the sole purpose of extracting more and more money from players. I was very much asking myself why I wanted to do this for a living in the first place.

All THAT is precisely what I left at the door when every Tuesday and Thursday night, I’d come home, have dinner with my partner, then disappear up to my office to endulge in bringing all the magic of my childhood back to life on my own terms. Sure, I got a lot of technical know how from my work, but the most valuable part of PowerUp, (and hopefully the future games I make as Psychotic Psoftware) was (will be) the drawing of the memories and emotions related to those gaming experiences that live in me to this day. The wonder as I sailed at least 200 feet through the air after putting my bike over a Road Rash car bonnet… The pleasure of teaming up with my mate Ste to kick-in the Streets of Rage masses in style… The sheer joy as a “Feirce Ballock of the Northern Wastelands” picked my little Moonstone knight up and in an unparalelled moment of juicy and unecesarry gore, bit my head clean off!!

These experiences, coupled with the determination to improve my code, art and audio are the factors that really fuel my one-man games.

Q) How hard was it getting the game into the Xbox Indie store?

Well it’s a multi-faceted beast really. asside from an unpredictable setup website, I had very little trouble handing over my £65 developers fee to Microsoft… that bit went pretty smoothly. The rest was a bit of a rollercoaster though. PowerUp took three submissions to get a “Pass”. The first time was just down to my inexperience. I thought I’d be able to upload a final version of the game once it had been passed. I didn’t realise that what I was uploading was actually the release candidate and I didn’t realise that the testers would have access to a trial mode when they played my game on device, so attempt-1 went out with trial mode active… and failed instantly. Still, we live and learn, and that’s what I’m all about. the second attempt failed due to a serious crash bug, but the third attempt passed.

I think that by all accounts about 12 of your fellow XBLIG developers have to pass your game in order for it to get the green light. You then get the ok to publish either immediately, or at a time of your choosing. I opted to control that date, making the announcement wherever I could. My plan was that on Friday the 13th of September I was going to seriously improve your “unlucky” day and unleash Powerup on the world. In the online documentation I’d read that there would be a 24 hour window after the developer hits that Publish button, during which the game will hit the store, so at 22:00 on Thursday 12th of September, I pressed that Publish button!… and on Friday 13th, the whole Xbox live system fell over!!

… I know, right? Who knew that this would be the day Microsoft would have chosen to update their entire Xbox live system, bringing it line with XBone?! Amidst the angry shouts from my Twitter friends and followers, I had to accept that release day was a no-show for my game, and a bit of a wash out for anybody looking forward to buying it. Still, all said and done, the game got there in the end… on Saturday morning, here in the UK.

Getting paid, now that’s another saga altogether… and one that I fear has just begun. Let’s just say, getting my money from Microsoft looks like it’s going to be a lot more difficult than giving them my 65 quid was.

Q) Is this it, or will you be self publishing more games via Xbox One and PS4/PSVita?

Well, as things stand, I’m not as sure about XBox one as i was before. I think what worries me most at this juncture is how effectively Microsoft are going to deal with Tax treaties, payment schedules, accountability, and the like. At the moment, they come in very much below par on all of the above. Now, taking into account that indie games was never originally on the agenda for XBox One, and was in fact only added under duress, and as an afterthought because of pressure from the gaming community and from Microsofts competitors alike, do you think that making it easier for indies to get paid is high on their priority list?… because I just can’t believe that it is.

They also killed the XNA indie development platform, a platform I took considerable pains to familliarise myself with, causing me to have to learn to program for a THIRD time! I’ll do it… but this time I’ll make sure I use an engine that won’t disappear in a hurry and will be compatible with lots of different consoles and devices. We live and learn, right?! Unity is looking good right now… especially considering that I’ve heard a lot about it’s similarities with my first programming love, the now defunct Macromedia Director. While we might not see the first incarnation of PowerUp hitting the likes of PS4 and Wii U, I’m pretty sure that if the demand for a sequel is high enough, if and when it comes, it won’t just happen on Xbox and PC next time around.

By the same token, yeah. I’m expecting my next game to be a lot more device-universal too.

Q) What was the hardest part of the whole process?

There’s been a few hardships. At the beginning it was all about confidence. I wasn’t sure anybody would think me justified to even TRY to make a game. I know. Wierd isn’t it considering the great reviews that PowerUp seems to have managed. Still, for the first year or so, I was a rank amateur and terrified of showing my work off. Overcoming that was hard. Then there was the kickstarter. again, that underdeveloped sense of entitlement hung heavy around my neck, but the toughest part of that was the workload! The sheer multi-tasking non-stopness of it all. At the close of that campaign, I kinda just collapsed for a bit. The aftermath of the Kickstarter had its challenges too. I came out of that with a lot more commitments than I went in with. Commitments that I’m still pushing myself to meet to this day. I think it’s fair to say that I earned those software licences fair and square.

But right now, the toughest part is plain and simple, money! See, I budgeted for up to about now… budgeted really well too. My partner and I threw all of our savings at this, and I carefully scheduled my deadlines to be both realistic, and within that budget, but it was never going to be easy and it was always going to be tight. …At the end of the day though, the fact remains that Microsoft won’t be parting with my money until 45 days after the end of the quarter! That’s quite a way away and we’re already struggling to make ends meet. Having cancelled all our little luxuries, now we’re skipping meals to make the food last! There’s a lot of talk of victory laps in the indie press when it comes to PowerUp, but the fact remains, Jo and I are working as hard as ever and edging ever closer to that ever widening UK poverty band. We’re tired, hungry and still waiting to see any financial reward come from this little adventure.

If I’m honest, despite all the love I’m getting from the gamers (thanks guys), despite all the accolades the game is recieving in public forums, THIS is the hardest bit… But Jo and I are made of stern stuff. We’ll get through it.

Anything else you want us to know about the game and yourself?

Not a lot really, just that PowerUp is out there on XBLIG right now with a pretty comprehensive FREE trial version.

http://marketplace.xbox.com/en-gb/Product/Power-Up/66acd000-77fe-1000-9115-d80258550d9c

The PC version will be up and out later this year too. I’m hopefully going to go for a Steam Greenlight release and really REALLY need all the support I can get there when the time comes.

I’ve also just released the PowerUp soundtrack on Bandcamp. Those guys have no trouble paying and it’s on a you-name-the-price basis, which basically means FREE if you like, so I’d appreciate as many people as possible checking that out. Here’s the link.

http://psychoticpsoftware.bandcamp.com/album/powerup-the-soundtrack

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