Developing for iOS is increasingly popular, with both established developers and newly-formed indies getting in on the act. But it’s a viciously competitive market, and only a few titles can rise to the top. I spoke to a first-time developer, Melborne-based outfit Walk Through the Clock (made up of programmer Shaun Freeman and artist Greg Bowtell), about the development and release of their first game, Call Connect, a high-score game based around old switchboard technology. We discussed the making of the game, and the lessons learned during its development.
What inspired you to make the leap from gamers to game developers?
Greg Bowtell: Personally, I’d grown a bit tired of just playing games (though I still do play of course) and it felt like a natural progression to start implementing my own ideas somehow. I knew the kind of games and gameplay I liked, mostly from a visual and mechanical standpoint, and wanted to pursue making those. Small-scope, focused, innovative experiences interest me – I’m not so keen on blockbusters (impressive though they often are).
Shaun Freeman: When I was finishing high school I had no idea what I wanted to do and the new games development courses seemed right up my alley. I mean, I loved to play games so how awesome would it be to make them? And then when I finished the course the decision to be indie came from that thing that most gamers have when they’re playing a game and they think: “I can make that, but better!”. You always play games and see the little mistakes or the ideas that work and they trigger a desire to want to make something like that but better! And that’s why I made the change. Well, that’s part of it. The other major part was seeing how popular these little iPhone games were and how profitable they could be and, having an idea of how games were made, I thought that it really wouldn’t be that hard to make something that small and pick-up-and-play. So why not give it a shot? We had nothing to lose really, as we were doing it part time outside of work and other commitments. We wanted to see if we could do it – I guess that’s what it boils down to.
Where did Call Connect‘s switchboard idea come from?
SF: I’ve always liked old tech, like the way the switchboards worked, and record players and so on. I think the idea for Call Connect was triggered whilst watching an episode of Mad Men, when they showed the ladies in the call room.
GB: It was always about the ladies.
SF: And that’s why we got into game dev too. The ladies. But going back to the question, I’ve always known of the way the phones used to work and I was in a game-thinking mode at the time, so I saw the coordination and the organisation that they needed to do to get the switchboard working and saw something very gamey in it. It grew a bit from watching all the YouTube videos I could find on it too, as they showed what it was really like and how many cables the big interchanges could have all over the place. After coming up with the basic premise, I then fleshed it out with Greg and we worked through getting down the basic gameplay.
GB: It fit the MO of what we wanted to do for a first effort. Single screen, addictive, repeated mechanic and therefore manageable. We weren’t really looking to do anything with a narrative, not only because that sort of experience is less successful on the iPhone but also because we wanted to be gameplay-focused.
SF: Yeah, trying to keep it simple to make our first effort as easy as possible. We both knew how easy it was to lose interest in something that was too big in scope, although we still encountered that a little with Call Connect.
GB: Likely as a result of nights here and there rather than an ongoing, day-in day-out effort. This thing was basically built between 9pm and 2am.
SF: Which isn’t ideal all the time.
GB: No. We did have a good run at it for a fortnight or so in the middle stages and that knocked over a large portion of it. But in the main it was a few nights a week.
Did the game come together pretty much as planned, or did you need to make substantial changes to your approach during the development process? Where there any particularly major changes in direction?
SF: The basic gameplay was there from the start. The movements of connecting and completing calls. But we felt it needed a bit more so that’s why we added the bonus mode. It helps to break up the flow a bit. Keeps it fresh and also gives the player something else to think about and keep track of. Also, from the start it was only just the ‘hard’ mode. It wasn’t until after the first release that we built the ‘easy’ mode, as people were finding it a bit hard to learn to play when they could fail quickly. The easy mode was probably the best thing we added, as looking at all the stats it’s pretty much 90% easy mode to 10% hard mode being played.
GB: I spent a fair amount of time figuring out the scoring system, which then underwent many iterations to get right. Having spent so long on what is a relatively simple game to play, I’ve lost track of exactly what came in and when, but I’d say there were no major changes. The core gameplay was there, the scoring system was there, we established the visual themes early on. It was mainly tweaking. The easy mode was probably the biggest addition.
SF: Also, the tutorial. I guess it’s probably the thing that makes indie development so good, you can feature creep like that. We weren’t locked in to a schedule or plan. If we saw something amiss then we could fix it.
GB: It was both fun and maddening all at once.
SF: It also allows you to not have to think about everything from the get go, you can allow yourself some breathing space and time for the other ideas to come to you. The stuff that you only think of when you start playing. That said, you don’t want to feature creep into the distant future.
GB: We’d be fucked if we had deadlines.
