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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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Employment Adventures

Or One Way To Become A Game Designer

Sunday night.  The phone rings.  It’s my boss John.  “Brad, do you want the good news or the bad news?” 

Freeze frame.  Okay, so to explain what’s going on here, I had been pacing back and forth since Saturday.  A phone call from John means one of several things.  Either my game project’s cancelled, or I am laid off, or the whole company’s shut down.  It’s nervous time.

Rewind to Wednesday night.  My wife Kate and I are at dinner, when she asks how work is going.  Work, I say, had been better.  Our game project had been searching for direction for some time.  While some people were outwardly gung-ho to race towards the finish line, a lot of faces told the story that we were going nowhere fast. Sometimes games just don’t gel and plugs get pulled.

I casually say, “I think they’re going to cancel our project.”

I’ve been here before, the calm before the storm.  A project or a studio about to take a turn for the worse, I can almost taste it.  It’s not any one thing you can put your finger on.  It’s something you have to experience a few times to get a sense of.  In my almost decade of doing art for money, I have experienced this sensation many times, and have been blessed enough to come out on the other side, but it’s not always apparent what will happen.  Like I say, I’ve been here before.

For example, in my last few months of college, I got a contract gig in Houston for a web development company.  The only web experience I had was maintaining my own site, but they saw fit to hire me full time after I graduated as their multimedia specialist.  For the first job of my career, I had a crash course in how my boss’s over-expectations clashed with my own inexperience.  Working for a living was not easy.  Not to mention, the owners of the company had a huge fight and I was caught in the middle of something I had not been prepared for.  I even dragged one of my best friends in the mess with me. Luckily, she got out when the getting was good.  Office Drama 101?  I missed out on that class.  Two days before the bottom completely fell out, I got a call from a fellow named Van.  He had seen my website and wanted to interview me.  I blew him off because I wanted my current job to work out.  It didn’t.

So I am now jobless in a city I’d never been to, and a week later, Van calls me again.  Decent timing, that.  He was head of a PC game company, and he wanted to know again if I was interested in a job.  I thought, “Games?”   I had never considered doing games before full time, but sure, I’ll swing by for an interview.  To this day, I have no idea how he found me.

Thus started my gaming career and it’s been a rollercoaster ride ever since.  That interview put me in as lead artist at Digital Tome.  For three years I worked my heart out on several games for them, and at the end, we get the news that they have to close their doors.  Bad timing!  I had just met a swell gal named Katie, and was hoping to actually have a job when I asked her out on a date.  Oh well, that really didn’t matter to her evidently.

Anyway, After Digital Tome, I found a true brickburner of a contract gig, right there in Houston.  While I was lounging around my apartment burning down my stockpile of non-perishables and water and the occasional cracker while looking for full time work, I get a call out of the blue from a fellow who was interested in my services.  “Hi, my name’s Glenn. Your resume came across my desk and I wanted to interview you for a graphic artist position.”  Oh, he has a desk, and at least an assistant?  That seems promising… it’s not gaming, but it’ll do for now.  I get my interview face on and head out.

Turns out, this guy had an interactive multimedia CD authoring and marketing company in New York and after some unexplained event fired everyone in his entire staff and flash relocated to North Houston.  Glenn hired me on as his ONLY EMPLOYEE to replace all those people, and we set to work making website/cd/marketing packages for various get rich quick schemes and multi-level marketing outfits.  Oh, did I mention he worked out of his house?  Or that he did not have a desk, or an assistant?  And that all his equipment was in storage? And it was completely disassembled with no manuals and parts missing?  Yeah.  I suppose Glenn never hired anyone else because anytime he needed someone to do his websites, photography, logos, interactive UI, video and audio editing, radio commercial writing, network and email support, hardware support and to keep track of his keys and schedule and take calls at all hours of the night, well, I suppose I fit the bill. 

So, after one particularly grueling weekend that Glenn did not allow me to leave work for sixteen hours straight to finish a project, said project being full of things I had never done before, learning on the fly while Glenn kept threatening to “hire somebody else to do the job,” my freshly minted girlfriend Kate took me aside and told me that if we were going to be together, I could not work like that. It wasn’t healthy for me or our relationship, and she was tired of not spending time with me.  Wow, she actually wanted to see me once in a while. During that last nonstop work-a-thon, I got a call from the owner of Timegate Studios.

Now Timegate was at the time the only other game in town, so to speak.  I thought that if I wanted any semblance of a normal workload and schedule, I should probably see what they had to offer.  Plus it put me back into the game industry, which was a plus.  However, they only wanted to pay me a fraction of what I was used to making both at Digital Tome and for Glenn.  The stability and benefits weighed in and I took the job.  

Six months later, Kate and I got married, and I had settled back into game development.  After three years of clawing my way up the financial ladder at Timegate to a salary *almost* equivalent to what I made right out of college, the bad news came.  Timegate was out of money, closing its doors, and we were mostly all laid off. I had survived three rounds of layoffs there, but no amount of talent will keep a job that doesn’t exist anymore.  While it was nice that the head of the company helped us all fill out the unemployment info on the last day, it was kind of rough to say goodbye to good friends. 

