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Interview: Mobigame Talks  Cross Fingers , iPhone Game Scene

Interview: Mobigame Talks Cross Fingers, iPhone Game Scene Exclusive

December 8, 2009 | By Jonathan Glover

The year-long, on-again, off-again relationship between Mobigame’s Edge and Apple’s App Store has been covered. In full.

However, it should come as no surprise that a lengthy interview with the developer’s mouthpiece, David Papazian, about the company’s direction and recently released minimalist puzzler, Cross Fingers, would largely trend toward the controversial events of the last year. Edge is, unfortunately, known more for the controversy surrounding it than it is for being one of the early examples of App Store exceptionalism.

Yet despite Mobigame’s dark cloud hanging over the entirety of the following interview, an exhausted-sounding Papazian remained positive, open and forward-thinking. He discussed with FingerGaming, among other things, the new talent they’ve brought on board, the interesting stopgap that is Cross Fingers, and the space within the App Store for true independents moving forward.

Note that since this interview was conducted, Edge had been pulled from the App Store, but has reappeared under the new title Edgy. [UPDATE: Not so fast, it seems; according to a Develop report, the game has been pulled yet again.]

So how many of you are there at Mobigame now? Is it still just you and Matthieu?

Today we are three at Mobigame. Thomas Volbrecht joined us recently to work with us on our new game. Thomas worked at Mekensleep previously. He was senior programmer on [Nintendo DS puzzler] Soul Bubbles. He is very talented and creative, which is not usual for a programmer. We also work with external musicians and graphists depending on our needs.

Assuming you’ve just recently started development on your new game then, when did work begin on Cross Fingers? It’s brief yet meditative " sort of like a direct answer to Edge, and the controversy surrounding it.

Matthieu had the idea of Cross Fingers during our trip to San Francisco for the GDC in March. After winning a Milthon (French equivalent of the BAFTA) and two IMGA (International Mobile Games Awards), we received three nominations for Edge at the IGF, but we did not win any prize there.

As you can imagine it was [a disappointment] " we wanted to bring something back in Paris for the musicians who made the excellent soundtrack, “Edge " Sweet music from the game”, but the award for the Best Soundtrack went to Secret Exit, so congrats to them.

During the GDC I met Steve Demeter. He told to me that he liked our game a lot, and I told him the same about his game (Steve is the creator of the brilliant Trism), he also told me to be happy with that " we were very lucky to be nominated anyway " and he was right.

We also had a really good contact with Stephane Thirion (creator of Eliss, a very innovative multitouch arcade puzzle). We met also some cool people at a party at Ngmoco office, etc. Just to say that we were at the heart of the iPhone community, and it was very inspiring.

During a dinner in a Mel’s restaurant on Van Ness Avenue, Matthieu started to draw geometrical shapes on the tablecloth " Cross Fingers was born. In fact, the first name of the project was “Click Clack”. We started to work on it in May, after the release of the last big update for Edge.

The idea was to make a simple game after spending two years on Edge, to take a breath. But it was really more complicated than expected, firstly because we spent several days in all the wood shops of Paris to find the perfect wood textures " we tried a lot of them.

Then I had to build a solid engine that could handle the collisions of several moving blocks of different shapes. If you did not notice the game is in full 3D. There was a lot of work to extrude, bevel, triangulate and illuminate the shapes.

While we were creating the levels (Matthieu did almost all the levels) we found the name Cross Fingers, somewhere in June " that’s what your fingers do naturally when you play the hardest levels of the game. Of course there is also a wink at our recent story. We received a lot of emails of support with this bottom line: “fingers crossed”.

Matthieu and I spent the last 6 months dealing with the controversy surrounding Edge, and on the development of Cross Fingers. In August Matthieu had an accident, he broke his foot while playing basketball. That [slowed down] a lot the development. He has still some difficulties to walk but he should be 100 percent healed in a week or two. (The previous year he broke his hand with a bad fall while playing soccer.)

