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GDC Austin: From AAA To Indie - Tiger Style and the Making of  Spider

GDC Austin: From AAA To Indie - Tiger Style and the Making of Spider

September 15, 2009 | By Christian Nutt

September 15, 2009 | By Christian Nutt
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Former EA and Midway developers Randy Smith and David Kalina discussed the transition from AAA console products to iPhone development at the iPhone Games Summit at GDC Austin on Tuesday, using the development of their game Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor -- whose "sales have exceeded our expectations" -- as a test case.

While both had backgrounds in AAA console development on projects like the Thief series, after they were laid off from their respective studios, Kalina and Smith decided to found a new developer, Tiger Style, and produce indie games for the iPhone platform.

Indie Envy

Says Smith, "I didn't have a job and I was trying to figure out to do next... A lot of [the reason to found the studio] was that I turned to indie envy. I really liked the fact that [my friends] got to make these experimental games."

In the three to four years it takes to make a AAA console game, says Smith, "you could probably do 9-12 games in the indie space." But it really became appealing thanks to Apple's entry into the market, he says: "There wasn't a really great place to publish games that would reach a large audience or had the sense of legitimacy that iPhone does." 

"We were seduced by the gold rush, to some extent," admits Kalina. "When we proposed this talk we'd have no idea how we'd be received. We're happy to report we're giving this presentation from a position of success." Spider eventually peaked at the number four paid app on the U.S. App Store.

Spider's eight month long development cycle began with a vision statement, written by Smith, which was excerpted for the presentation -- quotes like "not about orcs", "2D, not 3D", "leverage exploration, expression, and player ownership", "only one major risk or experiment", "unique" informed the development before the concept was even frozen.

Smith and Kalina launched the company without going the traditional business route -- self-funded, with plain English agreements with contributors to the project, and distributed development with no central studio, using collaborates across North America who were paid only with royalties. "We... got to choose the people we work with and the people we really love and appreciate," says Kalina.

Distributed development without firm agreements "sounds like the worst management nightmare of all time," says Smith, "but we had a really good approach to it. There are not a lot of rules to collaborating with Tiger Style. There's a lot of flexibility about what parts of the project you want to contribute to."

"We were extremely generous on the royalty end," Smith says. Royalties are flat across all disciplines and seniority -- one our of contribution to the project is the metric. These contributions must be "tangible" parts of Spider -- playtesting and website design were ineligible, for example -- and the royalties were only available to "people who are present throughout the project." Oddly, this work style had other benefits, says Smith. "It's almost like because they were volunteers we had more permission to [work in a new style]."

The Development Process

The game's development took twice as long as Smith and Kalina had originally anticipated. "As we continued developing Spider and gained expertise at building the game," says Smith, "quality creep" caused them to want to continue to improve the project continuously, even on parts that had already been completed. "Our burn rate was really low and we had different ways to mitigate our expenses."

The game concept came from an external contributor -- not Kalina or Smith -- and changed a great deal from the initial pitch. "We wound up making a different game than we initially described," says Kalina. "We started with this design in the initial documentation that was based on the accelerometer... It was very apparent from playing the game that it was tedious to rotate the device 360 degrees, and disorienting."

After playing the first Rolando game the idea changed to a simple tilt -- but playtest feedback was negative and that idea was abandoned. "We were just using the hardware feature because it was there; it wasn't adding to the experience," says Kalina. Control moved to a touch-based method.

"The controls really got better as the tutorial got simpler," says Kalina. Originally, the tutorial was video, but the game shipped with a tutorial of still images. The team playtested the game a lot with friends and acquaintances -- which makes having the tutorial up and running crucial, so you can simply observe their reactions. "You need to think about developing your tutorial and controls at the same time," says Kalina.

There were two candidates for the game's art style before it was frozen -- macro photography and Edward Gorey-style illustrations. After working with an artist who produced high quality mockups for both, Smith and Kalina settled on the illustrations. "The illustration one has a storybook quality... It informed the story and was a better alignment for the product," says Smith.

While there were multiple influences for the story, including the novels of John Bellairs, eventually some of the mockup art used for early playtests informed the direction, which was a house full of interconnected bits of artwork that form a subtle story for the player, not directly related to the spider's tasks. "We really played with the [interplay between the] player's interest and the character's interest," says Smith.

"When you think about a AAA production process, there are these really ponderous ways to take your time and do things right... whereas the indie mentality is to trust your instincts and move quick," says Smith. "If we had a big problem to solve we'd pull the AAA toolkit" in terms of process. However, when a solution was arrived at, the team would move forward quickly.

The Marketing Angle, and Success

Interestingly, only 8.85% of users of the game engaged its Facebook Connect functionality, which surprised Kalina. In fact, he seemed at a loss to explain why. "I thought everybody used Facebook, but that 9% is still pretty valuable to us," he says. 

Spider's title is inspired by Thief -- a quickly defined role for the player with a subtitle that adds depth. When it came to marketing on the App Store, says Smith, "We very carefully wrote our copy, we really carefully chose our screenshots." The game was also compatible with older versions of the iPhone OS; a non-insignificant portion of purchasers were running old software, and Kalina and Smith feel this was the right decision. 

The game was released at $2.99, higher than the conventional wisdom of the 99 cent app but lower than the initial $5 target they had hoped to aim for. "This is a really tricky problem and we started thinking about this from day one... We wanted to make a $5 and we ended up shipping at $2.99," says Kalina.

How was the price selected? Says Kalina, "For a couple of months, I paid attention to comparable games" -- new IP, indie developers, platformers. "There seemed to be this niche we could carve out" between 99 cent titles and $4.99+ major publisher games using established IP. "That's kind of how we landed on $2.99."

Ten days after Spider was submitted to Apple, it was approved for sale -- but they weren't ready. "We quickly discovered that this marketing operation was a full time job, and we hadn't experienced it as console developers," says Kalina. "This is something you had to pay attention to and really consumed a lot of time."

Kalina thinks that the user community at iPhone game website TouchArcade had more to do with sales than even the game's blurb on the USA Today website; but he notes also that this community expected developers to participate in their discussions before they would buy a game.

The game's biggest sales bump, however, occurred when it was featured on the App Store by apple. "Is it pointless to be in this space if you don't get covered by Apple? The answer is maybe? Sort of?" says Kalina. "It's hard to know, because there are a lot of things going on... Apple does have this tremendous power to drive users to your App Store page. Ultimately it's up to you to convert that App Store view into a sale." And you do that by having a quality game, he says.

Says Smith, "There was no [specific] point... Except the App Store feature [slot]... That corresponded to a sale. But we think they all contributed."

"Immediacy with depth" is the mentality that Tiger Style thanks for Spider's success. The game is responsive, yet not demanding, and launches you straight into the game on boot. But its depth comes from achievements, scoring, a subtle, hidden story, and secrets to discover.

"We don't think we're the only company that follows this formula, so we think that this is a good formula. In my mind it's a new type of casual experience," says Smith.

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