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| December 22, 2009
AppTalk: Interview with Noah Bordner Developer of OMG Pirates! and Zombieville USA
Another week, and another AppTalk. This edition is an interview with Noah Bordner from Mika Mobile who is half of the entire development team. Mika Mobile has created two great games for the iPhone in Zombieville USA and more recently the superb OMG Pirates! Now you can get a little insight into the creative minds behind these two great games. Q: Mika Mobile is relatively mysterious compared to other small developers. Can you talk about the people behind Mika Mobile, and what each one does? Mika Mobile is actually just composed of two people, Kelli Noda and myself, Noah Bordner, although it seems like a lot of people figure we must be a big company! We're just a nerdy young couple who met in art school while studying animation in San Francisco. In fact, Zombieville was originally a pet project of mine back in college, the first version was created in Macromedia Director many years ago. Around the turn of the new year in '09, Kelli started work on bringing Zombieville back from the grave in the form of a Unity-powered iPhone game, mostly as a simple project to get used to the platform. Up until then, Kelli had been working at Best Buy (obviously not anymore) and I'd been working in the game industry as an animator for Bungie, Lucasarts, and EA. After seeing the game become a huge hit, it was a no-brainer to leave the triple-A scene and join Kelli in making more fun, simple iPhone games. The two of us are generalists, and as such we dabble in various disciplines, and take on many different roles during production. Unlike most teams which may have an art guy, a programmer, etc., we tend to overlap a lot, taking on random tasks as they come down the pipe. I find that being able to take a feature all the way from concept to completion is a huge benefit, since there's no potential breakdown of communication from art to programming. The only thing we don't do ourselves is the music - my father runs a successful midwestern-based commercial music house, Gravity Music, which we've contracted for both Zombieville and OMG Pirates! *Note: a picture of the legendary Mika, our cat and Mika Mobile's namesake (hence the cat face emoticon and orange lettering in our logo) Q: Why did you choose to develop for the iPhone, and how long does the production process take for your games? Why was it so long between games (we want more great games from you)? The iPhone is the absolute best platform out there for indie developers, there's no other platform that really comes close. There are virtually no roadblocks between you and getting your game out there to millions of potential buyers. That said, I doubt either Kelli or I would have made any iPhone games at all if it weren't for having used Unity for years prior. We're both artists first and programmers second, so it was extremely helpful to have an engine that was both powerful and artist friendly. When the iPhone version of Unity became available it was an easy transition to make, having had a great deal of experience with the desktop version. It may not have even crossed our minds to pursue iPhone games if it weren't made so ridiculously easy for us. As for the time it takes to make our games... well, that's all over the place. Kelli created version 1.0 of Zombieville in less than 6 weeks! Obviously more time has gone into is since then with updates and such, but it was a very quick and easy project. OMG Pirates on the other hand didn't get into full swing until I resigned from Bungie and joined the "team". OMG was much more complex and ambitious, and took the two of us about 6 months. Depending on the complexity of our next project, and how much time we end up spending on updates to Zombieville and OMG, it may be a few months before you see any new games from us. We have lots of ideas for more games though! Q: Your catalog of games includes Zombies, Ninjas, and Pirates in side-scrollers what is your inspiration, and why those characters in side-scrollers? Well, Zombies are just a great videogame staple. Back when Zombieville launched, there weren't that many zombie-themed games on the App Store, and it seemed like the time was ripe for a good zombie gorefest. These days though (and I suspect we're partially to blame) there are dozens of them, but I think that was just a matter of time. I think a lot of Zombieville's success is due to being one of the first, with a cute and appealing art style. The whole ninjas vs. pirates thing is, of course, an old internet gag. Initially I really just wanted to make a brawler, because I love games like Double Dragon, River City Ransom, and other classic NES beat-em-ups. It's one of my favorite genres, and its very poorly represented on the iPhone, so I figured the potential was pretty great. I also really like ninjas, and having the player be a ninja allowed us to make lots of cool, stylish attack animations, which was something we really wanted to focus on. Having the enemies be pirates started off as a gag, but after we drew a bunch of cool concept art for pirate enemies, we figured we'd just go ahead and make the whole thing a pirate/ninja themed mashup. It seemed like a winning formula, ripe with opportunities for humor, cool characters, and interesting locations to fight in (pirate ships, asian villages, etc.). Q: When you developed Zombieville did you ever think it would have such long term success? Also speak about your view of the App Store in general. We were both stunned... actually I still can't believe how well its still selling! You'd think by now everybody who wanted to play Zombieville already has it, but it just has so much momentum. We're over a half million sales now, with well over a million downloads of the "lite" version. The average app's quality has been steadily going up over the course of this year - its really so much more competitive and humbling than it once was, so we feel really fortunate that people are still buying and enjoying Zombieville (which still maintains a very high review average). I really can't explain it though, the App Store is still a little mysterious at times. One thing that keeps me motivated and excited about continuing to develop apps for the iPhone is that I feel like its an environment that mostly rewards quality. I say mostly because there's always exceptions, but I'm confident that if I make something unique and appealing, it will at least sell enough to legitimize the time spent on it. As long as you keep your budget low, know your audience, and price reasonably, you don't have to worry about making a mega-hit in order to get by. For instance, OMG Pirates will probably never reach the top 10 like Zombieville did, but it doesn't have to. We're on track to "break even" within a mere 4 weeks of release - expenses are easy to cover when you work from home and your two employees live together. :P I know some developers would disagree, but its pretty rare that a well executed game doesn't get some exposure, either by being featured by Apple, or from the numerous fan sites and blogs out there. Now, what becomes a top-10 hit isn't always the best of the bunch, but from what I've seen most of the good stuff is at least turning a profit, and the big companies like Gameloft and EA don't seem to be drowning out the indies like many folks feared. Q: Do you have any update plans for either of your games? Also OMG Pirates just came out, but any info on a new game? We're currently working on a Zombieville update which will include new playable characters, which each provide a slight "adjustment" to the basic rules of the game. We're still playing with the numbers, but the plan is for each to promote a slightly different play style. One guy might do less damage, but find WAY more bullets, so you're just blasting away constantly. Another guy might move quickly and do extra melee damage. Again, nothing is finalized, we're still playtesting and figuring out what's fun, but so far we think it adds a bit of freshness to the game. There are some other features which will probably find their way into this update too. We have ideas for OMG Pirates! updates as well, and will probably put together a lite version sometime in the future, since Zombieville lite has undoubtedly contributed to the full version's long-term success. We also have many ideas for entirely new games. As is pretty obvious from playing our games, we're not married to any one genre, and we like RPG elements. I'd actually like to take a stab at making a full-on RPG. We have some prototypes, but its too early to say what our next project will really be. Q:What is your favorite iPhone game that is not your own? Most recently, I really got a kick out of Mini Squadron, it's one of the only mobile games that I've actually gotten into long enough to not only finish, but collect all of the unlockable goodies. It's a great example of taking a simple gameplay mechanic, adding some visual flair, and making something distinctive and appealing. ***Thank you for reading AppTalk, and hopefully you enjoyed it. Mika Mobile has made two outstanding games, and there just a small development team composed of a couple. Truly great to find out about. Also note that the Zombieville update was just submitted today with seven unique characters, and ability for level selection.