Monday, May 9, 2011

The Thoughtful Gamers Interview Xona Games!!

This is an interview with Xona Games, the development studio, manned by two man fraternal team Matthew and Jason Doucette, that brought us games like Decimation X2 and the totally phenomenal Score Rush, which I reviewed here on the thoughtful gamers. Most of the questions were submitted by myself, but my fellow TTG's and GT friends also threw in a few of their own, making this a combined effort. Thanks a lot to all of you, and Matthew from Xona who was nice enough to participate. 

Be sure to keep an eye on Xona Games in the coming months, as they set to take the world by storm with their awesome looking Duality ZF, which strikes me as being the culmination of two brothers' dreams and hard work. 

Let's begin!

The Thoughtful Gamers: What year did the Doucette brothers first take their programming endeavours commercial?

Xona Games: In 2008, we decided to enter Dream Build Play (2008) with an early prototype of Duality ZF, and then planned to release it later than year. It actually took until 2010 before we officially released a game commercially, which was Decimation X released on January 16h, 2010. It immediately become the #1 rated XBLIG game in Japan.
The Thoughtful Gamers: Your biography alludes to the fact that shmups are not the only genre to be represented in Xona Games' catalogue. Racing and beat em ups are given specific mention. Is there anything in the works that you can speak about at this time? Any plans?
Xona Games: There is nothing in the works other than Duality ZF and ideas formulating in our minds! If someone wishes to really dig into our past work and check out Jason’s homepage ( they might find some insight to what inspires us!
The Thoughtful Gamers: Xona games has been previously known by the moniker Saw Tooth Distortion. Do one or both of you have electroencephalography (EEG) in your professional backgrounds? If so, is this from where the name Saw Tooth was derived? If not, where did it come from? Am I missing a really obvious gaming reference?
Xona Games: “Saw Tooth Distortion” is actually a computer graphic artifact reference, which refers to blocky graphics found on zoomed-in images without anti-aliasing. Jason found it in an old computer graphics glossary back in high school. We still think the name is awesome, but it was far too long for the dot-com era that later hit us. All of our graphics and game work was released under the name “Saw Tooth Distortion” until we changed to “Xona Games”, the change was due to our popularity of our “” website. Look at Jason’s page or Google the name to see some of our older work, including my “To Be Continued…” graphics demo made in 1999.

Edit: Here's a video of the 'To Be Continued' Demo:

