Q&A: Dishwasher dev comes clean on XBLA XNA

James Silva dishes on Microsoft's development toolkit, his upcoming game, and the possibility of Zombie Smashers X4: Guitarpocalypse seeing the light of day.

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Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade already acts as a hotbed of independent developer activity, playing home to a number of offbeat titles such as The Behemoth's Alien Hominid and Llamasoft's Space Giraffe. Not content to merely support professional-grade development, Microsoft revealed during its keynote address at this year's Game Developers Conference that the Xbox 360's online capabilities would also foster the indie scene via Community Games.

Are these the eyes of an undead samurai slayer?
Are these the eyes of an undead samurai slayer?

Slated to be incorporated into Xbox Live later this year, Community Games is a portal that lets indie developers (hobbyists and students included) create games using Microsoft's XNA development toolkit and then have them posted to Xbox Live for consumption by Xbox Live users. According to Chris Satchell, general manager of the game developer group at Microsoft, the publisher expects more than 1,000 games to appear on the service by next year.

Were it not picked up as a full XBLA title, one of the first of those games would likely have been James Silva's The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai. Winner of Microsoft's Dream-Build-Play XNA contest, The Dishwasher has taken the role of poster boy for Microsoft's Community Games channel, and a demo for the game is already available on Xbox Live.

Far from a typical retail boxed product, The Dishwasher is a side-scrolling beat-'em-up with a penchant for Kill Bill-style blood geysers, shambling zombies, and maniacal robots. Inspired by equal parts jeet kune do master Bruce Lee, poseur Italian restaurants, and Ryuhei Kitamura's epic Versus, The Dishwasher in many ways acts as a proof of concept for Microsoft's ambitious service and gives players the chance to channel their inner butcher while bounding off walls and mashing on buttons in the process.

For more on The Dishwasher, the viability of XNA, and how the food industry gelled with martial arts films, GameSpot spoke with James Silva.

GameSpot: What previous experience have you had making games?

James Silva: I've been a bit of a hobbyist game developer for years now. A select few may remember a certain Zombie Smashers X series of yesteryear that I had something to do with.

GS: So. How did the food service industry mingle with undead samurai, and then somehow become a game concept?

JS: It was, like most games, the product of a number of bizarrely unrelated influences. I had been working as a dishwasher in a fakey-upscale Italian restaurant (all of the menu items were in Italian, but none of the waitresses knew how to pronounce them), and I had gotten into the habit of coping with having one of the worst jobs in the world by telling anyone within earshot that Bruce Lee was once a dishwasher. Eventually, I convinced myself that a story that absolutely must be turned into a video game was that of a dishwasher-turned-samurai. The undead part was added later (I think I had the movie Versus to thank for that).

GS: Who do you think the game will appeal to? Did you have an audience in mind when you were making the game?

Zombies bleed the same red blood as the rest of us.
Zombies bleed the same red blood as the rest of us.

JS: Whenever I set out to make a game, I just try to make a game that I'd love playing. I'll imagine a gameplay scenario, tell myself "Hey, I'd like to play that," and then make it.

GS: Did the game go through any kind of evolution process?

JS: Always. With The Dishwasher, this was particularly the case. The XBLA version of The Dishwasher is actually my fourth attempt at creating a game about a psycho dishwasher. The game itself received quite a few overhauls--one weapon became five, dish magic was tweaked and untweaked and retweaked, and arcade mode found its way in.

GS: How long did the game take to make, and who, if anyone, did you solicit help from?

JS: I started on the prototype last February while a full-time student with a Web development internship. The Dream-Build-Play prototype was submitted in June, and I've been working hard since then, so I guess The Dishwasher has been in the oven for just over a year at this point.

For the most part I just worked on my own. I got some help from the XNA developers community on some really dumb programming questions I would have.

GS: Do you have any other projects percolating that would work with XNA?

JS: So far, all of my pipelined projects are still trapped in my brain. But trust me, they're there.

GS: What were some of the challenges working on the game with XNA?

JS: One of the biggest challenges I had was optimizing performance--namely controlling garbage collection. XNA uses managed C#, which has some inherent pitfalls on the Xbox 360. However, once you get the hang of how to avoid silly mistakes, it's all gravy.

