While studying at university, Ptolemy Oberin’s love for programming meant that he would hold down a part-time programming job doing warehouse software four days a week, while at the same time fitting all of his lectures and classes into the other three days. While he won’t go so far as to recommend this type of busy lifestyle to anyone, as he still looks back at the experience as being “horrible,” he admits that it did teach him a lot about time management and appreciating weekends. It was those very skills that enabled Oberin, fresh out of university, to get his foot in the door at Melbourne game developer, Firemint, as a junior programmer at the start of 2004, where he has been ever since.
While Firemint has been doing mobile games for many years, it quickly rose to prominence through its efforts on the iOS platform. What attracted Firemint to iOS?
Firemint project lead, Ptolemy Oberin (PO): Before we started doing original work like Flight Control Rocket and Real Racing, we did a lot of contract work covering virtually every phone type imaginable. One of the difficulties with that is every carrier had different requirements and there were so many handsets to support, as a small developer you really couldn’t make much headway with original products. The App Store provided an audience that was hungry for great entertainment, appreciated quality and was large enough to make our games viable. On top of that, we loved the hardware and the accelerometers and touch screen provided a great opportunity to explore new types of games like Flight Control and Real Racing.
In particular, Flight Control was a big hit on the Apple App Store. How did the concept for the game come up?
PO: Firemint's founder Rob Murray was a programmer himself before starting Firemint, but creating a successful small business is no easy feat. Virtually all of his time was taken up with managing and developing the business. Over a Christmas holiday break Rob decided to write a game in the two week holiday just for a bit of fun, and Flight Control was what he came up with. After the break he had a programmer art demo which we started playing around the office, and once the artists got hold of it Flight Control as you know it was created. It was a really short timeline, and something we did not expect to impact the course of the company like it did. Once released, we didn't even promote it all that heavily. Flight Control just took off on its own, if you'll excuse the pun!
More than the graphics, the main appeal of Flight Control for a lot of players was the touch screen controls and the new type of gameplay this presented. But what did Firemint find that appealed the most about Flight Control to gamers?
PO: The controls get a lot of attention and rightly so, however for me it's Flight Control's setting that made the game so great and allowed the controls to flourish. The setting is something everyone understands immediately. You see a plane, you see a runway, and everyone understands exactly what the point is. It might take a few tries to figure out the controls, but everyone knows the goal right away and that's very powerful. From the first moments you know what to do, and once you understand the path system, that's the entire game. Easy to learn yet hard to master is the dream of designers. Flight Controls goal can be understood by kids to pensioners, yet getting over the mythical 100 mark is still a challenge.
Flight Control was later upgraded and ported to PlayStation 3 as Flight Control HD. How did Firemint find the experience with the console?
PO: With games such as Flight Control it’s not so much a technical exercise as it is a design challenge. Much like we were inspired by the iPhone’s touch screen, we felt that the Playstation Move was a really powerful game control if used elegantly. Sony had some great tools that made it really quite easy to develop the game technically, so most of the effort was involved in building the multiplayer experience and creating the right feel for the platform. We think the PS3 version is a wonderfully unique multiplayer experience and plays to the strength and precision of the Move controllers.
The other big release from Firemint was Real Racing. What prompted Firemint to go from creating a casual 2D game such as Flight Control to doing a 3D driving simulator?
PO: We were actually working on Real Racing long before Flight Control was ever conceived. We had been working on a demo that used the accelerometers to make your phone act like a steering wheel. We mixed this with a powerful racing engine and we were looking to move that game onto the "the next big thing". iPhones were one of the few phones that could handle what we wanted to do, as well as providing us with an easy avenue to actually publish our game so it was a great match for us, and fortuitous timing.
In that case, where did Flight Control fit in?
PO: Flight Control, despite what its success might suggest, was more of a fun side project. It wasn’t the main focus of the studio but more just something to try out. From the start Firemint had always made sure to work on a few projects for a few different publishers at the same time to ensure that we had a strong sustainable business. Our choice of games is an extension of that, where we have a racing simulation pushing the device to its limits, we have the casual Flight Control, and we have the adventure game SPY mouse. They're all completely different games and we like that.
