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AppTalk: Interview with Luke Ryan & Andy Coates, the developers of Jet Car Stunts

January 26, 2010

Today AppTalk presents a look into the minds behind Jet Car Stunts. The interview features responses from both members of the TrueAxis team, Luke Ryan & Andy Coates. This begins a series of AppTalk's where we interview the developers of the Top 5 iPhone games from our list. Can you provide a background of TrueAxis, plus who you’re made of, and what everyone contributes. Luke: I founded True Axis in 2004 with the goal of putting my prior experience in physics programming for games to good use in the commercialization of the True Axis Physics SDK. I had some success with that, but kept in touch with game development through contract work. I also had prior experience with some big licenses on the GBA which lead me into more handheld work and work in the emerging mobile market, which was very exciting, because, although the hardware and operating systems where very limited, you could see the potential which was finally realized in the iPhone. I think I ended up playing an important role with my contribution towards making mobile games scene here in Melbourne so strong. It seems like some of the biggest games on iPhone in 2009 where made here. In 2008, I was joined by an old work mate Andy Coates who is the most experienced game developer I know. I had made my mind to focus on indie game development, and Andy who had started doing some work on the Space Tripper port to iPhone, convinced me to join forces and attack iPhone. This is your first game, why did you decide to develop for the iPhone? Luke: Well, its not quite our first game. Andy started work on Space Tripper first, which we will be releasing soon, and I made a little java game called Graviroids. I also nearly finished a 2.5D Flash racing game before I joined forces with Andy. Honestly, I wasn't too interested in iPhone, I didn't really want to jump on the fad, compete with so many others, and enter into flooded market. But with old colleges having lots of success, the continued growth of the market and Andy's enthusiasm, I eventually came around, and I am glad I did. Jet Car Stunts is a complex idea to say the least, how did you come up with it, and how long did it take? Luke: Actually, I started working on a much more complex idea first, but then we decided to just put that on hold and swap to something we could complete quickly, so, Jet Car Stunts was actually our simple idea. It drew inspiration from quite a few different games, some of which probably aren't too hard to guess. The key feature of putting a rocket on the back of a car with limited flight control actually comes from something I did as a power up in an old game I worked on during 1999. I had wondered if that concept could be turned into a full game many times but never had a solid concept. Then, Andy suggested that a lot of people really wanted a stunt/platforming style driving game on iPhone and with the help of some more modern inspirations, everything seemed to click and 6 months later it was done. Some people say "Jet Car Stunts" is a bit like grip shift... but interestingly enough, I had no idea what that game was about. I thought it was just some wacky cartoon racer with wacky cartoon physics. I still haven't played it, maybe I should. Track Mania on the other hand is one of my favorite games, I was bored of the driving genre until I found that. Either way, its the first game of its kind on the iPhone to have an impact. How difficult was it to provide such complex moving parts in Jet Car Stunts with the wonderful physics engine, and beautiful layouts Luke: It's all stuff I've done before so there was really very little risk in the production. We spent about a week whipping up a 1 level prototype based on a car handling demo for the True Axis Physics SDK and it was immediately a lot of fun to play. I was a bit worried about doing a game with this simple graphical style until I saw other examples in the wild. Still, I felt a lot better about it once I got the first lit level working. I had planned to use an existing radiosity renderer to generate the lighting, but none would do what I wanted, so we created our own, which wasted a lot of effort, but I think it was worth it. Also, getting the handling right was always going to be critical but, I had a wealth of experience from other driving games on many different platforms including mobile over many years and I was confident we could do something better then anybody else. Andy: On the technical side of things, on the iPhone, a lot of the things were transferred from the Space Tripper project - all the optimization techniques for OpenGL, the non-standard game loop we use, effectively a very efficient shell that interfaces with the iDevice's hardware. So from the word go we had a lot of things in place before Jet Car Stunts was started, which probably saved heaps of development time. The only real problem I had with the project was getting the accelerometer to be super responsive because without that responsiveness the game would be bad to play. One of the problems with how this works on the iPhone is that the more the game takes in CPU cycles to process logic the less time goes to processing the inputs, where the OS starts to ignore accelerometer requests and things start to become sluggish - this is probably why some people hate accelerometer controls in games because of this problem. The game worked fine on the newer hardware but on the 1st Gen iPod the car drove like a brick on the tracks - that worried me a lot. I kept coming back to this problem, until about a few days before we submitted, which I found a solution that worked on all hardware - I think Luke was very relieved because, every so often I thought I had it working, tell him, then a few hours later say that it did not work. Also, Luke put a lot of effort in the math side of things on how to use the accelerometer data. Anyway I think we have the best control system for car games on these devices but it took both our skill sets to achieve this. What do you think of the App Store economy, and where a small development team fits in? Every review seems extremely positive of your game, has that helped sales? Luke: With out the support of all the review sites, Jet Car Stunts would have disappeared into obscurity, so we are very thankful for that. I think it became the favorite game of a few reviewers. However, it seems that early sales are mostly driven by how strongly Apple features you on their App Store. (Although, some how in Italy we went straight to number 2) Unfortunately, in