Tomorrow at 10 am PDT, Microsoft will likely tell us all some things we already know. The Xbox creator will also tell us plenty that we don't already know. Some rumors will probably be proven true, others false. New games and features will be discussed and, in some cases, shown. Ultimately, the curtain is going to fall on Microsoft's event before the public hears everything it wants to hear. Microsoft is only going to tease us, with a more complete showing of all its console plans for the years ahead not coming until the console holder's traditional pre-E3 media briefing on June 10.
But tomorrow we will know something we don't know today. We'll know something about what direction Microsoft plans to steer the Xbox brand in over the course of the next generation. Sitting here right now, I can honestly say that I know nothing more than any other gamer who's followed the supposed leaks over the past few years knows about what we're going to see tomorrow. Rather than make educated guesses about what might be shown tomorrow and at E3, XBLAFans is following up last week's look at how developers feel about XBLA as it currently stands by having them speak about where they want to see it go in the next generation.
During PAX East this past March, we cornered six game developers and asked them one question: If you could change any one thing or add any one feature to the next-generation version of Xbox Live Arcade, what would it be?
Dead Space's Isaac Clarke once had to drill into his own eyeball in order to survive a ship infested with mutated freaks. Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad of Assassin's Creed fame was made to part with a portion of one of his fingers in order to join the Levantine Brotherhood of Assassins. Tomb Raider's Lara Croft once had the misfortune of falling onto a piece of sharpened rebar that pierced her midsection — and all she was trying to do was go for a nice little exploratory boat ride. And that's not even mentioning the myriad scores of locust soldiers that have found themselves on the wrong end of Marcus Fenix's trusty chainsaw or colossal boots over the years.
You don't hear any of them complaining about having to endure those, shall we way, slightly disagreeable circumstances, though, do you? That's because those mere flesh wounds were nothing when compared to the great tragedy of our time: working with a certain platform holder to release your independent studio's game on Xbox Live Arcade. I shudder at the very thought.
If you've followed Xbox Live Arcade over the past several years here and on other sites, then you already know of what I speak. There lives in Redmond, Washington a great beast, massive in size with glowing red-ringed eyes of fury. It is a devious creature hellbent on tricking those smaller than it into believing they're partners, only to turn on them in their hour of need, stomping down on their hopes and dreams harder than Fenix has brought down his boots on so many locust heads. Such disdain does this gluttonous monstrosity have for the smaller creatures roaming the forest of the game industry, that it is more than happy to sacrifice its own interests if it means snuffing out the light of those cowering under its great shadow.
So evil is this…Wait. Isn't this getting just a little out of hand? Is Microsoft really that terrible of a company? Does it truly care nothing for the needs of independent game developers? Is its thirst for video game console dominance so insatiable that it doesn't mind torpedoing its, um, pursuit of video game console dominance so long as it means making life miserable for independent game studios that, by developing games for its platform, are actively working to help it succeed with its, uh, video game console dominance? It is if you've listened to the little guys with big megaphones.
BattleBlock Theater was developed by The Behemoth and published by Microsoft Game Studios. It was released April 3, 2013 for 1200 MSP. A copy was provided for review purposes.
It's hard to believe it's been almost five years since the release of Castle Crashers, the side-scrolling brawler brainchild of The Behemoth that grew up to be an XBLA darling that still sits atop sales charts today. Needless to say, the next game made by The Behemoth would have big shoes to fill. Instead of playing it safe, The Behemoth dared to be unique with BattleBlock Theater. Not only did they dare to take on a whole new side-scrolling genre, they also dared to create one of the craziest premise in the history of gaming.
BattleBlock Theater puts you in the shoes of one of the hundreds of prisoners who, after a terrible boat crash, washed up on a mysterious island and were taken captive by giant cats. These cats love their theater, so they force their prisoners into deadly plays. The story mode revolves around platforming and puzzle solving, navigating death traps and fighting crazy animals. When you're tired of exploring the theater, you can dive into a host of multiplayer modes. BattleBlock Theater is a wonderful platformer not meant to be taken seriously, and made even better when you play with friends.
It's out now. For 1200 MSP, you can buy it and start playing it right away if you'd like. Funny thing about that, though — that should be old news. And it would be if The Behemoth had followed through with its plan to release BattleBlock Theater on XBLA back in 2010. Obviously, things didn't quite work out that way, with the beat-em-up platformer having only just released yesterday. What happened? How could the developer have been so confident about 2010 that it was ready to tell the world that was the year and then ultimately be unable to finish BattleBlock Theater until three more calendar years passed it by?
