A couple of week ago [September 30th] news broke that Microsoft first-party studio Twisted Pixel were returning to their roots as an independent developer and leaving the ownership of Microsoft.
Twisted Pixel are based in Austin, Texas and were formed in 2006, since then they have had all 6 of their games published by Microsoft across Xbox Live Arcade, Xbox One and PC starting with The Maw then moving to the Splosion Man franchise, Comic Jumper, The Gunstringer for Kinect and finally their last release in November 2013 (February 2014 on XBLA and PC) Lococycle, they were purchased in October 2011 after the release of Gunstringer.
Here is the full press release they issues to announce the split, there are a few interesting things about this that have sparked my curiosity.
“The companies formalized their relationship in 2011 when Microsoft acquired the studio in a “minimally integrated” arrangement, a feature that kept the door cracked open for the development announced today.”
The details of why exactly Microsoft purchased them were never disclosed but I find it strange that they were acquired with the possibility of them returning independent again one day. Did the studio need a financial backer to help them survive? Given the close relationship between the two surely continuing the publisher-partner set-up that was working before could have sufficed?
The stars seemed to align with Twisted Pixel making a Kinect game for the launch of the device which was a good fit, Lococycle is a bit of a strange game and could well have been envisaged as a Kinect game originally but like Crimson Dragon and Ryse was perhaps retooled away from that for the launch of Xbox One?
There are other questions that I have about what potentially caused this split though, did Microsoft decide they no longer wanted to publish their next game, which brought this conversation back to the table? Was the project cancelled or on the verge of it? Or perhaps it was going to be significantly delayed? Maybe there was a feeling at Microsoft that it wasn’t heading in the direction they wanted it to and wouldn’t be as good as they had hoped or wanted?
I don’t want to lay all the possibilities on Twisted Pixel’s capabilities though, I think another possible reason is down to the direction Microsoft’s first-party studios appear to moving towards: Games-as-a-Service and multiplayer focused titles.
If you look at the other studios Microsoft have a pattern has emerged: Fable Legends (free-to-play 4vs1 multiplayer title), Sea of Thieves (shared-world multiplayer game, possibly free-to-play?), Project Knoxville (11 player survival multiplayer title, open development, free-to-play/game preview?) from Lionhead, Rare and Press Play to join the likes of their big titles in that direction: Halo, Forza, Minecraft, Gears of War and Project Spark. With the exception of Forza and Project Spark the other titles have a huge if not entirely multiplayer focus and even then Forza is a well liked multiplayer title, Project Spark is a service based product even with its recent changes.
Microsoft built the Xbox business on the basis of multiplayer titles, they have always made them and they have made some great and interesting multiplayer modes for titles over the years either competitively or cooperatively so its not surprise they are looking to continue with that focus given how esports and other business models like free-to-play and early access have blown up. That said I think we are starting to see them move down a specific path with their internal studio development studio titles and this could be where Twisted Pixel might not have been a good fit for Microsoft anymore and they chose to split up.
If Twisted Pixel wanted to develop a more one and done focused titles, not being particularly interested in evolving into a games-as-a-service studio I can certainly see why both parties might have decided it was a good time to part ways given it was always a possibility and their paths weren’t so aligned anymore. If that was really the reason I’d be very disappointed but perhaps we will never really know.
Referring to the acquisition as a “minimally integrated” arrangement above sounds interesting to me too, it does seem like they really were prepared for a future parting of the ways but then it brings into question other studios they have acquired, namely Press Play. Lionhead and Rare have been with Microsoft far too long for a similar arrangement plus they are much bigger and I’d say more valuable (not to mention less recent) because of that but the following quote was part of an interview with Press Play management over the acquisition:
“Microsoft and Press Play agreed on what we call a light touch acquisition, meaning they wanted us to stay Press Play and let us run the studio in the same way as we already had been doing,” he explains. “Basically they wanted us to still feel like an indie studio but without all the headaches of being indie.” (Via Develop)
So, does this mean that Press Play could also go back to being independent in the future too if Microsoft decide they don’t want to publish a post-Project Knoxville title perhaps?
I think Microsoft should be applauded for their approach to this with Twisted Pixel (and going back to 2007, Bungie) because many other publishers/owners would shut down a studio no longer of use to them, things like this and People Can Fly leaving Epic are not the norm and great that they were willing to preserve the jobs of those at the studios although I do find the situation in particular to be peculiar as reasons outlined above.
I also questioned the possibility of a big delay or cancellation to their current project which could have caused this situation and I think its relevant to mention that since being acquired in October 2011 they have released just the one game in 4 years which was Lococycle although they did release two in 2011 overall (including 1 the month before the acquisition).
I didn’t particularly enjoy Lococycle very much I thought it was pretty bad in all honesty although I could see that they were going for quirky and weird which they managed to do at least. I’ve also not really played any of their other games either but having said at E3 2013 they were working on another title since then and Lococycle had some concept art for it in there I was hoping we would see a bigger and better title that comes from a new owner and more resources at your disposal, that was what I was interested in happening, Twisted Pixel to prove them themselves on a grander scale.
As part of the split Twisted Pixel retained the IPs for they games they have made, I assume this includes all of them and they are free to do what they please with these titles, it’s a shame that they weren’t able to or didn’t want to work on a re-release package for any of their games on Xbox One, perhaps a Splosion Man double pack would have gone down well earlier in products release cycle.
So what has happened to the game they were working? Well, we don’t really know, will Microsoft be publishing it still? I find that unlikely, they did mention the possibilities of other platforms and publishers as part of the announcement and I suspect they will be looking at maximising their current IPs at the very least with a range of PC and Playstation 4 ports, that’s what I would do if I was them anyway.
We don’t know anything about the project except for some things that were part of Lococycle as I previously wrote about in June 2015 and May 2014, Phil Spencer’s comments from December last year were very interesting in particular too, perhaps the game was too big and going off course? Who knows, they could even be working on a different project altogether.
I wish the studio luck in their future titles and I will keep an eye out for their next projects to see what they make and if that gives us any sign of perhaps why things didn’t last under the Microsoft Studios umbrella.