SF: Well yeah. One of the better things afforded by not having to release the game to live.
As I understand it, Greg handles the art and Shaun handles the programming – how did you go about filling your game with sounds and music?
GB: I figured I’d be doing the sound as it seemed to fall under my remit. Musically, I’m barren – fortunately I have a brother who’s in a band (The Star Express) and is a talented muso. He and a friend/bandmate came up with the theme tune, which we rather like. The sound effects were a pain in the arse actually as I’d done next to nothing of that sort before. I had to jump in, start tweaking things and see what happened. Initially, the answer was ‘not much’, but as time passed I started to get a handle on what I could manage. The key effect I wanted to get right was the plug insertion noise. That took a fair while. It was a combination of lots of tweaked clicks and thuds. I wanted you to want to hear that sound, much the same way you want to hear that popping sound in Minecraft. So, that one I’m proud of. The sound could undoubtedly be better but I hadn’t the time to develop my skills to a level I’d be totally happy with. I’d say it’s adequate. I knew how each effect should sound and how the effects should reward the player, I was just a bit fuzzy on how to get there.
SF: I think it works quite well. I quite like the dings of when a call comes in, especially when it really gets going as it adds to the stress. It compliments the gameplay, as sound should.
GB: It was a Waterworldesque patchwork floating-city job, but it works. That’s not to say it was shit or expensive or had Kevin Costner in it though.
How did your approach to playtesting the game work? Is it more difficult to playtest as a small indie developer – finding testers you can trust to be objective?
SF: That was one aspect we should have handled better I think. We didn’t test as early as we should have. It was largely us and any of our close friends we could rope in with a ‘quickly try our game please!’
GB: We never formally approached playtesting. We quickly discovered how vital it was but we still never really moved beyond passing the game round to friends, family, students and forumites.
SF: There’s a lot you can do with the testing too. Especially with tools like TestFlightApp which lets you invite anyone to register their devices to test. It’s one of the things we will focus on more with the next title.
GB: Tangible feedback in the shape of an online form or similar, something that we can quantify, will be on the cards for the next project.
SF: One of the best little things we implemented in Call Connect was the ‘Feedback’ button on the main screen that lets people send an email straight to us. Even though we’ve mainly gotten blank emails of people who press the button then press ‘send’ instead of ‘cancel’, we’ve gotten some good feedback and requests and so on from there. Actually, one of the best bits of testing I did was to get my mum to play the easy mode when it was first implemented. The fact that she didn’t fail straight away was a definite good sign.
I was about to ask about feedback. Was there anything in particular that caught you out once the game was in the hands of players?
SF: When we were initially testing, the main problem was people going “What the fuck am I supposed to do”, that’s why we put a lot of focus on the tutorial.
GB: The temptation is to change something every time someone points out an issue with it. If you have 50 or 100 people all pointing to that thing, then clearly you have a problem. If it’s just one, well, maybe 99 people won’t have that issue. You have to sway between sticking to your guns and acknowledging that you’ve missed a key point. The lights seemed to be the source of much of the initial confusion.
In what way?
GB: A light would flash, and people would be left wondering what to do next.
SF: People didn’t seem to get that the coloured light down the bottom meant they needed to connect the other plug in the pair to that colour region.
GB: There was no clear guide bar the help screens, which as someone from the Edge forum kindly pointed out were a bit awful.
SF: That’s why we put lines and text and so on in the tutorial, because in the basic version people still couldn’t get it. It was kind of frustrating really, especially as that’s the only thing they need to get. Once you get the basic call flow down you don’t need to know much more really. It makes you appreciate how well more complex games implement their tutorials though.
GB: We realised that however simple the concept appears to be, you need to show people what to do exactly, then have them do it with guidance. Then, after a few hand-holdy bits, let ’em go.
It sounds as though people were pretty happy to spend a bit of time emailing you with their feedback.
GB: We did get some very useful feedback. And some angry ones.
SF: Nobody has written an email saying they hate our game and it’s shit, but some of the reviews on the App Store have been people saying stuff like that. “THIS GAME IS REALLY BORING!!!!”.
GB: Yeah. Nothing serious.
SF: Luckily that’s one in a few and we’ve gotten some really nice ones, like a guy who wrote that it took him back to his days as an operator, and the stress that that job involved.
GB: We’re sitting on a 4.something average for reviews which we’re happy about.
We’ve touched on the easy mode – I noticed your easy mode leaderboard had many more entries than the hard (original) mode one. Do you feel you overestimated your players when it came to the difficulty level of the game?
SF: I think we did. Yeah. That was something that probably would have been found earlier if we’d tested earlier like we should have.