The Thoughtful Gamers: What is the toughest aspect of game development?
Xona Games: The toughest aspect of game development is transforming the hobby into a business. We are still struggling with this. Hobbyists have it easy. I use to wonder why hobbyists can accomplish thing so much faster than a business, but now I understand. I respect businesses and their problems so much more now. It’s easy to hate on Microsoft (and now Sony). I defend them now.
The Thoughtful Gamers: Would you ever develop a game you yourselves wouldn't normally play?
Xona Games: Never, unless I have to. I hope to never be in that situation.
The Thoughtful Gamers: As gamers, are there any other indie developers or indie games on Xbox LIVE that you are fans of?
Xona Games: Lots. I should do my own top list.
Developers I love:
Games I love:
And I’ll give a shout out to FortressCraft for bringing a feel of MineCraft to the 360.
I encourage everyone to check out any of these games they have not heard of already.
The Thoughtful Gamers: Have you been life long gamers? Give us a quick synopsis of your gaming history. 
Xona Games: I have been into programming games since I was seven years old, grade 2, and been a gamer for a year or so before then. Here’s how it goes by systems:
  • TI-99/4A (Parsec, TI-Invaders, Munchman, Car Wars, …)
  • Tandy 1000 SX (Space Quest, King’s Quest, Test Drive, Digger, …)
  • NES (Super-C, SMB 1/2/3, Mega Man 2, Zelda 2 …)
  • Arcade (R-Type, Task Force Harrier, Raiden I/II, …)
  • Sega Genesis (Thunder Force 2/3, The Revenge of Shinobi, Gaiares, Sonic 1, …)
  • SNES (Contra 3, Star Fox, Super R-Type, …)
  • PC (Doom 1/2, Quake 1/2, Unreal, Serious Sam 1st/2nd, Unreal Tournament, …)
  • PS1 (not mine) (Thunder Force 5, The Raiden Project, R-Type Delta …)
  • Xbox (Project Gotham Racing 1/2, Forza 1, Knights of the Old Republic 1/2, …)
  • Xbox 360 (mostly XBLA retro titles: and sort by “%age”)
All of these games I beat if they had endings, except Zelda 2 which still burns. Got to the Last boss. I swear. I beat exactly 70 NES games, a list I can no longer reproduce from memory. I was best at Super-C, beating it without cheats, without dying twice in a row, without picking up weapons, without rapid fire, without manually rapid firing which was a skill I excelled at like so many other children. I even designed an NES controller that controls both players at once, a hint towards the duality features in Duality ZF.
The Thoughtful Gamers: Have you ever had to compromise integrity for the sake of progression?
Xona Games: Definitely. The best case of this is Decimation X. We created that game and launched it within 3.5 weeks in efforts to showcase judges of a $100,000 start-up technology contest that we could bring our product to market. When the game hit #1 in Japan during the two-week judgement session, it secured our win in the contest. So it was for a great cause. That said, we will never make a game that unpolished again. That said, we will likely compromise integrity for progression again, as that’s being a business. It’s the most difficult thing to do.
The Thoughtful Gamers: You guys are obviously shmup fans. What are your favourite shoot em up games?
Xona Games: In no order:
  • R-Type (series)
  • Gradius (series)
  • Thunder Force (series)
  • Raiden (series)
  • Gaiares
  • 19XX (series)
  • Geometry Wars (series)
  • Ikaruga
I know I’ve missed a lot.
You can see many of the retro games I now play on Xbox 360 are not shoot’em ups, even though the 360 has lots of shmups. I do own Radian Fighter Aces trilogy and Raiden 4 which is great. I would love to have Thunder Force on my Xbox! Our desires to do Duality ZF is to rectify the lack of quality shooters.
The Thoughtful Gamers: Do you think that the shmup genre has stagnated at all?
Xona Games: Yes, due to less than inspiring shmups. We hope to change that. Quality shmups often cater to only hardcore fans, and attempts to catered towards mainstream gamers often fail. Geometry Wars and Ikaruga prove the genre can hit the mainstream audience, even while maintaining a strong difficulty curve, to the mainstream audience. It’s just hard to do. We feel we can do it.
The Thoughtful Gamers: The shmup genre appeals to a niche market. Is this seen as a challenge that needs to be overcome when you are making games of this type, or is the goal right always to work within this niche? Basically, do you look to expand the market parameters or work within them? In your opinion, what, if anything, needs to be done to expand the shmup fanbase/market?
Xona Games: It’s both. It’s a major challenge we hope to address and solve as well as our goal to work within the niche. So we want the hardcore fans and the mainstreamers, both. Often when you try to harness two groups you lose both. I can see games that try and fail and hope to not make the same mistakes.
To expand the shmup fanbase requires shmup games that casual players will play and talk about. Again, Geometry Wars and Ikaruga are examples of this. Bad shmup games do nothing but further hurt the genre. We need to make gamers care about skill and score again, and the very idea of that pushes away casual gamers so it’s tough to solve. There’s this idea that games are only challenging because they evolved from arcades, which tried to make you pay for your failings. The arcade age is all but gone with home gaming. All of this makes it very hard to make a shmup game strike a chord with the casual player. We have ideas, but we want to save them for Duality ZF and potentially its sequel! :)
