I-Friqiya’s Skander Djerbi talks his heart out on the indie games development scene.
Fuel Overdose may not strike you as one of the biggest or more unique titles to come out in a long time. But considering the resources of I-Friqiya, it stands as a testament that any developer can bring out a game with enough fortitude, guts and disregard for compromise. It’s not all smooth-sailing though.
In conversation with executive producer Skander Djerbi, we talk about the influences behind Fuel Overdose, upcoming titles from the developer and the multitude of problems he finds with the major console publishers but most especially with Microsoft.
Ravi Sinha: What are the major influences and styles that inspired Fuel Overdose?
Skander Djerbi: First of all Death Rally. I was a huge fan of this game when it was released in the 90’s and that’s the game I had in mind when I started presenting the project to the rest of the team. Then each of us had a game in mind, for Jerome (a team member) it was Rock’n’Roll Racing. Of course Mario Kart influenced us a lot to understand the core mechanics of the kart games, because our main ambition was to propose something out of the box, and not another game where you collect stuff and shoot missiles and drop mines.
Also allow me to quote Split Second for a different reason: when we started developing our prototypes the game mechanics were pretty close to Split Second’s with buildings and other stuff that explode to block others. But when we saw Disney’s game, we knew that we had to throw everything away. Actually if you pay attention to the map of Prague in the game you’ll notice a partially destroyed bridge, that’s the only thing that remains from what we called at that time “Gears of Race” (the code-name of Fuel Overdose).
You might have noticed that the game has a very specific combat system with super and ultra furies as well as a guard system. That’s because we are big fans of fighting games such as Street Fighter.
Ravi Sinha: Was there a need to compete with contemporary car combat games like Twisted Metal or just feel a void in the indie scene for such games?
Skander Djerbi: Actually we didn’t think in terms of “indie games”. We knew that it would have been suicidal to produce a FPS or a simple racing game because the gamers would have compared our game with the AAA titles. We needed to identify a genre that was abandoned by the big publishers and that offered a room for innovation.
I’m gonna tell you how things started. In 2008, I downloaded Braid and loved it. And when I knew that the game was developed by only one guy I understood the potential of the magical combo i.e. indie gaming + digital download. At that time I was the head of a major mobile publisher in Japan but I was about to quit and started thinking what game should I bring to a digital download console audience. Then I remembered Death Rally and it seemed the perfect base for me. When was the last time you saw a top-down view racer on a console? And except Burnout, did anyone bring anything innovative since 1991 and Mario Kart?
"When only 3 or 4 people give their input on the game, you can miss something and you find yourself with a game that is not as polished as we thought it was."
Ravi Sinha: Fuel Overdose was released few months back, and has been criticized for a number of shortcomings. What happened?
Skander Djerbi: When I read the reviews I see there kinds of criticisms:
On the technical plan: We knew from the beginning that we couldn’t compete with the AAA games and many reviews understood this, some others didn’t. Most of the indie productions are puzzle platformers for one simple reason: because these are games that are easy to develop. With Fuel Overdose we are talking about an action racing game that broke off the genre by bringing a lot game mechanics that have never been implemented in any other game before. There’s more than 15-20 hours of offline gameplay, plus there’s online multiplayer. And keep in mind that only 2 devs worked on the project!
In terms of polish and game balance: That’s the problem of indie projects. When only 3 or 4 people give their input on the game, you can miss something and you find yourself with a game that is not as polished as we thought it was.
Regarding the difficulty: We wanted the game to be challenging because we wanted to push the players to use their brain and play tactical. But I realized afterwards that nowadays gamers are not used to difficult games anymore, and that we should have assisted the players in mastering the different features more smoothly.
Ravi Sinha: What was the intention for the game in the beginning, and did it come through as well in the final product?
Skander Djerbi: The main ambition of the project was to bring a new kind of experience that combines racing and action. In my point of view, except Burnout, nothing had been done since 1991 and Mario Kart was one such game that innovated in the world of combat racing. If you take these 2 games, you cover 99% of what was proposed to gamers in terms of game mechanics. Each of these games proposes a very interesting formula. With Mario Kart, you collect items that you can deposit (banana peels…) or throw (shells…) and the chances of success are constantly redistributed based on the fact that if you are in last position, you get better items than if you are leading the race.
As far as I can remember the only other game that has a different approach is Burnout. The player is encouraged to improve his driving skills because taking risks fills your gauge with extra boost. I love these two games because there are extremely coherent in terms of game design, but we felt that we could approach the genre with a different formula that rewards the decision-making skills of the players.
Ravi Sinha: Will we be seeing additional content or fixes for the game in the coming months?
Skander Djerbi: We have just released our second free DLC with another 5 additional vehicles, and I think it will be the last. Regarding patches, we released a patch a couple of months ago.
Ravi Sinha: One of the more curious decisions was the lack of local multiplayer. Online multiplayer is good and all but wouldn’t the game have benefitted from the option of local play?
Skander Djerbi: I saw many people complaining about the fact that the game doesn’t have local multiplayer. They say “C’mon Micromachines has local local multiplayer, why not Fuel Overdose?”
"If you ask my opinion, I would say that Microsoft’s policy towards indies is absurd. If you want to go on XBLA, you have 2 options: find yourself a retail publisher or get published by Microsoft."
