How a top five iPad app was created on a shoestring budget

Local brothers come up with a popular mobile game

The days when PCs and consoles were the only platforms to release games on are gone, with smartphones and tablets now demanding a growing share of the market. Popular franchises such as Angry Birds and Cut the Rope made their debut on the iPhone and went on to sell millions. Local studio, Flat Earth Games, is now attempting to get a slice of the pie with its medieval theme building game, TownCraft.

We caught up with Flat Earth Games founders, Leigh and Rohan Harris, to talk about the challenges and opportunities of developing a mobile game.

What prompted you and your brother to set up an indie game studio?

Leigh Harris (LH): I'd say it was two things. The first being that the App Store now exists and we felt that, with a modest amount of start-up capital, we were now capable of creating something which met the standards of existing games, and were able to use the store to reach an existing and active market. The second was when Rohan spoke to his friend Morgan, who happened to run Epiphany Games, about TownCraft, and he expressed interest in co-developing it with us, giving us the technical expertise we’d need to make it a reality.

Rohan Harris (RH): Beyond that, too, I had grown quite attached to playing games on my iPad, and felt this was a genre of game I badly wanted to see more of on that platform.

Why a profit sharing arrangement with other artists, musicians, etc?

LH: It was borne of necessity. We didn't have any money and were working part time jobs outside of the indie dev, so it was really the only option open to us.

RH: It did mean that we had to really make sure that it was a game that we could 'sell' to people. If people were going to invest their time in the game, they had to believe it had the potential to actually work and make them money at the end of it.

What was the most challenging aspect of the start-up?

LH: I'd say it was motivation. We were incredibly excited to be making the game, and were both learning as we created. However, keeping our heads high amidst two full years of development, with no guarantees that we were going to emerge with a viable business, was hugely stressful.

RH: For me personally, it was suddenly being the lead technical person at a game studio. I would often be interacting with people who have years, sometimes decades, of experience as serious game developers. I also had a lot to learn in a very short time to feel I had any place even breathing the same air as them. Thing is, two years in, the old "Imposter Syndrome" thing still occasionally sneaks back into my mind.

How did you overcome it?

LH: I think for me, the fact that we’d long since past the point-of-no-return made the difference. The fact that we had half a dozen people depending on us to have the game see the light of day meant that there was no succumbing to any kind of stress-induced depression and ceasing work on the project.

RH: Simply having something to show for my work helped. It’s one thing to say "we're starting a game studio" and having business cards, and another to have an alpha version of a video game which is actually rather playable sitting there in my bag, ready to bust out and show someone at a moment's notice. That gave me confidence to just say, "Yeah, I'm a game developer now."

How did the concept for TownCraft come about?

RH: It came out of a discussion I had with some friends about the idea of Minecraft creating a new genre of games. My argument was that it did, in the same way "Doom clones" became first-person shooters and "Warcraft clones" became real-time strategy games, I felt that we would quickly just accept crafting games as a genre. To prove this point, I brainstormed out a half dozen random ideas as part of an article I was writing discussing this. One of the ideas was essentially an iPad-based, isometric citybuilder with a very personal touch and a heavy emphasis on crafting and farming mechanics. It didn't take long for me to realise I might actually have something, remove it from the article, and begin thinking seriously about making it happen.

How does TownCraft stand out from other crafting and building games?

LH: We wanted to make it a game which didn’t rely on pester-power to succeed. We grew up on 90’s games and were becoming somewhat dissatisfied with games which constantly bugged you to pay more, reminded you to login, compete with friends and all that other stuff. We wanted to make an experience which was “pure” and just harked back to that old time when you were playing a game because it was fun rather than because you were achievement hunting to get bragging rights. It allowed us to spend a lot longer working on atmosphere and experience rather than thinking about gamer psychology.

What was the biggest challenge when developing?

RH: The early development wasn’t too difficult for me. As a hobby when I was younger I'd developed little sprite-based games, so the concepts of 2D animated games weren't new to me. The difficulty came when we hit the point of needing AI and running into the memory limitations of the device. In short, purely technical for me. The thing I had to learn very quickly was when to know I’d hit the limits of my skill, and what the best way was to overcome that, either talk to the Epiphany guys, spend some time reading articles, Googling things or simply experimenting. With all that it still took two years. Many times I had moments of being absolutely beset by exhaustion. In fact, when I started TownCraft I was still in my 20’s.

Why was iPad selected as the platform for TownCraft?

LH: Because it had the screen size to be able to pull it off, and was the easiest platform to hit. We knew we didn't have the capacity out the gate to create something cross-platform with the multitude of devices out there, and Rohan in particular found it frustrating that slightly “deeper” experiences couldn’t be found on his iPad in the genre we both grew up loving. Now that the iPad version is out and all we're working on for it is tweaks and new maps, and we’re looking to other platforms, but it required that first safe platform for us to be able to hit the ground running.

Any plans to bring the game to iPhone or Android?

RH: We're working on the iPhone version now. We've left our options open for Android, in that we’re using a cross-platform API and have tried to avoid tying ourself down to any Apple-specific APIs or features. That said, from a purely logistical standpoint, the sales rates for Android versus iOS, taken from the other indies we’ve met, and from public figures, and the incredible amount of time and effort it’d take to move a UI-heavy game like ours onto a platform with so many different screen sizes, DPIs and system specs, have meant that it's not something we see in the near future. Of course, we have figured out how many sales we'd need to be talking before it'd become financially viable to make an Android build, and if we hit that, absolutely.

What’s next for the studio after TownCraft?

LH: First up: a single malt Scotch Whiskey. [Laughs] After that, we really need to take a look at how TownCraft is doing. If it's really going nuts, we'll extend the franchise with one of our four sequels coming next. If it isn’t, although so far that doesn't look to be the case, we'll venture into another new IP. In fact, either way we want to get into doing a new IP. In the two years since we started this company, we’ve paid much more attention to flippant ideas which “could be cool” for new games, and we're sitting on a bunch which we could potentially make next. I think that’s the reason a lot of people don’t actively take down their ideas for later use, namely lack of an appropriate outlet. Now that we’re actually doing this, every idea is a reality lying in wait rather than a flash-in-the-pan idea we had at a party in a conversation. So we hang onto each one now.

RH: As I said, I'm working on the iPhone version. Then localisation stuff, and some technical stuff with the engine to widen our options for its re-use in future games or for desktop versions of TownCraft. I've also been working on a new IP which will fit nicely with the technology we’ve built. I just wish I could jump right away into that, as it'd be exciting. Unfortunately, the iPhone version takes priority. I have to be a restrained adult. [Laughs]

Want to read other video game interviews with key figures from Sony, Microsoft and more? Then check out Good Gear Guide's complete interview archive.

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