God's work: The making of Topia World Builder

Avoiding the 'epic game'

God's work: The making of Topia World Builder
| Topia World Builder

In 1988, while working alongside Peter Molyneux at Bullfrog Productions, Glenn Corpes devised a prototype that would lay the foundations for an entirely new genre.

Fiddling around with an Atari ST, Corpes knocked up a demo of an isometric landscape that allowed you to raise and lower land. It would go on to become Populous, the very first God game.

Almost a quarter of a century later and Corpes finds himself returning to familiar territory with his latest title, the iOS hit Topia World Builder.

Topia offers a beautiful 3D world, then allows you to create mountains, valleys, rivers and oceans while populating the ecosystem with wildlife. At the moment it's just a sandbox, with no game modes to speak of, but Corpes has some interesting updates in store.

Here we talk to the veteran developer about Topia's extended development spell, the response to the game's alpha release, monetisation, and the game's exciting future.

Development woes

While Corpes' iOS debut, the racer Ground Effect, was a solo effort, Topia was developed alongside Crescent Moon's creative director Josh Presseisen.

Indeed, the world of Topia with its massive herds of animals was Presseisen's idea, one that tapped into Corpes' long-held desire to make a Populous-like game "smoothly in 3D rather than in blocky isometric-o-vision."

Taking on all the coding himself, Corpes began development, working almost exclusively with Xcode. But rather than the projected six-month development spell, a vanilla version of the game ended up taking 18 months to hit the App Store.

"There was a hell of a lot of boring, niggly infrastructure stuff to do," say Corpes, explaining the delay. "It's a big project for one person to be coding.

"So if I compare how much I got done to some iOS developers it seems very slow, but if I compare it with what I know people do elsewhere in the industry in 18 months, it's an enormous amount of work."

In addition to the sheer workload, the introduction of the third-generation iPad and the resulting increase in platform fragmentation also caused issues. "I hate the iPad 3," says Corpes, "it's a fucking ridiculous device. It's got too many pixels on the screen."

"The iPad 3 has basically half the speed of iPad 2, if you're driving it at full Retina. I had to take about a month out to remove some of Topia's features and optimise the engine to enable it to run at full speed, which is an example of where one of those months went."

Funding and success

As Corpes struggled with the workload and with money running out, he and Presseisen considered funding strategies. "We were toying with the idea of doing a Kickstarter," he says.

"It seemed a little bit rude to be developing something as a game then deciding later that you need more time and money to keep you going, but people seem to be accepting it as a valid thing to do. Maybe we should have done it."

So with the idea of crowdfunding abandoned, the decision was made to release a basic, sandbox version of the game. "We were hoping that people would feel they are buying their way into the early days of something for 99c," says Corpes.

Judging by it's performance that hope was realised. On iPhone, Topia shot to the number three spot on the top apps chart and fourth on top games within a week of release.

In the equivalent charts on iPad, Topia peaked at number two.

"Luckily it has now made enough that I've gone from 'Shit, how am I going to pay the mortgage next month?' to being able to take a bit of a breather," says Corpes.

Mixed reception

The critical reaction to the game was mixed, with many reviewers identifying the lack of game modes as a negative. "It was better than we'd feared, but not as good as we had hoped," says Corpes.

"More than anything," he says, "I was amazed at how much criticism we got from fans for the lack of an ability to save."

Topia has a save system, but it's an inelegant one. To return to a user-created world you first have to watch footage of everything you've done up to that point, in real time.

With some users spending large amounts of time crafting their worlds, the system just isn't practical.

"The fact that you can't just save the thing out, or reload it in any useful way is unforgivable really," says Corpes.

It also has knock-on effects. "Potentially, sharing could have been really lightweight," he explains. "You could have flown through a whole universe of people's worlds and each one of them would have taken seconds to download."

"That was kind of the hidden goal of it, but unfortunately I won't be able to compress the save files enough for that to happen."

Limitless possibilities

Changes are being made, however. Due to be submitted to Apple imminently, Topia's first update will introduce a traditional save slot mechanism.

Beyond that users can expect "at least a couple of mini-games, a whole better editing system and some way of sharing levels," alongside improvements to the animal AI and ecosystem tools.

The possibilities are endless, says Corpes. "On top of the ecosystem you could have any game you want, within reason."

"You could have a game about flying around in a spaceship and shooting at predators to keep the herd safe. You could have some kind of farming simulator. When you've got Topia's ecosystem, writing these games becomes becomes a relatively small task."

Yet there is pressure to take the game into areas that Corpes feels unable or unwilling to explore alone.

"There's so many people that want to see some big epic thing where the creatures evolve into humans and it turns into everything from an RTS to Populous, Command & Conquer and Spore, sending little people off to other planets.

"I don't really have a lot of interest in making that epic game out of it," says Corpes. "Because on top of what I've already done, that workload is just way beyond my abilities."

A free-to-play future?

With regards to future monetisation, Corpes asserts that, "When there's a game in there the price is going to go up."

He isn't ruling out introducing a freemium model, but he's reluctant. "I think it would be a really horrible thing to have to crowbar in," he says.

"It's very easy to turn some games into free-to-play. Studios can analyse the data and say, 'We want the top ten per cent of players to never spend a penny on it,' then they'll know that all their hardcore fans are not going to get pissed off.

"But something like Topia needs to be explored to find the gameplay. I just can't imagine having to put in monetisation as a limiting factor on a game that's done in such a fuzzy way."

Android issues and beyond

As Corpes explores these ideas, an Android port of the game is likely. This is despite his feeling that the platform is "fucking horrible" to develop for.

"Ground Effect is selling maybe 10 to 20 copies a day on Android at the moment and it gets more support emails than Topia, and Topia's still selling hundreds of copies a day over iOS. It was selling thousands a day. So it's just a nightmare in comparison."

Corpes adds that a Windows 8 version of the game is likely too.

So with numerous updates, monetisation decisions and platform conversions to deal with you could forgive Corpes for concentrating purely on Topia, but he's already thinking about his next project.

"I've got a fully-formed game design in my head," he says, "with characters and a visual style worked out. I reckon I could do in a couple of months," he says. "Probably, realistically, four months. Or five months.

"I want to get onto that at some point."

Lee Bradley
Lee Bradley
A freelancer for just about anyone that will have him, Lee was raised in gloomy arcades up and down the country. Thanks to this he's rather good at Gauntlet, OutRun and fashioning fake pound coins from pennies and chewing gum. These skills have proved to be utterly useless in later life.