David discusses their IGF mobile game of the year, Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor
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Interviewer: I’m here at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco and with me today is a special guest. How about you introduce yourself?
David: How ya doing? My name is David Kalina.
Interviewer: What game did you work on?
David: I worked on Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor.
Interviewer: And it won some kind of award?
David: Yeah. We won the Independent Games Festival Mobile Game of the Year Award.
Interviewer: Awesome. And what inspired the game?
David: What about Spider?
Interviewer: What inspired it?
David: Oh, what inspired it? We actually had an open concept solicitation process where we asked all of our friends in the group to just give us their ideas. This was just one of, maybe, a couple hundred little concepts we had. We really liked it because it was really interesting thematic material. Like spiders are really cool insects and play a really interesting role in the world. We felt like nobody had really explored them from the perspective we tried to.
Interviewer: So, you decided on spiders. How did you come up with that game mechanic? There’s some interesting game mechanics in here. Can you talk about that some more?
David: Sure. Originally, it was supposed to be an accelerometer driven game. We were thinking about designing for the iPhone, and it was originally intended to be kind of a more slow paced, spider simulator where you would slowly build your webs by spinning the device around, and your friends would fall in different directions, based on the orientation of the device.
But we kind of found that it wasn’t really a very fun prototype, and so we started experimenting with a mechanic that was touch based. In the game as it is now, you basically touch on a surface to move there and the spider can stick to any surface, and you swipe through the spider to jump. So, we really worked hard on those mechanics to feel really natural and powerful, and we’re pretty happy with the way that it came out.
Interviewer: How long did it take to prototype the game mechanics?
David: Just the prototyping was real – it’s hard to say. Just to get a basic – we had to swipe the jump off in a couple of days, but it was hard to control. It wasn’t very predictable. There were lots of little problems that kind of needed to be worked out. That one came together pretty quickly, but the touch-to-walk mechanic actually required iteration over the lifetime of the project which was eight months.
Interviewer: What was the issue with the touch-to-walk?
David: So, touch-to-walk, initially we were trying to do something where you touch the screen would drive the spider relative to the spider’s orientation, but that would be kind of confusing because the spider could stick to any surface so he could be upside down or hanging on a weird angle. And so, eventually we finally came up with a system where when you touch the screen it figures out where the nearest surface is and it basically pathfinds to that surface. And then the spider moves in that direction. That’s kind of more intuitive mapping between what the user’s trying to do and what actually happens in the software.
Interviewer: Who did you test this on as you were prototyping? Was it mainly just game developers, or did you call in other people to see what they thought?
David: We actually started play testing the game, maybe, three months into the process and went through a number of simulated play tests, and we were always looking for friends or, you know, fellow game developers to get into the program. We would do play test builds and get it on their devices. We had something like 50 people play test the game and give us useful feedback. So, that was a really important part of us making it good.
Interviewer: Did you try to test it equally among men and women, or was it just mainly whoever the friends were?
David: It was kind of whoever we could find, but one of the great things about the iPhone is that we have a lot of friends and family who use the iPhone or have an iPod Touch, and it doesn’t really break down along gender lines the way like, let’s say, Xbox 360 probably does.
Interviewer: The theme was appealing to both genders, or was there any kind of…
David: Yeah. I think so. We’ve actually gotten a lot of really positive feedback from female friends of ours and just generally from the community. Some of our top players on the leaderboards that we post on our forums are women. So, we’re getting great feedback from women and great feedback from parents, like, a lot of young kids seem to really enjoy playing the game.
Interviewer: Yeah. Can we talk about the surprises you encountered as you were doing play testing? What was the biggest thing that you had to change? I know you were talking about iterating on these mechanics, but did anything blow your mind when you were doing it?
David: It’s been a while. The game came out over seven months ago. I don’t remember any major surprises. I’m sort of the lead engineer. For me, the things that kind of stand out were just technical nightmares, a crash that was really hard to debug but nothing really that exciting.
Interviewer: Did you use any engine as you were developing this, or was it just straight Apple APIs and C?
David: It’s a home grown engine. We built it from scratch for the iPhone. So, we actually started with sample code that was provided by Apple and kind of started building that out into a real game engine. We used Open GL to do all the graphics and built a collision system and an animation system. And just kind of piece by piece based on what we needed for the game, we built everything out.
Interviewer: You mentioned leader boards and stuff like that. What other social elements have you added to this game, and how important is it?
David: So, we did a Facebook Connect integration about halfway through development, and I think it was really important to our success in a lot of ways. There aren’t a lot of built-in ways for people to communicate about the game with their friends, but our attitude toward Facebook Connect was if you are a fan of Facebook and a fan of our game, you would be willing to log in and share information with your friends about it.
