The studio behind Rolando speaks out.
Simon Oliver from Handcircus took to the stage at the Develop conference today to talk about the company's experience working on iPhone games like Rolando, and its upcoming title Okabu.
Having started in the games industry by making Flash and Shockwave games, he also made game installations for museums and exhibitions, as well as educational games.
He was inspired by games like World of Goo and Braid to start developing his own ideas.
"You don't need permission to make games, or to distribute them in most cases," he said. "The freedom to distribute is just awesome... It's so global, so immediate and it's free."
Of course, stores like Apple's App Store do have approval processes, but Oliver said it's still a world away from the traditional console industry, in terms of an independent studio getting its own IP released.
"The breadth and scope of the independent development scene is testament to the fact that you can make whatever you want and get it out there."
Oliver also talked about freedom for players, who have more choice than ever about what games they want to play. In the Spring of 2008, Apple announced that its App Store would launch that summer.
"It seemed there was so much new that could be done with multi-touch on the device, and the accelerometers," he said. "It seemed like a chance to do something interesting and different in a space that felt very fresh."
The game that would become Rolando started off as almost a real-time strategy game that didn't use tilt controls at all. And key influencers were the droids in sci-fi series Terrahawks, and a children's toy called Big Loader. After finding an artist to work with, Oliver put a trailer for the game on YouTube, racking up 92,000 views on its first day alone, with another 48,000 coming from other video sites.
At this point, Rolando didn't have a publisher attached. "I had this perception that publishers' role was to restrict the creativity of hardworking developers and deprive them of royalties!" he laughed.
However, he talked to US publisher ngmoco, which eventually published the game on the App Store. "They were amazing, the process of working with ngmoco really helped," he said. "They handled a lot of things that I had no experience in at all, like localisation and the QA process."
Rolando sold several hundred thousand copies in its first couple of months on the App Store. Rolando 2 was released in July 2009, with a host of improvements and gameplay tweaks. Oliver talked about some of the key lessons that Handcircus learned.
"The most important thing for us is leverage, making the most of what we have," he said. Time was a key component - Oliver said that Handcircus was very conscious of how much time it was spending on different elements of the projects, and how to make that as efficient as possible.
For Okabu, Handcircus has taken the time to write its own game editor, which automates repetitive tasks and saves "lots of time" when making the game. Another key lesson for Handcircus was to be selective about what it includes in its games.
"We could put a lot more levels in, we could add a lot more features, but I'd rather release something that's a little bit smaller," he said.
Oliver also advised indie studios to not try and go head-to-head with the bigger publishers, but to try to find their own paths. He also stressed the importance of user testing before releasing a game - Handcircus got valuable feedback on the controls being too sensitive in Rolando, so that people were accidentally bringing up the in-game menu, to cite one very specific example.
Oliver said developers must realise that there are "a lot more hats" than they might expect - roles and responsibilities in bringing an iPhone game to market, taking in everything from doing press, to running QA and working on technology.
He said Okabu has already had 15 to 20 different control methods in its prototype stage, showing the importance of this pre-production stage in the development of a game.
"It's important to enjoy the process of making games," he concluded. "Thankfully, that's something we're still doing!".
Okabu will be a game for consoles - released as a digital download - so Handcircus is still mulling its publishing options.