Riding the New Wave

Rolando creator Simon Oliver talks about his experience developing for the iPhone platform - and where it's all heading

There's no doubt at this point that the iPhone is having an increasing impact on the videogames space, despite - as yet - a relatively small market share compared to other mobile phone handsets and it not being considered - in some quarters - a 'real' gaming platform at all.

But it's at the forefront of the digital distribution wave, and Simon Oliver, the man behind best-selling app Rolando, offers his views here on the nature of the platform, why it's become such a compelling platform, his own personal experience and where it's all going.

He will also be a panellist at the forthcoming BAFTA Presents: Digital Distribution event, in association with the Network, taking place in London next week. Tickets are available for the event from the BAFTA website.

Q: What's the background to the Rolando development story?

Simon Oliver: Well in terms of my personal development background, I've been looking to make games for a long time. My first few jobs were in the media industry, making websites, and then I progressed to Flash games and online 3D games, then installations for exhibitions.

As a result of that progression it really led to an interest in wanting to make more substantial games - I used to play a lot of games as a kind, the SNES days, and it really made me want to make games for myself.

While I was doing the media work I was trying to find out how to make games, the process, what's involved, learning how to use 3D packages like Maya, brushing up on programming C++, buying books on game design - and spending a lot of time just making prototypes.

I was also applying for jobs at games studios, but one of the things that you find is that if you don't have triple-A titles under your belt it's very difficult to break in. It's one of the things I really noticed, that without a title, there'd be a lot of people ahead of me applying for the same job.

I was in a bit of a quandary in terms of how I could progress in terms of making a game myself, and I really wanted to make a console or handheld game. At about this time, two or three years ago, indie gaming was becoming more prominent, and people were making more creative and polished games in this area - that was a real inspiration to me, as an alternative to applying to a studio and going down the normal route.

I looked at XNA, various homebrew platforms and the PC, but I really wanted to find the right platform that was going to be lucrative and fertile ground for developing this kind of game. I think it all came to a head when Apple announced the SDK, and said it was something that anybody could develop for - you pay your USD 99 and download it, get it running and publish.

The barriers to publishing, compared to developing for the Wii, or PlayStation Portable, or Nintendo DS, were incredibly low - plus it was a very interesting device to develop for, with the touch demos showing what was possible. It had the accelerometer that the Wii had, the touch-screen of the DS, and was just an exciting platform to design for.

So I downloaded the SDK, got into making lots of prototypes from ideas I'd had in the back of my head previously, and one of the ideas that I tried with a few mechanics was a strategy game, where you pan around, control these balls, and make them work together to solve problems.

I was definitely inspired by games I played as a kid, like Lemmings, where you have large numbers of things on-screen all working together. And Rolando grew from that - it became a prototype, then something that worked on the platform. So I formed a company to progress that prototype and flesh the idea out.

Q: When did you have that epiphany and form the company?

Simon Oliver: Initially I was playing with the unofficial SDK, the one where you could get stuff up-and-running, but it was very difficult to do anything too elaborate because the tools were very low level.

Then in March [last year] when the official SDK was released, that was when I started to make more serious prototypes, and from then until June that was when it grew. That's when I incorporated the company and started to take it much more seriously - I got in touch with Rolando's art director, based in Finland, who I thought was a perfect fit. He was up for it, and then we put a trailer together and posted it on YouTube, and then it was serious - I knew I had to finish it, because there was a lot of interest generated.

Q: So how long did Rolando take to develop, once you started programming?

Simon Oliver: We started development in March, on prototypes, from then on really. There was never a clear point at which it went from being a prototype to full-on game, it was pretty gradual. I think by May it had become pretty solid, and it was released in December - development really ramped up from September I'd say.

Q: Did the success of the game surprise you?

Simon Oliver: I think the initial response was quite overwhelming. When the trailer went out it was viewed about 100,000 times in a week, it was phenomenal, and got picked up in a number of places. I didn't expect as much of a response at the time, I was really looking to build up slowly and learn as I was going along, because I'd never produced a commercial game before.

So there were a lot of aspects in my own skillset that I felt needed work - my C++ was okay, but it was quite seat-of-the-pants stuff initially. To have this game that people had expectations for, and know I had to deliver something that would have to live up to that - it was a larger response than I imagined.

Q: What sort of lessons have you learned in the past year?

