A Story About iPhone Game Development

Developing for the iPhone is a bit of a shift for me; in more ways than one.  I spent ten years climbing the career ladder towards bigger projects, bigger budget titles, bigger studios, etc.  But when I found myself taking leave of the million dollar projects and high profile studios and joining up with a little 3 man startup iPhone app company, I had no idea the very next rungs on the ladder would be some of the most challenging and rewarding of my career.

 Now just before I had gone to id Software in Dallas, in the week I had free after leaving Midway Studios Austin, I had agreed to help my friend Jeremy Howa do a little iPhone game for his pre-startup company.  I believe they were working at the boss’s upstairs pool table at the time I pitched in and helped them out by doing the artwork.  I also named the game, “TriniTower;” which was to become somewhat of a recurring task.

TriniTower was a three-tower solitaire game, light in artwork, but the artwork needed to be high quality, or so I thought.  I did a few mockups, and had Jeremy come over to the house and review them, and we had game design talks as we changed artwork and scope on the fly.  At the time, Jeremy and I were technically the only ones on the team, as John and Brian Howard, the ones funding the project, were busy at another software design establishment.  This was my first taste at iPhone development, and I was pretty lost.

Luckily, Jeremy had picked up a fresh new Mac Mini for development, and begun the painful process of converting his programming skills over to the Mac platform.  I still developed artwork on a PC.  The art doesn’t care where it’s made, but we had to assemble it on the Mac.

After a whirlwind week of design, art production, execution, programming and testing, we had what was a playable game, and were progressing pretty fast, when the time came for Katie and me to move to the Dallas area so I could start work at id.  Jeremy and I continued work on TriniTower over high-speed Internet connection, IM, email and Skype.  We would use these remote connection methods to hold meetings over the Internet.  Often times we would discuss a change over Skype, I would edit the artwork, email it over to Jeremy, and he would recompile the game on his end, and hold up the iPhone to the webcam and show me how it looked, animated, etc.  Rinse and repeat till we were done, and that’s how our first iPhone game was done: partly in person, partly over webcam chat, email and Instant Message.

I had definitely never developed like this before, but it wasn’t bad.  Our next foray into the iPhone field was a reskin of John and Brian’s first iPhone app “PocketDyno:” an accelerometer based portable dyno app for testing your car’s speed.  This time, the project was done completely over instant message chat, Skype webcam and email.  I never even saw in person the project working until well after we were done with the complete artwork overhaul.

Three or four months before the first round of layoffs at Midway Austin, Jeremy was carpooling to work in the “grandma car.”   This was the affectionate name of the Chrysler Jeremy picked me up in every other workday.  During the ride, we’d talk about the ArduiNIX project we were toying with, along with a stack of half- baked game ideas.  One such game idea that so persistently occupying the conversations I finally dubbed “Dungeon Defense.”

DD was an absolutely elegant concept.  The tower defense genre was at its height of popularity at the time, as was World of Warcraft®.  Jeremy and I had talked about a fantasy style game that would generate random dungeons, and be kind of like a Diablo clone for the iPhone, but for the iPhone, the game concept had to be scoped way down. There was no way we could have pulled off the amount of content required to do that kind of game justice.  It was at that point we came up with the idea of flipping the concept of a “dungeon crawler” game upside down by framing the player as the dungeon. Instead of the player venturing forth and fighting monsters for loot and exploring dungeons, in DD you WERE the dungeon, defending your loot and treasure from invading heroes who want to defeat you..  This idea became more attractive as we realized we could scope it down justifiably, and introduce elements of the tower defense genre as well, by creating a game that everyone can relate to in its setting, but a new twist on how you play it.  It was truly novel, and doable on the iPhone platform. When Jeremy told me one day they were doing DD, I had a moment of sadness that I wasn’t there to contribute.

By this time, I was growing very weary of the daily 2 hour commute to id, and with a few other compelling reasons to head back to Austin, I had begun talking to Jeremy about if they needed an artist for the freshly minted InMotion Software studio.  My friend Marshall Womack had been filling the artist duties for some time, but was about to head over to Twisted Pixel to work on Splosion Man for XBOX.  A quick phone call to John Howard one evening after work, and it was set.  After 7 months at one of the best and most respected game companies in history, I would turn in my two weeks notice at id, and Katie and I would move back to Austin.

I came on board with InMotion halfway through DD Development.  It was odd being in a studio full of MacBooks, Mac Minis, etc.  InMotion had definitely grown since the boss’s pool table.  Everyone was going through the same pains of adapting to Mac except for me, who was still cranking out artwork on the PC.

After Dungeon Defense had mild initial success, we made two more add on campaigns, when sales of DD began to slip, and as a team we decided to take a breather before moving on to the next tower defense style game.  The short “two-week” project Jeremy suggested in a moment of brilliance was a dig dug/motherlode style game where you dig up treasure, sell it for upgrades, and return to the deep to hunt for more treasure.

I took this opportunity to put on my naming hat again and I called it “I Dig It.”  The name was at first scowled at; and other names suggested, but I stuck to my guns.  I Dig It was not only WHAT you did in the game, but also a subtle forced declaration of how you felt about it.  A positive review spun right into the very name of the game.  How could it go wrong?  You couldn’t say the name of the game without also telling people you liked it at the same time.  It even had the letter “I” in it, which had already become so cliché in the iTunes store that anytime we saw a new app like iLawnmower, we cringed.  But I Dig It?  That wasn’t bad. 