So, six months is pretty long to develop a puzzle game, but we are pretty happy with the result regarding our past misfortune.

How old were you guys when you began working on Edge?

The idea of a game based on a rolling cube came to Matthieu in 2004; he was 26 and I was 25.

The development started in 2006, and we released it in December 2008.

I feel as if this is something I should know, but had either of you any experience working on a commercial release up until that point?

We worked at Gameloft in the past.

That’s incredible. So you put this huge amount of time and effort into Edge only to see it pulled from the store in a few months. How did you guys, Mobigame, manage to sustain yourselves, creatively and financially?

We worked more than five years for other companies like Gameloft or Lagardere Active Broadband before starting Mobigame, so we had some money left. But it was clearly not enough.

We received some help from the French government " as an innovative company, Mobigame does not pay all the usual taxes, and Matthieu and I received some indemnity because we were unemployed (it is a kind of insurance from our past salaries). It is the way that many people create companies in France. Personally, I also received some help from my father during the hardest months.

Everything is easier if you have some good friends and family. They were really interested in our project and it was important to share this with them. After all our effort we were really happy to see that the game was successful on the App Store.

And four months later the nightmare began. We don’t regret anything. It took more time than expected but Edge will be released on all mobile phones soon, and we are working on DS and PSP versions as well. Other platforms should follow.

Did the success of Edge spur you to become platform-agnostic, or was the intention always to develop for multiple platforms?

We are platform-agnostic. Our intention with Edge was to make a game dedicated to all mobile platforms. Now we think that the game could work also with a keyboard or a joypad, and we want to develop more games on all platforms. One of the first rules in business is, “Do not put all one’s eggs in one basket.” It makes a lot of sense to us today after what happened.

But do you think this is applicable to iPhone development as a whole? Especially with the large developers now going free-to-play with optional DLC, it’s getting much harder for indies, especially at “premium prices”, to get a foothold in the store. Does this mean developing for the iPhone as an independent almost necessitates a multiplatform strategy?

iPhone development is really tricky today. In the past months we saw some successful games in the indies, like Canabalt, and a lot of sad stories like Stoneloops! / Luxor, or our own. All of those games are multiplatfrom.

Apple does a great job, the market place is great, the development kit is great and their marketing team does an impressive job to contact and promote developers when they like a game. But there are just too many games! How many clones of the same game can we find? It is true even in the large developers’ catalogs.

There is still a place for innovation and creativity on the store. Apple promotes major companies on iTunes, but also the developers who can provide innovative concepts.

We just released Cross Fingers dedicated exclusively to the iPhone. We will see if we chose the good strategy. But, if you can, you must think to a multiplatform strategy, create an IP, and make it famous on every game platform. This is the basics.

The iPhone market will be really different in a year from now, and no one can tell if Apple will release a new iPhone " a new platform " next summer. Free-to-play is a nice idea from a business point of view, like an addictive arcade machine with a free first credit. I don’t know if customers will like this but I am sure we will still find amazing traditional games made by indies on the iPhone / iPod touch in the future.

Staying on the idea of free-to-play versus paid apps for a moment, and by extension larger, more resourceful publishers versus indies, do you think this is something indie developers should embrace?

Zynga said a few months ago that iPhone monetization was “below expectations”, but at the same time it’s burgeoning elsewhere. We consistently see really talented indies undervaluing their games at a dollar, two dollars… do you think this is at all a viable solution to the problem of apps often being seen as a disposable entertainment, at a few bucks a pop?

As a gamer I feel that free-to-play is a vicious strategy to sell me something, like a Trojan horse. But it depends a lot on the way it is implemented by the developers: if it is a part of the game design, made of episodes or to push the experience further, or if it makes sense regarding the gameplay, then maybe it can be a good way to sell a game, even for an indie.

For our game Edge we increased the number of levels from 26 (version 1.0) to 46 (version 1.31) in a few months with free updates. That’s possible on the iPhone. It is a reason why this platform is so great, and that’s probably something that our customers really appreciated.