The 3D graphics of Real Racing and its sequel are some of the best found on iOS devices. How did you guys manage to achieve this?
PO: Short answer is sheer force of will, though I can't take any of the credit because it was another team. We had been working on a lot of big titles for big publishers like EA, so we were really good at the high production value projects. Real Racing capitalised on the strengths that we had developed, and on top of that, we have spent everything we can on this game to ensure that it is always at the cutting edge. We have a very talented pool of programmers and artists working on those amazing effects, and we have much longer time lines than the 2D work, and Real Racing certainly wasn't built in a day.
How have Firemint’s skills grown to meet each new generation of iOS devices?
PO: If you compare our latest Real Racing 2 screenshots with the very first screenshots from the original, the difference is staggering. The hardware has certainly improved, but over time we've also learnt how to use it better, gleaning everything we can from conferences like Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference, as well as picking the brains of every hardware person that we meet. There is no magic formula to it though, it’s just a matter of setting the bar high and then backing your bet with the effort and resources required to get there. We are fortunate to have a head start in this regard.
The Real Racing games have had the honour of being regularly featured in Apple's commercials for iOS devices. How did you react to that?
PO: Thrilled and surprised. We set out to try to differentiate Real Racing from the competition based on quality. Just because the devices is physically small doesn't mean the game has to be. We also don't compare ourselves to other titles, we just try to be the best racing game that we can imagine, anywhere. Apple and the public in general seem to like the effort we put in. Being featured is a great reward for all that effort, and to see our game “up in lights” is always something that gives us a huge rush of excitement at the studio.
Firemint has followed up the hit Flight Control with Flight Control Rocket. What was the reason for adopting a new sci-fi setting instead of doing a sequel set in the same environment as the original game?
PO: Flight Control Rocket actually started life as “Flight Control Arcade.” In between some other work, I was tasked with re-skinning the original Flight Control to see what a more retro arcade version would be like. Lots of black and neon, and it just seemed right to put lots of crazy arcade style ships in with the new art, so we did. We thought it was really fun, but it looked very “hardcore,” and when showing it around it scared a lot of people off. It looked hard so they thought it must be hard. Once we had all these cool crazy ships we couldn't simply make it look like the 1950's again, it wouldn't have made sense. So we came up with the retro space theme you see now. We like to think of it as how the “Flight Control girl” would have imagined the future in space, and what says 1950's space more than rocket ships?
What aspect of Flight Control Rocket stands out for you?
PO: For me it’s the new rocket types. It brings such a new dynamic to the game, and it opens up so many possibilities for the future. It was actually hard to limit the number we had in there since everyone on the team kept coming up with great ideas. The modes in Flight Control Rocket will allow us to bring a lot of variety, and the bots let people tweak their play style which are both great features. However, the new rockets are what really turn Flight Control Rocket from a simple re-skin to a completely new game I'd be happy to release even without the Flight Control branding.
Now that Flight Control Rocket is out, what does Firemint have planned next in the pipeline?
PO: Firstly, we’re committed to maintaining our games with updates and fixes, so Flight Control Rocket is very far from over. We've already started work on the first update and we're hoping that it won't be too far away.
Can we hope to see Real Racing 3 coming out this year?
PO: For now, I'm focusing on the Flight Control Rocket launch since that's my thing.
I remember that Firemint was acquired by Electronic Arts in May 2011. How has that deal worked out for the studio?
PO: We're still making the games we were making in the same way as before we were acquired. EA’s infrastructure can provide a lot of opportunities for us, such as getting the word out about our games, as well as taking responsibility for some of the dry business stuff.
If Firemint was offered by EA to reboot one of their properties into an iOS game, which would it be?
PO: I definitely have something in mind, but I think I should keep that to myself so that someday I might create an opportunity to work on it here.
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