GB: I’d say yes. In part we didn’t really know, but in hindsight, yes.
SF: I got pretty good at the game so it was easy enough for me.
GB: Except for when you cheated your way to a high score.
SF: Shush. We’ve learned that we need to test from right at the start. And also market the game right from the start.
GB: Yep. Next project: marketing, testing – they get pride of place.
SF: Blogging ahoy!
While we’re on the subject of marketing, there’s a mention on your blog of the ‘big question’ of whether to prepare all your marketing and PR in advance of release or to have a ‘trickle out’ approach. What approach did you ultimately take, and how do you feel it panned out?
SF: We didn’t plan for it like we should have. It ended up being a trickle approach when I think it should have been a biggish push on release and then the trickle. I think the way to do it is to organise a bunch of reviews with whoever you can and have them come out the same day as the release. Instead we released then asked around for reviews.
GB: The ideal is to market from day one, get some notice, then for launch day co-ordinate all your efforts (reviews, other press, and so on) to synchronize for that launch event.
SF: Which is a problem when you’re working during your spare time and so can’t dedicate a whole day to contacting people. Probably the hardest thing about doing it part time is that you don’t have much time at all to work on things, so it’s either work on the actual game or write about working on the game. Doing work on the game trumped out pretty much all the time.
GB: We didn’t really market at all early. We built a site, blog, Twitter, Facebook, all that, and we used them, but we really needed to get onto the press early in the piece. The marketing didn’t really pan out as we were too inexperienced at that bit. We did get one review out (7/10), so that was good.
SF: We’re going to try for something bigger with the next one and build up notice of the game as we’re working on it. Release videos and art and so on so that, hopefully, people already know of the game before the actual release. I think it would help getting reviews ready too, as hopefully the review sites have heard mention of your stuff before. Whereas Call Connect was pretty much unknown before release.
GB: Yeah, having one game out, even though it hardly set the world on fire, will help I think. Also, lots of updates.
SF: If you make a more successful second game then everyone will buy the first. Hopefully. And you see what happens with companies like Halfbrick with Fruit Ninja – any game they release from here on out will get full coverage. Once you’re in, you’re in so I don’t think you can expect much from your first game unless you’ve got serious ties to the game industry already, like the Robot Entertainment guys who came from big companies. Although there’s always exceptions, of course, like that train junction puzzle game.
GB: Yep. You have your Tiny Wings and the like but they are few and far between.
SF: I think the Spilt Milk approach is good, the guys that made Hard Lines. The main guy for them is just churning out content, written blogs and articles and so on and so has built a big Twitter following which will bleed into their next game.
Obviously a big part of the iOS platform is being able to update games, and you’ve incrementally rolled out features like online leaderboards and Retina support over time. Would your approach to developing Call Connect have been different in a world without modern, convenient patching systems?
GB: Yep. We did think “get it out, fix it later”, that sort of thing. Mainly as we were a bit sick of it and wanted to see it on the store.
SF: I think all of game development has changed since the quick update thing. You can release something that is essentially not finished, like we kind of did with Call Connect.
GB: It worked fairly well. Nothing like people playing your game for real to get you motivated to improve it.
SF: We always had plans for Game Center but I was getting tired of having an essentially finished game in front of me. I think it worked really well too because as soon as it was on the store my motivation went into overdrive. I had this game out there that people were playing and it was, in my mind, incomplete! Game Center and other fixes got finished pretty quickly after that.
GB: Were we unable to do that, I don’t know if it would be out yet.
SF: Yeah, probably not. Take the old-school Nintendo approach and ‘test until it’s perfect’ – it’s kind of nice you don’t have to worry about that these days.
If you were to go through the process again, would you have added more features before release with the benefit of hindsight?
SF: Maybe the easy mode, but I don’t think so otherwise.
GB: And the Retina graphics.
SF: Yeah, the graphics probably should have been high-res from the start. But having updates up your sleeve is a good idea with iOS as each update puts you back into the ‘new release’ list.
GB: We’ve still got a few things we’d like to do with it, which means updates.
There was quite a substantial time between your launch and your Retina update, and from what you said when we were arranging the interview it sounded like it had been time consuming to implement. From a player’s perspective it seems like quite a simple cosmetic adjustment – what’s happening behind the scenes?
SF: The trickiest thing for me with the Retina update was retooling a lot of stuff to get it to load quick enough on older devices. Oh, and to stop it from crashing. The other main issue was with how I was loading the graphics into the game. It required me to manually enter in all the coordinates for the various art bits in a big atlas of game art, so when the Retina stuff came in it required pretty much all those values to be redone. Fairly fiddly it was too. The next game will use a better system. Not an engine I made, that’s the first thing. Although the cool thing from this is that I can say I programmed everything in the game myself (except the audio engine) – loading the graphics, and the math and all that was me.
