Game On: Catching Up With The Voxel Agents and Halfbrick
The Brisbane chapter of IGDA (International Game Developers Association) recently held an evening of questions and answers, bringing together three members from prominent development studios in Australia to talk to students about their experiences in the industry. Tom Killen and Henrik Pettersson from The Voxel Agents and Luke Muscat from Halfbrick were more than ready and willing to discuss topics ranging from the casual such as 'What games do you like to play now?' to more serious points regarding how to sell yourself as an Indie developer.
The chat is only one such event in the year-long 'Game On' season organized by IGDA Brisbane. Co-reviewer Dave Flodine and I couldn't pass up an opportunity to listen to and chat with Tom, Henrick and Luke, so we packed up and made the trip up to Brisbane to check things out.
Sadly we rocked up a bit late to the Q&A (I'll take the blame for that - one wrong turn and BAM!... you're stuck in traffic in the wrong direction for an extra 15 minutes), but things had only just started when we arrived with the topic jumping over to the kinds of games each of the guests are currently playing in their spare time.
There were no real surprises as both Tom and Luke professed an interest in smaller casual games, with Luke avoiding console and PC games at times as it reminded him of the work he'd left behind at the offices. That isn't to say they're not fans of 'hardcore' titles, but one can't blame them for preferring smaller titles to wind down the day.
Things got a bit heavier as the questions turned towards what each guest had learned upon entering the industry, with the response overwhelmingly leaning towards the shock of how business driven game development is. Tom Killen did have a slightly different perspective on things as he went straight from University and in to Independent developing, "For me, entering the games industry was really going Indie and those two things are the same thing for me... the struggle for me was like, realizing you don't just release a game on the iPhone market... and be just like 'Alright, let the money roll in!'. It doesn't always work like that."
Topics continued to roll back and forth throughout the evening with Tom, Herick and Luke touching on points such as the struggles with money as an Indie studio to the importance of the icon displayed on iTunes, sharing their insight and experience with budding developers keen on absorbing the wisdom of their peers.
After an hour the event came to a close with the guests retiring to a local bar to catch up with friends and alumni from the local university.
All in all it was a fascinating evening and those interested in checking out the whole discussion can watch an unedited version here. The Voxel Agents are known for the Train Conductor series, however they're hard at work on a new game and those interested in the prototyping process can check out their blog here. Also feel free to check out Henrik's earlier work, Up Down Ready. Halfbrick studios are certainly no unknown developer and you can check out our review of their most recent title 'Jetpack Joyride' here.
More thoughts from Dave and I to follow below.
Thoughts On Various Topics:
Dave: Both Halfbrick and The Voxel Agents members talked about the lengthy amount of prototyping game ideas go through. Ideas are cheap, so they throw a bunch of them at a wall, make up some quick prototypes and see what rises to the top. They keep repeating this process till they've wound down their options to their next project (and in the meantime they may have some great ideas on the shelf for further down the road). One doesn't need to be a programmer to be involved with this process however, as the new member of Voxel Agents (Henrik) talked about creating his ideas as animations in flash to show off his concepts.
Andrew: It's fascinating to hear about the creative process behind a game concept as it shows how even a basic idea can go through multiple iterations before reaching a point where the developer is comfortable enough to move forward. If you've ever played a game that lacked cohesion in its gameplay or a game that has fallen in to the all-too-common category of '<insert popular game> with <insert random mechanic>', you can bet there was a lack of prototyping in the early stages.
Pricing On The App Store
Dave: Tom was talking about game pricing. Basically the larger your suspected audience, the cheaper your price. This is why most casual, fun time waster games are around the 99 cent mark (or these days using the freemium model), while more niche titles should be priced higher since the audience for these games is significantly smaller and every developer wants to make break even or hopefully make a profit on their titles.
Andrew: When it comes down to it, this is fairly basic business sense - there's no cost involved in making a perfect digital copy of something endlessly, so cheaper prices are inevitable if you want to reach the broadest possible audience. Interestingly the topic crossed in to that of pirating and the prevailing feeling was that the freemium model, along with In App Purchasable bonuses were the best way to deal with the issue (along with other methods including 'Lite' versions or Free sales via groups such as Free App A Day).
Your Icon Is More Important Than You Think
Dave: Luke mentioned that in creating the icon displayed for the game on the App Store (and ultimately on people's iPhones), that one has never been created in less than a full working week. This is the first contact point most people have with your game (along with the title), and this icon will be traveling around on people's iPhones and iPads so it needs to be as perfect as you can make it.
Andrew: I wish I remember the App in particular that was talked about, but an anecdote was shared about a developer that had released their game, garnering very little response in sales or general buzz, however after pulling the game from the store and resubmitting with a new icon the game saw a significant increase in sales. Sadly I have to admit that I have judged games prematurely based on their icon and if any advise could be passed on to a new developer it would be, 'Consider the icon as though it were the box-art of your game. Even thought it's just a handful of pixels, you need to slave over it to make it represent your game in the best light possible.'
Jetpack Joyride And Why It Had A Name Change
Dave: As production on Jetpack Joyride continued, the game consistently changed towards a more casual experience. With this being the case, the original name of Macine Gun Jetpack started to grate on the development team. Ultimately they decided to change the name to reflect what the game had turned into (also having the title fit on the App Store in full instead of just “machine gun...” didn't help).
Andrew: Luke touched on how Jetpack Joyride was almost an experiment in terms of marketing as the company aimed for a three month lead-up to the release of the game to generate buzz. Due to the nature of the beast that is developing, three-months turned in to many more months (as the deadline kept being pushed back). While the name 'Machinegun Jetpack' was ringing in people's ears for most of this time, the additional development time allowed them make the monumental decision to change the name. I personally believe it was for the best, but as Luke put it, you can't really know how something like this has affected your sales.