I had a lot of fun with a little downloadable shooter from TimeGate Studios called Section 8: Prejudice, but the one thing that struck me was that it wasn’t a “little” game at all. For only a $15 download on Xbox Live Arcade, I was treated to a full single-player campaign and a robust multiplayer experience that rivaled the amount of content found in most full-priced shooters.Combine all that value with fresh gameplay – check out my full review of Prejudice if you’re interested – and I wondered why more studios don’t attempt the digital distribution model.
After deciding to get at the core of why TimeGate went in that direction for Prejudice, I rattled off a few questions to Design Director Brett Norton. I found out that self-publishing at a lower price point wasn’t always the plan, but the gamble has certainly paid off for Time Gate as Norton reported a lot more people were playing Prejudice than its full-priced predecessor.
Norton also told me that most multiplayer shooters miss the casual target, how PR for a game like Prejudice can feel like trial and error, and what the game development scene is like near Houston, TX, a town more known for rockets and BBQ than Xbox controllers. Read on for the full interview with Brett Norton, Design Director of Section 8: Prejudice.
The Escapist Magazine: Other than the Kohan series, TimeGate cut its teeth working on other people’s IPs like Axis & Allies and FEAR. What was it like going back to creating your own world in Section 8?
Brett Norton: It’s a different set of challenges, but one that we enjoy. When you’re creating your own universe, you have to create a lot of rules, backstory, and general framing setup. It’s a really fun process, but at the same time, it adds significantly to the development timeline. You wind up having to figure out the very basics of how things work, instead of just being able to make a lot of easy, safe assumptions and moving on to the higher-priority goals.
On the opposite end, when you inherit a good setting to work with, you often just focus on building the game / gameplay much sooner. However, you have constraints, and you can’t solve all your problems necessarily in the best way. Sometimes a solution just stares you in the face, but because of a universe or license constraint, you just can’t make it happen.
TEM: The first Section 8 was a AAA-priced game, while the sequel Prejudice is a much more moderately priced game on Xbox Live, but with more content. What was the decision-making process for that discrepancy? Were you hoping to gather more word-of-mouth fans with a budget price?
Norton: Section 8: Prejudice was always intended as a sequel to Section 8, and we started development expecting it to be a normal retail release. We had also decided to self-publish Prejudice, which gave us a lot of flexibility in how we were going to distribute and market the game. About halfway into development, we looked at how we could best-distribute the game, and we realized we could push it as a digital-only release and sell it for a very modest price. TimeGate had prior experience with digital distribution as well, as Section 8 on the PlayStation 3 was released exclusively on the PlayStation Network.
Ultimately, we wanted to build a large, online communtiy. Prejudice is a very multiplayer-centric game, and we knew that building a strong community around the title would be necessary for it to succeed. By releasing digitally at lower price point, we knew it would grab more attention and draw a ton of fans to play the game.
So far, the decision has worked in our favor, and we’re happy to report Prejudice is enjoying much higher concurrent player numbers than its predecessor.
TEM: Tom Ohle, who handled PR for Section 8 wrote a post on the Evolve PR blog that decried how little fanfare Prejudice received leading up to its release when he believed it was an excellent game worthy of more attention from the press. Why do you think certain games get attention while others do not? As an independent game company, how do you attempt to get your game noticed?
Norton: TimeGate’s strategy has always been to make great, fun games first and push as many unique marketing angles as possible for that title. We’re a very gameplay-centric company, and as such, we try to push that element in our marketing. That can be a hard sell sometimes, though, because we also like to do more deep and complex games as well.
As a result, we try to do a mix of marketing, alternating between snazzy cinematic trailers and deeper gameplay trailers. We want to upsell the action and general awesome chaos in the game, but at the same time, we need to push that Prejudice isn’t just a re-skinned copy of other, more well-known shooters.
The marketing battle is always a fun one, and it’s hard to predict. You can put a lot of time and energy into various marketing efforts, from pushing advertising campaigns to creating viral videos, and at the end of the day, you’re crossing your fingers that the press will find your angle interesting enough to push out to readers. I give our marketing team a lot of credit for how thick their skins must be to put up with it all.
TEM: Do you ever get frustrated that you must consider such things? Do you just want to make the games you love without having to worry about selling them?
