Interview: Xander Davis – From Triple A To Indie Gaming On Apple TV 4K (Part One)

Xander Davis - Astrogun - Creator of VAST - Launch Night 20171213

A few years back you left the world of Triple A development – big budgets and large teams – to form an independent studio, Astrogun. Is there anything you miss from the Triple A world?
When I got into the industry in early 2009, around the middle of the Xbox 360 and PS3 era, only major studios could afford to license game engines and rights to develop for consoles.  That alone used to cost millions of dollars.  Unity was in its infancy.  So if you wanted to work on a console game, you had to work on-site at major triple-A studios in a fairly closed, big corporate system.  It was an achievement just to get in.  Today, all major game engines and console platforms are polished and fairly democratized.  Game engines are available to anyone… even for free.  So between starting out breaking into the industry doing a specific role, user interface design, within a large corporate team, all the way to now, where multiple triple-A grade game engines are a free download away, it’s a very different world and time.  While working in triple-A, I was very vocal online and in press about the exciting push for the industry to become accessible to independent developers too, and we are now firmly in that new era.  It’s awesome.

“As of right now, I am completely thrilled to be doing my own thing, on my own terms, in my own way.”

With VAST, doing all roles necessary myself to conceive of, realize, and ship a game were part of a natural progression in my professional career journey as a game developer.  That was always the goal, even before I first got hired into triple-A.  There was kind of a breaking-in and now a breaking-out process.  Now having achieved independence, I’ve also been consulting for studios remotely worldwide, from continued triple-A to burgeoning small indie projects alike, which has accelerated the amount of titles I’m working on and the number of projects I’ve been through, building my experience even further, much faster.  So yeah it’s all been a very natural progression that’s been great and led to finally shipping my own game with VAST here and now.  The plan is to keep marching forward, not backward, so I doubt I’ll want to work at a triple-A studio again, unless in a game director / creative director capacity.  As of right now, I am completely thrilled to be doing my own thing, on my own terms, in my own way.  Professionally, it took me about eight years, but it has been a dream all my life.  Now, it is now a dream come true.
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For Astrogun’s debut title you chose a pretty obscure platform – Apple TV. Why? Does the release act as a kind of beta, testing the waters and ironing out wrinkles before heading to more recognised platforms, or was there something about the Apple TV platform that attracted you? 
When I started VAST as a secret project this past summer, I was operating on the hunch that Apple was about to release a refresh to Apple TV, a 4K model that would have more horsepower.  My hunch proved correct by the Fall, when the Apple TV 4K was announced.  Frankly, this exact device is what Apple should have shipped back in 2015 when they released the Apple TV 4.  Back then, Amazon also released a 4K Fire TV with gaming capability, but I really wanted to work within the Apple ecosystem.  This is especially for cross-compability with iOS and the fact that my primary development environment is by choice macOS, currently running a 5K iMac.  I created a model for organizing all consoles in what I called a meta-console live spec, ‘Astrogun Starbase’, a development baseline with built-in upward mobility.  This meant if I developed a game for a quality device on the low end that runs and looks great there, it would guaranteed scale up to higher-end consoles and do just the same.  Thus, I could build once and deploy anywhere.

“…there is no other game at all like VAST on tvOS right now.”

Perhaps most importantly, there seemed to be a very obvious vacuum of games in the tvOS Games App Store.  So instead of making a game for a more saturated console first, it seemed more useful and even exciting to try to fill the void on Apple TV with a console-grade game.  To me, it seems there is immense opportunity there and, honestly, it’s a bit baffling why Apple hasn’t embraced this more fully.  Especially when Apple is spending millions of dollars producing original TV content, like how they recently hired Ronald D Moore of Battlestar Galactica fame to bring an original space opera to Apple TV.  Conversely, it seems like Apple is generally disinterested in their games space, which actually is historically characteristic of them since at least the 90’s.
So even if that’s the case, I’m hoping VAST comes in there and fills that void and fills it well.  VAST is Apple TV’s first and only sci-fi first person shooter.  It reminded me a lot of how Bungie was brought to Xbox by Microsoft to have Halo help define the console.  Incidentally, Bungie originally only developed on Mac, on Apple machines too, and Halo was going to be a Mac-exclusive title.  Halo on Xbox instead became a multi-billion dollar business that is still going strong today, so it became an interesting prospect that perhaps the same could be done on Apple TV, where the games selection is currently very light and there is no other game at all like VAST on tvOS right now.
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What has the Apple TV platform been like to develop for compared to others? Were there any particular challenges along the way? 
Game engine integration and development for Apple TV and especially the 4K model has been a breeze.  All consumer devices are also devkits.  Its something I wish the rest of the ‘Big Three’ console makers would embrace more fully.  It’s hard enough to make a game.  We don’t need to also jump through a lot of hoops to get devkits, branched versions of game engines, and so on.  To become a licensed developer on Apple, the process takes about 5 minutes.  After signing up at Apple’s Developer Hub, you can get a build running on the device in about 30 minutes.  This is not the case on the other platforms, of which my indie studio Astrogun is also already a licensed developer for with Nintendo, PlayStation, and Xbox.
But I’m quickly discovering that [while being] among the easiest platforms to develop for, the publishing end of things is very different.

