Secret Exit is a Finnish indie game developer known for the iPhone game Zen Bound, which won the Best iPhone Game and Audio Achievement awards at this year's IGF Mobile Game Awards.
The company was formed out of the ashes of Fathammer games, a 3D-focused mobile game developer and engine provider, formed by Samuli Syvahuoko, who was formerly a Remedy (Max Payne) co-founder and subsequently set up Recoil Games (Earth No More).
Here, we spoke with Secret Exit head of studio Jani Kahrama, as well as co-founder and technical lead Jetro Lauha, both of whom worked together at Fathammer.
Lauha may be familiar to some as the creator of the freeware Dismount and Truck Dismount games from the early 2000s (and in fact, the company has a working version of Dismount on the iPhone, but hasn't decided what to do with it yet).
In recent months the company has doubled in size - from two to four - and has had breakaway success with Zen Bound that affords the company independence and the ability to work on more original IP.
Here, we discussed the Finnish game industry as it affects indies, the iPhone as a platform, and the rise and troubles of Fathammer, a Finnish game publisher and tech firm that ended up being an allegory for the high-end mobile game industry at large.
How is the Finnish development environment as an independent studio?
Jani Kahrama: For me, I think the good part about being in Finland is that you really find talent in people here. The engineers are top notch, but it's not just finding good programmers. There is plenty of talent here, engineers who are also very creative game designers, people who really can have a vision about a game and implement it. And having these kind of people in the companies is a tremendous experience.
On the other side... Not even on the other side. It's a global business to be indie, so from that end, you can be that anywhere. I guess it could be nice to be somewhere warmer and cheaper, but aside from that, Finland is fine.
Are you equally able to get stuff like TEKES funding (government funding of technology R&D, including for games) compared to larger companies?
JL: Yeah, we are able to get TEKES funding, but there's a certain limit with the small companies or big companies they are supporting. We are kind of just on the limit. If we were just a little bit smaller, it would probably be much harder to actually get support funding because they don't support the very small companies.
Is that why it was important to double your company in size and get those two other people?
JK: Well, it was a project that facilitated recruiting people. We were just the two of us, and when we pitched the project that we got the funding for, the whole plan was to bring our headcount up by one or two people and get things rolling.
TEKES... The function of TEKES is to facilitate and help the growth of Finnish technology companies, so it wouldn't make sense for them to just throw money at single-person garage studios who would do nothing but make a single product and kind of try to get rich off that.
On Market Fragmentation
One thing a friend and I were speculating about -- Nokia is still trying to push its N-Gage platform, and Neil Young at GDC said the iPhone has changed everything. And then an IGF Mobile competition is won by a Finnish game developer (Secret Exit) and has nothing to do with Nokia. I just wonder what they must be feeling right now.
JK: Well, to be honest, I keep in touch with and I know the people who are working on the N-Gage side. They are good people, and they are doing the right things, but it's such a huge ship to turn around. It may be possible to turn it around, but how fast that happens, I don't know.
JL: It takes years.
JK: Yeah. On the personal level, I know those people and I know that they are proud of their accomplishments, and they really like the game. So, there are no hard feelings between N-Gage publishing and us as a publisher.
And certainly, we would love to be developing for a Nokia platform if they have solved the same problems as elegantly as Apple has delivered their solution. But the fact is that for the same success as the iPhone has become, you need an unfragmented platform on the hardware level. You need a good SDK.
JL: Include enough base level of hardware. It can't be some software rendering or no hardware rendering chip. And the fragmentation, it creates this awful disparity of the games, so you have to support software rendering and make everything scale to that. Any high end games use the hardware rendering, but that's a lot of cost to make it two times.
And you sort of have to develop with the lowest common denominator in mind.
JL: Exactly. And that's what makes it so awful.
JK: And the iPhone doesn't have a lowest common denominator.
JL: Yeah. It's basically the same platform. There are very small differences, like if there's vibration or speaker or something like that, which doesn't really matter at all.