Norton: Personally, I actually enjoy just about every part of making a game, including the PR part. Designing solid weapon mechanics is a very different challenge than designing an entertaining 30-second game trailer, but each is enjoyable in its own right. But that’s really just me; I’m the kind of person that likes working in a number of different arenas and enjoys each of them for their unique challenges. I love solving problems, and I just look at marketing as a different type of challenge to tackle.
TEM: While the single-player campaign is fun, it is short and the focus for Prejudice seems to be more on providing replay through the multiplayer modes. Why was that the case?
Norton: That came from our vision for the original Section 8. Our vision for the original Section 8 was building a strong multiplayer component with the single-player taking a back seat (besides a general story and setting). We’re big multiplayer fans, and big shooter fans, so that’s ultimately where we put our focus for the first game. Not to say we didn’t want to do a more elaborate single-player, but multiplayer was always first in our books, so that’s where our time and energy went.
With Prejudice, we knew we had more room to grow in the single-player element, so our focus shifted. We pushed ourselves to re-invent our technology and pipelines to allow for a bigger-and-better narrative experience. The development team didn’t want to reduce from the importance of multiplayer, but we knew it was important for the growth of the franchise to develop a stronger narrative element.
TEM: Nowadays, shooters are forced to provide both a stellar story and a completely balanced multiplayer experience. What do you think about splitting development time on these two sometimes conflicting modes of play?
Norton: It takes a lot of time and energy to split your attention and accomplish something great on both ends. While visually the two components look a lot alike, the design and programming behind each element are often radically different. Ultimately, you wind up needing almost completely separate single-player and multiplayer teams, each with their own goals, but still working together to leverage as much of the same code and content as possible.
This, probably more than anything else, is why we see game development teams grow in size. Gamers continue to demand more breadth and depth in their games, and as a result, teams need more and more capable developers to handle all of the different, unique elements well.
TEM: Would you ever consider designing just a multiplayer shooter or just a single player shooter? Why do you think more studios don’t attempt that, seeing as the design for each mode is so different?
Norton: We’ve considered making single-player or multiplayer only shooters, but it really depends on the design of the game. While it’s hard to make a shooter that has both good single-player and multiplayer components, it’s also hard to make a single-player-only experience that has 10+ hours of quality entertainment. Not every shooter design is honestly going to be fun in a narrative campaign for more than 4 or so hours, so you need a core design that’s deep enough to keep players engaged until they feel they’ve passed their magic ‘value’ bar.
Half a decade ago, you saw more multiplayer-only shooters, back when the shooter audience was primarily a hardcore PC audience. But the Achilles heel of multiplayer-only shooters is that they generally don’t cast a wide net and pickup the casual players, which is the segment that’s been growing the most over the past half-decade on consoles. As a result, you see more single-player-only, or single-player-focused shooters in development than multiplayer-only or multiplayer-focused shooters.
TEM: What is it like having a studio in Houston? Austin is usually the Texas hotbed mentioned most for game development. What is the game dev community like in Houston?
Norton: Houston’s a great place to live, although we’re just off to the Southwest in a city called Sugar Land, TX. It’s pretty flat here since we are on the coast, but it has a great set of highways and there is a lot of cultural diversity in the city. It’s a very affordable city in which to live, much like the rest of Texas, so we really enjoy it. Plus we have great Tex-Mex and BBQ restaurants all over the place. Being the only AAA developer in the 4th largest city in the country was at first a liability for TimeGate – now it is a huge asset of ours.
The development community is very small in Houston, with TimeGate and a few other small developers making up the dev teams. However, game development programs have started to grow in surrounding schools, such as the University of Houston, which provides a TimeGate a great opportunity to work with students and staff to develop skills and cultivate innovation in the gaming industry not only locally, but on the global level as well.
TEM: What is next for TimeGate? Can we expect more Section 8 sequels or are you cooking up another IP? Will you ever return to your RTS roots?
Norton: We’re already hard at work on our next game, but we can’t really discuss it yet. I can also state that we haven’t closed the book on the Section 8 universe just yet, but at the same time, I can’t confirm we’re working on another Section 8 game. You’ll just have to wait and see what we announce next!
As far as the RTS roots, we’d love to, but it’s not our focus right now. We’ve toyed around with a few ideas for new Kohan RTS games, over the years, and we continue to do so. I’d love to see a new Kohan game myself, as I generally love any kind of squad or company-based strategy game, so there’s always a chance!