Heads You Win
With its new mobile platform Moai, Zipline Games is bridging the gaps between Android, iOS and the cloud
When Crimson: Steam Pirates was released In August, column inches were largely devoted to Jordan Weisman, its legendary creative lead, and the fact that it was the first game released through Bungie's indie initiative, Aerospace. Less discussed was the role of Moai, Zipline Games' innovative new product for simple cross-platform mobile development.
Weisman says Crimson: Steam Pirates wouldn't have been the same without it, and Zipline Games' CEO Todd Hooper isn't about to argue. In this interview, we talk to Hooper about the future of Moai, the importance of 3D to mobile games, the "hype" behind HTML5, and the value of open-source.
Q: When did work on Moai start?
Todd Hooper: Patrick [Meehan, CTO] actually started development on Moai as an open source project a couple of years ago at a previous company.
Q: The demand for this kind of product must have been quite different at that point, and the mobile market has changed a lot in that time. Has Moai changed, too?
Todd Hooper: Patrick ran a very successful game development studio at Groundspeak, and they had a top 5 app on iPhone and Android. I think he felt that it was multiple silos of development: so you have one team working on iOS, one team working on Android, another team working on the back-end systems, all working with different tools and different languages.
The goal of Moai was to democratise that somewhat, and bring people to use one language - which is Lua - both on the front-end and also on the back-end. You want the same guy who is writing the front-end code to be able to go and look at the back-end, and say, 'okay, if I'm making this change, if the player's uploading this data, if this content is coming down to the device, what does that code look like on both sides?' You're staying in the same zone; you're not changing languages between different platforms all the time.
What that does is really open up the whole game development process, because anyone can look at any piece of technology and understand what it's doing. Lua is reasonably easy to understand, so you get animators and producers and artists who are able to contribute to the game, and you're able to iterate very quickly.
The proof of that is Crimson: Steam Pirates, published by Bungie Aerospace recently. There was an article written by one of the developers that came out last month, about how 7 people built that game in 12 weeks, which is incredibly fast. Part of that is to do with Jordan [Weisman] and the skill of his team, but part of it is the fact that 99 per cent of it is written in Lua.
Before, you could pretty much say you were going to do iOS and think about Android later. You can't really do that any more
Q: When the mobile scene exploded after the launch of iOS the idea that mobile development was easy and accessible was common, but Moai seems to address problems that haven't been widely recognised and discussed.
Todd Hooper: We think so... We think that Moai is more than just a tool; we think of it as a platform, where you host your own cloud infrastructure with us - your data is run in the Moai cloud - and then you build the front-end with the Moai SDK. Or maybe not; maybe you use a different front-end. You don't necessarily have to use our SDK.
The thing that we think has really become painful now is that iOS and Android are evenly split. Before, you could pretty much say you were going to do iOS and think about Android later. You can't really do that any more.
Part of the story of Moai is, I've got this team and we're going to build a game using Lua from the ground up. I'm going to put my best C++ engineers on critical parts of the game, and all of the content creation is going to be done by more junior people using Lua. When the game is ready, I'm gong to move those C++ engineers on to the next game. If I'm creating additional content for the first game I don't have to drag those experts back into it, because the Lua scripters can basically do that work. They can create new levels, they can create DLC.
Q: We're almost at the point now where choosing Android over iOS doesn't feel like a roll of the dice any more. And with the rate at which Android is growing, it's not clear which platform will be dominant in a few years time.
Todd Hooper: Exactly. Our strategy is that you've got to be on a lot of platforms, and if you talk to most folks - I just got back from San Francisco yesterday, we're based in Seattle - everyone is looking at how you can do Android and iOS at the same time. There was a meeting at Google on Tuesday night and that was the sole topic.
There are other technologies out there. Unity is a great tool. It's sort of like adopting a religion - you've got to eat the special food, and send your kids to the school.
Q: Yes. I was at the Unite conference this year and there is an endearingly cultish vibe to the place.
Todd Hooper: Our approach is almost the exact opposite of Unity: it's minimalist, the SDK is open-source. A lot of developers prefer the open source approach because if there's something they want to differentiate, or add, or improve they can get under the hood. With Unity or other solutions you're waiting for them to do that.
And also, 3D is an interesting question. I mean, a lot of the Unity value is around 3D, but it's pretty clear to me that 3D is not really critical on mobile in the market. Maybe 10 per cent of the games have got some 3D functionality, but this is not the console market - these are different sorts of games. In many cases the 3D thing is total overkill for a lot of folks.
The other thing that's interesting is that a lot of people are talking about HTML5. There's a lot of hype around that, and my feel at this point is that's exactly what it is: hype. I mean, the HTML5 guys have a lot of conferences, but let's see some games [laughs].
Q: Yeah, the HTML5 advocates tend to focus the discussion on apps in general, whereas the Flash and Native Client people are more than happy to talk about games.