GB: I hadn’t taken Retina into consideration, at least not as much as I should have. This meant the way I had set things up was less conducive to improving things than it should have been. For the update, I more or less rebuilt everything from scratch. It was a ballache – I enjoyed redoing the visuals, but the menus, the type, consistency… it was time consuming. Next time, I’ll have a clearly-defined method for creating elements that allows me to drop stuff in or out without having to remember how I did some effect six months earlier. Having said that, I did build a full game’s worth of art and audio assets from scratch on my own, so I’m proud of that.
So you had to totally redo the visuals, you didn’t shrink them down for the original release?
GB: Nope. Which, in hindsight, is pretty obvious. But, we just sort of jumped in and started fiddling away. If I’d done that though, I might not have had the impetus to redo the graphics, and they look a hell of a lot better now. The update allowed me to spend time on the details, as I knew how everything fit together.
The switchboard theme harks back to quite a particular time and place. Do you know if it’s resonated with any particular international audiences?
SF: There’s been a couple of people who have made a comment on the theme – they were from America.
GB: We were the number 1 grossing game in Uzbekistan on December 14 2011!
You decided to give the game away for free for a period a couple of times. What was the motivation for that, and how did you feel about the results?
SF: Well we knew from reading other people’s experiences that as soon as you make something free it ‘sells’ a shitload. And it did. I was very happy with the first free promotion we did, especially as we didn’t really advertise it except on our own channels.
GB: The motivation was to see what would happen. The results were pretty exciting, in my opinion.
What were the results?
SF: I think we got about 50,000 downloads over five days in that promotion.
GB: We went from about 200 to almost 60,000.
SF: We got contacted by a couple of free-app websites that included us in their sites and their apps, which helped too. We said the promotion was because we’d had 15,000 calls connected in game and then we went from that number to 1.7 million over the weekend, which was cool. The first free promotion didn’t really result in a boost in sales afterwards though – they dropped straight down to nothing again really.
GB: Yep, free does not equal sales once you go back. A few, but not many.
SF: But then the second free promotion didn’t ‘sell’ as many copies but for some reason has resulted in our game consistently selling a few copies a day, so that’s been nice. When we released the Retina update I think we got about 40 downloads so it shows that updates help.
You don’t have in-app purchases – do you regret that you weren’t able to monetise the purchasers when those promotions turned out to be a success?
GB: Not so much, as that was never our intention – even if we’d never made a cent during this project it wouldn’t have mattered. We were treating it as a learning experience. We may still make it free-to-play, just to test it out.
Call Connect perhaps doesn’t naturally lend itself to free-to-play elements as other games – if you’d known how things were going to pan out in terms of sales and people downloading the game for free do you think you’d have chosen a different concept for the first game, or altered the concept around free-to-play?
SF: Well when we started back in 2010, free-to-play wasn’t even a thing really.
GB: We possibly would have. Again, the aim was to make something we wanted to make and whether it was successful or not was neither here nor there. As he said though, free-to-play was still in its infancy.
SF: I think if it had been more of a thing back then, we would have. It’s definitely changed how we’re thinking about our next game. But we still want to make the games we want to play and not just make money.
What are the major lessons learned while developing Call Connect that you’ll take to your next project?
GB: Free-to-play is at the forefront of our minds for the next dig.
SF: The marketing thing is the other big one too. We don’t want free-to-play to lead the game though, you notice on all Edge iPhone reviews they tend to lambast games that rely on micro-transactions too much. We just want them to be there for the people who want to get them and not be a necessary part of the game. So it’ll be free-to-play and then if you’re lazy then you can use micro-transactions to push forward, but only to an extent. You still need to play the game. We don’t want to cheat people that put in the effort. Especially for the type of game it is as they’re generally very competitive for high scores.
GB: Things that we’ve learned… test often, formally, and early, market from day one (and keep it interesting and content-laden), keep updates and expansion in mind when building assets, plan regular updates, make it free-to-play if possible (but not at the expense of the experience), make it highly polished, tell everyone about it all the time.
SF: Build with obvious areas to build upon and expand in is a big one.
What’s been the high point of the experience of creating and releasing Call Connect?
GB: The high point for me came when we hit 60,000-ish people. At that point, I thought “Crikey, people are actually downloading and playing this”. All the effort we put in suddenly became worth it beyond a personal-satisfaction level.