GS: What were the benefits of using XNA?

JS: In a nutshell, XNA takes all of the ugly stuff out of game development. Things like device initialization, managing the render loop, gamepad management, and the audio engine are all set up for you, so you can get to the fun stuff pretty quickly.

GS: How different is developing for XNA than, say, creating a Half-Life mod? Easier, harder?

JS: Having never created a Half-Life mod, I can't really say. However, I did once try to learn a thing or two about modding and found I didn't have the patience for it, so that might make the verdict "easier."

GS: Aside from the grand-prize money earned through Microsoft's Dream-Build-Play contest, have you seen or will you see any money from Dishwasher once the full game is up on XBL?

JS: The Dishwasher is going to be a straight-up XBLA game, meaning that there will be royalties once it goes live.

GS: Do you think free XNA games will undercut the traditional $5-$10 XBLA releases?

JS: I think we're still going to see a lot of "you get what you pay for." XBLA games guarantee a certain level of quality as well as standard features. Community Games on XBL don't. The first game I made when I started playing with XNA is a Smash Bros./Small Arms-type game that I don't really see as being XBLA caliber, but I still would like it to see the light of day as a console game. Community Games on XBL is a perfect fit for this type of game. By the way, the game is titled "Zombie Smashers X4: Guitarpocalypse."

GS: In terms of ease of use, does XNA have the potential to be the magic bullet for bringing game design and development to the masses? As in, are we going to see a lot of average joes making quality, fun games?

JS: Game development is still an extremely ambitious venture, so depending on your definition of "the masses," we may never see this type of magic bullet. Otherwise, a guy like me is probably always going to be the best you can hope for as an average joe. I went to school for computer science while working a series of crappy jobs and have always dreamed of making video games but have no industry experience or special game development education.

Four hits, one kill, 6,200 points. It's a simple equation, really.
Four hits, one kill, 6,200 points. It's a simple equation, really.

GS: Are side-scrollers and static-screen puzzle games the extent of what we'll see out of XNA?

JS: No, XNA Game Studio is perfectly capable of side-scrolling puzzle games as well!

In all seriousness, while I doubt we'll ever see anything COD4-caliber quality on XNA Game Studio, I'm pretty confident we'll eventually see something of close-to-COD4-caliber quality. When you get down to it, there's a lot you can do with XNA (as an author of an aforementioned side-scroller, I can't really speak from experience). I think it's a matter of time before we see some polished 3D titles that graphically blow The Dishwasher out of the water.

GS: What is the potential for innovation with XNA?

JS: Networking in XNA Games Studio on Xbox 360 has been in place since XNA 2.0, so I think the floodgates on innovation are officially open. When Community Games launch on Xbox Live, we'll see what types of submissions start arriving.

GS: What effect do you think Microsoft's pushing of XNA will have on the indie development community? Positive or negative?

JS: I think anything that opens up a new platform to indie developers is great--and console gaming has been closed to no-budget indie developers for decade after decade of console platforms, until XNA Game Studio.

GS: Do you think XNA will become a crutch that aspiring developers will use instead of learning traditional, and potentially more flexible, programming languages?

JS: Coming from someone who sucks at C++, yes. Well, not really. C# is a managed OOP language, so skills you pick up with C# will count towards Java--which I did at the real job I managed to snag out of college before I became a full-time indie--or C++, provided you can learn to clean up your own garbage.

GS: Do you think XNA developers will have a legitimate chance at having their game rise above the rabble on XBL, especially considering that Microsoft is expecting 1,000 games on the service by next year?

JS: A game is still a game. I'd still rather play Alien Hominid HD over the graphically superior Switchball, because I like fast-paced games. If you make a game that plays well, people will play it. If there are people who like your game over another game, you just rose above some rabble!

GS: Do you think Microsoft's strict stance on games not being allowed to be distributed on a platform other than Microsoft's is a problem?

JS: I think platform exclusives aren't a bad idea--they give console manufacturers a chance to really shine and give us fanboys something to gloat about.

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