Hypership Out of Control Postmortem
Hypership Out of Control is the third release for my game company Fun Infused Games. We started work on it shortly after the release of Abduction Action! in April of 2010. Initially I was developing this game alongside another platformer project but quickly Hypership became my sole focus.
You cannot stop.
Explode when hit asteroid!
No fun at all!
The basic premise of Hypership is that you are flying a spaceship through space and your accelerator is stuck (like a Toyota). The longer you live, the faster you go and the more difficult it becomes to avoid or destroy asteroids, blocks, mines, and space bees (though you'll have to be good to get far enough to see the space bees). Along the way you can collect power-ups to help you survive and coins to increase your high score.
The gameplay for Hypership was inspired by a game I used to play on my graphing calculator back in high school (instead of doing calculus which was far less interesting). In this game you sped up as the game progressed and had to make your way through a winding corridor that narrowed as you went along (eventually to a point where you couldn't possibly survive). I liked this concept but the calculator game was decidedly simply, graphically bad and it didn't have any space bees (strike three!).
I believed with a simple yet fun concept, I could complete this game in 3-4 months. It ended up taking about five months but that wasn't woefully bad and a lot closer to my estimates than previous games I've worked on (8 months each). Scope creep was minimal and most of the extra time taken was due to excessive polishing and work on the online high scores.
What went right
Lots of polishing
Because the game concept itself wasn't overly complex, within the first month of development I largely had the engine completed and many of the features done. This allowed me to spend a lot of time gathering playtest feedback and tweaking the game. One of the biggest reasons Hypership turned out so well was because of how much time was spent in this area. For Nasty I pretty much did no polishing, even Abduction Action! really only got a month or so. There was a solid 3 months of polishing for Hypership and it shows in the final product.
The XNA community is great
I got so much help and great feedback from the XNA community. Several developers took a shine to Hypership and played it over and over again. It seemed there was always one or two people willing to test out the game when I needed testing (quite often during the final stages of development as I tried to get the online high scores working correctly).
When I got feedback on Hypership, I did my best to assess why the particular comment was made and then addressed that issue. Sometimes it’s easy to want to defend your game if someone says they don't like X or Y but the better solution is to look closely at their feedback and improve X, Y, and Z (yes, take it a step or two further if you can). Ultimately I addressed nearly every single piece of feedback and criticism of the game and that was a big reason why the game turned out so well.
Online High Scores
Hypership uses a peer-to-peer system for sharing high scores (based on this sample by Jon Watte). Being XBLIG means we can't use the XBLA Leaderboards so this is the next best thing. While not perfect, I was able to get it working and it has since shared hundreds of scores. This is a great system for adding replayability to games and brings back some of that old "arcade" vibe. I've had fun trying to beat others scores on the list myself and generally have been the third best player in the United States. I dare you to try and beat my scores.
I opted to go super retro for Hypership, drawing everything (myself) at a low resolution and then blowing it up 4 times on the screen. I did this mainly for two reasons... 1, I dig retro graphics so it was fun to do a game in that style. 2, it allowed me to do all the artwork myself (minus the box art) and keep my overall out of pocket expenses at a minimum. Having not had any smash hits on XBLIG yet, keeping costs low for games has become rather important to me.
60 Frames Per Second
It took a lot of work and forced me to learn a lot more about optimizing game performance and removing garbage, but I managed to get Hypership to almost always run at 60 fps (there is occasionally a hiccup related to high score sharing but it is pretty rare). I tried running the game at 30 fps and it just didn't look good. Hypership is a fast game and getting the game to run at 60 fps was needed in order for it to be smooth and playable. Taking the extra time to make this happen was definitely worthwhile.
Peer review catches bug
Hypership quickly passed its first Peer Review but almost immediately after that happened, another developer reported a bug that caused the game to crash when sharing scores when using a Silver Xbox Live Account. While very disappointing to have to do, I pulled the game to fix the problem. This delayed the release of Hypership by a week but I really dodge a bullet here when the bug was found. If that had made it into release, it could have lead to the game crashing for many users and really destroyed the ratings and the long term prospects of success.
It's always dangerous to include humorous bits in your game because if you don't do it right, then it just comes off as childish or dumb or forced. Thankfully people seemed to genuinely enjoy the funny parts I put into the game, from the text on the loading and intro screens to the coins in levels spelling words all the way to the doll insults when exiting the game. While this style of game didn't lend itself to including a ton of humorous pieces, the few that I did get in were enjoyed by all. This will be a staple of future games I make too.
When sales were low (more on that later), a sympathetic forumer at NeoGAF was kind enough to take up my cause and really push the game to others. The result of this were many more sales, an increase in ratings for Hypership (most people at NeoGAF that tried the game, which tend to be more of the hardcore gamers, really enjoyed it), and a bunch more websites asking to do reviews of the game. This definitely helped raise awareness of Hypership.
What went wrong
What went ???
While the retro graphics made me nostalgic and gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling inside, not all gamers appreciated them they way I did. The game runs great and the graphics look much better in motion but that doesn't come through on the four screen shots displayed on the Xbox Dashboard for Hypership. Despite having the most kick-ass boxart of any of my games so far, Hypership hasn't been a juggernaut pulling in downloads. I believe a lot of that is because of the graphics.