JK: You could say that... I mean they are trying to solve the same problems but there are so many legacies that the hardware landscape is already so fragmented. Let's say, for example, the N73... I don't even want to know how many tens or even hundreds of millions of units this one has sold.
Still, the fact is that you still have not seen in I think two years now the N-Gage client for this handset. It's not there. They say that it's coming, but it hasn't come here in two years. So, the handsets have... Just by looking at it from the outside, two years? There's always the client on N95, N93, and N85, whatever.
The fragmentation, despite the Symbian platform being so great regarding, you know, just how much memory you have available, how you access the audio, how the keyboard works, and so forth. If Nokia itself is having problems addressing fragmentation of the handsets, how can the developer do that?
JK: I mean, that's the core element. I think I mentioned this before, but if you want to be in the mobile market... I don't consider the iPhone a mobile device, I don't. I consider it a handheld console because of the issues and how elegantly it solves them. There's only one distribution deal with a platform holder. There's only one set of hardware.
On the iPhone, you can actually work as an independent publisher, and you can own your IP. You can publish it because there are no huge challenges. If we're bringing that IP to the mobile space, and if we wanted to self-publish it, we would actually have to build the technology or hire hundreds of hourly wageworkers to port to that mass of handsets.
And we can't afford that as an indie. Then we would have to go through a publisher, the publisher would want to own the IP, and then we would be stuck in the same hand-to-mouth loop, the kind of vicious circle that many traditional mobile developers are in. Their only chance is to pitch their next project to the publisher and then work on their mouth opening strategy.
That's something we don't want to do. We want to develop our own concepts, our own ideas. We want to own them, and we want to publish them ourselves. Publishing itself is not a key issue here. We can go through a publisher, but we'll own the IP.
We'll never -- of course, never is a strong word -- we're willing to negotiate the price of an IP, but not for the price of milestone appointments. Obviously not. Having this beautiful kind of platform allows us to have independence.
If we were in mobile, we'd be stuck as sub-contractors for publishers because that's the only way you can get your products to the handsets. And that's the major difference. I only kind of pieced this together myself a short time ago when I went through this chain of thinking. And that's the reason why we don't want to be in mobile.
As people that previously worked doing 3D on mobile, which was quite a task, how have you found the iPhone hardware in terms of working with it?
JL: I think it's absolutely beautiful to work with in the API and the technical side as well. Because it's a standard API, Open GL ES, it's so easy to work with, I think.
And because the operating system is based on some Unix, even that allows me to deliver all the knowledge that I have. Just pick some code that works in Unix or Linux, and it works on iPhone as well, so mostly, it's much easier. It's one of the easiest platforms that I have ever worked with.
Do you think that it's easy to maximize the hardware and sort of get the most out of it, or are there still tricks to learn going forward?
JL: On that side, I would say that there are some barriers you have to cross first to even get the performance to an acceptable level. For example, if you don't use texture atlases, then you're quite easily finding a low FPS in a game.
And there are a few issues like that that you just have to solve and know how this hardware scales, because you may not be able to directly port some desktop code and just hope it runs well because it's probably not as great. But still from the API and everything, if you just rework the stuff a bit, it's probably going to run quite fine.
The Rise and Fall of Fathammer
With Fathammer, how did it come about that someone decided to push for 3D on mobile when the handsets weren't quite there yet?
JK: I commend Samuli Syvahuoko who founded Fathammer, for his original vision. I mean, he was right. 3D graphics would come to mobile, but... Actually, the hardware did. What happened with Fathammer was really that... The idea was that 3D would be prevalent on mobiles, mobiles would be capable of running console quality games, it would be a fragmented market, and you'd need to have middleware to solve the problem and be efficient in delivering your product.
I think the vision was good. The biggest irony, I think is not that... I mean, the handsets came. The performance was there. The handsets were totally ready for the kind of quality that we were delivering.
