Interviews

Tiger Style talks about leaving EA to set up an indie iPhone studio

We're indie, we're on the iPhone ... and we're psyched

Tiger Style talks about leaving EA to set up an indie iPhone studio

With its debut iPhone game Spider:The Secret of Bryce Manor tearing up the charts, we decided to quiz App Store newcomer Tiger Style on why it left the console development world for the indie life of an iPhone developer.

Founders David Kalina (main photo) and Randy Smith (insert) were only too happy to tell us.

Pocket Gamer: What made you decide to leave the comfort of a huge game company like EA? Randy Smith: For me there were a handful of reasons, and none of them were financial.

One day. when I was walking the halls of Electronic Art (in Los Angeles), Neil Young, Alan Yu and I bumped into each other and started a conversation about the promise of the iPhone.

Not only does it have great, innovative hardware for display and interface, it’s also always connected to the internet, and always on the person of the player, unlike an immobile and impersonal device like a console. It also attracts a broader, and I think more open-minded, audience than hardcore console players, which was particularly interesting to me.

This was a really inspiring discussion which made me wish I could develop for the platform. As an aside, Neil and Alan left just a few weeks later to form ngmoco.

Also, for years I'd a growing respect for the indie game scene, especially when they made the most of their freedom to take crazy risks. The indie scene has produced what I consider some groundbreaking software which made the bulk of AAA console games feel incredibly stagnant and predictable.

I had also been writing a column for Edge magazine in which I had the opportunity to develop a lot of my philosophies and theories about the evolving interactive art form, and I was eager to put them into practice.

As a respected designer/leader/director type, I assumed that one day I would have worked my way up to the opportunity to lead a team developing one of my own designs, but it takes a long time to earn that trust in the world of AAA console projects which easily take 3-4 years to complete, assuming they don’t get cancelled for being too innovative and risky.

Lastly, as we’ve seen, the iPhone is the perfect arrangement to attract indie developers. The start up costs are low, publishing is immediate and under your control, you can reach a large audience, and there are no physical goods which require expensive third-party manufacture and distribution channels.

So when I left EA, it was the perfect and extremely rare opportunity to form a new studio and collaborate with a select group of friends and colleagues on some (relative to AAA development) fast projects with interesting ideas that we could be passionate about and which would explore some of our ideas about the interactive art form. We’re indie, we’re on the iPhone, we’re doing our own thing, and we’re psyched.

Can you tell us about the structure of Tiger Style?

David Kalina: Tiger Style is a completely independent, completely distributed operation. Randy and I are the co-owners and two full time employees, and we work from home; I live in Austin, Texas, while Randy is in Vermont. We make it work by communicating daily through IM and Google Video Chat; of course, it helps that Randy and I have experience working together from our days on Thief: Deadly Shadows.

In addition, Tiger Style is comprised of a network of collaborators that Randy and I have assembled from previous co-workers, industry contacts, and talented friends who were interested in chipping in during their free time.

Our collaborators include musicians in Los Angeles and Portland, translators in various European cities, engineers in Washington D.C., and artists in Austin and San Diego.

In a sense, Randy and I function as co-producers, and we both managed different parts of the project. For example, Randy directed all of the level artists and musicians, while I managed the programmers, localisation, and sound effects.

RS: Tiger Style’s core competency is unquestionably video game development, but we also hope to be a creative nexus of many types.

We have indie artists and musicians collaborating with the team, and, for example, we have also invited other artists we respect to contribute visuals for our website.

The music and artistic style of Spider is all original, rather than cloned or licensed, because of those goals: we want to be a forum for creatives to share their best works, and we want our audience to receive something fresh and inspired when they play our games.

Once we get our full website up and running, we intend for the team to share more of their stuff – art, photography, music, short stories, or whatever.

What is it you find so alluring about the iPhone? DK: The main thing that makes the iPhone so exciting is its omnipresence. Randy and I both have many dozens of friends and family who carry the iPhone with them at all waking hours. While there were aspects of AAA console development that were very appealing to me, ultimately, only a small percentage of my friends would ever experience my work.

