The Tiger And The Spider: From AAA To App Store

By Christian Nutt

David Kalina and Randy Smith both had extensive experience working in the triple-A console game space before they formed their own company, Tiger Style, and decided to take the plunge into the iPhone App Store.

Kalina and Smith originally met at Ion Storm, collaborating on Thief: Deadly Shadows -- the franchise with which Smith had also been involved at Looking Glass Studios -- before their divergent careers took them to Midway Austin and EALA, respectively.

When both of those studios had layoffs, Smith -- who had reportedly been collaborating with Steven Spielberg on his unreleased Electronic Arts project -- and Kalina found themselves without work. Though they both considered it, they ultimately decided against diving back into the world of console games.

The good news for Tiger Style: its first game, Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, was a critical and a reasonable commercial success -- up at the top of the sales charts, and winner of awards and high scores from the press.

Now, as the team moves forward onto its next project, the two co-owners of the company reflect on the state of the fast-moving App Store, what it means to be a studio developer in a world of high-pressure, low-overhead game development, and what a "classic" means on a platform that's reached 100,000 applications in just over a year.

You both have backgrounds in high-profile games at major console developers --  I wonder how many people with your background would have jumped into the indie scene. What drove your decision?

Randy Smith: In my case, it was definitely the indie allure. The fact that the iPhone made it possible to be an indie developer and imagine yourself making a living that you could sustain and possibly even grow a business -- that makes indie a viable place to be if you're an experienced developer.

I think the jobs were a little tight around then, but for folks like David and I who have kind of specific expertise backgrounds and 12 years experience or more, it's actually not that hard to line up your next job if that's your primary goal.

David Kalina: Yeah, I spent a lot of time soul-searching, and I did a round of interviewing at various places. I kind of wanted to stay in Austin. I was looking at contract opportunities for the first time. This particular opportunity was just by leaps and bounds more exciting than anything else, the opportunity to really create our own thing and build something from the ground up. And the iPhone is like a really tremendous space for that.

Is the feeling of owning your own IP the primary allure, or the sense of freedom you get when you're not part of a larger studio? 

RS: Well, those two appeals go very much hand-in-hand. For one thing, you are allowed to go in a direction that appeals to you, that you believe in, and follow your creative dreams. And when you're done with that, it's also yours. It's like the idea that you put it together, now you own it. You know, it's very rare that you can work on your own idea.

I mean, it's possible to give the IP to a company... like LittleBigPlanet. Like maybe somebody envisioned that, and now Sony owns the IP. I guess that happens sometimes. That hasn't happened in my career. It feels like they go together.

Did you work on established IP?

RS: Well, I worked on the Thief franchise. I came in, and I contributed a ton to that IP, but I came in late enough that the core direction was already pretty well locked, so I'm just like fleshing out a direction for an IP as opposed to... Spider was something we dreamed up soup to nuts. So it just feels like it should naturally go together for me, but it's rare that you get that opportunity.

Well, it's rare because directing the IP requires a certain power position, and also because large studio development is so collaborative by nature. It feels a bit different doing your own thing, doesn't it?

RS: Yeah. I guess the thing I would say to that is that ideas evolve, and it's wonderful to have a large pool of collaborators developing your idea with you. There are tons of way to give them credit and reward, but fundamentally still, like our IP, Spider is something we own.

DK: Well, you know, one thing that was very attractive to me about kind of doing our own thing was being able to control the scope of the project. I came from a project at Midway where I was there from day one, and I was involved in helping shape the direction of what was a new IP.

But over three and a half years, it just changes form so many times, you lose ownership even if you're there for the lifetime of the project. So, it was really exciting to be in a place where I can align myself with people who also wanted to something much smaller, but still had ambition and still wanted to be interesting.

RS: Yeah. I guess to get to the heart of your question, I actually really like working on other people's IP or licenses, and just trying to like flesh out a game design for that. I think that's really cool, but it's really awesome to be able to make your own game of your own design.

That's something that appealed the most to me, but hand-in-hand with that, in the end, you really feel like you deserve to own it afterwards. Kind of the only way to get yourself in that position is to invest in yourself, to be your whole owner.

