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'We knew we were kind of making a deal with the devil'
'We knew we were kind of making a deal with the devil'
June 20, 2013 | By Kris Ligman

"I personally would like to go back in time and kick myself in the balls. Id just like to have that year and a half of my life back."
- Skulls of the Shogun's Borut Pfeifer, in an interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

Skulls of the Shogun first hit the market on Microsoft devices in January of this year, appearing on Microsoft Surface, XBLA and Windows 8. Six months on, it is finally leaving the Microsoft-exclusive nest and will turn up on Steam in July -- and developer Borut Pfeifer doesn't regret the change in the slightest.

"We knew we were kind of making a deal with the devil," Pfeifer tells Rock, Paper, Shotgun. "Probably one of our biggest mistakes was thinking in 2008 terms, where it's like 'if you want to be on console you've got to be a console first,' and that's not true anymore."

Pfeifer shares a few horror stories he notes are unusual even among fellow indies partnering with Microsoft: conflicting certification issues, poor communication, and unpaid staff.

"Even though they were partially funding the game to completion, we had to take a loan to cover the fact that they hadn't yet paid us when they were supposed to," says Pfeifer. "We thought 'well, it's Microsoft, they have bankroll, they can afford this stuff.' But because of their processes seeming so fucked up, they couldn't actually do that."

To add salt on the wound, even though the team has finally seen their pay, sales have been less than stellar -- particularly for the much-touted Windows 8 tablets for which Skulls of the Shogun was advertised as an exclusive.

"We hoped they'd sell a few million tablets, and from most reports they did, but either those people are not buying games or they're not buying games for more than a dollar or two dollars."

Nevertheless, Pfeifer says, "We just tried to focus on the positive things." He notes that Microsoft "never tried to interfere with us creatively," and that plenty of people within Microsoft Studios, Microsoft's game publishing arm, worked hard alongside them to bring the game to release.

"At the same time there are systemic problems with the way that division is set up and run," says Pfeifer. "They came across as though they were institutionally incompetent. I think they're not really set up to be a decent publisher."

"When people call Microsoft 'evil,' while I don't want to defend them, it's kind of an undeserved compliment. To be evil, you have to have vision, you have to have communication, execution... None of those traits are things I would ascribe to Microsoft Studios."

Asked what he'd do differently, he said with a laugh, "I personally would like to go back in time and kick myself in the balls. Id just like to have that year and a half of my life back."

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Mike Griffin
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The devil is in the details.

Shea Rutsatz
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I don't really have anything to add... but a good read. Got a chuckle or two!

Ron Dippold
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Too incompetent to be evil. Ouch!

Dane MacMahon
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I remember when they announced Win8 exclusivity and some off-the-wall reasons why it was a good thing media types and gamers screamed as loud as they could that it was a mistake. Generally you want to listen to your audience, as Microsoft themselves did this week.

Perhaps it was too late for them at that point, however.

Borut Pfeifer
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Oh yeah, I mean there were benefits to it but that really requires going into fine contractual detail, which I'm still trying to avoid.

We also saw it as the death of GFWL, which we were happy to be at least one small nail in that coffin.

Ron Dippold
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I am of course sorry that it happened to you (and the game looks cool, so I'm grabbing it on Steam), but I do remember a cartoon to the effect of 'Well, cheer up, you may not have [x], but at least you can serve as an object lesson.'

This MS exclusivity stuff needs to die unless they paid for it all - and then it's just a necessary evil that all the console makers do.

Brian Provinciano
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Microsoft's policies are built around exclusivity to give the illusion that developers are choosing their platforms and that their platforms are superior because they get the games first, or even are the only ones to get the games at all. There would've been nothing 17-BIT could do.

When you open your ears, the most common thing you'll overhear about people who work at Microsoft is that they're all "drinking the koolaid". They're experts at rationalizing everything. They convince themselves deep down that things like exclusivity will benefit everyone. That being on a platform with zero userbase will balance out with extra promotion. If you don't believe me, ask them directly. They will spout this off, and genuinely believe it. It's easy for developers to be convinced of this when Microsoft speaks it with such conviction.

Remember, like they said, it was a 2008 mindset. There was a time when you HAD to be on XBLA to make money. Now, nearly everyone makes more of Steam, and more and more of us are reporting making more (or in my case, multitudes more) on PSN. All of this seems obvious in hindsight, but at the time XBLA had the power and they used it. They no longer do, but they still attempt to use it.

Bianca Diaz
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Pretty sure you're talking about Borut Pfeifer, a former co-worker. Just wanted to note the spelling. :|

Jed Hubic
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Well I've bought Skulls on the phone and RT and I'm hoping those guys clean up on Steam!

I put a pretty large app on Win8 and the downloads aren't quite there yet compared to other platforms.

I know at one point they were using Monogame, so I wonder if they have plans to port to iOS/Android too. I love the Win8 tablet experience the most but I can definitely see them making some good coin on those platforms.

Gil Salvado
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It seems to always be same with big companies becoming publishers, we had some of the same issues when working with Deutsche Telekom, especially the late paychecks which is really a hard pill to take for a start-up studio.
I would really like to know why it's always the same with big companies. I know that they try to keep their money as long as possible to be able to work with it, but ... isn't paying contractors not a sort on investment? After all they're looking for a profit deal. So, it probably has to do with slow bureaucracy.

From Pfeifer's final quote I take it that he wouldn't work with Microsoft a second time.

My personal essence of this is, if you are capable of developing a game that can be released on Steam go for it. It's a platform where gamers gather and form a living community and appreciate indie games as much as AAA. Mobile may be the newest thing, but I guess over 50% of its user base is still using it for what it is. A phone.

Glenn Sturgeon
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i'll check out the game when it hits steam. XBLA heh, pretty much anything to do with XBL is a joke imo.
Oh yeah, Welcome to the best starting point, PC.