Crate Expectations

By: Guest Reviewer

On: March 29th, 2010

[This is a guest review by PerrinAshcroft. If you’re interested in writing an article for TIGSource, please go here.]

Crate Expectations is an Xbox Live Indie Games title released in October last year. It didn’t receive a lot of coverage at the time which is a real shame. XBLIG is a strange service with an eclectic mix of the great and the terrible and sadly real gems such as this can just sink into the depths of Xbox menus never to be seen again. The developer recently released a patch for the game and so now seems as good a time as ever to shed some light on this lovely game that may have passed you by. I even contacted the developers to see if they could tell us a little more about their experience developing for XBLIG.

Crate Expectations

Looking at screenshots your first impression is probably that this is a Sokoban-style block-pushing puzzle. That was certainly what I’d thought, but the reality is very different. Create Expectations is actually a fiendish multiplayer strategy game. While the goal of the game is simply to spawn your blocks and push them along a sliding surface to the exit, there’s no real puzzle to how you’re going to get there. The real challenge of the game comes from the other players, whether they be AI or ideally your friends, as you find ways to get your blocks to the exit while simultaneously stalling and screwing over your opponents attempts to do the same.

At its absolute best this becomes a chess-like process of thinking multiple moves ahead. Deciding how many turns will it take them to reach the goal and figuring how can you increase that number for them. You can spawn ice blocks that will disrupt them for a few turns or even sacrifice some of your own blocks, leaving them static while they halt your opponents’ progress. A massive selection of maps each presenting different routes and bottlenecks means there’s a huge amount of depth to the tactics and strategies to employ in winning.

In terms of graphics and level of polish the screenshots almost speak for themselves, it’s clear the developers put as much care and attention into this as any commercial title seen on Xbox Live Arcade.

Crate Expectations

So what’s the catch here? Why didn’t this game make a bigger splash when it came out? Well I think this game was always going to have a hard time reaching the kind of players who’d love it. It has the look of a casual puzzle game but is in fact something for people into multiplayer strategy. While the AI is perfectly sufficient at kicking your ass if you set it hard enough, this is like Bomberman in that the real fun comes from playing it with two mates in the room, screaming at them when they’ve just totally shafted you.

If you’re the type of person who’s enjoyed sessions of Worms or Bomberman and can bring a few friends over to play a competitive game like this, then there’s a lot of joy to be had for only 240 Microsoft Points. I would certainly suggest you dig into NXE menus and hunt for this title.

Crate Expectations

Finally, I contacted the developers to see if they’d answer a few questions about developing the game. Rather than talking specifically of the game itself I thought it would be more interesting to find out about their experience developing for Xbox Live Indie Games and the lessons they’ve learned:

Where did the idea for Crate Expectations come from? Any other games that were influential in deciding to make it?

Duncan: I’m probably going to come across as quite cryptic by saying this, but the idea was mostly a result of the circumstances under which we had to make it! I’ll spare you the boring details, but initially we had a very small time window in which to develop the project, so we scoured through game ideas we’d had in the past to find something simple and fun that could be done justice in as little as a week of development. Crate Expectations was a distillation of a larger design that Alex had been dreaming of for some time that seemed to fit the bill.

Alex: I originally came up with the idea behind Crate Expectations quite a while ago but it really was fleshed out when we started actually making the game. We wanted to make the kind of game that we wanted to play and we wanted to play something competitive, huddled around a TV in a cosy fashion but with the option to really play dirty as well. Crate Expectations kind of became a mash up of four player chess and the crate-pushing puzzle game, sokoban with a hefty spiking of something really evil like Sorry. Local multiplayer is very important to us in our games and we’re really glad that it seems to be coming back in style!

How big was your development team and what kind of prior development experience did they have?

Duncan: The core team at Haiku consists of myself (Duncan), Alex, and Jock. One designer who pretends to be a programmer, and two programmers who pretend to be designers. We had enough dirt on ex-colleagues and talented friends that they were easily blackmailed into showering us with the great quality artwork, trailers, music and sound that we wouldn’t have had any hope of making ourselves!

