Interviews

iShoot creator Ethan Nicholas talks about the app store and reveals details of his next title

...it'll be something to do with flying sheep

iShoot creator Ethan Nicholas talks about the app store and reveals details of his next title
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| iShoot

The potentially life-changing opportunities offered by the iPhone to independent developers have been widely celebrated (not least on these very pages).

Surely, though, few stories can have underlined the potential quite so emphatically as that of Ethan Nicholas, creator of iShoot, a simple indy title that took less than two months to create and has almost made him a millionaire.

We caught up with Ethan last month at Game Developers Conference to ask him exactly what happened, and crucially what he's up to next.

Pocket Gamer: So, has iShoot changed your life?

Ethan Nicholas: It should have changed it dramatically, but in reality it hasn't really. I've been working from home for four years and I'm still doing that, I'm just programming in a different language now. I'm also still acting like I'm broke!

So what did you do before? Why did you decide to make the game?

I was working for Sun Microsystems. To be honest I started the game with purely the attention of making some extra money - a few thousand bucks, maybe. I'd never written a game before, I didn't know objective C and had to teach myself in the six weeks that I put into the game.

Six weeks?! You created your first game from scratch in six weeks?

Yeah, but you have to remember it wasn't the first time I'd programmed. I have been programming since I was 8 years-old and professionally since 16.

Okay, we feel slightly better now. So why iPhone?

Well I saw the success of a couple of early titles, particularly Trism. Steve Demeter was one of the first guys who went out and told people how much money he was making and I'd be lying if I said that I didn't see dollar signs. He made $250K from that game!

That's a decent sum for one programmer. So, how does your fortune compare with that?

Well so far I've more than tripled it ... iShoot has made over $800K dollars.

Wow. So now we understand why you decided to change careers!

[Laughs] Yeah, I quit my job at end of January and decided to work on the update (iShoot 2.0 - released in March). Ironically enough that took me longer than the original game!

And what's the plan now?

Well the plan now is to follow up the success. I'm in the position of a rock band who's just had a number one hit right now and hoping not to be a one hit wonder. Need to step up to the plate with the next title!

So what is your next title? And what does it have to do to be considered a success? $1 million?

For the next game I hope it pays my salary. I don't realistically expect it to be as big as an iShoot. In terms of the content, the only thing I'm willing to say at this point is that involves flying sheep and it'll be a lot of fun.

Do you feel under pressure for your next game?


The truth is that I'm almost embarrassed about iShoot. I've had a pretty long career in programming with a lot of achievements but the thing I'm getting famous for is something I hacked together in six weeks. The next game is going to raise the bar and do something that shows my programming skills.

[As that was the only info he'd give us, we tried another tack.] So what sorts of games are you playing?


That's a good question. I used to be a big gamer but the titles changed a little about three years ago when my son was born. I love everything Blizzard has ever produced, love most Miyamoto games - still play Mario Bros. On the iPhone I'm a huge fan of Fieldrunners. It puts me to shame really oh and Katamari Damacy.

What about other titles from other new iPhone developers, like ngmoco or Freeverse?

Yeah, I've played a lot of ngmoco games and they're good, but none of them really blew me away. Fieldrunners is the most solid and professional title I've seen.

What do you think of iPhone as a games console? Is it really a threat to DS/PSP?

The performance is great and it's a very cool device. However, the single biggest problem with iPhone is that it doesn't have buttons. Everyone's trying to find games that suit accelerometer and touchscreen right now and some don't.

Platformers are kind of okay, but don't really work, and it's the same for other genres. For every game, you really need to start with the control scheme and obviously that's a constraint here.

Would you work on other portable or console formats?

Right this second I'm 100 per cent focused on iPhone. It's the best platform for potential income compared to investment.

Where's the next iShoot going to come from? Is there still an opportunity to come in now for smaller developers?

There's definitely still opportunities for new developers. The next Bejeweled or Tetris is far more likely to come from some random company than from EA.

There's a lot said about the pricing issues on the App Store - what do you think of the model?

It's a huge problem at the moment and it's Apple's fault! The reason is simply the organisation of the app store - there's just two lists, Free and Paid. If there was only one list then it would be topped by free content. With just Free and Paid lists the paid is dominated by the cheapest titles and hence everything trends towards 99 cents.

Developers are understandably going to be wary of producing a big budget games at these rates. This could all be simply fixed by re-organising the App Store so there are different price ranges.

Having said that I do think that the downloadable content options in 3.0 will go a long way to fix the 99 cent crisis.

That's an interesting view. Assuming the organisation changed, what sort of price do you think the store can support?

I think $19.99 is a very hard sell. Given the quality of the apps at the current price and their success. I don't think Apple's customers will accept that. $10 for a premium game is probably about right.

What else would you like to see on the App store?

I'd love to have a way to respond to reviews. A lot of people write reviews and they say why can't you do X? I'd like to be able to respond and say that you can do X! In some cases the complaints people are making are factually incorrect. I've heard other developers ask for that.

What about the grand plan - do you want to be a big publisher? I've noticed your card is branded 'Naughty Bits.'

Yes Naughty Bits is the company name and there will be a few more people involved. This business will continue to focus on games, but I'm also working with some other business partners on other kinds of mobile development, providing applications and tools for business professionals and medical professionals under a different brand.

On the games side, I'm not interested in ramping up that fast as a publisher. I'll do one game and then see if that's successful. If that's a hit then maybe do more. I'm really not
the guy to take over the world, I'm just trying to remain humble.

And humble Ethan most certainly was, so much so in fact we almost couldn't begrudge him his new found fortune. Suffice to say we'll be watching his next move closely.