Xbox Live Developer Interview: IronSun Studios, makers of MonstaFish and Fathom
It's been a while, but we're back with another installment of our Xbox Live Developer Interview series! This time we talk with Paul Kelly, director of IronSun Studios. The British development house has already brought IonBallEX, Battlewagon, and MonstaFish to Xbox Live. Here we discuss some of their influences, design philosophies, and even their next Live game. Head past the break for the full interview and lots of exclusive concept art!
Hi Paul - that's a good name. Please tell us about yourself and what you do at IronSun Studios.
Paul Kelly (left) and partner Peter McGann
I’m Paul Kelly, and I am a director of IronSun Studios. I have various responsibilities, but my main role is managing the resources of the company. I look after the developers, testers, artists, etcetera – make sure that everyone is happy! I also deal with marketing, concept design, branding and Press Relations. Sometimes I make the tea and cook up a nice curry.
Ooh, everybody loves curry. So how did you come to form the studio?
Early IonBall title screen
In 2010, I was working with two other game enthusiast developers in another company. We all realized that the mobile game market was expanding massively, and had also heard on the grapevine that Microsoft was preparing to launch Windows Phone 7. This seemed the ideal opportunity to get in at the ground floor at the start of something that could be huge in scale as a market. So we had some contacts with Microsoft and with their encouragement and help started IronSun Studios.
Rewinding time a bit, what were some of your favorite games growing up?
IonBall concept art
My personal favorite games growing up were games like Elite, Bomberman, Doom, Need for Speed, Lords of Midnight… I have too many to list! As you can tell, I go back a bit. My favorite games of the newer era are… Half-Life 1 and 2, Battlefield 1-3, Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit – again too many to mention all here!
Ooh, I’m something of a Bomberman fan myself. Do you play console or PC games these days?
I am mainly a PC gamer, but have enjoyed the Halo series on console, and racing games like NFS:HP and Driver.
If we may venture away from games for a moment, what did you think of Ridley Scott’s big summer movie Prometheus?
Battlewagon main game mockup
Good but flawed. It could have been a great film apart from some obvious logic issues and trying to be too clever in places. I loved many things about it – Michael Fassbender’s performance was riveting, and some of the scenes were very thought provoking, but it was let down by a script that made little sense in some places.
Nice insights! Getting back on track… IronSun started out developing indie games for Xbox 360 and Windows Phone. How did you make the switch to Xbox Live developer?
We were asked to do XBL titles by Microsoft. They liked the original IonBall [an indie game on Xbox 360 and Windows Phone], and wanted it as an XBL title. We did not want to do just a straight port with just XBL tacked on, so made lots of changes to make IonBallEX.
Do you have any advice for other indie developers looking to break into Live games?
Be prepared to work hard. It’s not an easy market by any means.
IronSun’s first Xbox Live game on Windows Phone, IonBallEX, was the first steampunk game in the mobile Live lineup. Would you like to return to that type of setting in the future?
IonBall store design
Yes – watch this space. [In other words, someday. –ed.]
IronSun dropped the prices of IonBallEX and Battlewagon to 99 cents a short while ago, and shortly thereafter MonstaFish launched at the same price point. How is the new price point working out for you guys?
Battlewagon face designs
It’s too early to say really, as MonstaFish has only been out for just two weeks. We believe that 99 cents is the right price point for the game though, as it is a casual game. There has been some debate about whether Xbox Live suits casual games like MonstaFish, but I believe that this type of game at 99 cents is perfect for XBL. Not all games have to be the next Gears of War to go on a phone [in order to] have Xbox Achievements.
Speaking of MonstaFish, that game has a pretty offbeat theme and visual style. How’d you come up with it?
Mmm …. Good question. A lot of the time the ideas are organic. They come from the base idea for the game mechanics; in this case we had the idea for a game where you had to deflate fish using bubbles (the MonstaFish mode). This obviously needed to be a cartoony game, so we asked the artist to come up with cartoon visuals. The trend for many games now is to have doodle graphics, but we wanted to go for something different and more like a cartoon off the television.
We did have ideas to have a full 3D background… but due to hardware limitations we went with 2D. The fish were realized from their features – i.e. the fish that bursts bubbles has a sharp beak. Love the looks of the game. I think it’s really vibrant and different.
MontaFish’s Time Attack mode is much, much harder than the other game modes. Was the steep difficulty intentional?
MonstaFish ground effects design and full mockup
This was not designed to be that much harder, but the main reason was that we found it way too easy in earlier iterations. With the other game modes you can carry on playing as long as you can last, but because Time Attack is time limited we did not want to make it too easy – it held no challenge otherwise. If you play MonstaFish mode itself to level 45-50 it gets really really hard – but it was designed to be an endurance type so is easy to start. Time Attack was different because of its very nature.
I wanted to like the Fish Tank mode, but the swipe controls for knocking off snails don’t work too well. Could this be rectified in an update?
Yeah we will have a look. We had not noticed an issue, but it could be that the sensitivity of some phones is different.
We hear tell your next game is called Fathom. Will this be a casual or more serious game?
MonstaFish mockups. Note the overhead view on right.
Definitely more serious but not hardcore.
Serious is good. Some of my best friends are serious. What else can you tell us about the gameplay?
It involves water. ;-)
How long has Fathom been in development?
[More than] three months.
Does it have a target release date yet?
Windows Phone 8 launches later this year. Will you be updating any of your existing titles to take advantage of its new features? What about future titles?
We are not sure about existing titles as Windows Phone 8 is different under the hood from Windows Phone 7, so that might not be possible. As for future titles - they will be aimed at the newer platforms.
Multiplayer Xbox Live games are super scarce on Windows Phone so far. Are you interested in developing a multiplayer title at some point?
MonstaFish 'Fish Hook' mockup
It’s not on our radar at the moment – Fathom is purely solo. But we will think about it. Unless the idea is good and can be integrated really well (like Wordament for instance), we think the phone is more a solo gamers device.
A lot of the developers we’ve spoken to are excited about Windows 8 for PCs and tablets. Do you plan to dabble in Windows 8 development as well?
Finally, how satisfied are you with the growth of Windows Phone so far? Should Microsoft do anything different to help their mobile platform gain market share?
Battlewagon wagon design (left) and blockade
It could have been better; even Microsoft admits that. I do think that it’s now gaining traction, and I think Windows Phone 8 will be an even better proposition. Microsoft has to improve their marketing, I believe, and also the features and apps available on the platform need to continue to get better. It needs to become a more viable alternative to Android and iPhone. We [already] love it – everyone else has to be shown the light!