But what killed mobile business, the 3D on mobile back in 2003 and 2004, was that the operators were not ready to deliver that content. They were shipping 128 kilobyte Java games when were showing them, "Hey, come on. This handset can run our 10-megabyte native C++ 3D game. Look at the difference between your Java game and our game." They were like, "Yeah, we love it. It's really great. But we don't have a business model in place to support 4 megabyte or 10 megabyte downloads."
JL: Actually, either 1 or 2 megabytes were enough for a full-scale game with quality content. But they didn't want to actually fix their distribution systems for that.
So it took them like maybe two to three years until they even allowed distributing stuff like that. Even then, they were kind of reluctant to promote anything like that. So, it was just not there to actually get games to users' hands even if they could do it technically.
How did you all wind up associated with Tapwave and Gizmondo?
JK: There's no secret in that. Fathammer had their business development, the business development was looking at the horrible landscape, and Tapwave, at its time, had one of the most promising mobile gaming handsets. It was really a step above Game Boy Advance clearly.
JK: And when Gizmondo was going out, they had an Nvidia chip in there, which was a great choice for the hardware. There was a separation. Fathammer was associated with these players in the market because their model was still kind of closer to mobile than consoles.
The biggest irony in the whole history of Fathammer was that the technology curve that we had expected, the capabilities of the handsets... There was suddenly a player that kind of blew and destroyed all our expectations. That just shot through the roof. That was the PSP.
When it came out, it was almost something that we had almost kind of dreamed about, that a device like this would come out and that it would be a mobile device. But the PSP never became a mobile device on its business side. It was a very console business, console budget level platform.
And therefore, suddenly the dream device that we hoped would arrived was suddenly incompatible with the Fathammer business model. And then we couldn't support it. We had middleware, and it would have been great. But even Sony hasn't sold, really sold downloadable content for the PSP yet. Yes, if you have the latest firmware, you can download content straight from the PSP stores or PSP, but it's still...
It's not easy.
JK: I don't know. To be honest, and to my shame, I haven't even tried that. I mean, I've had it since it came out. I just gave up on it pretty much. Now that there's a new version coming out, at least if the rumors are true, and it's focusing on digital downloads, that's something that would have been wonderful for Fathammer (note: this interview was conducted prior to the announcement of the PSP Go).
But Fathammer was from 2001 to 2006. And then in fact, you'd say Fathammer compromised its vision already in 2003, 2004 pretty much. At that point, it was more trying to become a content provided versus a technology provider, mixing those two roles. It was a very complex scenario.
JL: Also, just because of the operator and distribution issues of downloadable games, it was kind of natural to team up with a hardware platform provider because we could then get some bundling deals with the hardware and perhaps through that, get the technology into the hands of our developers for example like it was with the TapWave. Because TapWave's SDK used (Fathammer's) X-Forge engine as part of it. And that was one way of getting the technology out for other developers.
Do you think that the fall of those two handheld systems... Do you think that those had any effect on taking Fathammer down?
JK: Of course, they contributed to it. Fathammer was making content for devices that never really facilitated it. And the ones that did, didn't really succeed at the time.
So again, Fathammer had a really good vision, but it was ahead of its time, and the business never really materialized, not quite in the way that was expected. And there was no way for Fathammer to adapt from kind of a high-end premium 3D mobile game provider into a Java game developer. The corporate culture -- I don't know if corporate is the right word -- but the...
The company culture?
JK: The company culture was somewhat incompatible with the idea of going the way of Ideaworks, the guys who did Tony Hawk for N-Gage. Ideaworks focused themselves as a premium developer. They were really doing just branded high-profile development and making a good business out of it, but that didn't really just... Fathammer... Yeah, the culture just didn't bend that way.
And I don't know if our business development was actually even able to negotiate the level of deals that Ideaworks was able to. I mean, as far as I understand, the budgets for Ideaworks projects were much more lucrative than the ones we were able to negotiate at the time.