The wheels began to turn when, during a conversation with Microsoft's Chris Charla, game designer Jamie Fristrom was told that there weren't any twin-stick shooters on the way to the Xbox One via the company's self-publishing program.
It’s rare to find that sort of content hole during the early days of a console, and the developer knew that his game Sixty Second Shooter was a good fit. Filling a niche in a console's library can be incredibly lucrative, and the timing couldn't be better.
"Once I had that earworm, I couldn’t let it go," Fristrom told Polygon. "I’ve got to take a shot"
The problem was that Fristrom had just ended a successful Kickstarter campaign for Energy Hook, an action title that borrows some of the swinging mechanics of Spider-Man 2.
That particular movie tie-in is still considered to be one of the best superhero games ever made, and Fristrom was a technical director and designer on the team behind it. Energy Hook had been promised to the 1,622 backers, and it had also found a home on the PlayStation 4 and Vita. Finding time to port an existing game to the Xbox One wouldn't be easy.
Fristrom was put in an awkward position: He had to ask both Sony and his Kickstarter backers if it was okay for him to delay the game in order to work on an unrelated title on a competitor's platform.
Asking for permission
"I have the opportunity to bring my other game, Sixty Second Shooter, to the Xbox One. If I act now, it will very likely be the only twin stick shooter on the system," Fristrom wrote in a private update to his Kickstarter backers. "It's Sixty Second Shooter's opportunity to try out for the big leagues! If it does as well as I think it will, it will be very profitable, and I could then invest that money into Energy Hook."
He explained to them that this would mean delaying Energy Hook for at least three months. The project had 1,622 backers, and over 1,000 of them voted on this issue. If they said yes it would help Fristrom launch a game on a new platform, hopefully make more money to pour into Energy Hook, but the people who are already supporting the game would get it later.
Over 80 percent of respondents told him to go for it. Around 2 percent told him not to. 16 percent said they would rather he didn't, but they were fine with his final decision. He offered a refund to anyone who was completely against the idea and wanted their money back. Only one person took him up on the offer. Fristrom was overjoyed.
"There were also just a lot of encouraging comments on the update saying, "Yes, you’ve got to do this. We’re here to support you,’" he said. "Just really fantastic, heartwarming, positive stuff." They weren't only comfortable with the delay, they wanted to share their support of the developer.
He went to Sony at the same time, and that was a harder sell: He was basically asking to postpone a game on their platform so he could launch another title on the competition’s hardware. He was skeptical that they'd be interested in seeing a delay in their game so the Xbox One could gain another title.
Sony's response was just as supportive.
"Delays in games shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. In the case of smaller developers, they can't suddenly throw a ton of people at a game to try and hit dates either," Shahid Ahmad, Senior Business Development Manager at SCEE, told Polygon.
"So when Jamie told us he wanted to delay the game to hit a different opportunity, we were fine with that because it's in everybody's interests to ensure the health of independent developers," he continued. "Sometimes that means being unusually flexible. Jamie's a good developer, we've worked with him before, and Energy Hook is worth the wait."
"And I was like, 'Really?' And they were like, "Yeah, we want to be flexible. We want to make things work for our developers.’" Fristrom said, mimicking both sides of the conversation.
I reached out to Microsoft's Chris Charla and asked if Microsoft would have been so supportive if the roles had been reversed.
"Of course; if someone wants to postpone a game release, we would not stand in their way," he told Polygon. "...We recognize that independent developers have a really tough job; on the one hand they are creators. On the other, they have to be business people. We see our job as providing a great platform to develop for, and doing everything we can to make sure we amplify the developer’s decisions to ensure their games have the best possible chance to succeed in the market."
This isn't an easy path
Sixty Second Shooter is getting a graphical update for the Xbox One, completely new audio, and a variety of improvements to how the game looks and feels. It will be called Sixty Second Shooter Prime.
"A lot of people said something along the lines of, 'Gee, Jamie, I like your game, but just when I'm getting into it the session ends. Can't you make it last longer?'" he said. His response was always to ignore that request: If they wanted that sort of game, there was Geometry Wars.
"Since there is no Geometry Wars for the XB1, we've added an 'infinity second shooter' mode where you can get time extends and in theory an awesome player could make it last hours," he said. Fristrom is still tweaking this mode, and as of the time of writing he can only survive a few minutes.
Sixty Second Shooter may not be the hit Fristrom is looking for on the Xbox One, and these are small indie games in the scheme of things, but it's notable that backers of the project, not to mention Sony as a whole, were so welcoming of the game's delay in order to focus on another project.
The end result could be two interesting games instead of one, and a developer with a larger safety net and resources to devote to Energy Hook. Everyone involved seems happy to take the long view, which is something that doesn't often happen in this business.
I asked Fristrom about Energy Hook coming to the Xbox One, and he brought up Sony's timed exclusivity and Microsoft's release parity rules. "So, either I’ll think of some way to add some Kinect feature to it, or maybe they’ll make an exception for me, or maybe it just won’t happen," he explained. "We’ll see. Sixty Second Shooter will be a good test run for me to see what it’s like in Xbox One land."