XGen Studios has had its successes and failures in the uncertain world of indie game development.
By Omar Mouallem | June 1, 2014
Photography by Ashley Champagne
On the third floor of the Icon II tower, Skye Boyes, 31, sits in the testing room of XGen Studios. It’s a highly designed concrete cavern hidden behind a bookshelf, with a sleek silver couch, black beanbags and PlayStation 4 connected to a projector. Inside the Sony hardware is his studio’s latest creation, Super Motherload, an arcade-style space odyssey that was one of 23 launch titles released before last Christmas. “I didn’t think a studio of our size could get early access to development hardware,” says Boyes.
But, then again, few industries have transformed as radically and rapidly as video games, so who could predict anything more than a few years ahead? It was a US$79-billion sector in 2012, according to Gartner Inc., a technology research firm. This year, it’s projecting US$101.6 billion, which means for the first time games would exceed the global film economy. Engines like Unity have made development easier than ever and new consoles like Steam Machines added necessary competition for Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. Online stores like Origin and Google Play are nipping at the App Store’s heels, while the App Store’s 215,000 games – and 6,000 new ones added monthly – nip at each other.
“Some of the most innovating gaming is coming out of indie companies, but it’s incredibly competitive on every platform,” says Sean Gouglas, co-director of the University of Alberta’s new Certificate in Computer Game Development. “How do you get your name out when there’s a thousand, million different minnows competing with you?” This explosive growth has created level-22-on-Tetris volatility. It’s driving prices down and shifting the trends so mind-bogglingly fast that it’s difficult for small game studios like XGen to predict how and where to place their next piece, or whether it will be a blockbuster or a brick. “Startups have it really hard,” says Gouglas.
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XGen is one of the luckier ones. Look closely at the custom damask wallpaper in Boyes’s office and you will find castles, space pods and other icons from the company’s addictive web games.
Before grown men and women were hypnotically tapping Flappy Bird under their dead eyes and Wall Street was trading shares in Candy Crush, the indie game industry was ruled by punk game-makers like Boyes and his browser treats like StickRPG. In 2003, the Mill Woods teenager posted the cynical good-or-evil life simulator online and got one million plays in the first month. His next step was a no-brainer: Drop out of computer sciences, and see how far he can take it.
Pretty far, it turns out. The 2004 predecessor to Super Motherload – titled Motherload – is considered by some Reddit readers to be one of the best web games of all time. He was one of the first to the Flash-based game market allowing players to, say, murder stickmen in Internet Explorer. Boyes earned a small fortune on banner ad sales and grew his staff to eight.
XGen was offered an $8 million acquisition deal in 2007. “One million a head,” explains Boyes, who turned it down. “I just didn’t want to work for someone else,” he adds. “Acquisitions are funny, because money never comes knocking when you need it.” Soon after, XGen had to lay off two staff and, in recent years, it has counted as many ups as downs.
Up: Its 2007 Nintendo title, Defend Your Castle, topped the online Wii store for three weeks straight. Down: The Wii market dried up and Nintendo sales floundered. Up: XGen prepared to remount the addictive game for iPad. Down: A hack developer knocked it off and released it a week prior. Then, a sky-high up: Sony licensed Super Motherload for the eagerly anticipated PlayStation 4 console in late 2013 – though whether it would be a launch-day title was undetermined. In fact, the launch day was kept top secret.
XGen gambled and guessed, and spent four breathless months developing for an unfamiliar hardware with an unknown release date, on top of the four years it spent prior to the console shift. “I picked up news from everywhere and tried to put it together,” says Boyes. In between these news bits that he parsed, industry experts predicted poor sales for the PS4 and XBox One and, ultimately, were calling the death of game consoles in light of mobile games and other new platforms. But, finally, with just four months before the PS4 launch, XGen got the good news – that Super Motherload would be one of the launch titles – not by phone or email, but yet another news article.
A few months have passed since the $15 game was ported to PlayStation’s online store and it has been more mixed fortune. The PS4 has sold more units in its first two weeks than any other console, and Super Motherload sold as many units per console as Wii’s Defend Your Castle, but at three times the price. The bad news is it was expecting better, so it scrapped the companion app XGen was developing for Vita, Sony’s handheld console. The team was halfway done development. “Sucks,” says Boyes with a shrug, “but you get used to it. There’s always more stuff to build.”