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Skulls of the Shogun Betting Big on Microsoft's Future

The charming, delayed strategy game was aiming for Xbox Live Arcade, but has become much more, including a premiere title for Microsoft's Surface.

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Microsoft’s Surface tablet was mighty impressive looking piece of hardware at its unveiling this week, but when the presentation finished, not only was it lacking a price or release date, but where were the games?

A few moments after the event, however, 17-Bit founder Jake Kazdal got everyone jazzed by announcing the studio’s long-delayed strategy game, Skulls of the Shogun, would also be available for Surface.

(17-Bit used to be Haunted Temple Studios, by the way. That changed a few months ago.)

Microsoft's Surface so far seems like a much more capable laptop in the shape of a tablet.
Microsoft's Surface so far seems like a much more capable laptop in the shape of a tablet.

When 17-Bit signed with Microsoft, it was only for console and PC versions of Skulls of the Shogun. Mobile and tablet versions were not in the cards, but became part of the plan as development progressed, development that has stretched years more than Kazdal expected. He anticipated being on project #2 by now.

“We really wanted to make the game a success,”said Kazdal, “and we wanted to go big, and arguably bit off way fucking more than we ever should have.”

The core of Skulls of the Shogun was created by three developers, including Kazdal. That’s expanded into five full-time employees. How to splinter the game onto other platforms while also finishing the game itself happened organically.

By “organic,” of course, I mean there wasn’t much of a plan. The team has made it work with long hours for months.

“I’ve been working 10, 15 hour days for as long as I can remember,” he said with a mixture of laughter, excitement, and exhaustion, “and I keep telling my wife ‘Oh, we’ll be done in a couple months, and I'll start coming home and hanging out with you and the kids, don’t worry about it!’ And the months just go by and now, whenever I say that, she’s just like 'Shut up, I don’t believe you for a word.'" It’s just been a ton of extra work.”

That extra work has morphed into three distinct versions of the game coming to three different platforms: Xbox Live Arcade, Windows 8, Windows Phone. The tablet version that will also work for Surface (on both versions of the hardware) is an extension of the touch-enabled mobile version, while the XBLA edition has been basically done for a while. The once-flagship version for XBLA is mostly sitting idle while the other versions start to catch up.

The benefit, explained Kazdal, has been unprecedented polish.

“We’ve just been polishing and tuning and polishing and tuning,” he said. “We can, so we are. Most small indie guys, it’s the exact opposite--they’re freaking out, rushing to get stuff done in time, and they’re cutting corners and they’re taking sacrifices they didn’t want to. We haven’t had to do any of that.”

Kazdal was unable to comment on whether players will have to purchase all three versions of the game, or if purchasing one version will open up access to the other ones, ala Universal apps on iOS.

One also has to wonder about the "Skulls Anywhere" mode that was greyed out in the mobile version shown at PAX East. Hmm. (Warp to 1:23 to know what I'm talking about.)

It’s been frustrating for Kazdal to sit on Skulls of the Shogun for as long as he has, a game that’s been making the rounds at trade shows for going on years now. At this point, if I'm at a trade show, I know he is, too. It’s not uncommon for players to approach him at a venue like PAX East and be upset the game still isn’t out yet. A good problem to have, perhaps, but a feeling Kazdal knows all too well. He’s hoping the multi-prong approach will pay off.

“When a new hardware launches, there’s not a lot of stuff available,” he said. “There’s a bunch of interest. They’re going to have this awesome online store, and there’s not going to be much original content. We were in this position where we could be this cool indie title that’s been talked about, people are excited about it, and all of a sudden we’ve got this wide-open storefront--it made perfect sense.”

The benefit of having programmed and fine-tuned several interfaces for Skulls of the Shogun will greatly benefit the player in the end, though. When you’re playing on a Surface, you have the option of playing with a mouse and keyboard, touch controls, or plugging in an Xbox 360 controller via USB. Kazdal isn’t sure if it would be possible to mix-and-match the two, but he’s looking to it.

Still, getting there has been easier said than done. Making the decision to bring Skulls of the Shogun to another platform, despite its unified XNA code base, was easy. Once the game was up-and-running on that plarform, however, it was clear how much work had to be put into each one for 17-Bit to sign off on it.

Even if you aren't into strategy games, you may dig Skulls of the Shogun. It's like Advance Wars.
Even if you aren't into strategy games, you may dig Skulls of the Shogun. It's like Advance Wars.

When asked if he could have ever imagined all this a few years ago, he shook his head. When I asked whether he could recommend this path to anyone considering independent, he emphatically said no.

It’s too late now, though.

“The gamble is that it actually all pays off, and there is a good chance that won’t happen,” he said. “Gimme another six months to see how things roll out, and then I’ll know if I want to go back in time and punch myself in the stomach or not.”

If the explosive response on Twitter to Skulls of the Shogun coming to Surface was any indication, there's an audience. If nobody buys a Surface, though, Kazdal has already covered his bases, and they'll be able to pick up and play the platform elsewhere.

“This is our first time out as independent, so we’re just riding this wild sea of adventure every day,” he said. “It’s like going to war every day. “

Patrick Klepek on Google+