Hypership has gotten really, really good reviews. I've had several people tell me it is one of their favorite games on the service (if not their favorite game on the service). A lot of people thought it would be a huge hit on XBLIG. Sadly for me and my wallet, that hasn't been the case. Graphics as I mentioned above are part of this. Another part is that this simply isn't the game that the main audience of XBLIG wants. The game is hard and appeals more to those of us who grew up filling arcade machines with quarters... I believe the current XBLIG audience skews much younger. They don't want unforgiving games like this and don't have the same passion to get a high score as us veterans of the arcade scene do. I believe Hypership is more suited to hardcore gamers while XBLIG is made up of mostly casual ones.
Online High Scores
While the final version of the online high scores work well, getting it to that point added about a month of development time to Hypership (including being responsible for a failed Peer Review). Getting this working (or at least not crashing) for the several different XBLIG account types (Gold, Silver, Local, Guest, Zombie) while keeping performance up was difficult. While the XNA community helped a lot with testing, I felt bad having to ask so often for people to help out. It would have been much nicer if I had a couple Xboxes and Creators Club memberships to test this myself. To do any serious multiplayer games, I believe that would be necessary.
I am also a little disappointed the online scores have not been more active. While lots of players used them the first month and a half after release, the number of new scores has really trickled. I have also grown tired of leaving my Xbox on all the time so there is someone to share scores with at all times (which I am sure contributes to fewer scores). A true Leaderboard system like XBLA has would be ideal and is my personal number one requested new features for XBLIG.
Given how good reviews and opinions of the game are, sales for Hypership have been low. It has already outsold Nasty, which I released over a year ago, but is far behind my previous release Abduction Action! in overall sales. The conversion rates are good, the big difference seems to come in a lack of trial downloads.
September (when Hypership was released) also seemed to be a bad month overall for XBLIG. My other two releases saw some of their lowest sales ever and several other developers experienced lower than normal sales numbers too. I will try to avoid releasing games in September from here on out.
Thankfully Hypership did earn a place on the Top IGN.com list recently so this has brought in some extra sales. I am still not sure how sales will pan out for Hypership long term once the game is no longer listed on this list.
My Xbox died near the end of development for Hypership. While still covered under warranty, this meant I would be unable to do any more Xbox testing which was the last thing I needed to do to finish the game. I opted to buy a new Xbox Slim model rather than delay the release of Hypership because of this. It was an unfortunate expense but on the plus side I currently have two working Xboxes and am just a couple of subscriptions away from being able to test network games on my own (if I ever do one of course).
I opted to take Halo Reach on, releasing one day after the mega AAA title was released. Initial sales and trial downloads for Hypership were much lower than my last release. Even still, I'm not totally convinced that this was a bad idea. I've seen days on XBLIG where more than 10 games were released. You get so much exposure when on the New Releases listing and by releasing at a time when other XBLIG were skittish about releasing, I got a full week and a half on the list. So it might have been lower per day, but it was likely better than being pushed off of New Release after only a couple days.
My main goal with Hypership (besides creating a kick-ass game) was to land on the Top Rated listing for XBLIG. The Top Downloads list gets more traffic but there isn't any surefire way to land on that list (and stay on it once you do). That list tends to be full of new releases, Avatar games, and gimmicky concepts... plus a handful of legitimately good games. For the Top Rated list, if you make a very good game you should land there. Sadly I did not meet this goal initially. While having a 4 star rating, that just wasn't enough. When the lists on the Xbox Live Dash increased to 50 spots with the new update November 1st, suddenly Hypership was on the bottom of Best Rated. As of today, Hypership is the 44th best rated XBLIG (out of 1,436) in the US. We're doing even better in the UK at the 16th spot. I had hoped to do a bit better with this rating but all in all, the game did end up on the Top Rated listing and it has proven to be one of the best rated games on the entire service. That's not too shabby.
I initially set the description for Hypership as "Go fast. You cannot stop. Explode when hit asteroid! No fun at all!". This was intended as a placeholder until I fleshed out something better (a description is required to do a play test on the
XNA AppHub forums). After some positive comments about the description and more time thinking about it myself, I decided I liked it (it's quirky and fun, like the game). It's not overly descriptive of the game and some have suggested that it contributes to the low trial downloads on XBLIG. While I don't personally agree with that assessment (I almost never look at a game's description myself) I felt it was worth mentioning. I have toyed with changing the description to see if that makes any difference but I hate to change a description that I really like.
It's hard to gauge the success of Hypership. On one hand, I've created what many agree to be a great game. On the other hand, sales haven't reflected that. I feel a bit like those critically acclaimed TV shows you see canceled every season or two. Those that get those shows love them (Fire Fly, Arrested Development, etc) but the masses don't get them for one reason or another (I hate you FOX).
Had so many people not told me they enjoyed Hypership so much, it would be easy to admit defeat and move on. But I'm now motivated to help Hypership find the success it rightly deserves. I've released one update to Hypership on XBLIG with a second coming in the next few weeks (a much more massive update with new music and reversed waves for all game modes). I have a PC port in progress (will try to submit that to Steam as the first step). And finally I'm exploring options to bring Hypership to mobile platforms too (undecided at this point if you'll get iPhone, Android, WP7, or some combination of those three).
With all that is going on with Hypership out of Control, don't be surprised down the road to be seeing a postmortem part two. This is just the end of chapter 1.
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