Alex: Jock and I have been in the industry for quite a while doing all sorts of things for all sorts of companies. Both of us worked on so called ‘Triple A’ titles before joining our previous employer, Outerlight, the creators of The Ship Online, where we met Duncan. We were, and possibly still are, working on something that’s potentially related to The Ship in some way but we’re wrapped up in so many NDAs that we couldn’t say for certain. Crate Expectations is our baby though, we love it dearly and it’s definitely the game I’m most proud of from my career so far.

Any important lessons you learned from making and releasing the game?

Duncan: Maybe puns aren’t as big a selling point as I’d like them to be! We fell in love with the name of the game as soon as it was suggested, never for a second considering changing it. In truth, I imagine a significant number of people probably thought “Crates? Nah” and skipped right over us. Box art and title are all people judge you on when scanning through the Xbox Indies section of the marketplace. I love both of ours very much indeed, but perhaps that love isn’t universal.

Alex: Yeah, we learnt a lot of lessons, mainly don’t let your game look like a puzzle game when it’s a strategy game. Everyone ends up sad – the puzzle game enthusiasts jump in and download the trial and have their minds blown when there’s no puzzle to solve and the strategy game lovers skip straight over it because it’s probably another crate pushing game. We had an absolutely amazing Trailer made up by a really great friend from The Creative Assembly, the guy that does all the trailers down there, but looking back on it, we should have added more text explaining what the game is actually about. I suppose if we’re truly honest we also learnt that games built for the Xbox Indies Channel need to be made as quickly as possible to maximize the chances of profiting from them. Crate Expectations took two months for four people in total so the initial outlay was high and we certainly haven’t made that back but we’ve learnt so much in the process that we think it was worth it.

Why did you decide to go with Xbox Live Indie Games as your target platform, any regrets with that decision?

Duncan: Our main reason was the ease with which we could do so. We had the equipment and software we needed to get the game built ready to hand, and the costs of releasing on Xbox Indies is trivial in comparison to many other avenues. Plus developing using XNA is a real pleasure; it makes it easy for even rubbish programmers like myself to be productive!

Alex: I suppose our only regret currently is that we didn’t make a PC version of the game too. We’re thinking very, very hard about that. There is a significant outlay of work to get the game’s online multiplayer aspect working on PC and we’re not entirely sure that it’s going to be worth it but we’ve had such good feedback from the people who’ve actually played the Indies version that we’re edging closer and closer to just doing it. The Indies Channel is a great place for people to start making games but there’s no doubt that there is a larger market for strategy games like Crate Expectations on PC.

Can you share any future plans for Crate Expectations or new projects you’re working now or would like to one day?

Duncan: We’ve actually not long released our first update to Crate Expectations, which added a bunch of new levels and numerous fixes and improvements that should hopefully make the game far more accessible and enjoyable. Whether we’ll do any more updates remains to be seen, but if there’s anybody out there that would like to see it happen then speak up – it wouldn’t take a great deal of encouragement for me to crack open the level editor again!

Alex: As I mentioned above I think if we do anything with Crate Expectations it might be to make a PC version and look at Steam as a potential way of distributing the game. As for other projects, we have the aforementioned title that is very much under wraps at the moment, we’re very, very excited about that though and then we have another Indies title that is coming along quite nicely. It’s a totally different game to Crate Expectations but so far it’s looking really promising. It’s already fun to play with and it’s very much still in the prototype stage.

  • Mooseral

    At least on my browser, the formatting on the developer’s responses has caused them to explode off the side of the page.

    Looks interesting though. Bomberman and it’s derivatives were always good, further developments of such sounds like a good idea. Wouldn’t mind reading the interview thing too, when it is not explody.

  • Galaxy613

    Oh wow, someone needs to fix those quotes. They totally break the width of the page… Game looks fun, shame I don’t have a XB360. :<

  • Derek

    Sorry about that – Typo (our blog software) has its own stupid formatting shortcuts and I just learned a new one: three spaces indentation before a paragraph = sidebar-bursting fun.

    The worst one is underscore = italics. It makes links go kablooey. :(

  • Troll

    I initially passed it by cuz I’m sure Old Man Murray’s seconds-to-crate metric would have unkind things to say about a game with Crate in the title.

