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  • To N-finity and Beyond

    [05.29.14]
    - Raigan Burns and Mare Sheppard

  • N to the X(box)

    In 2006, there was a lot of interest from both fans and Microsoft in making a version for XBLA (which was still sort of new at the time), so we started to look into it. We had a lengthy - and often quite heated -- internal debate about whether or not this would qualify as "selling out".

    Although the thought of quitting our day jobs to work on games full time, as a legitimate business, had certainly crossed our minds, in those days we were especially cynical about the business side of the industry: we were making games for the love of them, and worried that to work with one of the big console companies would mean that we would change, and start making games for money instead of for themselves. We didn't want to be those people, or lose something important.

    We eventually decided that exposing the audience of Xbox-owners to something that was maybe a bit weird or different than the usual AAA fare was a strong enough motivation to face the terrifying world of the games industry proper, and that as long as we put love into the game and made something we both believed in, it would be worth trying. Having a game that we made on an actual games console seemed like a crazy dream come true, and we didn't know if we would ever have such an opportunity again.

    We really wanted this whole game-making enterprise to work (neither of us enjoyed our day jobs) and we yearned for the freedom to spend all of our time making games. So, we decided to make a go of it at Xbox 360 Live Arcade, with N+.

    In order to not go bankrupt, we somewhat reluctantly decided to make N+ a paid title, but we set the price low and planned as much content as possible in order to make sure it had the best possible value for players.

    We had a strategy, but we didn't have the money to fund development. Luckily, we are based in Canada, so we applied for and received a small loan from the Canadian government to fund development of N+. We had some help with this process: our agent Warren Currell helped us deal with Microsoft-which is definitely not something either of us wanted to do!-and Jamie Cheng (from Klei, also a client of Warren's) helped us a lot with the paperwork, which was quite intimidating for the noobs we were.

    All the money ended up going to certification, testing, localization, and (most importantly) to pay the awesome Slick Entertainment to develop it. (Slick had worked on Xbox 360 games before, and knew all the ins and outs of shipping a "real" game, and we decided N+ would turn out best if we left the console programming to professionals.) In order to make the budget work, we couldn't even pay ourselves! Good times.

    We worked with Slick for the next year, making almost a thousand levels and trying to feel confident about every single little detail in the game. Slick was absolutely fantastic to work with, they were able to port the code, build the architecture, write the network multiplayer, and implement our hundreds of sometimes nit-picky requests with ease-and over the year, somehow it all came together. It wasn't perfect, but it was solid.

    When we finally released N+ on XBLA in 2008, again we were lucky: the game sold surprisingly well (we continue to be amazed at how many 360 owners are willing to take a chance on something that on the surface isn't as appealing as Madden or Call of Duty), and for the first time in our lives we had enough money to pay ourselves! This was a real indication that maybe this game dev thing could work out after all, maybe we could quit our day jobs and finally have that freedom to make the games we want. Looking back, we sort of stumbled into becoming game developers, but it came from a love of games and turned into a love of making games too. And we wouldn't trade that for anything.

    Liaising with the locals

    When we started working on N, Toronto was very young as a place for making games. Today, it's exciting (and a bit intimidating) to see the number of great games being created here and the number of amazingly talented people making them. Being surrounded by bright people and a thriving community is immensely inspiring, and often the key to solving many of the problems we all face during game development.

    Talking with other developer friends in Toronto (like Capy, Queasy, ][, and Bigpants) and at events like GDC has been instrumental for us; we've been able to understand that while making games can be incredibly difficult sometimes (as with any creative enterprise), we're not alone in our struggle, and we can all help each other.

    In N, to become a skilled player, you have to grow and learn as a person. You need to change your behaviour subtly to avoid dead-ends and keep moving forward. You need to have patience. Most of all, you need to stay calm and focused, and to not panic no matter what happens. Maybe that's a pretty good metaphor for game development as well. Huh. Who knew that all this time, N was really an art game!

    What's (N)ext?

    These days we continue to work full time at Metanet Software, which has evolved into more of a proper business, with budgets and accountants and dedicated servers and a business plan, but we still try to keep our overhead as low as possible. Last year we finally took the plunge and rented a small office space, after our Toronto game dev friends all insisted that it was a lot better than working from home. They were right! That division of separate work and home spaces is important: it helps you to understand better the role and value of each part of your life, and lends itself to a more structured and efficient work schedule too.

    Our plan is to make games that we prototype in-house, with just the two of us, and then develop the most successful of those further, teaming up with collaborators as necessary. A low overhead gives us the best chance to stay afloat in an unpredictable and potentially volatile future, continuing only work on projects that really matter to us, or that speak to us in a significant way. That's what it's about, for us.

    We feel that the ability to change direction at any point during development based on what feels best about the game is a crucial part of making games for the love of it -- the only way we know how to do that is to ensure that our future in this industry is not completely dependent on the success of whatever we're working on at any given time. Easier said than done, of course.

    This year, we're remaking N for the third-and absolutely final-time, and it will be called N++. It's a decision that was not easy to make: The various versions of N certainly had a massive impact on who we are and how we've spent our time thus far, but over the past nine years we've become - perhaps understandably -- pretty burnt-out on N. Still, we have always felt quite guilty about never having finished the v1.5 update we promised to fans and not having any other games to show for all the effort we put in to them over the years...All of that pressure really watered down the enjoyment we find in game development. So this year we're eliminating all N-related stress by finishing it all for good.

    There are certainly pros: fixing all the little glitches, improving the quality of the level design, making the version of N we always wanted to make but didn't have the resources or experience (or perspective!) to properly realize. It's also a great opportunity for us to work with people we've always wanted to work with, like our friend Shawn McGrath (who made Dyad). To a certain extent N++ is meant to be a kind of rehab, to get us back into the groove of finishing games after a few years of struggling, but we do worry that we're just trying to recapture the exhilaration of how it feels to actually ship a game. We're worried that we're stalled, afraid that we'll never be able to make anything else, and that this is the best we can do. How can we find a way to continue to feel motivated and to continue moving forward if that's true?

    Who knows! It occurred to us at a certain point though that we have to put that worry aside and try-running away from problems doesn't do much in the way of solving them. We're going to try our best to make N++ the absolute definitive version-the N-liest version of N that ever N-ed-so that we can give ourselves permission to stop working on it, stop trying to perfect it, let it (and us) be what it is and wholeheartedly move on to other games. After all, this is what we love to do, and we never want to lose that love -- making games because we want to play them, and not because of obligation or pressure: that feels like the right thing to do.

    Raigan Burns: n. a set that is closed under two commutative binary operations and can be described by any of various systems of postulates which is deduced from the postulates that an element exists for each operation, and for every element in the set there is another element which when combined with the first under one of the operations yields the identity element of the other.

    Mare Sheppard is one half of Metanet Software Inc., an indie game developer based in Toronto, and is a founding member of the Hand Eye Society. After graduating from the University of Toronto, Mare formed Metanet Software with Raigan Burns, who is similarly passionate about games, art, music, and many, many other things. Mare and Raigan incorporated Metanet 2004, released N in 2005, brought N+ to consoles in 2008, finished an update to N in 2013, and are now feverishly working on two new games, three top-secret projects, and a partridge in a pear tree. In her spare time, Mare enjoys crafting Metanet's merchandise, playing video games and encouraging more people to make and play games.

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