And the iPhone is also unique. That makes things a lot more possible. We talked a lot in our presentation about how low overhead we were, and this is kind of the first time that I know of in history that it's been possible to do things with that low overhead in the gaming space except for maybe all the way back in like the '70s and '80s when people had literally...

DK: The shareware days or something.

RS: Like Richard Garriott who made Akalabeth and put it in Ziploc bags, then sold that to local stores. It's been then since then that you could really do what we're doing.


I found it really cool how Edward Gorey and John Bellairs were major influences for you --  you don't often see influences like that in major games.

RS: Not major games, but you do in the indie space, right? The indie space is a little more soulful and a little bit more able to be what the mainstream industry would consider niche.

We're careful for that kind of stuff. We're not making a game that only appeals to Edward Gorey fans. If anything, we're taking that art style and sharing it with people because we think it is appealing. And so maybe people who have never heard of Edward can now sort of like get into him. That would be great.

Definitely, but usually it's what sells that determines the art style decisions. 

DK: Realism... Most of the triple-A game industry is still really heavily influenced by all these kind of adolescent power fantasy fictions. I don't want to make a game based on Saving Private Ryan. We've done that before. I've made games with guns. It's exciting to kind of move into different territory and try to do that in a way that still like appeals to a wide range of people.

RS: Yup. And there are a lot of checks and balances in the vertical column in a triple-A game. You have to appeal to your immediate supervisor, the director of the project, the executive producer who manages your franchise or your portfolio of games that you're involved in, the person who manages your branch of the company, all the way up to the creative director of the company.

In a lot of companies, you really have to pass all those gates. There are a lot of places that an interesting idea can get like converted into a less interesting idea. In our company, we did a little of that process. We didn't ship the first thing that came to mind. We didn't ship it until we evolved it to the point where we felt it was good enough. But it wasn't the case where it was like, "Well, no, that's an interesting idea. That's a little too risky." I feel like that happens a lot.

In your recent GDC Austin lecture, you talked about how you didn't ship the first concept you came up with, and instead evaluated several styles -- that strikes me as a little more process-oriented than a lot of the indie developer experiences I've heard about.

RS: Yeah. I think for me, the biggest thing was trusting my instincts. And so if we had something we liked, it's like, "Cool. Go." David did a ton of work on the controls while I was moving across the country.

I literally picked up the game the first time, and before I even drew a web, I jumped, kind of like how you do now when you play that game. I was like, "This is amazing. I trust this. We're moving on this. This was totally worth investing in." That's an example of totally trusting my instincts.

On the counter-side, if it wasn't working yet, we'd just like pull out the triple-A process. "Well, let's figure out what it should be. The tilting controls aren't working. What are we going to do? What's the process we follow?" But then there comes a point where you feel good about it again, your instincts engage, and it's like, "Good. Move."

DK: In terms of the process and how I approached my work, I don't think a lot changed. I have a lot of experience to draw from, and I apply that experience from day to day. The main difference for me was getting to work on a lot of different areas.

Even as an engineer, I was specifically specializing in AI work, for basically a decade. You get pigeonholed in this industry a little bit. People only wanted to hire me for one thing, so it was really refreshing to be in a space where I could be engaged and learning all the time. Every week posed a new challenge, and that was really exciting and refreshing.

As an engineer, does it seem less glamorous to be developing for a little mobile device than for a big, meaty console or PC?

DK: Well, I find the iPhone to be really glamorous, actually. Maybe five years ago, when we were talking about a Windows Mobile device... The iPhone is this totally different thing. I think the iPhone is being perceived as being a cooler object than even an Xbox or PlayStation to most of the people who are friends of mine. I have a number of friends who are kind of core gamer types, but I think the iPhone has a much broader reach.

RS: You don't have to be an elite hax0r to code for the iPhone nearly as much. It's just a way sexier device, so the coding you're doing is exciting in a lot of ways.

DK: Yeah. I get really interested in developing mechanical stuff for a platform that's giving you new options. When the Wii first came out, there was a part of me that was like, "Oh, I really wish I was working at a Wii startup," just because there would be a different play space to explore.


How did you deal with your collaborators on the game -- would you recommend plain English agreements or not?