What are we waiting for as a gamer? An innovative game or an innovative business model? Free-to-play has been introduced as a solution to piracy, like massive multiplayer games were a solution to piracy on PC. Apple did not expect the huge success of the iPhone as a gaming platform, and now there are too many games, and not enough protection.

If you can not afford a good marketing campaign, selling a game at more than $3 today is really risky. But dropping the price of an app to $1 is not a solution for an ambitious game, if you spent 6 months to make it, you will have to be in the top 100 for several months at least to make a living at this price. Especially if you are in Europe with a very strong euro.

But how many games are released each month? There are already 100,000 apps after 15 months of existence, maybe 90 percent of those apps are clones of other apps. So I would say that you have less than one chance in 100 to make it.

We will probably try our chance at this price category soon, but we thought a lot about “cheap marketing”, the visibility of the game, the innovation in the game design, the quality, and the most important, we made games which do not exist yet and which we would like to play. The platform is very young, natural selection is operating, and as always with natural selection, be innovative if you want to survive.

That’s very true in that, despite things kind of “glomming”, finally, the App Store is still in the growing stages. What do you think Apple can, or needs to do about the situation of trademarking and copyrighting (a situation that you’re all too familiar with) and, more frequently, the tricky situation of content approval, which honestly seems quite arbitrary at this point?

At first I would say that the App Store is the place to be right now for the indies, and we can all thank Apple for that. But there is a major drawback to this. The review team of Apple cannot check if each game is original and if it does not infringe upon someone else’s rights.

Nevertheless, one could ask how was it possible to buy Duck Hunt or some Game & Watch game on the App Store? If it was a freeware I could understand, but selling an exact clone of a very famous game for $1 is really amazing. Obviously some mistakes have been made in the past. Apple was a newcomer in the mobile game industry but I believe that they did the right thing to prevent this from happening again. There must a lot of gamers in their review team today.

At the same time some games like Edge or Killer Edge Racing are on the edge while we are discussing because someone complained to Apple that those games infringe “his trademark”, and Stoneloops! has been removed from the store simply because the developer of Luxor asked Apple to do so, claiming it was a clone of its game. Luxor and Stoneloops! are color matching games with marbles like Zuma which is itself a clone of PuzzLoop.

[NOTE: Stoneloops! developer Codeminion says accusations included "infringing Luxor copyright, confusing customers, stealing Luxor’s look & feel and even stealing their source code." An official statement from Mumbojumbo can be found here.]

We know that Apple is very prudent in legal matters, and we perfectly understand their position. But, and that’s important, every iPhone developer signed an agreement with Apple. It says that we are responsible for any liability to Apple because of a claim that our applications infringes upon another party’s rights.

In a way Apple prefers to remove a game from the store to protect itself, but also to protect the developer. It also says that the developer is responsible. It is why I believe that in some cases Apple should not take a decision before a court made a judgment since they are not responsible.

For our own case, we explained the situation to Apple, a lot of documents have been exchanged, and our solicitor Alex Chapman of Sheridans in London helped us a lot thanks to the fund created by the Chaos Engine. Apple took the time to study the case in depth. I am sure that they will do the same with the developers of Stoneloops! (my point of view would be different if the attacker was the developer of PuzzLoop).

You see, it is not an easy task. Some cases of copyright infringement like the clone of Nintendo’s classic Duck Hunt. are obvious, and some other cases will demand a lot of work of Apple’s legal team because some people will try to abuse the system.

I don’t think that Apple could increase its staff to solve the problem because it does not make sense to hire more people to review free, or $1 apps. Gross revenue is probably not growing as fast as the number of apps.

If we want to avoid all those issues, we have to accept that the App Store could close its doors to a lot of developers. Decreasing the number of apps is the only way to increase the quality of the service. But that’s surely not what developers and customers want today.

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