As part of Microsoft's game division, Carbonated Games has been a pioneer for gaming platforms such as Windows Messenger, Xbox Live Arcade and now Microsoft's cross-platform effort Games for Windows - Live. Develop catches up with Joshua Howard, head developer at Carbonated, for a 'casual' chat...

Q&A: Joshua Howard, Carbonated Games

The past year has seen a huge number of companies entering the casual space – how do you feel about this extra competition?

I think it’s great. More competition means more choices for players, and more opportunity for innovation. For those that have been in the space a while it feels good to see more and more developers focusing on the casual audience.

Is there a danger of overcrowding, of too many people chasing the same demographic?

I don’t think so. The growing competition will mean that developers need to try things never done before to find their niche, which spurs innovation and diversity of content. For instance, Carbonated Games has been working on developing cross-platform games. UNO is one example, and it’s due out later this year. It allows players on the Windows version to play with UNO fans on Xbox 360. Ultimately, players will find a way to reward developers who build the best games.

The Xbox brand has found itself stuck with quite a ‘hardcore’ image, something Microsoft has been keen to change. Do Carbonated’s offerings fall into that drive?

Carbonated Games set out to build great games for people – whether they play traditional computer games or not. Casual means appealing broadly, which includes folks we’d consider ‘hardcore’ as well as folks that would never consider themselves gamers. If Carbonated Games helps broaden the Xbox brand then that’s great, but that’s only going to happen if Carbonated makes great games that people want to play.

If Shadowrun is the ‘hardcore’ face of Games for Windows – LIVE, it’d be fair to say that UNO! is the more ‘casual’ prong of the attack. Does that put any extra pressure on yourselves to create an accessible entryway into the Games for Windows world?

The folks here at Carbonated Games have very high expectations of the products we build. While we love the idea that a Live version of UNO will help blaze the trial (as Shadowrun did for hardcore titles), our focus has always been on building a great experience using the tools available. The Games for Windows – Live toolset is allowing us to deliver UNO as we had originally envisioned it – as a game that could be played across the Xbox and Windows. The technology wasn’t available when we originally released UNO, but as it became available it was a no-brainer decision to make the updates necessary to take advantage of the cross-platform play. We eagerly look forward to its formal release later this year.

UNO! was your first title that featured downloadable content how did you find the process of providing extra content? Is it a viable revenue stream for Carbonated?

Xbox LIVE offers developers a rich toolset with which they can extend their game design, whether that be via Achievements, voice and video, matchmaking, or Marketplace. UNO was our first game to take advantage of Marketplace, offering additional decks (which includes some new game play elements). This has been a great experience for the studio, as it taught us how to think about Marketplace content from the very beginning, about how to invest in Marketplace content wisely, as well as let us experiment both with free Marketplace content and pay content.

We have been very happy with the success of the Marketplace content for UNO, and continue to get positive feedback from our players about it. In regards to this content as a revenue stream, while we don’t discuss specifics like this, suffice it to say that we have been happy with the return on our investment thus far.

Will the Games for Windows – LIVE version of UNO! feature downloadable content?

We are still working on the title, and up until it ships, things may change. UNO has been a great test case for the Games for Windows – LIVE technology, in part because of how UNO handled marketplace content – a person who purchased premium download content could share it with someone who had not purchased it. This is a feature we are very proud of (and that players have told us they love), and it’s a great example of the Games for Windows – LIVE toolset.

You also developed launch games for the Windows Messenger and Xbox LIVE Arcade platforms – do you feel like Carbonated has been placed as a sort of pioneering, ‘ground setting’ company that proves new platforms for other developers?

A specific purpose of Carbonated Games, as a first party studio for Microsoft, is in part to push our various platforms by delivering great content. Carbonated often works with a platform team to help vet the parts of the platform a game developer needs to care about – all of us (Carbonated and the various platform team) understand that platforms only succeed when they enable developers to deliver great content.

This purpose has not been thrust upon us – it’s something the Carbonated team believes deeply in. Many of us have been on the platform side at various times in our careers. We believe our work helps to make the platform more successful.

Aegis Wing was developed alongside three Microsoft interns, which must have been quite an interesting process. Could you explain how it all came about, and how you found the experience?

The short story goes something like this, as far as our participation goes. Having decided to form an intern team to build an original title, the team that managed the Xbox LIVE Arcade service asked Carbonated if we would be interested in helping get Aegis Wing released.

The interns had done a tremendous amount of work, but in the short time they had they were just a bit short of getting the game finished – they did the ‘fun’ parts, building the core game, and Carbonated came in and finished the other important elements of any fully released game (including taking it through certification, an important step for all Xbox products). Getting involved after the interns had left may not have been ideal, but in the end it gave us a chance to really appreciate the work they had done and release a fun side-scrolling shooter for free on Xbox LIVE Arcade. To their credit, each of the interns was offered a full time position in games at Microsoft, one of them in Carbonated Games.

A key takeaway for Carbonated was us recognizing the need for a toolset that would have allowed the interns to focus on the core game, by providing a framework for all of the other important (but not so fun to build) stuff. As it turned out, this same need was something the XNA folks were addressing, and in part as a result of our involvement in Aegis Wing we are now working with the XNA team on developing just such a toolset for a ‘generic’ Xbox LIVE Arcade game.

How does working on original games compare to working on classic or licensed titles? Is the extra creativity refreshing, or is Carbonated a company that prefers working to prescribed rulesets?

Whether the game is original or licensed, Carbonated’s philosophy is to first and foremost understand the core of the experience and make sure to deliver that very very well. It’s fun to take a classic game like UNO and make it new again. With features like camera integration where players can see who they’re competing against, UNO is a great example of a classic board game made new, fun, and accessible through innovative technology.

For a license, like UNO, that meant getting inside what UNO means so much that Mattel would feel completely confident in what we will do with it. We treated it like it was one of our children, and Mattel really appreciated that.

For a classic game it’s a bit different, in that there is no official ‘keeper’ of the soul of the game, so Carbonated must find that soul and fall in love with it. People get very passionate about their favorite classic games, and its no less a challenge to deliver a classic game in a compelling and new way than it is to deliver something brand new.

Completely new IP brings with it another set of issues, but overall it’s not harder or easier than the other kinds of content. I believe that we need to balance the kinds of games we do, some original, some classic, some licensed. While the mix may change over time, each offers rich opportunity to be creative, innovative, and refreshing.

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