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.
The 'easy' mode and tutorial were added after the initial release of the game
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.