Todd Hooper: Exactly. In fact, I think what a lot of this is, and I've been expounding on this theory at great length - I probably shouldn't be quoting it to a member of the press, but whatever [laughs].
Q: Suits me. Whenever you're ready.
Todd Hooper: A lot of the HTML5 stuff comes out of a San Francisco, Web 2.0, internet company mindset, and that hasn't got a lot to do with games. I don't see a lot of people who I would recognise as authorities in the space of games talking about HTML5; I see a lot of people that know a lot about apps, exactly as you said.
When I saw the new Facebook app on iPad and saw the HTML games, they would have been state-of-the-art three or four years ago, but they aren't state-of-the-art now.
Q: The mobile market as we know it barely existed four years ago.
Todd Hooper: Right. I'm sorry, but if you look at any of the games that are charting right now or have been charting for the last twelve months, I just don't see those games being delivered in HTML5. I keep hearing that they're coming, but everything I see behind the scenes and actually talking to real game developers one-on-one, including people that have used some of these technologies, the jury is still out.
But I think Native Client is very interesting. Native Client is a very, very sophisticated piece of software engineering that effectively lets you run native-performance code in the browser securely with a very low overhead. We announced that we'd support Chrome and Native Client a couple of weeks ago. That is actually in the SDK release that's coming out this week. I've been playing games in it, and it looks great.
If you look at any of the games that are charting right now or have been charting for the last twelve months, I just don't see those games being delivered in HTML5
Q: And the rapid growth of Chrome is very promising for the future of Native Client, too.
Todd Hooper: It is. The last numbers I saw were in the mid-twenties [per cent], and in the UK and a few other places it's even higher than that.
Q: I'm one of the converted.
Todd Hooper: Me too. I was a Firefox guy for a long time and I find myself using Chrome more and more. There were some numbers presented at a conference recently - I think Google presented them at GDC - Chrome users, if they're game players, they tend to play more games, buy more games and spend more money on games. You're getting more of a cutting-edge user... The Chrome users are the more heavy computer users who are likely to engage with games. If you talk to someone with a game in the Chrome web-store, a lot of those folks are very happy with the way their games are performing.
Q: You've mentioned before that, with Moai, you wanted to concentrate on "high quality games", but I'm interested in what that phrase means to you in terms of mobile. Does that mean Infinity Blade?
Todd Hooper: You know, I think that kind of game is great. I love Infinity Blade and the console-type games. I think they appeal to a certain user. That's fine, but that's not the majority of games on the App Store. Again, go and look at the top 10, the top 20, the top 50, you'll find a few 3D games in there, you'll find a few premium titles, but the titles that are really killing them right now are 2D or 2.5D - they're not hardcore, 3D shooter titles.
If you're targeting core gamers that are looking for a console-like experience and have a budget of millions of dollars, that's a great market to go after. With Moai, we're really targeting the other 90 per cent of games on the App Store: you want to create a very polished game, you want the performance of a native app. Because it's open source-and it's all written in C++ and OpenGL, it performs just like a native app.
As a company, Zipline is quite new - we're only 12 months old. Moai only went into open beta in July, and we've already had 2000 developers sign up for it and check it out. The fact that it's open-source is great; that tends to attract the more professional developers. We're not really targeting the I-want-to-build-my-first-game guy. The typical folks that we speak to that really like Moai have already built a couple of games on iOS and Android and they realise how hard it is and they want to find a better way to do it.
Q: Jordan Weisman has said that Moai being open-source was key to making Crimson: Steam Pirates, because it allowed him to push it in the necessary directions to make the game work.
Todd Hooper: Yeah. Closed-source products are attractive to a certain type of developer, but not everyone. In our experience, the more professional developers run screaming from closed-source. Jordan's team is a great example. What's beautiful is, they shipped Crimson: Steam Pirates, and they sent us an update to Moai with over 100 new features, improvements and bug fixes that they had developed for the game. So it gets better every game.
Q: And the success that greeted the game must be a big help in getting the word out.
Todd Hooper: Obviously Jordan and his team are kick-ass game designers and creative people... but in terms of the raw technical performance of the game, for a game that was created in just 12 weeks, it absolutely helped put us on the map.
We've been out in beta for about three months or so, and we're shaping up for a 1.0 release in the next month. So in the next couple of months you'll see new features, you'll see more polish on the way we present Moai. It's still very early, so there's a lot of work to do, but the beauty of being an open-source project is that there's a lot of people who want to pitch in.
Q: You seem very enthusiastic about open-source.
Todd Hooper: I've done a number of businesses around the open-source space, and it might take a little while to get going but, man, it's a pretty ruthless competitor. When the base cost of the competing product is zero, it's really hard to be competitive. I don't care how much 3D you've got; if it's open-source and people can use it, it's really, really hard to compete against that.