If you've been reading this blog or following me on Twitter, you've probably picked up on the fact that Solar has been my latest Xbox Live Community addiction. An original, refreshing title that shows a great deal of creativity and craftsmanship, I wanted to know more. After doing a little clicking, I was able to convince Solar's developer, Australian Jay Watts, to take a few minutes and speak with me.
Thanks for the chat, Jay. What can you tell me about yourself?
Not much really! I started my first year of university in biotechnology and decided to pick up a bit of Flash just for fun. I soon discovered that I thoroughly enjoyed Flash so I kept with it and started making a few games. Soon I was making some really great games, and I thought to myself "could I make this a career"? So I went to a conference for Australian Game Developers where I learned of XNA. Four months later I had completed Solar and the rest is history.
How did you come up with the idea for Solar, and what did you do to go about starting the project?
Solar was conceived after I made a Flash RTS engine. The RTS engine was powerful enough to rival Starcraft and is unmatched in terms of other RTS Flash games I've seen on the web. But unfortunately, I was too ambitious, I had no chance of making an entire RTS game myself. So I decided to leave that project and make a new game with the express purpose of making something I could handle. My weakness is graphics, so I played around with Flash to see if I could create some really simple but good looking graphics. I found I could make some really neat looking planets, so I decided to stick with that. I started off making a realistic simulation and the game wrote itself from there.
I read that the game was put together by just yourself with the exception of the music. Is that true, and if so, what did you like or dislike about being a single-man operation?
Yes, I did all the work myself (apart from the music). Being a single-man operation means it's easy to tie everything together. In some games you see the graphics, programming and design having little communication but when the same person is doing all that you can really unify everything and make a game greater than the sum of its parts.
But the disadvantage is that everyone has their weaknesses. I was able to mask my weaknesses with good design, but it means I'm fairly restricted to the games I can make. You won't be seeing any games that involve "humans" or "animals" from me because I simply can't draw them.
Solar definitely has an identity all its own, although there are some similarities to Nintendo's Art Style: Orbient. Have you played that game, and if so, what did you make of it?
I've never played a Wii yet, so I haven't heard of this game. I looked it up on YouTube and yeah, it is a pretty similar looking game. It appears to be more of a puzzle type game, where as Solar is more of a sandbox type game. I also think the graphics are a little bland, the graphics in Solar are brighter and more vibrant but hey, I'm just a little biased.
Between the time that I originally started playing Solar and now, you released an updated version with a few fixes and some new Challenges. I would definitely be eager to see more content added. Are there any plans to further expand Solar at the moment?
No plans for the Community Games version, but I have plenty of ideas for a larger game that I may pitch to XBLA, so I'll be reserving my ideas for that.
What was the process like getting your game to Microsoft and going through the approvals process for Community?
It was longer than I thought but ultimately very valuable. People had a lot of good feedback to give and Solar is much improved because of it.
What do you think of Community in general? Do you feel as though you're getting enough support as a developer?
The community there is great. The forums are headed up by Microsoft MVP's and XNA framework developers, so there is always good support to be given if you need it. Plus there are lots of samples and mini-games you can download from the site and I found most of my learning was seeing how they did it.
How successful has Solar been since its release?
The purpose of Solar was to look good on a resume when I want to go for a full time job as a game developer. In terms of that, the game has been favourably reviewed by many sites and has a conversion factor of over 20% which are fantastic things to have.
But for the people who want to know how profitable XNA can be, the game has earned about $5000 USD of profit after Microsoft have taken their cut. Although there are several games that have earned more than that on the service, they've been up for months where as Solar has just finished its 2nd week. Sales are still strong, so I'm optimistic about what that can become.
Besides Solar, do you have any other plans in terms of developing new games at the moment?
I have one game on the table that I'm working on. Unfortunately I'm really struggling with the design of the game but I'll get there, if game development was easy it wouldn't be as fun!
On the player side, what Community titles do you feel are noteworthy, or which do you like?
Community Games aren't available in Australia yet so I can't download or purchase any of the games on the service. The only games I've played have been ones I've reviewed or playtested, but since most of these aren't the final product I can't really judge on them.
There are a few sites that review Community Games and you can find them with a few good google searches. Just like XBLA, there are some good games and some not so good games. The difference is that there are more sites reviewing XBLA to it's easier to decide which ones are the good ones. The good games are out there on Community Games, you just need to look for them!
Infinite thanks to Jay Watts for taking the time to speak with me. If you want more information on Jay and his work, you can check out his website. My full review of Solar will be up soon, but until that time rest assured that it comes absolutely recommended. Download the full version and give Jay a few bucks—you won't be sorry.
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Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.
Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.
Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway or contact him at bradgallaway a t gmail dot com