Exclusive: Xseed Telling The Last Story

By David Radd

Operation Rainfall famously was an attempt by fans to get Xenoblade Chronicles, The Last Story, and Pandora’s Tower published in the U.S. It was enough to get the official attention of Nintendo of America . . . but that did not result in the games being picked up for the U.S. Fortunately, a positive reception in Europe ensured that both Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story have gotten tapped for U.S. release, though in the case of The Last Story, Xseed will publish and not Nintendo. This is a unique opportunity and Xseed Games’ Executive Vice President Ken Berry realizes it. We got a chance to talk to him on the eve of the game’s release and discuss releasing a late generation Wii title and what sort of early reception the game has gotten so far.

When Nintendo declined to publish The Last Story in the U.S. and it fell to Xseed, did it feel like the company was handed a great opportunity?

Ken Berry: It absolutely felt like we were handed a great opportunity. We would have never imagined just a year ago that we would have an opportunity to publish The Last Story.

Did fan demand from things like “Operation Rainfall” help Xseed decide that there was an audience for The Last Story in North America?

Ken Berry: We did know that fan demand was out there, but there was never a question of if we wanted to publish it — the question was always if we could publish it. We already knew the gameplay was solid and that it definitely had sales potential in North America, so we didn’t need much more convincing.

Has there been a sense of The Last Story being “something special” for Xseed, given the great heritage of the people who worked on it in Hironobu Sakaguchi and Nobuo Uematsu?

Ken Berry: We’ve been fortunate to have worked with a lot of great game creators before, but this is Xseed’s first time working with Sakaguchi-san, who is often credited with being one of the founding fathers of the entire RPG genre. To have Uematsu-san also on the project as the composer is just icing on the cake as they are both legends in the field.

Knowing that Sakaguchi-san and Uematsu-san were both involved made it such a special project that we still would have wanted to publish it even if it was a direct sequel to E.T. from the Atari 2600.

What sort of reception have you already gotten to the pre-order bonus?

Ken Berry: Pre-orders have been great from the day we announced the game, but they really ramped up when we announced that all launch units would come packed with a bonus art book in a special custom case at the same price. We actually had to limit the number of launch orders we take as retailers kept increasing their orders beyond their forecasted numbers over a month ago when we first started manufacturing, which is definitely a good problem to have.

How are you looking to promote the game? Will there be online ads, trailers, point o–sale items?

Ken Berry: Like most of our releases the marketing budget will be limited so you won’t be seeing any TV commercials, but we are definitely promoting the game with print ads in Nintendo Power, online ads, trailers, and signage/ads with retailers. But no matter how much marketing we purchase, the most effective will always be word-of-mouth so hopefully the fans that have been supporting us for months leading up to the release will be pleased with their purchase and that they will continue to talk about post-launch too.

The Last Story utilizes a variety of unique systems to an RPG, from cover and real-time strategy to online co-op and competitive play — how will you look to educate players of these unique elements?

Ken Berry: Luckily for us the game had already been released in Japan and Europe, so there was already a lot of press coverage in North America even before we picked up the publishing rights. Thanks to this the fans were mostly very well-versed in the battle system already, but most of the details can also be found on our newly launched website at www.thelaststorywii.com.

Are you worried that Wii games might no longer be as engaged with their system, especially given that the Wii U is right around the corner, or do you expect them to rally around one of the last major releases for the system?

Ken Berry: We definitely feel that the core gamers that play RPGs are the most likely to follow the best games regardless of the system, so hopefully that will hold true for The Last Story’s release on Wii. I know some people have started counting out the Wii already, but hopefully this release will show that there is still a lot of impressive things that hardware can do when the right game is running on it.

Ken, thanks.

A fan of Hironobu Sakaguchi games Looking forward to The Last Story Join the discussion on Facebook.

