Interview with Iridium Studios’ Jason Wishnov

This year Iridium Studios hit Xbox LIVE Indie Games with a bang. Its first release, Sequence, dared to combine two different genres into a unique offering with a presentation that puts even some of the Xbox LIVE Arcade titles to shame. Jason Wishnov of Iridium Studios was kind enough to explain how the project started and touch on some of the development of the title.

IndieSnack: Can you start by introducing yourself and explaining how Iridium Studios started and what its mission is?

Jason Wishnov: It started as I looked over the XNA framework and got all googly-eyed. “This looks easy!” I thought to myself. It sort of was, I guess, but Sequence took a heck of a long time, regardless.

We aren’t a lobby group. Our “mission” is to make fun games. Pretty simple. = D

IS: In Iridium Studio’s debut effort, Sequence, the title marries together staple concepts of the RPG and rhythm genres. How did this concept first come about? What were some of the most difficult design and programming issues you encountered in combining these genres?

JW: I suppose Puzzle Quest was the primary inspiration … if a match-three puzzle concept could work as the primary battle mechanic in a larger RPG framework, well, anything could. And being such an avid rhythm gamer, I just had to prototype the concept … and it seemed to work well enough.

Getting the arrows timed in to the music appropriately was quite difficult, as XNA does not expose direct access to the audio buffer. From a non-technical perspective, balancing the game was nearly impossible, especially on four completely disparate levels of difficulty … what a nightmare.

IS: In many games today, it almost seems you can’t avoid multiple genres of gaming being placed together. What do you think makes these genre combinations so attractive? It seems most of these combinations involve RPGs in some way. What is it about Role-playing games that makes it such a go-to staple for gaming mechanics?

JW: Role-playing mechanics aren’t necessarily a “genre” unto themselves. RPG elements merely present a numerical form of advancement for a player’s in-game self; they very easily show quantitative growth. Seeing that growth, a psychological brain-pleaser, can really be grafted onto anything. Creating an enemy for the player to defeat creates purpose where there was none; showing how much damage a spell does gives the player an easy sense of advancement and progression.

I kind of just thought it was fun, too.

IS: In regard to Sequence – I would personally say the title is by far the highest quality game on the Xbox LIVE Indie Games service when you look all of its involved mechanics. I would further say these mechanics put a portion of the Xbox LIVE Arcade games to shame. What did it take to pull this off using the restrictions of the Indie Games service? Also, how did the studio present Sequence in order to attract all of the voice actors and music artists to Iridium’s first project?

JW: One of the biggest issues was the 150 MB limit … with all the voice acting and music I had in the game, it took a miracle to compress it all in. A lot of people asked for more tracks, but it simply couldn’t be done under those constraints.

I’m actually a voice actor myself, here in Los Angeles. I voiced Ky, but more importantly, working in the industry granted me access to a wide network of talented voice actors, many of whom you heard in the game. Certainly a rare boon for an indie studio, but I think it worked out well. As far as the musical artists, I simply contacted them and they were gracious enough to lend their efforts to the cause.

IS: Leading up to the title’s release, Sequence also had some pretty clever marketing and a fair amount of buzz based on its premise. Did you find yourself developing the game with certain market segments in mind? How were gamers responding to the title overall prior to its release?

JW: Not in particular, to be honest; we made the game we wanted to play. But certainly I knew there were plenty of burnt-out rhythm gamers out there. Gamers responded well to the title, but an overwhelming number of buyers first heard of the game through Steam; our couple trailers were the first marketing material they had seen. We worked to make sure that material would draw them in … after all, what’s five bucks in the end?

IS: How did your release on Xbox LIVE Indie Games go? Were people confused to see such a high quality game released on the format? What are your overall thoughts on the platform?

JW: Badly, to be honest. XBLIG unveiled the feature to specify an exact release time-and-date; Sequence passed Peer Review sometime deep at night, and immediately went up on the marketplace. I was caught off-guard the next morning; we scrambled to get up the appropriate marketing material.

XBLIG is what it is: An opportunity for anyone to get their code up and running on a current-gen console, and maybe even see some returns. But it has inherent quality-control issues, and I would advise against any company making a serious financial investment that solely targets this particular platform.

IS: Now the title has released on Steam. Did you find a release on this platform to be more worthwhile – not just saleswise, but was there more support and interest? What did the Steam platform allow you to do with Sequence that you couldn’t do on other distribution formats?

JW: *Much* more support and interest. Millions of gamers use Steam everyday; despite the Xbox 360’s install base, very few gamers know or care about the Indie Games channel. Valve didn’t shove Sequence off to the side; when it released, its banner was right up there with Arkham City and Battlefield 3.

In addition, it allows extremely easy updating and patching; on XBLIG, it’s extremely difficult. It allows achievements, cloud saves, and more, and does so with a very easy-to-use API. Valve is pretty awesome, you know.

IS: Looking back at Sequence as a whole, is there anything you wish you would have done differently? What did you learn from the project that can be carried over into future releases by Iridium Studios?

JW: I do wish I’d made it a little less “grindy;” that’s been the primary complaint and I agree with it. I stuck too strongly to the structure of the story, and it forced the game to go on a little past its welcome. We won’t make that mistake again.

IS: Where do you see Iridium Studios five years from now? Where do you think the video game industry overall is heading in the future?

JW: Still making games, hopefully, just ones a little larger than Sequence. I think the gaming industry is certainly heading for a mostly digitally distributed future, and motion-based input is here to stay. As far as the mobile sector, well, it’ll continue to grow, and hopefully create a new generation that comes on over to our slightly more hardcore side. I probably won’t be involved in that, but c’est la vie … no sense hating.

IS: Do you have any advice for aspiring video game developers?

JW: Start small. Many gamers want to make this epic, 40+ hour RPG, but they have no idea how much work that actually entails. Make a small project; learn to work in a team, gain some experience as to how a game is really put together. It’s nice to aim at the moon, but the moon is still 235,000 miles away.

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Indie Snack is a video gaming Web site focusing on independent developers and game releases. Indie Snack will also soon have services made available to independent developers to include tools aiding them in public relations and game marketing.

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