Level Designer Ryan Horn has an explanation: the game wasn't as fun as the team thought it was going to be. "I think we were hopeful about where the game was gonna be when we [planned] to release it," he tells XBLAFans while sitting down for an interview at last month's PAX East. "And then in between the time when we announced [the release window] and when we planned to release it at the time, we saw the game going in a direction that was fun, but we realized that we could take it in a slightly different direction that was going to be a lot more fun."
With Horn having said his piece, studio President and co-founder John Baez expounds upon why The Behemoth felt its game could reach a state in 2010 that was up to The Behemoth's considerably high standards of fun. Instead of going back to 2010, though, he looks a little deeper into his past. "The other component of [the delay] is that in our previous experience — I mean, Alien Hominid? Fifteen months, two consoles. Done out the door with an Xbox [version] following three months after that," he begins. "And then Castle, it’s like, ‘OK, bigger game, three years.’" The prevailing feeling around The Behemoth's San Diego office during the earlier development phase of Game #3, as BattleBlock was codenamed back then, was that it would not be as an ambitious of an undertaking as Castle Crashers.
It's for The Behemoth's booth at PAX East and Prime conventions to draw large crowds of gamers willing to wait in line for the chance to step up and play BattleBlock Theater. At each PAX for the past few years there's always seemed to be an an amorphous throng of bodies awaiting their turn. As with anyone waiting in line, they could work together in groups of friends to navigate closer to a machine, or they could get a little more sassy and exploit someone else's momentary pause or inattentiveness to edge their way ever closer to playing a game that also lets you work with or take advantage of others.
Last month, 10,000 more gamers were presented with the option of cooperating with or causing trouble for fellow players in the BattleBlock Theater beta. It wasn't meant to be a free-for-all, however. Invitees received daily emails asking them to play certain game types on certain days. The Behemoth didn't just want to let more gamers play its game early; it wanted gamers to help it make a better BattleBlock Theater. So when XBLAFans caught up with The Behemoth President and co-founder John Baez and Level Designer Ryan Horn in Boston two weekends ago, I had to know: did gamers follow instructions? Or did they give in to a desire to have fun their own way at the expense of helping to better the experience for the masses who will play the game for the first time tomorrow?
"They were really good," said Horn of the beta testers' willingness to follow instructions. "I mean, we didn't expect 100 percent compliance — everybody's busy. For the most part, all of the beta participants, they wanted to help us make the game better, and that's what we got from them."
The Behemoth's highly anticipated XBLA title, BattleBlock Theater, releases in just under a week. If that's not exciting enough, the developer recently announced that in addition to the game's story …
Somewhere in San Diego there exists a couple of buildings. They’re buildings with glass windows and a soft feeling, or so I've been told. They’re buildings that are “not too intimidating” when compared to other species in their particular building genus. At least, that's how The Behemoth President John Baez described them to me at the tail end of a roughly 32-minute interview that took place in Boston last weekend during PAX East. Baez and Level Designer Ryan Horn shared their thoughts on several topics: BattleBlock Theater, what the studio would like to see from the next-gen version of Xbox Live Arcade and the developer’s thoughts on working with Microsoft.
Yes, we managed to cover a lot of ground. This despite the fact that we were sitting comfortably in folding chairs set up in a largely unoccupied space behind the booth over which hung a large arrow bearing a single word: “Behold.” What precisely the attention of PAX attendees was being called to may not have been initially palpable to the first-timers among them, but then again, nor was it to the XBLAFans crew when Horn and Baez — the latter fielding an increasing percentage of the questions we asked the two men — began talking about video game prototypes.
Our attention, as it turned out, was being directed towards those two buildings. Or rather, what goes on inside their walls.
They’re not buildings in which the developer makes games, mind you. They are buildings in which the developer tests games to see if they work. Interestingly, one of the games that has been analyzed there isn't property of The Behemoth — it's property of fellow successful indie studio Supergiant Games. And at some point this summer, the iOS version of Bastion will lose the distinction of being the only game from another developer to be put through its paces by The Behemoth. The studio will begin using its pair of non-development buildings to investigate whether or not all manner of foreign games work in the manner that their designers intended them to, and whether or not that's the way they should work.
The Behemoth will task those working inside the friendlier-than-most-of-their-kind buildings with providing quality assurance (QA) and usability lab services to fellow independent game developers. One indie should help another indie. This type of help, however, will come with a price tag — and not a discounted one.