SF: Oh, the high point for me would have been each time I got something working, a lot of it was new to me and a struggle, so getting each bit working was a high point. And of course, reading the good reviews from people who weren’t our friends. That was fantastic. Such a relief, it’s so stressful sending something out into the world like that.
GB: As a games tutor, it also gave me cred in the eyes of my students. I was able to back up my teaching with actual application.
SF: And that’s what’s important.
And your darkest hour?
GB: Hard to say. I do recall sitting here at one point before we’d launched it thinking “Are we actually going to release this thing and will anyone care if we do?”. It was dragging on a bit at that point. The menus were eating my brain. And of course there was Shaun’s constant high-pitched squealing.
SF: The lowest point… Probably when I lost all motivation to work on the game. I think it might have been early 2011 or the end of 2010 and development had been going on for longer than I’d anticipated and I just didn’t want to work on the game anymore. I was almost ready to give it up. I’m not sure what changed but I managed to get it back and push through and finish it. There were a few things that were being very difficult to implement so that wasn’t helping but I think it was getting those things working that kicked me back into gear.
GB: Going back to high points, another high point was seeing the finished Retina update. I worked so fucking hard on that thing.
SF: It did look nice when we put it on the iPad.
Of course there’s talk of the next iPad having a higher resolution…
GB: We’ll be prepared this time.
SF: Next time Greg’s going to work in as high a resolution as possible, so that should make it easy to fit wherever we need it to. At least it’s not as bad as developing for Android and all the different devices that’s on.
So Call Connect won’t be on Android any time soon?
SF: Well doing it for Android would require rewriting the entire game essentially, as it’s in another programming language. So probably not at this stage, no. That and Android just isn’t a lucrative market.
GB: Nope, no Android plans unless some kindly soul wants to port it for us (for free).
SF: I need to work on something different than Call Connect for a while.
Going back to your motivational struggles, do you think motivation will be easier for your next game now you’ve already released something into the world?
GB: Yep. The lessons we’ve learned are going to save us a buttload of time too. Plus we’re using an existing engine. It’s the struggles with fiddly little things that drag you down… those bloody co-ordinates…
SF: I hope so. A lot of my motivation went up and down with the struggles I faced implementing things in the game and a lot of those were because it was in the engine I coded. So with the next game we are using Cocos2d which will simplify a lot of things for me and Greg. Hopefully there’ll be less stumbles, and so less reason to lose motivation.
GB: We can focus on content more, which is the exciting bit.
SF: Although I will be working on it in peculiar circumstances, so we’ll have to see how that affects it.
SF: Well if my plans become reality, I will be riding a bicycle across America for most of the year so I will be working on the game in my tent at nights until my laptop runs out of battery and I have to wait until I find a powerpoint to recharge at.
That’s an unusual way to create a game.
GB: It’ll be a tricky one.
SF: If it happens I’ll be trying to write blog posts about the ride and development. We’re hoping that’ll make us stand out from other development blogs. We’ll see if I still have the motivation after eight hours of riding…
So you’re going to feed that into the marketing?
SF: I think it would be for the best if we did. That headline is much more interesting that just another game dev blog.
GB: I’ll blog about the price of lattes going up in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs while Shaun describes how he successfully fought a bear for his last tin of tuna.
Finally, can you tell me any details about your next project?
SF: Well the basic idea is a ‘shmup RPG’. So like 1942, or Raiden, or Radiant Silvergun, or Espgaluda. Except! your ship is upgradable using an experience and money system.
GB: And there will be multiple ships, pilots, environments and the like.
SF: We want the player to be able to tailor their ship to their own play style. Want to be more defensive? Then level up your shields and such. Aggressive? To hell with shields! All blasters on full! We’re also hoping to make it as procedural as we can so the game stays fresh for when you are constantly levelling up. We’re focusing on having a longer play experience this time around. Give the player a reason to stick with the game. We’re building something that’s a bit more of a platform to build things on and expand.
GB: And we’ll be building a unique drone system which will allow the player to customize their play style, as Shaun said, with defence, attack, resource collecting and so on. We’re looking at having multiple play-types too, maybe a few unique things. We can’t say too much more about that though. Visually, I’m drawing on things like Dofus for inspiration. It won’t necessarily look like Dofus, but that light illustrative style is a goal. And I’m hoping to get my brother and his friends involved so we can have an original, proper fuck-off electro soundtrack. That’s their area so they should be able to produce something really great.
SF: So that’s the basic premise. There isn’t much else at the moment so I guess we shouldn’t say too much more in case we promise too much. A shooter with RPG elements. That’s what I want to play.