Simon Oliver: The one thing I've learned more than anything else is the value of prototyping - it's something that a lot of indie game developers have been speaking about recently. It's something that's definitely a hot topic - rapid development, throwing things away, trying new things.

It's definitely an inspiration for Rolando - it was something that I realised was more important going through the development process, the need to not have a top-down plan of Rolando all at once, because the end result is never as good as if you have a very fast iteration process and you're not afraid to kill your babies and get rid of the things that - even though you thought they were nice ideas - didn't work in practice.

Q: You looked at XNA and other platforms - had the iPhone not existed, what would have been your next platform choice?

Simon Oliver: Well, XNA was good, and this was before the whole community games thing. At the time, you could develop games, but there was no way of getting them out there. That was probably the primary reason at the time that I discounted it as a platform to work on.

The thing about the iPhone is that the distribution is phenomenally good as well - the cut that Apple takes is great, and is so streamlined. You compare it to WiiWare, or even XBLA, it's such a streamlined process. You can do it via computer, via your phone, it's very easy and the automatic updating system is just fantastic.

Nowadays, I think there's a certain amount of response from guys like Sony and Nintendo to this, and there are rumours of what's going to be on PSP 2 in terms of digital downloads, plus there's the DSi and DSWare, WiiWare, etc.

But I think Apple's placed so far ahead, there's going to have to be a rapid reaction from the others - just in terms of the sheer amount of the content that's produced. Obviously there's not the same level of quality control that you get on XBLA or WiiWare, but I think you'll get so many more interesting games on the iPhone because the barrier to entry is so unbelievably low.

All these people with ideas, people that have been wanting to make games for years - like me - they can finally realise that idea and get it out there.

Q: Did you play mobile phone games before the iPhone? Could you sense the potential there?

Simon Oliver: I remember going on some of the early development courses years ago, for Java... It was such a mess, such a mess. From everyone's point of view. For customers it was an appalling user experience - it was overpriced, the games were terrible, there were compatibility problems. It was horrible from end-to-end. The only people that benefited were the carriers.

When the iPod Touch came along it didn't feel like a mobile phone. I know a lot of people initially who didn't know whether to categorise it as a mobile phone platform, or as a games platform alongside the DS and PSP.

That kind of evolution, as it flits from side-to-side in people's perceptions, has been interesting to watch.

Q: It's become its own platform now.

Simon Oliver: Yeah, and sure, Apple is pushing the iPod Touch as a competitor to the DS and PSP, it's definitely interesting. It's going to push all of these people in different directions.

Q: Is there any way back for the traditional mobile games guys?

Simon Oliver: I don't think so, if you look at what some of the traditional developers are saying, people like GameLoft and Digital Chocolate - they're saying the iPhone is amazing for them, and generating the majority of their revenue since launch, despite the fact that it's only about 2 per cent of the market at the moment.

People are going to have to catch up - the old way of doing things isn't going to be possible any more, it's going to be driven by the handset manufacturers, not the carriers.

Q: With the number of apps becoming available, is visibility and discovery a problem?

Simon Oliver: The thing is, it's constantly evolving, and Apple is constantly taking feedback from developers in terms of the early problems. For example, initially you could review products you didn't have, and I think you'll always get issues of people accusing each other of leaving fake reviews, or paying people to leave positive reviews...

Anything that's user-moderated, there will always be an opportunity for manipulation of the system. And yes, there's about 150 new apps released every day, so the sheer abundance makes the browsing experience a bit cumbersome at the moment.

But I think the success of the App Store is way beyond what was initially expected by Apple, so I'm sure we'll see revisions to allow things become more visible.

I think the nice thing is, and the thing that differentiates it from more traditional platforms, is that you're not competing for shelf space. So the Store is infinitely large, and it's not as though Apple has to take down the small games in order to put up the larger games.

Obviously there's a certain amount of space in which they can showcase products, but I think due to the nature of the way that digital distribution works now, it means that the effect of people picking up on a unique and interesting game, once it catches on it has the ability to go absolutely huge via word of mouth, blogs, social media - people can discover things, and they can be a wild success.

A lot of games that people are developing, they're not necessarily doing it to make loads of money - they're doing it to share their content. In the indie scene the process of creating and sharing is just as important as financial success. There will always be people doing interesting things out there, even if they don't become million-selling games.

Simon Oliver is the creator of the Rolando franchise. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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