Exclusive: Pendulo Looks To Bring Adventure To Crowd-Funding

Graphic adventure games are one of those peculiar genres for video games. Once incredibly common on PC, they formed a large percentage of the games released. However, by the end of the ’90s the graphic adventure became a much more niche title, subsumed by bleeding edge shooters reliant upon graphic accelerators. That hasn’t stopped smaller developers, particularly in Europe, from putting out games of their own that appeal to those who enjoy methodical pacing and storytelling.

Pendulo is a studio based out of Madrid that’s been keeping the graphic adventure spirit alive. Despite their past successes, their project Day One (seemingly inspired by both Breaking Bad and Transmetropolitan) was not able to receive the proper funding, so they’re turning instead to the fans to make up the difference. They have very particular challenges in their journey, but the team at Pendulo were kind enough to take some time to answer some questions about their project.

For those who may not be familiar with Runaway, The Next Big Thing and Yesterday, tell the world what Pendulo exactly is.

We’re a Madrid-based development team that has been making adventure games for more than 18 years now. All of our games have been released on PC, but we have also released our titles for Nintendo DS, Wii and, more recently, Mac and iOS. We became popular thanks to our million-selling hit saga Runaway and some of our adventures have won many awards. Our last game, Yesterday, has been very highly rated by gamers in the App Store, getting 4.5 out of 5 stars almost everywhere.

Why have you turned to crowdfunding for this project?

As we explain in our page lab.gamesplanet.com/dayone, when we created the Day One project, we shared it with many publishers, but perhaps due to the financial crisis, or the fact that the game’s content seemed outside of the mainstream, no publishers would agree to go with the game and advance money for its development. So our only hope to make the game was to turn to our fans and the game community and just go for it. For the last few years, we have been struggling with smaller and smaller budgets, which has meant shorter and shorter games, since we always thought the other option, lowering quality, would be a mistake. Our dream is to be able to make a game of the same quality that Pendulo always offers, and also to make it as long as Runaway: A Twist of Fate, which was the last game we made with a reasonable budget. 

Why are you using Games Planet Lab instead of Kickstarter?

The obvious choice in the beginning was Kickstarter, but when we approached them, we realized you had to be an American company or have a fiscal address in the U.S. to be accepted, so we started to look for other choices. Gamesplanet Lab/Ulule was our best chance, because it is a serious, well-established company, and especially because it would allow us to present our project in many different languages, which was very important to us.

Why choose to tackle such a weighty subject like the protagonist having a terminal illness?

Well, most adventure games are not played by kids anymore, but rather by mature players from 25 to 45. Disease is a part of life, and it can be a very interesting part, in fact. His illness is just the starting point for telling a story which, despite its deep, dark shadows, also has touches of humor and totally crazy situations. Perhaps the best example for this might be the show Breaking Bad, which starts out with a similar situation, when a disease transforms a person, affecting his life and the lives of those around him.

Tell me about the updates you’ve had so far to the project and what sort of reception you’ve had to it?

We have put out very different updates, from the usual free banners to help spread the word about Day One to hilarious videos talking about the work we do during development. We are also preparing more updates to answer questions about the crowdfunding, to show more of our previous games, to give away some cool music for free.


Tell me about the interactivity that you’re planning with the community with the VIP room.

Well, the VIP room is not open yet, but it will be if the project reaches its goal. When opened, those with access will be able to help us and add their contributions in so many ways, from deciding physical things about the characters to participating in polls about key features of the game (what city should this meeting be in , and that type of question). People will also be able to participate in the game with their music, artwork, voice, etc. If you’ve got it, it’s a great way to show your talent off to the world. 

What sort of backer rewards have gotten the most traction so far?

The most highly sought out rewards are the ones that include all sorts of digital goodies. Not only the game itself, but also the soundtrack, a book of Pendulo’s artwork, a cool calendar, a selection of our previous soundtracks, and more. We have also had responses to a cool reward that lets you become a character in the game itself. You get 3D-modeled and play a role in the story as yourself (if you want). A Spanish writer, Ramon Cerda has already asked for that reward and will be one of the characters. I must say his personality really fits into the story!


