The explosion of the iPhone platform has done more than offer new avenues of opportunity to small studios -- it's also paved the way for an arcade renaissance. Not since the coin-op days have so many simple-yet-challenging games been available to such a broad audience, and that's creating a long-awaited level of opportunity for many industry veterans.
Designer Mark Stephen Pierce has a storied career. In some 30 years in the tech industry, he's helped found Macromedia, created storied Mac games Dark Castle and Beyond Dark Castle, and spent years with Atari in lead roles on many games -- among them, the 1989 arcade classic Klax.
Now, thanks to Pierce's current outfit, mobile developer Super Happy Fun Fun, the Klax mechanic is back, reincarnated as iPhone puzzler Star*Burst: "I'd been watching everybody rip off everybody else's game, so why not rip off my own game?" he jokes to Gamasutra.
Pierce founded Super Happy Fun Fun in 2001 after leaving Atari Games, where he was senior VP. But success for his start-up was far from immediate.
"The big idea back then was you get six guys together and start doing a product, somebody picks it up and then you grow to 80 people and get bought by a big publisher," he reflects.
The studio did get a Sierra contract and grew its staff to 25 people -- and in the early millennium, Sierra parent Vivendi "hit a wall," says Pierce: "They cut 43 products and we were one of them." The team kept afloat by doing ports, like Acclaim's Turok: Evolution for PC, but the outlook wasn't yet especially bright.
"We'd been in this big financial debacle," he says. "So six years ago, we started doing mobile and our first title got some critical acclaim," he said. That game was Ace Yeti Trapper, and it led to a focus on mobile development fairly early on in the life of that industry -- pre-iPhone, when it was far less glamorous.
Believing In The Future
"As a development house mobile's not the most exciting thing," he says. "However, we all kind of believed in this bright and shiny future for mobile -- and we wanted to be there."
Then came the launch of iPhone and the App store. "We had limited resources, but we took whatever energy we could and put it into moving out technology platform over to the iPhone," says Pierce.
Interestingly, the team's first efforts were some of the culturally-referential gimmick apps often enormously popular on the Store: "We did one called Octomom," says Pierce. "Apple rejected it."
Super Happy Fun Fun soon published Snowboarding TnT with partner TiltnTwist -- and then a new investor helped the studio, allowing Pierce to reorganize and to secure a deal with the Big Buck Hunter brand for the iPhone version of Big Buck Hunter Pro.
"We got to do a really nice job on that title -- it met with market acceptance, was pretty solidly in top 100 and the overall top 10 of sports," Pierce says. "Sales have been consistent and there are more updates coming out."
Now, with Big Buck Hunter Pro, Snowboarding TnT and Star*Burst out on the iPhone, it's a brand-new infusion of excitement -- a "godsend," says Pierce -- not to mention practical opportunity for a studio that's been working in mobile for six years.
"This is what we visualized!" says Pierce of the iPhone biz. "And I love the democratic process of releasing titles -- it's not like an evil publisher deciding what's good and bad... there are so many new, creative games out there that come from sources other than traditional publishers."
"I wish the price point was higher," he concedes, "but with the volume they have now, it can be a viable business." The install base is up to about 78 million devices, he says -- compare that to Nintendo's Game Boy Advance, which had about 180 million installs: "Very quickly, in just a couple of years, they're halfway to GBA," Pierce points out.
It made more sense for Pierce to investigate arcade mechanics on the small platform than on Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation network. "To compete on the production values there, you really have to spend quite a bit of money," Pierce says. "Everything I heard anecdotally couldn't justify... we have 22 people here, and to find funding for it was kind of hard."
What about the argument that market saturation will make it more challenging to compete on iPhone? "I'm hoping it's getting more challenging," says Pierce. "I want to make sure that people that are competing are really players!"
But while it's not as easy to make large volumes of money on the platform as it was in the App Store's first year, "the right idea at the right time comes up and anybody can do it -- it's almost like a lottery ticket," says Pierce.
The team submitted Star*Burst right before Christmas -- and were surprised when Apple chewed right through its queue and put the game out in two and a half days.
"It was really unheard of," says Pierce, who says submission times in general seem a great deal faster than they used to be. "Fortunately, Apple featured [Star*Burst] both in 'New and Noteworthy' on the PC and in 'Hot New Games' on the device itself, and now we are fast climbing up the charts."
Now Pierce says the studio will continue to support both Big Buck Hunter Pro and Star*Burst with new content; as with many developers in the console market, he says connectivity makes impossible the ship-and-forget mentality of a prior era.
For example, he hopes Star*Burst will continue to perpetuate its own community thanks in part to its Facebook integration: "It's a pretty good shot someone who owns an iPhone also has a Facebook page," he says. "So it's a way to connect more with the customers, and there is promotional value there as well... people want to have a relationship with [the game]."
"There are all sorts of crazy ideas we want to do with this stuff, and the link to Facebook is just a rudimentary first step of tying those worlds together," he adds.
"Ideally, we'd like to just have a dozen titles or so we kind of maintain and keep growing and keep alive," Pierce continues. Next up for Star*Burst, for example, will be new cards to reward players for making shapes in the game.
The update process is fairly easy, he says, and the team has been developing for long enough that it's now easier for them to predict how long an update cycle will take based on the size. "Since the new year, Apple is turning things around in three days instead of three weeks," he adds. "Updates are quick; it's just a question of how much content you're adding."
The Road Ahead
The studio will now aim for two new titles a quarter in addition to continuing to grow existing titles. "My belief with the iPhone is that yeah, it's just a game and maybe it will be a one-shot for people... but we'll try to build a dialog with the fans and keep releasing new stuff," he says.
And for Pierce as a designer, he's back where he most thrives: "There are a ton of similarities with the casual nature of the gameplay... arcades were casual games," he says. And like arcade titles -- and unlike the often-intimidating console space, iPhone games are "everyman games; anybody can play it, and the themes are simple."
"I feel like a craftsman as opposed to a mine worker," reflects a happy Pierce. In the arcade era, "you had to grab them in 90 seconds with no manual and then they had to want to play it again. It's these same key design philosophies."