The day they laid us all off, Hurricane Rita started making headlines.  I was sitting at home Wednesday three days after the layoff, in my unemployed splendor watching the weatherman predict the eye of the storm running right over our house.  I called Kate to tell her to come home and scoop up the cats and we were heading for higher ground before the roads got too clogged.  As she’s driving home, I start gathering up what we’re going to take with us, and I am wondering if we should evacuate to Dallas, where my family lives, or Austin, where Kate’s family lives.

My email pops up just before I unplug my computer with a message from Midway Studios Austin.  “Hi, we’ve seen your website and wonder if you’d like to come in for an interview.”

Good timing… Austin it is!

Fourteen hours later in a normally two hour trip, we get to Austin.  The next day, I have an interview that lasts six hours at Midway.  Even in my frazzled evacuee state, I do reasonably well.  Turns out, one of my good friends who had gone to Midway Chicago had sent in my stuff for me, and they had forwarded it to the Austin studio without me knowing.  It wasn’t until the last conversation of that six hour interview that I even knew what position they were hiring me for.

My time at Midway had been the best work experience in my career.  These guys were true professionals, took care of everything, made me feel right at home, sent me to Chicago to the home office, San Jose for GDC, Seattle for a summit, I had rolled into the big time as far as game development went.  I was on a multimillion dollar project and working my way up.  I got to work on Blacksite Area 51, and the unannounced other four year project, I learned a lot and made great friends and contacts.

I don’t want to say a thing bad about Midway, I loved working there.  It was the best company, the best team, the best project I had ever worked on. It’s just that the monumental talent we had brought to bear on this project couldn’t save our game, and people started to realize it, but we never stopped working as hard as we could.  While I was trying my hardest to polish the UI and get the FX and vehicles and weapons for the next product review, I got a call from a fellow at id Software in Dallas.

A friend of mine from Timegate years ago that wound up at id had asked if I wanted to come up there and work, and at the time, Midway was rocking along ok, I didn’t see the need to jump ship.  A few weeks later, they wanted to call me for a phone interview, and I thought, “What could it hurt?”

Halfway through the call, they say they’re going to fly me up to Dallas to interview, and I think, well, ok, we’ll do that. But later they call back and they have to postpone.  This is fine, because I do have a lot of work to do and I hated taking a day off short notice when my team needed me.  So, in between the phone call, and the postponed on site interview at id, things at Midway start to erode.  I had seen the writing on the wall a few weeks prior, but it was really clear that something was impending.

That brings us back to Wednesday night at dinner with Kate.  “I think they’re going to cancel our project.”

The next morning, Thursday, I actually hear rumors to the fact through the wonderful high-speed grapevines that intertwine throughout our little industry.  Way better than carrier pigeon.  I lean over to my closest companions at work and mention they should get whatever ducks or other waterfowl they use to classify their daily duties squarely in a row, ‘cause something’s going down on Monday.

Friday, I get up, get ready, get my stuff together and head to the airport.  Oh, did I mention that’s the day id software had rescheduled me to fly up to Dallas for an interview?  Great timing!  After the interview, the driver takes me back and I fly back to Austin, Kate picks me up and we drive down to San Antonio.  While I am spanning three cities in one day, everyone at Midway is getting frantic as to what’s going to happen Monday.  While there’s no official word, we all kind of know what’s going on in one form or another.  Saturday after we get home, the phone starts ringing and the text messages and rumors start flying.  Turns out, by Saturday night, the general consensus is that if you get a call from your boss, he’ll tell you to stay home Monday.  Not only is the project cancelled, but anyone showing up Monday for work will be let go.

I had just had a great interview at id, and I would love to get laid off to get the severance package and smoothly transition northward.  However, I hear nothing from id, and I get a bit nervous.  I also don’t hear anything from work, so it looks like I will be laid off.  The things that go through your mind in a time like this tend to build on top of themselves into a gestalt of anxiety.

Sunday morning, still no word from id or Midway, the rumor mill is at its height, and now I hear that the building is locked, no one has access.  I hear of some of my friends getting calls to stay home, they’re safe.  I have made up my mind that if I am called, or not, I’ll make it through.

Sunday night.  The phone rings.  It’s my boss John. “Brad, do you want the good news or the bad news?” 

“Give me the bad news, John” 

Project is cancelled; they’re laying off eighty plus people.  The good news is they want to keep me, John tells me to just come in on Wednesday and we’ll talk.

Monday, I hang out at home till id contacts me and asks if they can bring Kate and me in. They want to meet the wife, and show her around the office.  That’s a good sign.  Wednesday I show up at work.  And I have to keep my mouth shut about what’s going on.  However, somewhere leaks are sprung, and people are starting to ask questions.  I am starting to have to fend off questions about me leaving Midway.

We drive up there Friday and visit again, I get my offer letter and my fate is sealed for sure.  I’ll be working at id by the first of October.

Remember the high speed grapevine?  Somehow, my studio director got wind of my plans to go to id before I was ready to let anyone know.  She was cool about it, just wanted to know so she could make plans.  She said I could come back any time, which is nice.   I went ahead and let everyone know so I could help finish as much work as I could before I left.

So now we’re laying plans for the move to Dallas, I am sitting in the middle of my week off before starting at id, and looking back at all the twists and turns I have been through in my career.  Sometimes, it’s tough to know what’s going to happen. I’m here to tell you working in the game industry isn’t always fun and games, but it’s always interesting.  I suppose it’s like the movie industry, swinging from project to project, company to company, but I never thought it would be.  Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but it has been up and down.  I just hope this gig lasts more than three years!