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Exclusive: Seamus Blackley Talks About The New Arcade

Xbox co-creator Seamus Blackley has had quite a career in the gaming industry, having to work in fields of programming, game design and even hardware building and business management. He’s going back to his roots, and to the roots of the industry, with his latest endeavor of Innovative Leisure. He kindly talked to us about his ambitions for Innovative Leisure and also discussed other state of the industry issues.

Give me an overview of what Innovative Leisure is.

Seamus Blackley: It’s a company that makes video games. [pauses]

Seamus Blackley

Well that’s the most literal response.

Seamus Blackley: I could make you work for it! I’ll be nice though… My wife used to be a production manager for Wired and wrote a book called Supercade about the golden age of arcades, and we are both gaga about games and play them all the time, unlike an increasing number of people in the games industry. We have a deep reverance for classics of the industry, that I compare to the classics of literature. In the course of this, we got invited to a golf tournament called Gonzo, run by and participated in by many veterans of Atari.

It was a thrill being confronted with this group of people hired into Atari when game designer was not a job title or even a concept. By creating that job, they created that craft, they created the greatest string of hits this industry has seen and created the model upon which every other game has based itself on. They had to evolve it and they spawned from the counterculture of computers during the ’70s when being a computer person was a bizarre thing. They created this culture of honesty about design and you hear them talk about the creation of Centipede and Asteroids and it was really adversarial. People take these classics for granted now, but they were honed to be as good as they are.

It’s clear these things work and it involved beating the crap out of each other until it was fun. It seems like you have to see it to believe it, but when a designer from the younger generation plays the original Asteroids, their number one comment is, ‘that’s a great game.’ And it’s been ported to so many devices it’s become a joke, but it earned millions of dollars in the early ’80s because it was good.

Anyway, we go to the tournament and they find out that they play games and they want to be back together. These people worked at NASA, on Madden and in networks for huge companies; back then you really had to know the way code worked so the bar to entry was much higher. It’s easier to write it off to nostalgia, but they were creating everything out of nothing. So it was obvious that someone needed to get these people together.

Flash forward to iOS and the success with that, and there’s the new arcade and people that aren’t necessarily gamers want to play on it. And it’s an equivalent of walking by a game in the ’80s, back when your mom and your aunt might be putting in a quarter, and they’re doing the same thing with games. So it didn’t take a genius to recognize the moment to bring these two generations together.

As you’re probably aware, the games industry had a huge crash in 1983 — the market was flooded with crap, and there was the rise of the PC as a game player. These guys had a lot of good ideas, but they couldn’t stay together. They’ve been honing ideas and they have this amazing trove of ideas, not thinking like game designers do nowadays. We know the rules; I helped create 3D engines and physics engines for games and now it’s ubiquitous so I’ve seen it happen a little bit, but there’s a pioneering approach when you’ve created something from nothing. Mash-ups of game designs as novelty are often confused for innovation but these guys trade in whole new ideas, offering up novel gameplay concepts. We’re going to operate the way it did on the ’70s and it’s the most fun environment to work in ever. They just want to make awesome games. I just hope in 20 years, my brain is still as switched on as them.

Nice to see they’ve kept their passion.

Seamus Blackley: When the Time magazine guys were here, and my son played a PSN game and they crowded around. They were pointing out this one animation as not fitting the game mold, noted this one object didn’t look right and they said the artist probably didn’t put it in the right resolution and they’re picking it apart. The guys from Time said they’ve never seen men of this age group behave like 20 year-olds.

Some of these guys started programing on tubes and they know the technology in a way that most people don’t. The first guy who bought automobiles had to be their own mechanics and it was like that. Some of the younger programmers are used to having a debugger and these guys can operate all that stuff, but they can get down into the assembly and they know the machine, kind of like when F1 drivers had to be their own managers and mechanics; now they’re airlifted into the tracks, but tinkering inside the car gives you extra insight. There are things that don’t occur to younger programmers that can have huge performance benefits and it informs design mentalities. And there are ways to use modern tools that are very meta. We’ve got some interns here helping out with some of the programming and some of the younger programmers are scared to death of these guys.

