Interview with Zeboyd Games’ Robert Boyd

Zeboyd Games made a name for itself with high-quality RPGs at low prices when its first titles hit the Xbox LIVE Indie Games service.  Since then, the developer’s retro-inspired titles have found themselves on multiple formats including Steam and the combo of Breath of Death VII and Cthulu Saves the World were recently featured in Indie Royale’s Really Big Bundle.

Robert Boyd recently took time out his schedule to give IndieSnack an inside look at how the developer started out and what it has done to succeed.

IndieSnack: Can you begin by introducing yourself and explaining how Zeboyd Games started and what its mission is?

Robert Boyd: Zeboyd Games was started a couple years ago when I grew tired of my job as an English as a Second Language teacher and decided I wanted to get into game development. Our mission is straightforward – make good games and don’t starve! We’ve been focusing on retro console style RPGs so far but we both like a variety of game genres so there’s no reason why we couldn’t branch out later on.

IS: With both Breath of Death VII and Cthulu Saves the World under your belt, what would you say are the biggest challenges in developing role-playing > games? How does being an independent developer change the role-playing game development process, for better or worse?

RB: I’d say the biggest challenge to developing role-playing games is expectations. People expect RPGs to be massive games that take 50+ hours to complete (more if you do all the side quess). Once we realized that a game of that scope was beyond us as a newly formed indie developer and focused on a shorter but sweet experience, development became much easier.

IS: When it comes to RPGs, this seems to be a game genre where the story is often seen as being more important than in other genres. How do you approach the storytelling in your games? Would you say the humor and popular references injected into your storytelling attracts more attention than if your story were to be 100 percent serious?

RB: Generally, I develop our stories in stages.

Step 1 – General premise of the game
Step 2 – Characters (both from a personality & gameplay perspective)
Step 3 – Basic plot (what areas, events, and enemies will be in the game?)
Step 4 – Actually write the dialogue & text

There are plenty of indie games with serious stories that have seen great success like Braid & Bastion, but yes, I do think that having more humorous plots & dialogue help us to stand out. Plus, I find humor easier to write. On the other hand, I would like to try my hand at a more serious story at some point.

IS: Breath of Death VII created a lot of buzz on the Xbox LIVE Indie Games service when it launched. How did being a featured game release on the format affect Zeboyd Games?

RB: Actually, we weren’t a featured game at first – we didn’t even know how many games we had sold for the first few days due to a list freeze on Microsoft’s end. However, if I’m not mistaken, Breath of Death VII was the first major RPG to release on the service to score highly in user reviews which definitely helped us gain publicity for our group. We were also one of the first developers to release a large, high quality game on the service at the $1 price tag (most serious developers were releasing at $3 and $5 at that time) which I’m sure helped as well.

IS: However, it’s no a secret that moving your game titles over to the Steam format spiked your sales. What are your overall thoughts on the Xbox LIVE Indie Games service? Could this platform ever be a truly viable service for independent game developers?

RB: I think the Xbox Live Indie Games service is a great platform for new indie developers. The development tools are free, the community is helpful, and it’s a great feeling to make an actual game for a video game console. On the other hand, it’s not the best place to go if you’re looking to make a living off of it. Between our two games on XBLIG, we’ve made about $89,000 on the service so far which isn’t enough to support 2-3 people over the course of a couple years. And that’s a lot better than most people make on the service – a few make a ton of money (like some of the Minecraft clones), a few more make a decent amount (like us), but most people on the service are lucky to make over $1,000.

In contrast, we’ve made drastically more money on the PC despite our first PC release (a combo pack of our first 2 RPGs for $3) only having come out about 4 months ago.

Do I think that XBLIG could become a viable platform for serious indie developers hoping to make a living? To be honest, I think it’s too late for that. It’s good for hobbyists, new developers, and as a secondary platform (if you’re using XNA, you can release on both PC & XBLIG if you’re willing to do a little extra work) but I wouldn’t recommend it as a way to make a living.

I hope Microsoft takes a good look at what went right and what went wrong with XBLIG while they’re developing their next console so they can do better next time.

IS: Zeboyd Games titles have always launched at very reasonable price points. Was this intended from the beginning of development or was this an entry strategy? How have you been able to balance out the ability to give players a lot of content for their money while still being able to pull in reasonable revenues to stay in development?

RB: We spent weeks debating how much we should charge for our first game and in the end decided that going as low as possible was a good entry strategy. However, now I strongly feel that we should keep our prices low. If we can make $100,000 selling 10,000 copies at $10 or $100,000 selling 100,000 copies at $1, why not go with the option that lets more people enjoy our games? It helps to build a fanbase and it’s just good karma.

As an indie developer, we have to keep our costs low to stay in business. Right now, we only have 2 staff members – myself and Bill Stiernberg – and we hire composers as we need to. As we find success, we may decide to expand, but I’d like to keep our size small and our expenses minimum – it’s less stressful and lets us take more risks with our game designs & concepts.

IS: Trade and consumer shows are great resources for game developers. When you attend these events, how do you prepare, whether it is to showcase a game or just network with others? How do you interact with the consumers when you are showing off one of your game titles and what do you find they respond to the most?

RB: To be honest, I haven’t had that much experience in this area. I went to GDC this year to be on a panel and attend several panels and it was a great experience. Didn’t do a whole lot of networking though. E3, I just attended briefly for fun. PAX, we did do some networking, but that was mostly planned out before the convention.

We will be showcasing our next game at PAX East next year so ask me again after that. 🙂

IS: At a recent consumer show, PAX, it was announced you would be taking over the development of Penny Arcade’s previously-planned third installment of On the Rainslick Precipice of Darkness. With handling such a notable license, how has your mindset and gameplan changed going into this game title? Also, how has your dedicated user base responded to the news?

RB: The biggest change is that the development process is far more structured – there’s much more coordinating that needs to go on than there was when it was just the two of us.

The response has been varied. For the most part, it’s been very positive, but we have had a few fans tell us that they’re disappointed we’re working on someone else’s IP and not doing more of our own original stuff. Oh well –  as fans of Penny Arcade, we’re excited to be working with them and we expect to making games for years to come so there’s no hurry.

IS: Moving forward, where do you see Zeboyd Games five years from now? What changes are you anticipating in video gaming and the independent developer scene in the future?

RB: I’m hoping that between the Rainslick Precipice of Darkness & continued sales of Cthulhu Saves the World & Breath of Death VII, that we’ll be set financially for quite some time, thus allowing us to take on bigger projects. Our development time for our games so far has been measured in months but I’d love to be able to take a couple years and make something on a bigger scope than we’ve dealt with in the past.

I expect we’ll see game prices continue to drop, the indie scene become bigger and more important, and Microsoft will release a new console with an enhanced version of Kinect that fixes many of the major issues with the current Kinect.

IS: Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring video game developers?

RB: Start with small projects and work your way up – there’s nothing worse than a team that tries to be too ambitious right off the bat and then falls apart. Also, visit Gamasutra.com on a regular basis – it’s a wonderful resource for anyone who is looking to become part of the game industry.

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Author:indiesnack

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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