Indie developer Nimblebit has had a number of successes over the last few years, breaking onto the scene with the ever-popular tower building game Tiny Tower last June.
Mobile Pie's Will Luton caught up with the studio's co-founder David Marsh about the secrets of its success and what it hopes to achieve going forward.
Will Luton: Somebody said to me when I mentioned I was going to speak to Nimblebit, ‘why are you guys so special?’ Yet you guys have had a string of hits that most mobile devs would dream of.
David Marsh: Yeah, that’s a hard question to answer. I don’t want to feel like we’re self-important or anything like that but it’s not anything that came out of nowhere. We’ve been making apps for the App Store since they started accepting submissions in 2008.
We’re up to like 14 or 15 apps now. We kind of soldiered along for a long time, putting app after app out there and trying to learn from each one and seeing what worked and what didn’t.
Some were complete flops and some got a little bit of critical success of we tried to build off that each time, build our brand awareness and customer base. Then we came out with Pocket Frogs, which was a bigger hit than any of our previous games and that set us up for even more success.
It’s been kind of a wild ride. I don’t know if we’re any more special than any of the other pretty talented developers in the App Store. I think a lot of it does come down to luck but also getting people at Apple, especially on the App Review Board, to be fans of your games helps a lot.
All of our games have been featured somewhere on the App Store which is definitely no small part of why we’ve had our success. That’s not something we were able to just do, it just worked out that way. That was a big part of it.
Luton: Where are you guys based? Do you get regular meetings with Apple?
Marsh: No, recently we got a contact at Apple that we get on the phone with once a month or so but before that we never really had any kind of official relationship with them.
We still don’t really. We’re based in San Diego so it’s not like we get to see any Apple employees on a regular basis.
Luton: What we’ve experience with Apple is that they are kind of hands off. They keep a distance away from developers because they want their editorial independence, which is quite a good thing, right?
Marsh: It would be a meat market if it was just like anyone could get a good relationship with someone at Apple and automatically have favourite status and get all their stuff featured. I think they’re pretty diplomatic about it on purpose and that’s probably a good strategy.
Luton: I think it keeps them quite controversy free because you could imagine a situation where someone was getting regular feature status, it would seem that was quite corrupt.
Marsh: Yeah they definitely try to be impartial so they‘re not in the middle of any scandals or stuff like that. They just stand away and pick and choose from what they think stands out. As far as I know, there’s no official relationship that they have with any developer, although I’m sure that’s not totally true.
Luton: Certainly not with us. There are just three of you, right?
Marsh: Yes. Up until August of last year it was just me and my brother Ian but in August we hired another programmer, who was a good friend of ours, to help out.
We kind of get burdened down with the more games that we have out there, with support issues and just keeping all of our titles up to date, so we thought it would be nice to have someone else to help us out. So yeah, we’re up to three now.
Luton: Has that been a big leap?
Marsh: I don’t think it’s changed the environment for us that much because we’re really good friends with Tim who works with us now. We do not have to train someone, but if we grew anymore past that, it would definitely be more of a bigger change.
Luton: As a creative, it was interesting to see you guys flip from paid to freemium, which is standard and what everyone else did, but Pocket Frogs, was that your first freemium game?
Marsh: Yes, from the start it was our first freemium game. We experimented with our other game Scoops, which is more of an arcade type game, that we eventually set to free and then we tried selling different themes inside the game so that was kind of freemium. Pocket Frogs was our first, from the start, free-to-play game.
Luton: That game is not a formulaic free-to-play game. It’s not a Zynga-esque free-to-play game, which is what everybody else was doing at the time and certainly what we were doing at the time.
We made an isometric game that had some other stuff on it, like location stuff, which did some cool interesting things, but you guys came out and did something which was, creatively, a massive leap.
So you were working out the business model and doing something new.
Marsh: We didn’t really come at it from a big picture approach. We had just released a similar game called Dizzy Pad before that which used the same frog theme, only it was an arcade game, a high score game.
We had all these little collectable different frogs in there that you could unlock by getting achievements.
Our focus for Pocket Frogs, making a game that was more centred around finding and collecting all these different types of frogs.
Then it was just the timing. It was around the time that we wanted to try out free-to-play and so we made a game about frogs that was free-to-play. It wasn’t really that well planned out or anything like that. We went ahead with it and it did pretty well.
Luton: It played quite consistently. It didn’t feel like it was tacked on. Sometimes people who do free-to-play create games that are, not clones, but creatively very similar to other stuff out there.
For developers, it’s a big shift because you’re learning a new business model as well as how that stuff fits creatively. You guys are known for moving that forward creatively. Where do you think free-to-play is going the next few years?