Many who program now don’t have a clear idea of what the code means anymore. Tim Sweeney at Epic is a genius, a hardware whisperer and back in the day doing that was a minimum bar of entry, but now there are other tools that help people along. Going that in depth, you get a connection to a game you wouldn’t have with thousands of designers.

Seems like during this, the most distruptive point in time in industry history . . .

Seamus Blackley: I remember the birth of 3D PC games and the rise of the NES and PC and PlayStation. There was a point where a recruiter said to me “Anyone without skills to work on PlayStation isn’t going to have a job.” There have been lots of twists and turns, and what it teaches us is the industry itself is undefeatable, and there was the late ’90s when all the marketers left for the Internet and they came back for things like MMOs when that market was peaking.

The key takeaways are that great games continue to be great and that we work in the greatest industry out there. The business models that work are the ones that let people play the game they want. How to play Half Life 2 Get Steam. Want to play Halo Get an Xbox. Want to play Angry Birds Get an iPhone. We now see that great devices get great games. Rather than people being put down by this, it’s extremely exciting.

Tell me, is it more difficult to make a pitch for games than any other medium? Do more business people just not understand games compared to movies and TV?

Seamus Blackley: That’s hard to say really — whenever something gets successful, there’s ultimately people who come on that want to be involved in it that aren’t familiar with the craft. It’s scary to take a bet on content, though, especially if you are a finance person who is not a gamer, and even as a pure game designer, you might like a game but it’s hard to bet a lot of money on whether it will be successful. And then there’s a thing – the scariest thing in the world is an executive that doesn’t play games.

Do you think there’s just a lack of discipline in the industry?

Seamus Blackley: There are a lot of people in the game business, which is pretty young all told, that have damaged things by bringing in their ideas. You disrupt process by what the new people say; it can be good, it can be bad. The problem is confusing making games and software engineering. People who try to bring engineering best practices, you can make a game on time and on budget, but you create something that’s derivative. The other end of the spectrum is something unmanaged, and people that are unmanaged tend to be the people that ship when it’s done. You need to build a business around creativity, you need to build skills for what is good to do. It’s like a mechanic can look at a dirty engine covered in grime and identify what’s wrong. For teams like Valve, Naughty Dog and Insomniac, I have a lot of respect for those guys; they have it down pat and it’s amazing.

Why do you think then that we see these studios where stories leak out of burnouts and soul crushing conditions?

Seamus Blackley: You can easily take a labor of love an unintentionally make it a death march. Nobody has an intention of making work a living hell. People who were psyched about it will work into the wee hours of the night to get it right, but you can’t artificially do that.

Do you have a plan for how you’re going to handle marketing?

Seamus Blackley: Sure, we have a plan. [pauses]

Curse you Seamus Blackley!

Seamus Blackley: Ha ha, for real I know these guys in Pasadena. It’s going to be all about people seeing the games, and if they like them that’s great and if they don’t like them we’ll go back to selling tacos.

There’s no reason you should remember this, but I remember when you reached out to me while you were at CAA and I wrote some headline about Tim Schafer being lucky to get another publishing deal. You disagreed, poiting to the high reviews of Psychonauts . . .

Seamus Blackley: Ha, well he was a little lucky to get work. I was fortunate to be a programmer and designer and learn some business at Microsoft and apply it to Schafer for those guys and be the business guy on those guys’ project. That was, incidentally, not as satisfying as actually making my own games and I’m happy to be doing that.

It seems like in game creation, the wacky writing and other stuff for Schafer does isn’t hard for him to do, since every interview I’ve seen he’s this effervescent, spontaneous, funny, wonderful human being.

Seamus Blackley: Schafer is a prince among men. Everything you imagine he’s like as fan, he’s actually that way. Something I’m not sure many people know – I became ordained to officiate Tim Schafer’s wedding.

Wow, can’t say I knew that! Anyway, thanks Seamus.


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