The Thoughtful Gamers: Do you ever see Xona Games expanding into the retail (disc based) market? I think it's interesting that, in the past, this was the only really viable option for success, but now, a developer can easily stick to downloadable games and amass high sales, high acclaim, hefty revenues, and a good reputation.
Xona Games: We have no current plans for it, but I wouldn’t count it out. I’d love to make a large 1,000/1,000 Gamerscore Xbox 360 title. Who knows, maybe we could offer a Xona games pack of all our games.
The Thoughtful Gamers: What made you guys choose Xbox 360 as your platform? Was it because it was the first one available?
Xona Games: It was exactly because it was the first available for indie game development. It also helped that we already had loose plans on entering XBLA development, because it was perfect for indie game development before XBLIG.
The Thoughtful Gamers: How has it been working on on it?
Xona Games: It terms of just making games on Xbox 360, it’s awesome. The tools are free, the subscription to XNA (now AppHub) is $120/year, and we can use our own Xbox and PC. It’s amazing to work on it. There are performance issues, but I won’t jump into those as Jason’s the lead!
The Thoughtful Gamers: Have you considered working on psn or wii-ware? If so/not, why?
Xona Games: are considering PSN right now for Duality ZF. And we have met with Nintendo concerning WiiWare, but will likely push for PSN first due to financials.
The Thoughtful Gamers: Do Xbox Live Indie game developers get sales information from Microsoft? If so, and you don't mind sharing, what's the average sales number for an indie game on Xbox Live, and how has Xona Games fared in comparison? Which Xona Games title has fared the best, and how does this compare to the sales of your Windows Phone 7 title (of course, the total number of WP7's compared to Xbox 360's needs to be taken into consideration, as well as the number of people who game on their WP7).
Xona Games: We do well above average, but average is very low. Just look at the XNA sales thread: We are not doing well enough to survive off of just XBLIG. I believe only about five out of well over one thousand developers have accomplished this. Even the MVPs on the forums are now very explicit with the fact that XBLIG is not a means to make money, but is rather a stepping stop to other platforms. I think this is sad. I have detailed many proposals on how to fix XBLIG and make it more profitable, the most popular one becoming known as the “Xona proposal”:, which was sent directly to one of the co-founders of the XBLIG initiative at Microsoft. It’s a project I would consider taking on as a job; I believe in it that much.
And Windows Phone 7 sales are basically non-existent. We need to result in (default) gamer searches to have people find our games. The traffic is simply not there. This is also sad. The WP7 is my most favorite phone.
The Thoughtful Gamers: Duality ZF is the first game you're making for Xbox LIVE Arcade, while your other endeavours have been on the Xbox LIVE Indie Games subsection of Xbox LIVE Marketplace, with one game on Windows Phone 7. How did you make the leap from the Indie Games section to XBLA proper? Did Microsoft reach out to you and ask you to develop a game for XBLA, or did you go to them?
Xona Games: To be clear, we have not yet made the leap to XBLA. But the leap is made by producing a game good enough to be considered by Microsoft or a third party XBLA publisher for publishing. That’s it. Microsoft unfortunately did not reach out to us, although at this year’s GDC 2011 San Francisco they did approach us. We are surely on their radar.
The Thoughtful Gamers: As mentioned before, all the games you've developed so far are for consoles and mobile devices from Microsoft, so it's safe to assume you work with Microsoft pretty often. What is your relationship with Microsoft like, and how easy is it to work with them?
Xona Games: Microsoft is a big company. It’s more like a lot of big companies. So everything we accomplish in one section of Microsoft is segregated from other sections. So placing 5th in Dream Build Play (in the world) doesn’t mean XBLA cares about us. Apparently they do check out the winners, but it’s all unofficially performed. To give an idea of how many “teams” we have dealt with, here’s a short list: Dream.Build.Play, XNA (now AppHub), XBLIG, Xbox LIVE, and Xbox LIVE Arcade. All different teams.
So are they hard to work with? Yes, but in an expected way. So don’t read this the wrong way. I really like Microsoft. A lot. I like Xbox 360 and I like XBLA. It’s what I use as a gamer before I started officially making games. So I want to continue working with them and I hope it happens. What it takes is a kick-ass game from us, hopefully Duality ZF
The Thoughtful Gamers: I apologize in advance for this (laughs): What's Xona Games' best game thus far? In my mind, it's easily Score Rush. I'll see how Duality ZF fares when I get my anxious little hands on it.
Xona Games: You would think Score Rush, and so did I. But it’s actually Decimation X3. People play it more and longer than Score Rush, and it was much easier to produce. In the end, they are both identical financially.
Ultimately our best game will be Duality ZF. Everything else has only been a side project to Duality ZF.
The Thoughtful Gamers: Speaking of Score Rush and difficulty, I saw the video of you gentlemen nearly finishing it on the aptly named Insane difficulty:

Very impressive. I'm just wondering if you know of anyone who has finished it on Godlike? If not, are you still trying? I'm not sure about this, but if you guys never do it, and no one else does it, Score Rush might be the first game in history that absolutely no one, not even those who made it, has beaten on its hardest difficulty. Of course, this wouldn't include novelty difficulties that are made too hard to beat as a joke, or ones that are unintentionally impossible due to poor balance, a glitch, etc.
Xona Games: We know of one person who has finished it in INSANE mode, and unlocked GODLIKE. I was able to get to the boss in INSANE mode so I know I can finish it. I have not tried for a very long time, as the game is intense. It is more intense than any Cave shooter. There’s a popular misconception of how hard Cave shooters from how intimidating they look, but Cave shooters offer breaks, such as enemy bullets that delete upon death of the enemy, and what not. Score Rush lacks any such breaks. This is actually a flaw, and one we won’t repeat. So very well Score Rush may very well be the most difficult game Xona Games ever produces.
We know of nobody who has beat GODLIKE mode, and that’s an amazing point you have brought up! I wonder if we could win some sort of award for this?!
The Thoughtful Gamers: All of the games you have thus far released have been priced at one dollar. Your upcoming XBLA game, Duality ZF, is slated to be priced at $10. What is it about the game that justifies this price, and do you think perhaps a $5 (400 MS Pt.) price point would serve to garner your game even more attention? I say this not as a slight against Xona games or Duality ZF, but only as someone who is aware of the competitive nature of the platform, and the fact that this price brings you in line with games like Ikaruga, Radiant Silvergun and Rez- games that have immediate brand recognition.
I can see less informed gamers passing your "no name" game by in favour of the more widely known ones , whereas a  lower price point gives you guys an immediate leg up when it comes to purchasing decisions. Also, hardly any games release at that price point these days. Everything is $10 and $15 now. Entering the market at $5 would cause a stir and bring your game some extra attention. What do you think?
Xona Games: This is something we have considered, the $5 price point just to stand out, or a $5 sale. But now it’s almost the $10 price point that stands out. I think our game is going to be worth $10, so likely it will sell for that. The one thing we have over all those games mentioned, is we are new, and we have new stuff. A great game can sell for $15. What matters to a gamer is whether they want the game or not first, and if they do then they see if they have money for it. Great games don’t have to worry about price. So, we have to worry about making Duality ZF a great (or unique) game. Not easy!
The Thoughtful Gamers: In line with the previous remarks regarding price, I had a promotional idea occur to me when I was playing Score Rush and looking at the in game leaderboards. You guys had placed your own scores in the game, allowing us, the players, a chance to both get a benchmark score in mind, and also, the chance to indirectly compete with the developers of the game.
Noticing this, an idea occurred to me: What if this idea was expanded upon? A 'beat the developers' contest. You set a benchmark score and people post their scores online in an effort to try and best it. The first X amount of players to do so win the contest and a prize of some sort. Might be a useful promotional idea for a future Xona Games title, especially in a genre as score oriented and competitive as shmups.
Xona Games: Wow, this is also something we thought of. In fact we wanted one of the achievements to be beating our scores. But we realized it wouldn’t work because our scores would be too high (honestly). I would love to implement this in a contest though, that would be great!
The Thoughtful Gamers: In regards to the upcoming Duality ZF, which aspect of the game are you most proud of?
Xona Games: I am most proud that we’ve made crazy shmup gameplay accessible to all players, not just hardcore fans. Now to message that to gamers who are reluctant to try based on past poor experiences…
The Thoughtful Gamers: Lastly, what would you say Xona Games brings to the industry, and what are your long term goals?
Xona Games: We make score and skill matter again, as well as opening up the shmup genre to non-shmup fans like very few other shmup games have. Our long term goals are to be known for our great gameplay, that is something we know we have based on our top rankings in Japan, combined with great artwork, something we are now trying to address!
Thanks a lot for taking the time to answer our questions. We appreciate it very much.
Thank you for featuring us!