So, since we have online leader boards where you can compete globally with a bunch of strangers around the world, if you log into Facebook you can also see all the scores of your friends in the game and you see the faces in the app and that’s really cool. It just makes you feel more interested in life. You might have a conversation with your friend about how they’re playing the game. We were really happy with the Facebook integration. I think that was important.
Interviewer: Any other marketing techniques you’ve used to promote your game by Twitter and stuff like that?
David: You know, we kind of used Twitter after the fact just for a company to push news out into the stream, but we don’t really have like a big personality on Twitter. So, I think it makes us less interesting there. We never integrated into the software, but Twitter was actually very useful for us to monitor the game’s attention in the press because Twitter searches were very useful for figuring out people and what people were talking about the game. It was a good way to track people’s interest outside of just the sales and the revenues in the Apps Store.
Interviewer: Once you released the game, were there any other surprises, or what happened then?
David: It was sort of incredibly smooth sailing for us after release. We had it approved in 10 days, and Apple was interested in featuring us a couple of days later. We had great response from the community. The thing that was really kind of surprising or challenging for us after release was that we had completely failed to push any pre-release information into the media.
So, nobody knew our game existed until the day it came out, almost nobody. There were a couple of people in the press that were let on in, people that we were connected with, but gamers had no idea that the game was coming. So, all the promotion and excitement that happened was just after the fact. I think, maybe, in some way that contributed to the success because people felt like it was a surprise. They weren’t expecting it.
Interviewer: What’s next in store?
David: We’re hard at work trying to prototype new concepts, and we haven’t settled on a final direction for our next game. But we’re working on and trying to do another game for the iPhone and iPod Touch.
Interviewer: What suggestions do you have for other game developers who want to develop for the iPhone and iPod Touch and want to be innovative?
David: Well, my biggest suggestion is to really pay attention to what it means to design for the device. It’s a really incredible piece of hardware with a really powerful touch screen and accelerometer. These are really interesting input devices for games, but I feel like a lot of developers are trying to make games that are very similar to games on other platforms, and they resort to doing things like virtual key pads. And if I was encouraging somebody to start a game from scratch, I would say, like, think about using what’s there, you know, and design for the platform.
Interviewer: So, you won the best mobile game. Why do you think that is?
David: I think that there’s a few main reasons. I think one of them is kind of what I was just talking about which is it’s a very native iPhone game. As an experience, it sort of feels like you can only have it on the iPhone. I don’t know if that’s true, but I think specifically this game resonates with people because it’s fresh. There really isn’t anything quite like it, and I think the fiction actually matters a lot to fans. It’s a very passive story. It’s a very human story. And when it’s not in your face, there’s not a lot of text, essentially no text. It’s all just something in the background. I think it has an interesting art style that pulls you into that world.
Interviewer: Can you talk about the story more? Exactly, what is it and how does it inspire? It’s interesting that you have very little or no text.
David: Right. So, the story just kind of came out of when we were building the spider game and prototyping it and thinking about what it meant to observe the world from the perspective of a spider. A spider doesn’t really have any interest in the human world or what’s going on in our space, but what spiders do is leave their space covered in cobwebs and go about their business eating bugs.
That’s kind of what you do in the game. You’re not an active participant in the fiction. The story is just told in the background. As you move through this house, you’re just completely abandoned There is no humans there, but the humans that used to live there left behind all kinds of clues and information about their lives, the way people would do if they were leaving an environment.
So, if you are interested in the story as you are playing the game, what you do is you kind of pay attention to the pictures on the wall and the secret areas that you uncover and the wedding ring that went down the drain. You know, you can kind of get a perspective on these people’s lives that, maybe, you wouldn’t even if you were a human in that space.
Interviewer: Have your players picked up on the story much, or is it just too subtle enough for just only the game designers?
David: That’s a really interesting question. I think it is very subtle. I think people mostly appreciate the fact that there is a story and, therefore, the environment has a kind of feeling and a tone but probably don’t actually piece together all the components. We do have some fans who have gotten really into it on our forums and on the Touch Arcade forums. Like, give-and-take extended discussions about what the story means, trying to piece it all together.
So, I think it’s for a very small group of people who are very excited about that, so really unraveled the mystery and understand it, but for those people it’s very satisfying.
Interviewer: Where can listeners download the game?
David: It’s available on the Apps Store right now. You can download it for your iPhone or iPhone Touch and it’s $2.99.
Interviewer: And do you have a website?
David: Yes, tigerstylegames.com.
Interviewer: Thank you very much.