Jamie, winner of the 2009 IGF Best Mobile Game Award, talks about developing their IPhone game, Fieldrunners
You can listen to the interview here…
Interviewer: I’m here at the Game Developers Conference and with me today is a special guest. I am at the Mobile Competition for IGF. How about you introduce yourself?
Jamie: Hi, I’m Jamie Gotch. I am the sole engineer on Fieldrunners.
Interviewer: And you guys won a couple of awards for IGF Mobile? What were they?
Jamie: So, we won the IGF Best Mobile Game Award as well as the Achievement in Art.
Interviewer: Congratulations. Can you talk about just the development of the game? What went into making it, and how did you guys come up with the ideas?
Jamie: Fieldrunners was built over a period of approximately six months part time. We went back and forth. Sergei, who is my partner, partner in crime on this project; he and I go way back working on a lot of RPS games. So, we have very extensive experience with developing RPS games. We thought the tower of defense was a perfect fit. We had a lot of know-how and knowledge of building that kind of game.
Fieldrunners was built over six months. We went and did it. It was a very iterate process. There was no one clear design from the start. We kept playing with it until we thought that it was just right.
Interviewer: Did you experiment much with all of the different hardware, opportunities and the iPhone as you were trying to design it?
Jamie: Actually, we were developing it for Xbox Live Arcade.
Interviewer: Not really, why?
Jamie: Not particularly for Fieldrunners but we were just exploring building games for Xbox Live Arcade. Then, when the announcement of the iPod CK came out, we thought it was a perfect platform for this kind of game. That’s when we moved over here and we started working on Fieldrunners. Since then, we’ve really, really grown and are very interested in iPhone game building.
Interviewer: When did you guys then release your game on the iPhone?
Jamie: We submitted to the Apple store the end of September, and it was released on October 5th of 2008.
Interviewer: I guess, were you concerned because I know there was like a rush for all of these other games? Were there other desktop tower type games released before it?
Jamie: There were a few other tower defense games on the iPhone store when we launched. We were originally targeting the original launch of the iPhone store. We missed that deadline, and so there was quite a bit of concern and push to get this out the door. We figured that we’d rather put in the extra polish than push the game out premature.
Interviewer: When you talk about polish, what kind of play testing did you guys do, and what were some of the other challenges that you ran into as you were trying to finish the game for the iPhone?
Jamie: One of the biggest challenges, especially, with the tower of defense game that has an open map is making it so that the player feel rewarded but yet challenged. Even so, even a bigger challenge is actually allowing it so that the player can create their own maze of configurations and that we allow for different ideas to work. When we first started designing, we were creating for the gamer, the hard core gamer. We were only testing it for our own particular game setup.
Then, we realized when we started having other people look at the game and play the game that not everybody thinks the same. So, we needed to make sure that when we balanced it with these other kind of configurations it would work out.
Interviewer: Can you talk about balancing the game? Exactly how did you do that? How did you make sure that the items in the game had the right effect and they aren’t overpowering and stuff like that?
Jamie: A lot of the towers in the game were first cosseted out on paper. So, we made sure that mathematically they were pretty well evenly balanced. There’s no perfect way of doing that without actually doing a lot of play testing because some of the towers have unique abilities that don’t quite compare.
There was a lot of play testing to make sure that we felt like we weren’t gravitating towards one particular type of tower. We had to leverage the different types to make sure that you, too, can get the best possible experience.
Interviewer: Were there any other design issues or things that you had to do to make sure that the design and the game was fun for the iPhone?
Jamie: Well, going back to what I just referred to or talked about before which was more or less giving a roller coaster ride to the player. A lot of tower defense games, a lot of games in general, typically take the route of just making the game progressively more difficult.
We found that players get frustrated with that kind of approach. If they get to a level and just barely beat it and they move on to the next level and they get totally annihilated, they get very frustrated and they don’t want to come back to the game.
We try to give a lot of those peaks and valleys so that when the player comes on the different levels they have a chance to recover so they can get some more resources and try to patch or rework what they’ve done and try to get themselves out of a tough spot.
Interviewer: That’s interesting. Did you guys do that from the start, or was this something that you realized as you play tested?
Jamie: I mean, a lot of these decisions were very iterative. We did know that we wanted something fairly early on like this. We did play a lot of arcade games.
