It was just before Fashion Star was released that I met Tim Knauf. I was somewhat intoxicated at a party, he turned up and said he liked making games, and a week or so later we were in business together. Easy.
These were fun days: Tim was working at a bookshop, and I had just gotten a job as a technology writer for a magazine. In our spare time, however, we were plotting what to make together. It had to be tiny, simple, and a quick way of learning a new framework. For whatever reason, we chose to make a Flash game, and so began my love/hate relationship with the crash-prone Mac versions of Adobe's programs.
Run Boots Run is a simple endless runner -- made before they were cool! -- that has you controlling a… thing, possibly a cat… through a semi-random level that gets faster and faster.
You can collect diamonds as you run along, but -- in a hilarious showcase of our beginner-level design skills -- they don't do anything. We just couldn't think of what they might add to the gameplay, but stuck them in there anyway, and watched as players still tried to collect them even after they realized they were functionally useless. If nothing else, it gave me a taste to learn more about player psychology.
Never underestimate how good your players might get. Tim made a non-looping music track that was about two and a half minutes long, but we started seeing high scores popping up that went significantly longer than that.
It's so easy to be smug about how difficult you think you've made something, only to have your cockiness punch you comically in the gut when your players blast through the seemingly solid walls you've created.
Either that or they found a way to cheat. Probably that.
Boots is meant to be a cat, but I couldn't work out how to animate a tail in Flash.
We'd released one game together, and suddenly thought we knew enough about Flash to make something a lot more complicated: a puzzle/platformer trilogy with a tragic tale of love and hubris weaved into it.
To say this was a step up from Run Boots Run would be quite an understatement, but it allowed us to flex our storytelling and puzzle design muscles: two things that are very important to Tim and me.
After roughly three months of development, in June 2009 we put The Pretender: Part One up on FlashGameLicense.com to see what kind of bids it might attract. Within a few weeks, we had a bid from Spil Games for US $5,000 for a primary license. This allowed us to also sell cheaper secondary licenses to other websites, so Part One ended up making closer to $9,000.
The game was very well received, and it's around this time that I discovered how sadistically amusing it could be to design super-hard puzzles that few could solve. But as you can see, the amount of money gained wasn't enough to ensure any kind of stability for our company.
Compounding this problem was the fact that we were aiming for a trilogy, but at the same time were very eager to move on to completely new projects. We produced the Pretender sequels in between other games, and we didn't manage to finish the trilogy off until November 2011 -- nearly two and a half years between the first and last episodes. That's far too long, and it meant we had to constantly refresh our memory of the story and try to drum up enthusiasm for something that had, in our own minds, been relegated to the past already. If you don't like consolidating and iterating on a single product or franchise, then never promise multiple games!
Still, it's been lovely seeing fans discuss levels online, and it's always a good feeling when people take it upon themselves to create video walkthroughs on YouTube of your games!
The iPhone had come out, and more importantly, the iPhone 3G had just been released: the first iPhone to hit New Zealand. It looked like a fun, lively market with a low barrier to entry, so we decided to take the plunge -- along with just one or two other developers.
As with Run Boots Run, we knew we had to keep our first game on a new platform relatively simple. Zoo Lasso came from a mechanic Tim had thought up some time ago, involving drawing loops around groups of bugs for points.
Interestingly, we released at the start of the "race to the bottom" period of the iPhone market, when 99-cent games weren't nearly as common as they are now (and quality free games certainly weren't dominant, what with no in-app purchases available). In fact, right up until launch we were seriously considering launching it at $1.99. Times change!
Zoo Lasso ultimately suffered for a few reasons. Both Tim and I were still learning about game design, and didn't have the skill to fully develop the game's concept. As a result, it feels underdone, like half a mechanic in search of a game.
Marketing was another sticking point, one that would remain through all of our projects. We released Zoo Lasso and saw practically no sales for a week. There was no budget for marketing, and frankly we felt like we were floundering: we had tried to get gaming websites interested in reviewing the game, but those few that did cover it didn't add to sales in any significant way.
And then a week later we got onto Apple's "New & Noteworthy" section on the App Store and shifted 10,000 copies. We were over the moon -- but of course, as soon as the feature spots ticked over a week later, sales plummeted once more. It's here that we had our first experience of the agonizing roller coaster of emotions that is watching chart positions. I had to force myself away from the computer after a couple of days -- I wasn't doing anything except refreshing and seeing how high we were (or weren't) climbing.
As a learning exercise, Zoo Lasso was a great introduction to the iOS platform, to Objective-C, and to the Cocos2d framework we ended up using for all our iOS titles. What it wasn't: a successful enough title to make us both quit our jobs and go full time. But for better or worse, we didn't let that stop us from quitting our jobs anyway.