RS: Yeah. I don't know to what extent we agree on this point. [laughs] So, here's the thing from my point of view. I think what we did is totally going to work. It was the right idea. Everyone in our company is so psyched to have been able to collaborate on this project together, and there's going to be no problems.

But it just seems like... I kind of have a little bit of lawyerphobia, and I just didn't want to get them involved and complicate the process and stuff. I don't think that's particularly rational.

I think it's actually probably a better idea for most studios who have different types of working relationships or personal relationships with the people they collaborate with or whatever, to just add that layer of legal protection and objectivity. It's not that scary.

So, that's kind of why I've been sort of like, "This is what we chose to do, and it's going to work out for us, but that doesn't mean it's great advice for everybody."

And you know, some of that stuff puts you in bizarre legally perilous situations. The real problem is legal ambiguity. The thing we did strive to do with our agreements was make them as unambiguous as possible because the last thing you want is the game's done, it's making a bunch of money, and someone's like, "Oh, but I thought we were going to earn all this from that." And you'd be like, "Oh yeah, I guess it was kind of unclear. Let's decide now."

So, we did our best to make it super objective and super clear in advance. And I think that's why we're not going to have a problem. But a lawyer can do an even better job on that. We've been talking to a lawyer more recently because the company has gotten another layer of legitimacy since we shipped Spider, and he's already pointing out things that we probably could have done better and differently in that regard, like, "Here's something that's more objective."

DK: Yeah. It's not like we just had a handshake or verbal agreements. We did put together finance documents, shared it with everybody, and made sure everybody was signing on. I think just the main difference is making sure that it's legally binding, and that's something that we're going to look at in the future now that we're working with a lawyer, just to clear that stuff.

You shared a map to show the geographical distribution of the collaborators, and there were quite a lot -- that there were so many collaborators on the project is almost more surprising than the agreement style.

RS: We set out towards the beginning of the iPhone development space, and because it took us eight months to make this game, it really evolved a lot during development. There was a point where we were like, "Oh my God. Maybe this is the wrong thing to do." We didn't know if anyone else was out there making games with this much of an investment because no one had come out yet that clearly represented that.

And we were like, "Well, shit. Maybe the market doesn't want quality games. Maybe we're going to try to release this, and they'll be like, 'Eh, if I have to pay more than 99 cents, I'm kind of not interested.'

Like, 'It doesn't really matter to me if you've done something that's unique or high quality production quality or whatever.'" So, we were kind of nervous about it. And that cost comes from all of our developers, the fact that so many people collaborated and contributed stuff.

DK: We had several level artists. We had an animator. We had two people who worked on music, one guy who did sound effects primarily, a couple people who did programming for the leaderboards. A lot of the time, these are small projects.

Since we couldn't pay anybody up front, we were basically asking people to work nights and weekends. The level of contribution was smaller and less predictable. But ultimately, we were very pleased. we got a lot of great stuff from this network of people. We're excited to work with probably all of them again.

It took about twice as long as you anticipated when you started on the project?

RS: Yup.

So, how did you feel when you realized that was going to happen?

RS: When did we realize that was going to happen? [laughs]

DK: [laughs] I was constantly nervous about the art. We never had a reliable solution. I think we went into the project thinking, "We're going to find an artist. We're going to find like one guy who will be our equal on the art side to kind of drive the art direction and put things together." And ultimately, we never found that one person. Randy ended up basically art directing the game. So, yeah, it was very unpredictable for a long time.

RS: We had amazing collaborators on the art side that did awesome work for us, and we're really psyched. But there wasn't one person that really drove the art process as competently and as effectively as Dave and I were driving the other parts of the project, because we're not artists.

I've been exposed to enough artists to try and fill in as an art director and managed to do so, but it took a lot longer, and it was harder to close things down. So, we would make schedules, and they wouldn't work out for various reasons.


You're talking about hoping to find someone to essentially be an art director for the project. Do you think it would be important to fill those roles? That has a sort of studio ring to it -- like you want to have the game have an art director and a technical director and like a creative director.

RS: We're very extremely multiple-discipline. We're very much generalists in this field. I wrote code for the game that populated the levels because we didn't have a level editor. David did design work. He like came up with a lot of the ideas for the insects, and the game modes came really from him, and so forth. And I did a bunch of the art that shipped for the game and so forth.

What we really want is somebody who's like that, but with the focus on art. David focuses on programming, I focus on design, and we want somebody that focuses on art, and then we have sort of like a holy trinity of predictability, where things move forward at a pretty predictable pace. And then our other collaborators would be in like a halo of contributing and improving quality. That would be the ideal.

DK: The hard part, though, is that the market is such that adding a third full-time partner would potentially made it more difficult for us to recoup costs.

RS: Unless we didn't do a game like Spider...

DK: Unless it scales up -- the value of our next game.

Many developers seem unhappy with the "race to the bottom" on the iPhone. But you also often hear, "But you've got to do it," either temporarily or permanently.

RS: I don't know if I hear anyone but us saying, "You don't have to do it." I think we really wanted to say, "You don't have to do it," in our presentation, and I haven't heard that echoed. I don't know if it's straight up disagreement. We're not getting into fistfights with other [developers]...

DK: Especially because I don't know with 100 percent confidence that our decision to stay at $2.99 is ultimately the right decision.

Yeah, I don't think that doing constant price drops and price manipulation is really good for the market as a whole. People are chasing short-term profits at the expense of a long-term, healthier platform. That's the nature of the market right now.

One thing Apple can do and they actually just did is the "By Revenue" charts. I think that sort of information helps people who are making products make better decisions about whether or not a price drop is actually worthwhile, and maybe we'll see prices kind of swing back upwards over time.

RS: The one I want is a Ratings chart. This is even for my own selfish reason as a consumer. I really like music apps, so I always go to the music category. I'm like, "Oh, I want to buy a little hand synth toy or something." You see one that sounds promising, you browse in and see that it's got like two and a half stars, which basically means it's poison on the App Store. If anything gets less than 3 stars, it's probably not very good.

So, I'm like, "Well, where's the good ones?" I just want to be able to sort by rating. "Oh, here's a cluster of them that have done really well in the four and five range. Which one of these do I want to buy?" That would help a lot, too, to drive something in the App Store based on perceived quality. That would be pretty good.

DK: It seems potentially dangerous because you can game that system a lot more easily than you can game sales.

RS: That might be the reluctance, there.

DK: And also, how do you balance games that have only been reviewed a small number of times, versus stuff that's been reviewed a lot? But yeah, still just more searching capabilities helps consumers make more informed decisions and I think will ultimately help the business owners make better decisions about how to price their product.

You were talking about the expansion of the development cycle for this game. Was it primarily because you couldn't find the art solution that you wanted? What contributed to that?

RS: It was all the reasons we talked about. I think the long haul was content. It was level art. And so we had a very complete alpha, with very strict definitions for the phases, which doesn't often happen in triple-A studios. We had an alpha two thirds of the way through the project. We knew every single level we were going to design, develop, and art up. It just took the rest of the project to finish that.

And there were a couple of little things that trailed in at the end, like the insect animations that we had to figure out how to get done. But mostly it was the level art. It was partially our inability to predictably schedule how long things would get done on the art side because we're trying to work with this group of artists, [instead of] someone who is full time in the art capacity.

Partially the quality creep thing I was talking about, where it's hard not to do a little bit better when you know how to do a little bit better. It was like this urge to make like everything as good as possible.


How did you make those kinds of quality creep decisions? Because it seems like you could very easily just keep doing it.

RS: One of the specific examples, I think, is that the foyer level is the first level we got arted up by Brennan. We looked at it, and we were like, "This is awesome. We hope the whole game can look like this." And then I remember a couple months later, when Amanda, who was one of our collaborators on the art side, handed in the hearth level, which is towards the end of the game, it just looked amazing.

By this time, we had like learned a lot more interesting digital tricks in terms of digital painting, and we were better with Photoshop, and she had put a little bit more time into it, and had a lot better sense of depth, form, composition, shading -- you know, traditional art metrics.