Interviewer: It’s getting basically harder.
Jamie: From my own personal experience from playing games, I don’t like that kind of production. It was pretty early on that we decided that this was something that we wanted to make sure that we did.
Interviewer: Going back to the release of the application on the iPhone store, did you guys have any thoughts of releasing a free version? I know back in October when you released it, it still wasn’t obvious then.
The business model was just having a trial version and actually using that to promote your main version was still not as popular as when iShoot actually really blew it away. Did you guys think about doing that?
Jamie: Right. When we looked at doing a lite version, there were a couple of articles that were already released talking about whether or not those versions help sell your product. At the time of release we were, to be honest, very, very exhausted and we just wanted to get something out.
The lite version, to do it right, we knew it was going to take some time to figure out how many levels we would have to offer to the player, and we didn’t have any kind of statistics at that time so we figured we’d push it out there. And then work on that as we found time to do so.
As it turned out, some of the most successful games on the store actually do not have a lite version. There are some exceptions to the rule, like iShoot as mentioned, which became big hits because of their lite version. But, most of the games that are already in the top 25 or top 50 do not have lite versions. Lite versions don’t typically help those things.
Interviewer: Where is your game ranked right now?
Jamie: As of this morning I think we were number 13. It goes up and down, depending upon different kinds of – there’s a lot of factors involved in that process. At this point because we won some of the IGF awards we’ll be getting some more recognition now to help uploading our product. We’ve been in the top 15 pretty consistently for the last six months.
Interviewer: Well, congratulations on that. Are there any other things that you guys are doing to promote your game or developing a community around your game?
Jamie: Can you repeat the question?
Interviewer: Yeah. Are there any other things that you guys are doing to promote your game or to develop a community around your game?
Jamie: So, very early on we decided we did want to have a community so that we can get feedback from our customers rather than just through email, so we built a website. At the time it was a pretty basic website, but we’ve made sure to include a community forum so that players can come online and tell us of their concerns and give us their feedback and their thoughts which we have been very meticulously reviewing.
A lot of the ideas that we introduced in our later updates was because of this customer feedback.
Interviewer: How popular are the forums, and how do you promote the forums? Is it just a description on your app in the App Store?
Jamie: Yeah, we have it on there on our description. We do promote our forums. In our game itself in the credits we mention the website.
Interviewer: Is it iPhone friendly then?
Jamie: Yeah, we made sure that the forums were iPhone friendly.
Jamie: So that people can go to it right after the games. We definitely try to push the envelope. When people send us emails, we always try to direct them to the forums. It’s very hard when you get a flood of emails to keep track of everything. When it’s on the forums, it’s in a nice place for everybody to see and discuss, and it gives us a better idea on what people want.
Interviewer: So, you guys have a successful iPhone app. What’s next in store for you guys?
Jamie: For the last six months we’ve been developing the game even further, trying to bring it more on to a fuller scale because when we first launched we only had one level. And we felt at the time that it wasn’t enough for what we were charging. We wanted to make sure that we built a good community and we built a good reputation with our fans.
At the time we started exploring other possibilities, but there’s nothing that’s been set in stone yet.
Interviewer: Are you guys going to experiment with the virtual goods model then, like selling levels, like a virtual item, in the store?
Jamie: That is a really good question. This is something new that has just come to our attention. At this time we don’t know exactly how it is going to go. I personally feel as a gamer myself I don’t like to be nickel and dimed. If there’s a reason they’d do something like that that makes sense, we’ll try to accommodate that; maybe, do some kind of expansion but not necessarily for little micro additions.
Interviewer: Are you going to add any social elements to this game? I know that now there is Facebook Connect that you can use to, I guess, plug into Facebook or to have… I mean, are you going to have leader boards and all that other kind of thing? I don’t know if that’s even appropriate for this game.
Jamie: Right now, we launched our new website a few weeks ago, and on the website we do have a slot for online high scores that we’re currently exploring and working to integrate into the game. There’s just so much. Like I said, we’re really looking at our community to see what people want and desire the most out of anything. Online high scores is something that we’ve got a lot of feedback on, and something that we’re trying to get there as soon as possible.
Interviewer: Thank you very much.
Jamie: Thank you.