Another talented developer is going solo, and he won’t be the last.
Hayden Scott-Baron’s capacity for alluring art design can be found in the hit WiiWare title LostWinds, where the young artist worked as part of character modelling team at Frontier Developments.
Now he’s working under his own steam, with his microstudio Starfruit having released the iPhone physics-based puzzle title, Tumbledrop.
His shift to solo development echoes that of former Fable II lead designer Dene Carter, who recently broke away from Lionhead to set up his own studio Fluttermind.
We sit down with Scott-Baron to discuss why the industry is spilling out into solo development, and what the move means for himself.
What inspired you to leave Frontier and go solo?
I've been interested in working solo for a while, but it was really when the Unity engine came along that pieces fell into position. I already had plenty of experience with 3D game development, so I found it much easier to work with this tool to put my first games together.
Did you use other tools as well as the Unity engine?
I used the Unity engine to build both the browser version for PC and Mac and the portable iPhone version. Other than that, things like Blender were used to build some of the 3D shape data needed for the more complex physics. Tumbledrop makes heavy use of Nvidia's Physx physics technology –which is integrated into Unity as standard – and without such a good physics engine the game wouldn't be nearly as fun.
Do you think more developers will follow the same path as you?
I'm certain that some developers will try going independent. The biggest difficulty is deciding whether you are willing to learn other skills, such as programming and music in my case, or whether to work with other people. Working with others can work out amazingly, but it's also quite risky because you can end up doubling the development costs.
You started as an artist - did you find it easy to learn coding as well?
Coding was a little difficult for me at first when I was working on PC and Mac, but then it became much harder still when I started working on the iPhone. I had some strong design ideals (such as no loading screens during the game) which took a lot of care on the relatively low-spec device, so I had to work very hard to learn enough programming.
By your own description Tumbledrop can be 'maddening' - how do you design the frustration/reward mechanic into the game? How did you perfect it?
Some of the levels were designed in particular to make people scream! When testing the designs I would find typical solutions, and move the shapes just enough so that the typical solution causes the shape to fall off the edge. Likewise, I would sometimes find an unusual solution and move the piles of shape horizontally until the shape barely stays on the island. I also mix up the levels a little, so that the player doesn't get faced with lots of really difficult or similar levels in the row. Mostly I want players to receive a really satisfying response when they fail or succeed.
How is Tumbledrop shaping up commercially on the App Store?
Response has been great! I've had very strong sales for the first four days of sales, and I'm noticing good sales in Germany in particular. Most of my sales are from the USA, and it's presently listed in the US App Store as a 'Hot New Game' alongside GTA Chinatown Wars.
The game is £1.19 - was that so you can be flexible on pricing later on and see how people respond to the 59p price point (should you chose to reduce it, etc.)?
The main reason for the price point is to distinguish it from lower quality £0.59 priced products. While Tumbledrop is still very affordable, being above the bottom tier of pricing ensures customers that this has a certain level of quality. Also, like you said, it's really useful to be able to discount the product sometimes.
In what ways has the iPhone changed your view on games development?
I think the iPhone has shown me that any game can stand a chance when placed against larger publishers such as EA, especially in an environment where independent games can get just as much attention. You would never see that in a retail environment, and it's difficult even on PC for anyone other than enthusiasts to pay any attention to a small game made by a very small team.
On the other hand, it's also made me think more about how games need to be appropriate for the platform. I've seen a lot of developers jump in to create very large or very complex games on the iPhone that I'm not certain are necessarily appropriate for the interface.
The App Store has seen a rise of solo developers, how much will this will determine the future of the industry?
There's certainly a strong spirit of 'give it a go' amongst developers now, knowing that there is a potential outlet without any worry of development kits or red tape. It's also given developers a reason to try out their project ideas, rather than letting them squander in a notepad. There's definitely a rise in alternative art styles too, be they childish 'sketch' type drawings, or incredibly abstract graphics, or simply very bold visuals, it pays off to make something noticeable.
Do you think that it’s possible to be an indie developer if you just focus on the volatile App Store, or do you forsee other platforms as being important in your plans?
The App Store is definitely a risky climate for indies, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to get product visibility. Whilst there is a healthy network for App Store game publicity out there, it's sometimes a problem of preaching to the small subset of the community that already pays attention to such products. Really you need word of mouth if you're going to make an impact, and developers aren't always in the best position to stimulate this.
I won't be relying solely on the App Store, but I do have more iPhone games in development. I'm currently working with Markus Persson on a web browser based 3D sandbox game called Minecraft, and I have some PC/Mac projects scheduled for release later in 2010.