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AppTalk: Interview with Jani Kahrama of Secret Exit, Developers of Zen Bound

March 2, 2010

Our AppTalk series continues today with part of the development team behind our #2 game of all time, Zen Bound. Below find out all the details about Secret Exit, and their 3GS Zen Bound, as well as plans for the iPad. We've covered #5 Jet Car Stunts, #4 Soosiz, #3 MiniSquadron, and now today #2 Zen Bound. What are your intentions for your current games, to let them run unmodified doing simple pixel double, or to make your old games more iPad friendly to take advantage of the larger processor and screen size. We know you're working on the 3GS version of Zen Bound, we can only imagine a iPad version. Also what are your plans for the future, are you going to make iPad specific versions of your future games, or stick with the iPhone/iPod touch exclusively, or even an only iPad version? Our first approach to the iPad will be with something totally new and something upgraded (sorry, no announcements yet). This will help us understand the iPad as a market, and allow us to take the next steps that make most sense. The games will be iPad-specific releases, and we can't yet speak with certainty about the future regarding unified binaries, but currently there are many factors that point to iPad games being separate releases from the iPhone versions. There is significant work involved in the upgrade, and also technical changes that make the games unique to the iPad. Also, if the iPad market digs itself into the same kind of $0.99 hole as the iPhone where only big publishers with known brands can defend a higher price point, putting the extra work into supporting the high resolution graphics, different control layouts and other technical requirements might not be financially feasible. Particularly since the iPad is about 70 million shipped units behind the iPhone/iPod touch. That being said, we are excited about the iPad as a platform and its future as a gaming device. There are many game genres that will work magnificently on a large touch screen. Can you explain the make up of Secret Exit? Our team is currently five people working full-time, with two part-timers and some freelancer friends. This consists mostly of engineers, a couple of guys involved with art, many who participate in game design and always one manager to rule them all. We wear many hats so the roles and responsibilities may shift between projects. Why did you decide to develop for the iPhone with now three great titles? We took a look at other consoles and distribution channels, and back then the iPhone made the most sense as a platform where the hardware was good, technical requirements weren't overwhelming and there was a market willing to pay for games. It was the perfect choice as a platform for a game studio to start with. How hard, and how long does it take for one of your games? We repeatedly fail at trying to make things fast, so instead we try to focus on making things polished. Zen Bound took roughly one calendar year to complete, Stair Dismount about six months. It's unlikely that we could develop a game in less than half a year, but it doesn't take the entire team for all that time. I personally believe in the wisdom: "Two guys will make a better game in six months than four guys in three." Did you expect Zen Bound to be so well received with seemingly all reviewers loving it, and our 2nd best iPhone game of all time? No, the reception has been overwhelming. We were proud of the finished game, but practically terrified on the days before release. How things unfolded was beyond all our expectations, and it helped us grow as a studio. It's doubtful if we would even be developing games anymore if it hadn't been for the success with Zen Bound. What do you think of the App Store economy as a whole? Describe the way Secret Exit fits in with one title published by Chillingo, and two others self published. The App Store is an attention-driven, saturated market where prices are ridiculous and success is random and seldom repeated. Independent games that target console games in presentation are faced with expectations that cannot be met at the iPhone price-points, but selling an unbranded game at a reasonable price most often ends in financial failure. One of our games has been a success, two have made back less than 40% of their development costs. Clearly production values alone do not significantly help with success, but they were obviously a significant factor in the reception of Zen Bound. This may sound like a doom & gloom statement, but what I'm trying to say is that every independent developer should take a careful look at the indie success stories on the App Store. Barring some exceptions, they have not been technology-driven or even 3D to begin with. Most are in fact very simple with their technical execution, but focused on the gameplay. It is a very difficult position to create a 3D game with high production values (in order to be noticed from the mass of other games) while avoiding comparison to games with larger than 10X the budget on other platforms. Our games have followed this approach so far, and most likely will follow it to some extent in the future, but our learnt lessons will guide our game designs in the long run. We’re still waiting on the 3GS version of Zen Bound, and updates you can provide? Zen Bound 3GS grew in scope and we changed our goals. Please look forward to our announcement regarding Zen Bound 2 :) We released an early technical teaser shot a while back of how the visuals are different between OpenGL ES 1.1 and 2.0.

What is your favorite game that is not your own? There's no single game, but let me list a few: Dungeon Master and Typhoon Thompson on the Amiga, Star Control 2 and System Shock on PC, Wipeout HD on PS3, Boost3D, GeoDefense series and PathPix on the iPhone.

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