  • mots

    this trailer doesn’t really tell me how the game is won.. maybe I missed it because of my incredibly short attention span but i can’t say I was excited about it

  • Anthony Flack

    Old Man Murray’s seconds-to-crate metric can eat it. A game without crates is like a game without bananas, roast chickens, and exploding red barrels: ie deficient.

    The game does look fun, a shame I don’t live in an XBLIG-approved country >:(

  • Ezuku

    Looks cool, crisp graphics and an original concept, but alas I don’t own an XBox.

  • reallyjoel

    “an eclectic mix of the great and the terrible”

    So, somebody cherry-picked both good and bad games to put on there..?

    I don’t think you know what ‘eclectic’ means =)

  • Dodger

    Yes, eclectic doesn’t really fit unless he meant that the terrible ones were actually the best of the worst in indie games… but since I know for a fact that a lot of stuff on XBLIG is some of the worst of the worst he couldn’t possibly be talking about them like that.

    This, however, does look like a decent game. The author was right about their being a few gems on XBLIG. Unfortunately the gems are few and far between and finding them is like searching for gemstones at the bottom of a pool of manure.

    Perhaps he meant XBLIG is an eclectic mix of manure? ;-)

    I’d give this game a shot though if the old 360 didn’t go defunct.

  • Alex Waterston

    Hey folks,

    I’m the Alex above! Thanks for posting about our game. It’ll be interesting to see what happens, if anything, to our sales after this post.

    We’ve been talking recently about completely overhauling the entire look of the game to see if we can drum up more interest and sales. To date we’ve not done well – in fact I’d go so far as to say we’ve done really, really badly in terms of units shipped. We’re kind of wondering whether maybe giant robots in a city scape of skyscrapers might be a more enticing theme?

    If anyone is looking for any truly hidden gems on the service then I cannot recommend Storage, Inc enough for local multiplayer genius. Those guys inspired us to make our own game a reality.


  • Gutter

    Hey Alex : Why don’t you release this for PC? Portals would buy a quality game like this, and it can’t be that hard with XNA and all…

  • Danny

    The game seems like a great idea. The main problem is simply spreading it. I believe two things are the reason for this downfall; a) the name, b) the graphics.

    a) Crate Expectations…honestly? Well I’m sure the developers have already figured out that this kind of name isn’t going to wow anyone nor pull players who have never heard of it in. So this needs a revamp.

    b) Now when I say graphics, I’m not saying that the current ones are bad. In fact, I love how crisp it all looks. However, the moment your main goal in a game is to move BLOCKS around, players get bored. Or rather, players don’t see the need to buy a game where they move cubes around.

    My recommendation: Don’t modify the game play. That seems superb. You don’t need to release on the PC as trying to modify the multiplayer engine would probably take hours of time. All you really need to do is change the cubes into characters. Make them cute, make them have funny voices, be inspired by games like Worms from which we learn that these seemingly miniature details make a game. So if all that stands between this game being a flop and success is a revamping of the title and blocks into characters, which I honestly think is all it needs, then go for it. Add in different types of levels as well. I’m not saying that you should go crazy with block types or whatnot just simply maybe a lava stage or some other ones where you can slip off the edge or whatnot to make simultaneous games interesting.

    Implementing these changes would take maybe 1-2 weeks with your team; I would seriously consider it.

    Best of luck :)

  • Alex Waterston

    Hey Gutter: Well, Danny has pretty much hit the nail on the head there with his talk of the multiplayer problems. XNA supports networking over LIVE on Xbox but not on PC so we’d need to work in a whole new networking engine with lobby system to take this into account.
    We have spoken to Valve about releasing through Steam with Steamworks integration but they weren’t interested – again probably because of the theme issues!

    Danny: You’ve outlined exactly what we’re talking about doing. Unfortunately we don’t have a fulltime artist and we don’t have an animator at all at the moment. We’re looking at doing these very things and we actually have a few ideas for themes that were around when we started this project. We’re definitely thinking about this though – we love the game and, obviously, we think it has the greatest gameplay ever ;) but we’re with you all the way on the graphics front. We love the name too but as we’ve found out – puns don’t sell.