“…there’s actually little difference with what you can do on an Apple TV versus a PS4, except for horsepower (and the gap is closing), at this point.”

Considering Apple currently has yet to feature the game on their App Store anywhere at all, that you have to manually search for it, the game is effectively not even on the App Store.  There is zero discoverability of it, apart from what we can manually drive through the press, general gamers, social media, and YouTubers online totally separately.  We’re getting no help from Apple on this front, even in the most basic of ways.  They may have something planned, but we are completely unaware of this.  I’ve been on the phone with their developer low-level support, I’ve sent e-mails, I’ve filled out impersonal forms, but basically the gist of trying to co-create a market strategy together with Apple has so far been absentee, like talking to a brick wall.  There’s currently no one made available to us at Apple that I can talk to about this.  Developer Support can’t refer me to anyone.  Their whole set up is, I am now gathering, a bit one-sided.  I made this thing specifically and exclusively for them, and I can’t even get someone who works on the tvOS App Store on the phone.
Over on the flooded iOS store, I would get that approach more, but the tvOS App Store is anything but flooded.  I think there has been games you could count on one hand featured in the store within the last half-year, and a lot of those are iPhone ports or super-casual puzzle games.  Further, there is no objective listing at all anywhere in the App Store of a feed of all new games or even a listing of just ‘all games’.  We thought we would at least be listed in the sub-category ‘Play with Controllers’, but apparently that is not objective and instead curated too.  They have an ‘Editor’s Pick’ category, but effectively every single app visible on the tvOS App Store is an editor pick we have no business communication with.  No other games console does this, and Apple TV is a games console, whether it is framed as a smart-TV box ‘that also happens to play games’ or not.  Almost everyone I’ve talked to about Apple TV aren’t even aware it plays games at all.  Yet there’s actually little difference with what you can do on an Apple TV versus a PS4, except for horsepower (and the gap is closing), at this point.
This also made me realize wow, how many other potentially great games are already published to the tvOS App Store, but no one knows about them?

“I’ve done what I can do for them.  It’s entirely on Apple at this point.”

So ultimately, it has proven so far not to be a great way to work together, business to business, and be smart about how we can launch what could be the original and exclusive ‘Halo of Apple TV’ right now.  It’s still early days, so perhaps we’ll get featured somewhere on the App Store yet.  Considering how little activity is actually going on there, it’s baffling that this hasn’t happened immediately upon launch, especially as we’re running up to Christmas Day.  For them, it would be a few mouse clicks to put a tile up on the Store so it can be discovered at all, but for me this was a major personal investment and belief in their system that might have been the equivalent of throwing it into a black hole.
I’ve also recently discovered that Apple TV 4Ks themselves, which only launched a few months ago, are on backorder right now.  This is further frustrating for the Holiday Season and launching product for it during that critical time.  It seems that if you don’t already have an Apple TV 4K, I’m not sure you can even play VAST as intended on Christmas morning at all at this point.
So if it doesn’t pan out on Apple TV, I will definitely be taking VAST to other platforms.  On all of those Big Three platforms, they have teams of people that work with you, as either a studio or publisher or both, to form an effective strategy for launch, which is diametrically the opposite experience on tvOS with Apple.  So ‘taking a chance’ on a smaller console with an apparent big opportunity might ultimately prove to be just a passing part of the game’s evolution, looking elsewhere to greener pastures sooner than expected.  I’ve done what I can do for them.  It’s entirely on Apple at this point.  We will see.

 

We hope you enjoyed Part One of our interview with Xander Davis of Astrogun. Click right here for Part Two, as Davis talks about the inspirations behind VAST, the sci-fi shooter’s reception from gamers so far, and what he plays when he’s not making games.
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