Marsh: I think in some ways we’re really bad at the business side of it because we don’t have real huge over arching strategies and we don’t have clear visions for the business side of all these games. We focus on the game and then try to make something that a lot of people are going to want to play.
Based on whatever that game happens to be we try to figure out what kind of things we can integrate into it to allow it to be a free-to-play game. Sometimes it works better than others.
I mean Tiny Tower was a lot more successful than Pocket Frogs and maybe next time our game won’t be as successful as Tiny Tower. We don’t approach it from that monetisation standpoint when we’re just setting out to make the game first.
Luton: Clone games. It’s been one of the stories in mobile that’s had a huge amount of coverage.
Marsh: Yeah, surprisingly. When we made that little image to poke fun at Zynga, it was just more a cathartic thing we were doing for ourselves because we wanted to say something just to our friends, not necessarily the entire world. But it ended up getting picked by every news source under the sun. It’s pretty overwhelming.
Luton: The thing that doesn’t get reported on is how teams feel emotionally when these kinds of things happen to you. What was your reaction when you first saw it?
Marsh: We didn’t have a super strong emotional reaction. We didn’t feel shocked or betrayed. We kind of had a heads up and we knew it was coming. We had heard from some other people that worked at Zynga that it was in the works so we weren’t totally surprised by it.
We were kind of just a little bit taken aback at just how close of a clone it was because we thought it would just be based on Tiny Tower with the same basic theme. But actually, the more we played it, the more it was really pretty close mechanically to our game.
You could see our emotion through the little letter we wrote, poking fun at them. Past that, it didn’t really affect us a whole lot more. We didn’t really spend too much time thinking about it, we were busy working on our next year.
Luton: Do you see it as a zero sum game where there’s only X amount of people who will play it?
Marsh: Probably not, which is why they had no problem getting away with it.
I don’t think we’ve seen any kind of downturn in our revenue because of Dream Heights. I don’t think it’s devastating to us but that’s definitely why they can put out a lot of derivative games and still flourish.
Luton: When I first played Dream Heights having played Tiny Tower a lot, my initial reaction was that it’s quite polished and nice and a there was clearly a talented team behind that, right?
Marsh: Yeah, I mean it takes talent to put together any kind of game like that, which is actually the most annoying thing about it personally to me.
I think everyone who works in this industry knows multiple people that have gotten snapped up by Zynga or have gone to work at companies that have been bought by Zynga.
They are pretty much the predominant force in this industry and so I think a lot of people clone games because the don’t have the skill to design their own game or they’re very new to making games and they’re using it as kind of a learning exercise or something like that.
The annoying part to me was that I know that there are lots of really talented people at Zynga because I used to work with them and they all went to work at Zynga.
It’s just kind of sad for me to think that they would all get tasked with just ‘here’s a game, make something exactly like it’ instead of ‘here’s a genre, a basic idea, what can you come up with?’
The most exciting part of game development for us is just starting with that small nugget at the beginning, and based on the personalities of the people on the team and they’re skills, seeing it evolve and grow and see what you come up with by the end of everything.
For Zynga, it’s almost like they’re just saying, at least for the people that worked on Tiny Tower, that it’s an optional part of game development and not a necessary step.
Luton: It’s talent squandered.
Marsh: I would agree with that.
Luton: Your notoriety has risen quite a lot since then.
Marsh: It appears so.
Luton: How does that feel?
Marsh: I don’t know. I have mixed feeling about it because that’s not really why I would like to be known. I would like to be known for our games and not because we got cloned by a much bigger company or something like that.
We did get tons of requests for interviews about it, which was annoying. I’d rather have people want to talk to us to see what we’re doing next, not for what some other company did.
I guess there’s always the saying there’s no such thing as bad publicity and it hasn’t hurt us, that’s for sure.
Luton: You guys have been going under your own steam since day one right? You’ve never taken any finance?
Marsh: We’ve never taken any funding or anything like that. We’ve been approached by a lot of venture capital firms wanting to invest and people wanting to straight out acquire the company.
Since our focus is just about doing the every day, nitty gritty of making games and, especially with our latest successes, we never felt any kind of crunch keeping the team going, we didn’t really see the point of taking funding or getting acquired. We’re already doing exactly what we want so it would just get in the way.
Luton: So this is it now? This is your life.
Marsh: This has been our goal this whole time. These last three years we’ve been doing it the whole time. It’s just only now that we’ve been a little bit more successful at it. That’s the goal, is that we have our own office and everyday we get to go in and work on whatever we want.
We could change track on whatever we’re doing at anytime, or change direction or decide one day to stop working on apps and do something totally different. Just to have the freedom to do all that kind of stuff is really the end goal of all of this.