  1. Awesome interview. Honestly, some of these are types of questions you don't normally see in interviews with game developers.

    I watched the youtube link of the Score Rush Insane play... Uhm, yeah, INSANE! But it makes me want to get back on my 360 (which I haven't played in months) and try out the game. Seriously. I might just do this..

    To add a little about the proposed contest; any community involvement is not only a good way to promote the game, but also a good way to get people to feel involved and talk about the game more often (and sometimes word of mouth is the best advertisement). Xona, you should definitely consider doing this.

  2. Magx: I read your blog on GT and came here to read this. You guys did a great job. Not only were the questions really, really good, they were worded so damn well. This was a freaking professional quality interview....even better, in fact.

    P.S. You haven't been on the religion forums much lately. Why?

    Xona: You guys sound like the kind of developers this industry needs: passionate, honest, focused, real gamers who love the craft and see it as a passion first, business second.

    Unfortunately, I'm not a fan of shoot em ups, but I checked out some videos (and checked out your website) and your games look really neat. Since the ones already out are just one dollar (and have free trials), I'll make sure to try one. Which do you suggest? I don't have a WP7, so XBL games only, please.

  3. I just checked out and looked at the Duality ZF trailer... LOOKS AWESOME!

    I loved Gradius and R-Type growing up, but haven't really played any of these types of games since.

  4. "Which do you suggest? I don't have a WP7, so XBL games only, please."

    Score Rush, of course! Even my non shmup loving friend likes that one!

    "I just checked out and looked at the Duality ZF trailer... LOOKS AWESOME!"

    Yep, indeed. The diversity in game modes alone is enticing and exciting.

    Tx for the great comments, guys, and all of the support.

  5. Okay, reformatted for a much cleaner look. What do you think?

  6. Thanks so much for featuring us, and I am reading the comments so thanks for these too!

  7. "Looks good now. :)"

    Now? NOW?

    I see how it is....


    "Thanks so much for featuring us, and I am reading the comments so thanks for these too!"

    No problem, and thanks for doing it. I posted thi son my facebook and YT page, as well as Gametrailers, so you should hopefully see some increased interest in your projects.

  8. I went and bought Score Rush. (Ended up having 140 leftover points from some other purchase, awesome!)

    Played it for 45 minutes or so. Don't think I did very well; got a mere 44 million points on one round lol. Will have to practice!

  9. Well look at that! I'm responsible for a sale!

    Matt, you owe me a 10% commission on the profits. I'll be expecting my 6 cent cheque in the mail ;)

  10. This interview was great, thanks for having it, and I agree with everyone else, the questions were awesome, unique, and well asked, and of course, well answered. Thanks for linking up some of our videos. (Since you appear to be linking everything, you could link the individual games mentioned to their marketplace pages?) As for Score Rush, I haven't unlocked Insane (5th mode) difficulty yet, although I can get to the final boss in Crazy (4th mode), so I know I can beat it. It takes a lot of patience and persistence, and concentration. Something we will fix in Duality ZF, to give gamers a break! I love seeing people kick ass in our games, and that's one thing we vowed to always include -- the ability to kick ass and feel like a rock star. Our games will never hold back a true expert.