And I was like, "Now, the foyer doesn't look as good to me," or it seemed like it was in a slightly different style. This always happens when you ship a game. When you go back and look at the things that you're worried about, the priority three or four bugs that you let slide and you felt nervous about, and you shipped these bugs or whatever, I go back and look at them, I can barely see what I was talking about now.

I just went in there with like a smudge tool, and I was fixing micro issues, which probably drove David crazy because he wasn't as close to the content as I was. It seemed so important at the time, but in retrospect, it wasn't that big of a deal. Actually, everybody sort of praises the fact that it all looks like it's one artist even though it's a collaboration of several artists. But to us, it was so clear where Amanda's work and Brennan's work stopped and so forth.

Big games are certainly a collaboration between a whole pile of artists. But I don't think, as a consumer, that you can really tell, generally.

RS: Yeah. I think that's true.

You're attracted to indie development by the idea that you can do what you want, but now you've made a game that's really big. Do you feel the pressure to make a sequel?

DK: Yes. There's definitely pressure to make a sequel. I think particularly in this marketplace, in the App Store, our concern is if we wait too long to make a sequel, if we don't decide to make Spider 2 until 2011, will anyone remember what Spider is? It's moving so quickly. There are new games every week, like hundreds of them. So, yeah, that's definitely a consideration.

Our creative goal is to continue to pursue new concepts, and I think on the other side, we have earned ourselves the right to decide what we want to make next. But I think there's a longer-term consideration, which is if we do a sequel now and capitalize on the game's success and give the fans of the game more of what they loved about it, we'll be in a better position to operate longer term, and do what we want.

RS: Yup. And there's a career-building aspect to our goals as well, in the sense that coming off the EA project, I had invested like two and a half years in a game that wasn't going to ship with my name on it. Then prior to that, I had spent about a year and a half doing consultancy work. Those are both like extremely valuable experiences for me, but they meant that it had been like four or five years since I shipped a game.

I always wind up working on risky, innovative projects. I couldn't afford to do that again in a triple-A space, spend four years to have a game cancelled, and now it's been almost ten years since I shipped a game. That's like basically resume poison, right? So, I knew I needed to ship a game right away, and I had this interest in the iPhone space and in indie gaming, so now I have a game I've shipped on my resume, and that's cool.

But beyond that, we also have been the types of developers who can start a studio, ship something that works, it got good ratings, and it's commercially successful. That's like a really big plus on your resume. You're kind of "that type" of person. You're the kind of person who can be a businessman, who can be successful, who understands a market, and so forth. And so, we think about Spider 2, we're like, "Well, we made a game. We're also the kind of people who can make a franchise." So, there's sort a career aspect to it as well. We would like to prove that we can do that.

DK: I love Spider. I think there's a ton of material to be mined out of that basic concept. I think there's a lot of stuff that can happen in the future that I can get really excited about. Yeah, I think we can turn it into a franchise.

RS: It might not be a big new genre, but it's kind of this micro genre of the action-drawing game -- that's what we called it. Spider is an early and obvious entry into that. There is tons of other stuff you could do to explore it.


Prior to the release, you guys were scraping along, and now you've got the feedback of success to legitimize your efforts -- something of a turning point, do you think? Does it change your perspective on how you want to move forward?

RS: Yeah. And I talk a lot about how I don't want to wind up in the sophomore slump of letting the success of your initial work contribute to the way you think and the way that actually negatively impacts your second release.

Fortunately, I think [going to] GDC Austin has been positive in that sense, because I find myself very much inspired to do our absolute best work and stick to the best parts of our formula, the formula for developing a game and not the formula of design.

Process.

RS: Our process. You know, the things that made us able to create a Spider that was good as that. I want to make sure we remain lean and hungry and continue to do our best work. It's been intimidating to see basically like -- and I don't want to say this in a conceited way -- how successful Spider was. It has been kind of scary. Like when people show the charts, we're like, "Oh my God. We're either like top one percent or top two percent of success levels for iPhone games. That's scary."

DK: Yeah, but that's what we set out to do. I don't know why you would get involved in this business if you didn't think you were capable of producing something that was in the top one percent. That's the goal. So, I think no matter what we choose to do next, we're going to put that passion and drive into it.