the US, it seems the new and note worthy section was broken when we released which impacted us very badly. Its a bit sad that such a positively reviewed game with so many fans doesn't automatically rise up near the top of the charts everywhere, but we haven't actually done any advertizing yet but are still selling and we still have a few tricks up our sleeves. It is defiantly all a bit learning experience and we still have a lot to learn. It's a bit strange to see how the App Store works with the advantage the big first movers have had. I feel like some games keep their high places on the charts purely by the momentum of word of mouth, long after newer much better games should have succeeded them... its a bit sad to see that the best games don't sell the best, although, its good for the people who took the risk on a newish platform. Andy: I think 2010 will be a big change for the Indies because the larger publishers are starting to dominate the charts and review sites. The days of throwing a game together in your spare time, hoping to make a million dollars are coming to an end - sure there will be the odd game that will break through from the one man bands but that will be extremely rare. With doing Jet Car Stunts, as well as developing, we have had to do other jobs connected to the marketing side of things. It's been interesting learning those aspects in the games development process. Doing all those things takes large chunks of time and people doing this in their spare time, maybe having a day job, will find this tough to do. Also, I noticed through 2009 that the quality of games is getting higher and higher, and the buyers expect these games for 99c. This is totally unrealistic for developers to do because no profit will be made. The developers that do this will not survive and will probably drop out of the market. I think in 2010 quality games will be priced more on the developer's survival to stay in business. But saying all this, it's a very exciting space to work in and developers that are willing to produce top quality games will survive but for those that do another Puzzle Block game will just fail. As, Luke pointed out, been featured by Apple is very important. A good case for us was that we were featured on the Japanese App Store with the banner adds. Before this happened we were selling next to nothing. When it happened the game shot up to number 3 in the charts. I think, for an unknown company, we have done pretty well on our first release... We got some extremely good reviews, made a lot of top lists of 2009, and made it into the top 50 best developers of 2009. This has really set us up well for our next release because the True Axis name is known now. Why did you choose OpenFeint over similar platforms, and can you describe the development process for it. We know the end user side, but how what about the development side? Luke: Andy looked after all the iPhone side of the game so I should leave this question to him, I think that a lot of the choice came down to deciding that connectivity was important very late in the project and OpenFeint didn't have any hoops to jump through before getting started Andy: Originally I wanted to use Plus+ but because we decided to add the online aspects to the game pretty late in it's development cycle, time was running out and going through the approval process for been accepted was taking too much time. So I opted for OpenFeint because it was there to use as is. In a way, this may be the right choice because OpenFeint is getting better all the time, more games are using it and I think they have had some major investment to develop it. Also, they listen to developers and implement features on request. So I suspect they will win the Online API wars and OpenFeint will become the standard. It was pretty easy to implement OpenFeint into the game. The only thing I can say is documentation is very lacking but that is been addressed now, so some time was wasted just getting the basics in the game. To be honest is was pretty easy to get it working and probably took a week of work to do this but I wont bore you with the details. Do you have any update plans for Jet Car Stunts? Or any info on whether you’re making a new game, and any details about it? Luke: We are working on a big OpenFeint update right now but we aren't quite ready to announce the full details. Also, we have started on a level pack which we want to offer as a paid DLC in the coming months. We have a long list of things we would love to do for JCS2, to make it bigger and more original and more of a full price title. Actually, we regret not charging more for Jet Car Stunts, we didn't realize just how much more content our game has then similarly priced games. I don't think too many of our customers would have been too concerned by a couple dollars extra. Anyway, at least its hard for anybody to complain about lack of value in Jet Car Stunts. Andy: I've got a few ideas for some 99c games that I want to do after Space Tripper is released. And it would be a fun thing to do, unwind, after two major projects and have a bit of fun with design. What is your favorite iPhone game that is not your own? Luke: I'm not sure I have played enough to really comment yet, I'm sure there must be heaps of great ones I have missed. Just downloading a bunch of raved about games recently, I am really surprised how simple they are, just like a simple flash game or tech demo. I suppose I was most impressed by nova, although, its not really the type of game I want to play on that kind of device, and it is too close to Halo, and the voice acting bothered me, but the visuals surprised me in their quality, the game play was smooth and fast, and for me, the controls actually feel much nicer then playing a fps on console. I feel sad as PC gamer used to using a mouse that console destroyed all first and third person shooters for me. The new console games have such cool stuff in them now, better story and production values, but, for me, I spend half my time being annoyed at how slow it is to aim and shoot. Anyway, I think I need to play some more to find some that really catch my fancy. Andy: It's finding time to play games these days for me but the games I've been playing the most at the moment are Hook Champ, Soosiz and Train Conduct. I tried playing Nova but hated the controls because I'm pretty purest with fps and I need a mouse and keyboard for play - but on a technical point of view I was impressed with the technology. ***I hope you enjoyed our newest AppTalk with a great development team. I know I'm looking forward to more from them.

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