 

The two-week project began with only Jeremy and me working on the tech and concept.  I started feeding Jeremy artwork, and he plugged it in very quickly.  By the end of two weeks we had the tech demo working, but no real game. As we realized this might be a larger project, Brian finalized work on the Dungeon Defense updates and switched over to I Dig It. Now I like having artistic control on a project, but I had never been the ONLY artist on a team that had actually done anything this big with so few people.  At that time, the InMotion team consisted of Jeremy and Brian, the programmers; me the artist; and Johnny “Cash” Howard, who was the funding behind this endeavor.  The problem with a game team that is structured that way was that we would take the entire team down for design discussions.  We had no full time game designer on staff, so it took all of us at once to hammer out the mechanics of the gameplay.  About three quarters of the way through I Dig It Development, we got the bright idea to hire a designer.  We put out a call to Chris “Cookie” Graham as he was parting company with FizzFactor downtown.  Cookie had worked with Jeremy and I at Midway, and we knew he could handle the job.  As Cookie came on board, we saw instant productivity benefits, as the programmers could focus on the tech, and Cookie delivered on the fun.

When we wrapped up I Dig It, and released it, we realized a few things about Apple, iPhone development, and marketing an indie game.  With Jeremy and I used to being at gigantic game studios that have people on staff to take care of marketing and promotion, we had never sat down and thought about how to promote our iPhone games.  When we released TriniTower, we just kind of patted it on the back and tossed it to the wind, hoping someone would see it, like it, and buy it.  With Dungeon Defense, and a great deal more time and money invested, we had a bit of a different expectation on the return on investment of development.  However, we still had no real knowledge of how to promote our game, since other people had always been tasked to do that before.  A break came when a Google search turned up an iPhone game review site called Touch Arcade that had a forum member post a positive review of Dungeon Defense almost the day it came out.  This led us to start working the forums, watering the grassroots marketing effort that we were beginning to recognize and cultivate.  Had we known about Touch Arcade and similar sites when we released TriniTower, or hyped Dungeon Defense pre release on such sites, we would have stood a greater chance at success.

Now when the light at the end of the tunnel started to break its twinkly self through the darkness of project development, we realized we had to learn our marketing lessons and learn them fast.  We had a great deal more money and time invested in I Dig It than we had planned for, and we actually were hoping to turn a profit at this iPhone game biz.

So we set out to light a fire under every media contact, every forum, and every possible method of getting the word out that we had a good game, and it was for sale. We wrapped up the game in its current state, and sent it off to Apple.  Then the waiting began.  At this point in the process, you’re pretty much completely at Apple’s whim.  They approve the application, or don’t.  They promote the application, or don’t.  With thousands of apps hitting the store every week, if you don’t catch the attention of someone at Apple, you get buried.  And that’s right where we were.

Sales were not dismal, but they were not reflective of the quality we thought we had invested in this game.  We began entertaining the idea of becoming a non-game studio, app a day, lower production value apps or games.  We were considering just trying to “make it up in volume” when we started getting good word from people on the forums.  What really started turning us around was word from one post that said our game was being passed around the Apple’s World Wide Developer’s Conference like the “swine flu.” A day later, we got an email from Apple.  To paraphrase, it amounted to “Dear InMotion, we love your app.  We would like the artwork and materials needed in order to do a possible feature on you in the iTunes store.”

I cranked out the artwork and sent it to them, only to hear nothing.

It was like we were beating our fist against the monolith that was Apple, and they were not shedding any love for our “out of nowhere” studio.  Meanwhile lesser quality titles from studios that have more intimate connections with apple got featured left and right.  We went back to Dungeon Defense, what we thought was our tried and true Intellectual Property, and began cranking on a new map expansion in an attempt to boost sales of that title.

Then Touch Arcade did a front-page feature and review on their site praising I Dig It.  At this point, we dropped the price to $0.99 in an attempt to get I Dig It into the top 100 games, which was our goal. It got there, and kept going.  As soon as it started catching the attention of iPhone gamers, we got word from friends abroad that it was climbing the charts at a blistering pace in Canada, Japan, Russia and other countries.  However, in the US we were nowhere.  Apple wouldn’t feature us like they said they would, and we were beginning to hound our one contact at Apple to find out why.  Finally, the price drop to $0.99, coupled with a hailstorm of forum posts, podcast reviews, and other efforts began to push I Dig It up the US Charts.  Slowly at first, but then every day it was up a notch.  Then up several places in the list, then finally after what seemed like months, we broke the top 100 paid games, then top 100 paid Apps, then we really started shooting up the lists.  By the time Apple finally decided to do a feature on I Dig It, we were the #9 top paid app in the country.  We sat around the studio watching in disbelief the Thursday I Dig It hit the #1 Top paid app in the world, displacing the Moron Test.  It stayed at that level for about 6 days, and we started rolling the updates to keep it as fresh as possible and delay the slow retreat down the charts.

This experience has been truly unique in my career.  While working on big budget titles I never saw the kind of success I have seen with this little independent title.  I have never had such daunting tasks, or so much fun and satisfaction.  I have never had to strain my talents to the breaking point so much, yet have never been rewarded for doing so to this extent.  We’re working on the sequel to I Dig It now, and hopefully we have learned enough to repeat our success.  Dealing with this side of Apple takes some getting used to. We have to learn how to work the system, but it’s a load of fun getting there.  You might say I dig it.  And yes, I still make art on a PC.

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