    We’ll try to keep anyone interested up-to-date with any plans we have for a rerelease.

    Thank you so much for your comments, we really appreciate feedback!


  • @Danny

    Maybe this isn’t the best advice for a team of 2 1/2 Programmers and no artists?

    Maybe there is a way of comunicating “This is not a puzzle game, but a fun multiplayer strategy game!” without spending too on the art department?

  • Danny

    I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard then to even find a third person to make some simple 3D models; there are multiple people on the web who have these skills; I would recommend going through a site like Newgrounds, look through the art pages for 3D art and contact a few people there. These are indie artists who I’m sure would be a major help. I’m a programmer myself and know how difficult it can be to find/collaborate with artists, especially considering this is a commercial game and released and all these other tidbits. Nonetheless I strongly believe without the changes to graphics (and even if you convince people it is a fun multiplayer strategy game) much of the regular public would not buy into it (realistically speaking). The foundation is all there; you just need it to be appealing to the general demographic now.

  • Andy

    There certainly may be things you can do to make the game better, but don’t forget about the marketing side as well. Sales in the xblig channel are going to be driven by your placement on the top rated and top downloads channel. Like the app store, you should frame your process moving forwards on how you can change your positioning in those.

    Maybe take a page from Canabalt: offer a free version on the PC and direct players to the xblig version.

    Or retheme it to be intentionally outrageous (not just a workaday robot theme).

    Or try to organaize an online community to go give good ratings to the game.

    Game the system. With the app store (and xblig) you have to.

  • Anthony Flack

    I don’t think it’s that puns don’t sell, but that the name REALLY NEEDS to communicate somehow that this is a multiplayer strategy game, and “Crate Expectations” tells me nothing except that it’s got crates in it. Which isn’t really the point.

    Also, if XBLIG was available worldwide, you might sell more copies GODDAMMIT MICROSOFT

  • Duncan Blair

    …And that you should have high expectations, perhaps ;)

    But yes, while I don’t *entirely* agree that a game’s name needs to fully explain what the game is about (though it certainly worked well for “I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES!!!1”, plenty of other successful releases use more obscure titles), I think you’re right that it probably needed to do a better job of it in our case. On Xbox Indies you don’t have many opportunities to sell what the game is about, it really is box art and title first and foremost. Only if they grab some interest will the potential buyer might look at your screenshots and game description. So if you’re gonna use a pun/joke/mysterious title or box art, the other one had better do a good job of making it obvious what you’re all about.

    Our screenshots and description definitely put across that it is a multiplayer game, but the box art and title probably don’t. Even our description didn’t make that clear enough until we revised it along with our update. Maybe featuring another player’s crate in the background of the box art woulda played a small part in helping that, and calling it “Delivery Deathmatch” or something would have made it more obviously multiplayer focused (if a little misleadingly violent sounding!).

    We’ve got some ideas for new themes that are more outlandish than the simple robot cityscape idea, but fitting certain themes around the core mechanics doesn’t always result in a good, logical match. We’ll certainly continue thinking of other ideas on this front though.

    Thanks to everybody for the feedback by the way, it is much appreciated and we are very open to it all, no matter how harsh!

  • New title: Block-Fu

    Freebie for the day.

    And in all honesty, it sort of comes off as a christamasy+toy box title as well. Like someone mentioned, there are a ton of artists that might even work for free/one time fee just to work on a commercial game.

    Perhaps you wouldn’t even need to change the models. Just the textures and all. Eh, I’m rambling.

  • Bernard

    After reading this blog post I feel like playing this game. Unfortunately, there’s no indie channel in Belgium for now

  • juice

    I liked Crate Expectations when I reviewed it:

    However, I do have to concur with the general feedback: it does look like a Christmas-themed puzzle game and the name doesn’t help either (Great Expectations begins on Christmas Eve!)

  • nobody2

    I find puns just fine. Most game names don’t convey much about the game, but this one conveys bad feelings.

    This pun sounds like a decrepit English teacher came up with it while snorting through a boring lecture about even older people.

  • someone

    The name makes you expect crates. Boring, dull, crates.

    It doesn’t make you expect a deep or challenging strategy game.