Contrary to games like Micromachines or Mashed, Fuel Overdose’s mechanics is a “real” racer which means that the objective of the game is to finish the race in the first position. The two other games I mentioned are different, it simply encourages the player to stay on the screen. Thus if we had a local multiplayer mode, it would have been split-screen. Why didn’t we propose split-screen? Actually we made some tests and we do have a prototype that features a split screen mode but we didn’t keep this mode in the final game because we considered it as unacceptable in terms of frame rate and graphics. Why didn’t we try harder? Well the development of the game took twice longer than excepted and we thought that it would be better to focus on the online multiplayer that demanded huge efforts for a tiny team like ours.
Just keep in mind one thing: only 2 devs worked on this game and it was our first PS3 development. For only 10 bucks you get a game that brings something different with more than 15-20 hours of offline gameplay plus online multiplayer. I admit that the game has flaws, but when I see reviewers saying that the lack of local multiplayer is a huge mistake, I wonder when was the last time they bought a game with their own money…
Ravi Sinha: Why was Fuel Overdose only released for PlayStation 3 and PC, and not on Xbox 360?
Skander Djerbi: Xbox doesn’t allow indie to self-publish their games on Xbox Live Arcade. That’s their policy and unfortunately there’s nothing we can do about that. They recently announced that it would be the same on Xbox One. If you ask my opinion, I would say that Microsoft’s policy towards indies is absurd. If you want to go on XBLA, you have 2 options: find yourself a retail publisher or get published by Microsoft.
It’s like digital download meets middle age. You can’t work freely and if you want to hook on the same street as anybody else you have to find yourself a pimp. On the other hand it’s their console, their territory, they do whatever they want, but I keep thinking that it’s absurd and that they should stop talking about indie games and saying that they are promoting the indie scene while there is absolutely no indie game on XBLA, simply, because when your project is published by a first-party or a third-party you are not indie anymore.
And please don’t ask me about Xbox Live indies, or I’ll start getting mad.
Ravi Sinha: The combat system is one of the bigger highlights for the game. What inspired the implementation of unique elements like grappling hooks and combos?
Skander Djerbi: Regarding grappling hooks, I think I saw that in a Tim Burton Batman movie. I love grappling hooks in games in general (Bionic Commando, Zelda…) and I thought that it would be interesting to bring this item in a racing game. It’s extremely fun to use, it requires dexterity and it brings triangularity to the gameplay. If you use it properly it can give you a good advantage, if not it can turn against you.
The idea of the combo system came from Jerome. It’s inspired by fighting games and was added to the design of the game to reward the player who takes risks by playing offensively. Survival is one of the main aspects of the game and we found the concept interesting by rewarding risk by giving the player higher chances of survival.
Ravi Sinha: Given that Fuel Overdose is exclusive to PSN, does that mean that I-Friqiya has plans for other titles for the PS3 or Vita in the near future?
Skander Djerbi: I hope so…but for that we would need to sell much more units of Fuel Overdose. So far the sales are extremely disappointing and as indies are 100% self-funded.
Ravi Sinha: As you are aware, Microsoft revealed the Xbox One. As an indie developer what are your thoughts on it’s closed system of game selection process compared to the open environment that Sony is adopting for the PS4?
Skander Djerbi: As I mentioned earlier I think that this system is absurd. I think that as long as you comply with their technical constraints they should allow you to sell your game on their platform. That’s more or less the case on PlayStation, that’s how the App store works, that’s how the Android market works. But once again that’s their policy, and there’s nothing you can do about that. Maybe they want to avoid alienating the big retail publishers? I respect that but if so they should say it and stop presenting themselves as indie-friendly.
"On the other hand the console manufacturers stared to diversify their offer, so now not only do I have to compete against the 10th multiplayer map of the latest Call of Duty, but also against Justin Bieber and Rihanna."
One the other hand the main question is not whether the platform accepts (such as the PSN) or not (Xbox live arcade) to host indie projects. The main question is “what kind of visibility are indie games given on the digital channels?” And to be honest with you I’m extremely pessimistic when I look at what happened over these past years.
When we started the Fuel Overdose project, our objective was to compete with what you could find on the digital channels at that time. Indie projects were more or less supported by the console manufacturers along with HD remakes of the 80’s and 90’s and small games. Then we saw the digital editions of the AAA coming. Then the big publishers started to release their digital editions the same day as the retails ones. They also stared to fill the digital shelves with the remakes of their games that we originally released less than 4-5 years ago, and also their remakes of their remakes, their online passes, DLCs… On the other hand the console manufacturers stared to diversify their offer, so now not only do I have to compete against the 10th multiplayer map of the latest Call of Duty, but also against Justin Bieber and Rihanna.
It’s crucial for us indies to get visibility on these stores because we don’t exist anywhere else but there. We cannot afford to pay for marketing campaigns and if we fail, we don’t get a second chance. If you’re an indie developer trying to bring your game on a console, I’d tell you to think twice, because it’ll be nearly impossible to make your game visible by the gamers. And if you count on media to talk about you, you’ll be disappointed. Truth is that most of the media only talk the productions that come from the big publishers. They say that they love the indie scene, always referring to the same games, but they don’t bother covering your news but instead preferring to talk about the latest Just Dance DLC or about some famous game designer that tweeted about his girlfriend.
Of course you have games like Hotline Miami and this game will probably benefit from a nice marketing campaign when it releases on console, but the guys that were behind this project were smart enough to generate buzz outside the console ecosystem. To conclude I’d say that if you want to succeed as indie developer, you have to keep in mind that you’re all alone from the beginning to the end and that if you manage to bring your game to a popular platform (I’m also including the PC platforms), the harder it becomes. The golden age of indie gaming plus digital download is over.