RS: I guess what I'm saying is instead of being like, "Well, we made Spider. We can do it again." I'm going to be like, "Oh my God, it doesn't matter what you've done in the past. Hitting that top one or two percent is incredibly intimidating. We have to fire on all cylinders and do our best work."

DK: There's absolutely no reason we can't fail.

Do you worry that you might make a game that's even better than Spider, but given the black box of the App Store, you might not hit?

RS: Right, if it doesn't get featured.

If Apple never notices it, or something.

DK: I mean, quality does seem to rise to the top in some cases. I don't know of very many examples of really high quality, amazing game experiences on the iPhone that haven't gotten into the charts, that haven't gotten some level of attention.

Really, the only thing we can control in this process is the quality we produce, so we set a target for ourselves, and we will continue to go after that every time. We believe that the rest will take care of itself. Obviously, we were very nervous leading up to this because we didn't know. It's hard to measure quality objectively yourself. Ultimately, the market will decide.

RS: In fairness to Apple, I think they provide their feature spots for free. You can't pay for them, so it's a very level playing field in that respect. And it's not their fault they're so key to the success of a game.

If it was possible to purchase advertising or just get great reviews or whatever, and that would contribute equally well to your financial success, I don't think they would object to that. It wasn't by their design that they've made it like the magic bullet or whatever to the extent that it even is. So, you know, we'll do our best is the message. We kind of have to trust in ourselves.

Interestingly, we've been talking to some colleagues lately who have the job of reviewing a lot of software on the App Store. Like, nobody's seen it all. I always wonder a little bit, "Is there some amazing game lurking in there that got forgotten and lost?" Some of our colleagues are under the opinion are like, "No, there are not," because they spent a lot of time looking in there. [laughs]

DK: But it's also a different market. Like, if you make a game like System Shock 2, which is critically acclaimed but fails to sell enough to support the company that made it, you're dealing with a much larger scale operation. That game would have been considered a hit on the iPhone based on units sold.

We're in a space where the risk is a little bit lower to some regard because there are less people working on it. It's a less expensive operation. You want to be in a position where you can sort of afford to fail a little bit and have the flexibility to try new things. That's one thing that the platform affords us right now.

RS: In the mainstream triple-A console space, a lot of the bigger publishers won't sign a game -- they won't greenlight a game -- unless they believe it can at least do three million units at $60 a box. We're stoked because we've done roughly 100,000 units at $3. [laughs] The barrier for success is much lower. It mitigates the risk a lot.

Three million units at $60 a box is a ridiculous expectation.

RS: And that's why there's so much risk management in the triple-A space. It's like, "We have to make $180 million off this game. It's got to compete." The competition is similar.

DK: I think both sides of the industry are totally hit-driven. Publishers are taking those huge gambles because they believe if they get the one right franchise in place, they will make hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade. That's why it's worth it for them to take that long shot chance.

I think in the App Store, it's also very hit driven. You need to get on the charts, you need to have that certain level of success and excitement. But it's like there are hits every week. It's just a much faster moving kind of environment.

RS: Yeah, it would be nice if Spider wound up being sort of a classic for the platform. When we first started seeing reviews for it and stuff, we thought we might be in that space, which might be great.

On one hand, games stay on the App Store forever, and yet on the other, there's a constant flow of content coming into the store. 

DK: There are products out there that have had extremely long tails, right? I think that's what defines it. Fieldrunners is still in the top 100. It could be for the next year. I don't know if that's just a function of it being there in the beginning. I think to some degree, it's kind of like a classic tower defense game. We hope to make games that are like the class of action drawing games or whatever. Whatever we do next.

RS: But you're right. The way that the software is ubiquitously present, it kind of might change the culture of what it means to be a classic potentially. I guess it's kind of like if you can still think to bother mentioning it three months after it came out, it's probably a classic on the iPhone. [laughs]

[laughs] "Remember Spider? Wow, like three months ago, I was playing that. Those were the days."

DK: I probably have more iPhone games on my device than games I've purchased for the last five consoles. It's like they're so much more disposable, they come in and out, and you've only got so much real estate. And so, yeah, I'm sure we're getting deleted off plenty of people's devices already. It's going to be hard to stay in people's minds.

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