  11. Thanks, Jason. I have added a bunch of links to the post, and will be doing the rest, but right now I need to return to work :) I'll definitely be updating the rest, however.

    "Something we will fix in Duality ZF, to give gamers a break! I love seeing people kick ass in our games, and that's one thing we vowed to always include -- the ability to kick ass and feel like a rock star. Our games will never hold back a true expert."

    Thus, the beauty of difficulty modes :) Something for everyone.

    A lesson that I hope the crappy new Team Ninja doesn't forget in their quest to make Ninja Gaiden 3 more 'accessible."

  12. It still hurts the eyes... But I managed to read it! It was interesting to read:

    "The toughest aspect of game development is transforming the hobby into a business. We are still struggling with this. Hobbyists have it easy. I use to wonder why hobbyists can accomplish thing so much faster than a business, but now I understand. I respect businesses and their problems so much more now. It%u2019s easy to hate on Microsoft (and now Sony). I defend them now."

    Especially the final sentences about Microsoft and Sony, it's very analogous to politics, management, basically everything with some kind of structural hierarchy where those at the bottom believe themselves superior to those at the top but have the luxury of not being under the same conditions and circumstances that those ruling experience. It's a great conscious-raiser when one is placed in the position of power to realise just how difficult it is to manage a large corporation or an entire country!

    Also the statements about compromising integrity for progression, one does not need to feel guilty about this because progression was the intention the whole time! Compromising one's integrity for the good of others seems to be a justifiable cause, and these developers seem intent on making some inspiring (correct me if I'm wrong) shoot 'em up games.

    It's fascinating to see just how video-gaming can be just as good a vessel for enlightenment as literature and art.

  13. Really liked the interview as well, great job Mag.
    As for that idea of having a contest against the developers, here's a suggestion for a prize of sorts.
    Why not put the names of those who beat you guys, or the winner, among the default top scores?
    I think that would be sweet prize for a fan of the game.

  14. @ Jason and Matthew - I honestly have great respect for you guys (and other indie developers like you). Mainly because I know how tedious and time consuming making games can be. Also because of the passion you put behind them. Growing up I thought I wanted to be someone who made games (either programming or graphics in some way), but lost the passion for it some time ago.

    Played another around of Score Rush.. 46 mil this time.. >.>

  15. ariwl1

    Very interesting interview. I especially liked you speaking on the difficulty of maintaining a business presence. It's definitely a lot harder than most people think it is!

    Good luck to you guys. If you ever make it Wiiware I'll look you up.

  16. Hey ariwl1, thanks for dropping by. Much appreciated!

    As far as them being on the Wii...I have my doubts. Not because they wouldn't want it (either party, really) but because the financial barriers to entry are really problematic....and that's only start of the issues that WiiWare presents indie developers.

  17. Dude! I don't know half of these developers or games mentioned above. I may have played them and had loads of fun, but there's plenty of shmups I played without giving too much notice to the titles.

    What is clear to me, however, is that these guys make their games out of their love for the genre. Which is something that a lot of developers seem to lack nowadays. If anything, I wish there were more people, like the guys in Xona, working in the industry.

    So Score Rush is the most difficult game in the history of video games?

    I'm interested in Duality ZF now. Is it on XBLA only, or is it coming to PSN as we-
    Well, yeah, there needs to actually BE a PSN for it, but you know what I mean.

  18. Wow, these guys sound like they really do love gaming, and aren't init for money, at least not solely for money. They sound passionate, and that's awesome. I'm definitely going to check out their games.

  19. Thanks for all the comments. This is one of the most gratifying interviews yet. I posted many of your comments on our site (on the blog post featuring this interview). Thanks again, so much!

  20. That was a great interview. It's good to see people who are interested in the gaming part of gaming.
    I don't have an xbox console, so sadly, there's no way for me to check up their games :/

  21. Thanks Guaronex, much appreciated.

    Btw, a friend of mine just bought Score Rush a few days ago after reading this :)

  22. Excellent interview!


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