With the iPhone, I feel much more like I'm developing software to fit the lifestyle of the people I'm close to.

On the technical side, it presents a number of fascinating design challenges. The range of possible inputs is exciting and inspiring: from the touchscreen to the accelerometer to the camera and the GPS, the iPhone is a revolutionary piece of hardware that is quite unlike other gaming consoles.

What problems do you face making a living from the App Store? DK: The App Store is a scary place these days. If your desire is to make a premium gaming experience that will require an investment involving more than a single person and/or a few months’ work, it's going to be very difficult to recoup costs or even think about profitability.

The incredibly low barrier to entry has everybody and their mother attempting to make a mark in the space.

I've heard other developers talk about taking the 'shotgun' approach; in other words, developing lots of software quickly and cheaply and rolling the dice that one shot will magically hit the mark. The resulting deluge of software is very hard to cut through, and even if you make something good enough to hit the charts, most apps don't stay there for more than a few weeks.

The main problem, as I perceive it, is that there's very little incentive to develop quality, higher priced applications. With so much 99 cent software available, how can the little guy justify charging $5 for a premium app that isn't a fart simulator?

How could Apple change the situation? DK: First and foremost it could revisit the App Store and structure it in a more transparent way that helps premium applications get highlighted.

If Apple wants the quality of the offerings on its devices to increase, it needs to find a way to encourage greater investments and greater risks.

My personal opinion is that ranking games by revenue (instead of by unit sales) would help more expensive apps gain greater visibility on the ever-important best selling charts.

Additionally, developers would benefit from a stricter, but more transparent review process. Other game consoles have strictly defined rules for what defines acceptable software. The openness of the platform should remain a strength, but developers and Apple both would be better off if the quality level of applications was more consistent as a base-level requirement.

RS: The biggest issue is standing out from the crowd. The iPhone attracts thousands of developers, and the App Store grows by over 8,000 apps a month. Given the volume of submissions they must receive, we’re grateful that any sites have been able to review our game and respond to our emails. Making Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor took eight months, so do you think that period of time is necessary for the quality of games you want to create? RS: Hitting a high quality bar always requires serious time and effort, but what that means in terms of hard numbers varies depending on the nature of the project.

As just one example, I thought Galcon was a very high quality game for its scope, and I’m sure it didn’t take eight months to develop.

In addition to developing Spider, we spent those eight months forming our new studio – creating the infrastructure, defining the company culture, making connections with collaborators, establishing our identity, and essentially doing a first draft or better of every little thing that goes into a video game studio.

I predict that if today our same team started something of the same size and quality of Spider, it would take two or three fewer months due to this overhead.

Will Tiger Style be making any iPhone 3GS specific software? DK: It's fantastic that Apple's approach, thus far, has been to improve the power and featureset of the hardware without breaking backwards compatibility. New devices should be able to run older games at better frame rates, with much faster loading times, and with far less frequent out-of-memory crashes. This is good news for players and for developers.

Our attitude towards developing for the iDevices, however, is that we would rather have our games be playable by the widest possible range of players. That's why we've gone to great lengths to ensure that our game is compatible with the entire worldwide install base of iPhones and iPod touches, and I don't expect we'll deviate from that path in the near future.

Can you tell us about any of your future projects? RS: We have a very creative team with a lot of great ideas, and our intent is to establish Tiger Style as a studio that reliably produces high quality games with a wide creative range.

Our ambition for the next project will be to solidify that trend. We also aspire to exceed expectations every time, so we don’t want to overhype anything by talking about it too early in the development process. Tiger Style probably won’t get into any details for the next game for several months.

Will you be looking at applications, as well as games? RS: We are an entertainment company. We may explore some ideas that blur the line between application and game, however.

Thanks very much to Randy and David for taking the time to introduce Tiger Style to the iPhone development community.

You can follow Tiger Style via its website, which is currently very colourful, if not entirely informative. It has a twitterfeed at @tigerstylegames.

And Pocket Gamer also has an interview with Randy and David about the making of Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor.