[Interview] Phillip Chu of Technicat

Aug 30, 2010 by

The following is an interview that took place over email last week. I may inject some of my comments to certain questions, other than that, the interview was not edited.

D: 1. Do you agree that this interview may be published on our site (How’s My App – http://www.howsmyapp.com/)?
P: Yes.
D: 2. What made you decide to become an iPhone app developer?

P: I’ve been running my own software consulting firm, Technicat, LLC, for several years but I also wanted to work on some of my own projects, at least for fun, and potentially for profit. So I started using the Unity game engine to play around with little web minigames and a year or so after that, they added support for the iPhone, which was a convenient platform for actually selling games. Right around that time, I got the license from Hyper Entertainment to reimplement HyperBowl on the Unity engine, so it worked out perfectly.

Besides the convenience of the App Store, I enjoy working on a fixed set of hardware like the iPhone. On PC’s, it’s tempting to pile on as many features as you can, and then you have to figure out how to deal with different graphics cards, Windows versions, slower hardware, etc. On a console-like device, it’s an exercise in taking the best advantage of what you have. Although it is getting more complicated now with so many generations of iPhones out and now the iPad.

D: I once went to this dodgy plaza. There was a store called System Consulting Inc. To this day, I still do not understand how selling T-shirts and pirated DVDs is considered System Consulting.

D: 3. Do you work alone or with a team?

P: I work alone. Just me, in the home office, with an iPod touch, an iPad, a MacBook Pro and a cat.

D: Aww! A cute li’l kitty cat! SOoooooo CUUTEE!! :3

D: 3.b How many people do you work with?

On development, it’s just myself, so far, although several members of the original HyperBowl team have offered to help out on the new HyperBowl. And many of my game development colleagues are running their own service firms, too, so I can contract out to them if I need any additional sound, graphics or programming. In fact, one of my artist friends, Shane Nakamura, created my company and brand logos which are also the splash screens on my apps.

I am starting to pay other people for marketing services. For example, I tried to make a YouTube video of HyperBowl running on the iPhone and iPad, but it was just terrible. So I paid SlapApp $75 to make one that was far superior to my efforts. I stay away from those sketchy promoters saying their services “guarantee” a hit. If that’s true, I don’t see why they aren’t running their own iPhone game studios.

D: I made a YouTube video once. Actually, fifty times. I deleted those accounts though. I’m on like my fifth one.

D: 4. How much time did it take to develop Fugu Maze/Hyperbowl/any of your other games and have it in the app store?

P: It’s an interesting contrast – Fugu Maze and HyperBowl are on opposite sides of the development spectrum. When I originally made Fugu Maze, I was just experimenting with game mechanics and releasing each idea as a web minigame and widget (Fugu Bowl, Fugu Tilt…), and I made Fugu Maze to try out a maze generation algorithm I found on Wikipedia. It took only a couple of days to implement but was fairly popular as a Mac widget on the Apple software site, and then when I spent a couple more days and released it as a free app for the iPhone, the same thing happened – 20,000 downloads in the first week! So then I started charging for it. I update it whenever I think of something new I want to try out (like adding shake to rescrable the maze), and I spend 2-3 days on each update, so I’d estimate I’ve spent maybe 4-6 weeks total on Fugu Maze.

HyperBowl, on the other hand, has been hugely labor intensive. Not counting all the work that went into the original game (you can check the credits in-game or on the App Store description page), I spent a month inspecting the original game assets, then three months creating a pipeline to get them into the Unity game engine, and then three months getting the first lane out as HyperBowl Classic. That was last July. I released the second lane, HyperBowl Rome, around October and the third one, HyperBowl Forest, in December, at which point, I decided I had enough for a full HyperBowl game and released “HyperBowl”. Since then, I’ve added iPad support, Scoreloop integration, the original arcade multiplayer mode, and just tried to keep up with all the Unity and Apple iOS updates. In the meantime, I’ve also had my consulting work (which pays the bills), so I think it’s fair to say I’ve been working on HyperBowl maybe half time for over a year and half.

D: 5. On a scale of 1-10, how successful was Hyperbowl?

P: I would say 7. Sales of HyperBowl are not as high as I would like, but they are increasing. And I’ve received some good reviews and feedback on the App Store, the Facebook page and on the YouTube videos. Some people even email me directly, although sometimes it’s to demand a feature. Also, the original developers of HyperBowl are happy to see it on the iPhone and iPad, and the licensor Hyper Entertainment, seems to be pleased with the results.

D: 6. Are you planning or in the progress of making any other iPhone games?

P: I have a lot of ideas I want to try out, but I don’t know if I’ll have time. I have a lot more work to do on HyperBowl – I plan an update with Unity 3 (currently in beta) which will be a huge amount of work and hopefully exhibit some nice new rendering features. And there are couple of HyperBowl lanes I haven’t implemented, yet – San Francisco and Tokyo, which I originally thought wouldn’t run on the iPhone, but the latest generation of hardware is more powerful. For example, the High Seas lane is too physics-intensive to run fully on the iPhone but it runs fine on the iPad (which personally, I think is the best HyperBowl platform).

Still, once in a while, I feel the need for a break from HyperBowl, so I try to knock out a quick app. A few months ago, I took a weekend out to convert Fugu Type, the beginnings of a typing game in the mode of a scrolling shooter, over to the iPhone and released it as a free app. It hasn’t had a lot of downloads, but I know there are a few people who seemed to really like it as a Mac widget and I think they appreciate having it on the iPhone, too. And WordsEye Feature and ElektraDance are also relatively quickly-developed apps that I made to showcase some of my friends’ companies. But even the simple apps turn into more work after a while, if I want to update them for the new OS’s and to run full-screen on the iPad. Right now, I’m considering making app that shows the “Soup of the Day” for a local French cafe that I frequent. I’m always checking their Facebook page for that info, so it would be nice if I could just bring up an iPhone app to do that.

D: 7. Are you content with the quality of your iPhone games?

P: Well, some are admittedly simple or crude, but in those cases, I release them free, sort of a throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-if-anything-sticks approach. The way, I see it, there’s no need to apologize for a free app. But once you start charging, it’s a real commercial product and should be poli
shed. Overall, I’ve been satisfied with that, except when there have been crash bugs. Even with free apps, I hate to see a crash. When Apple updated to iOS 3 I had to scramble to update all my apps to avoid crashes. And I also had to scramble on my latest Fugu Maze update, since my previous update was crashing on iOS4. That’s what I get for using a beta game engine at the same time a new iPhone OS is released. I’m most embarrassed by a couple of bugs in the first version of HyperBowl Classic – there was a crash bug if you scored a spare in the ninth frame, and the whole physics system was a bit screwy since all the assets were imported into the game engine with a weird scaling factor and so I attempted to compensate by scaling the physics. But that just didn’t work well, so the next update of HyperBowl Classic was essentially reconstructed from scratch.

D: 8. How seriously do you take criticism/app store reviews?

P: I understand now why some actors refuse to read their own reviews. It is hard to not to take some of them personally. But there are some gratifying reviews, too. I like it especially when people who like an app start arguing with people who didn’t. It’s nice to have some defenders! The thing that bugs me is that the reviews get snarkier for free apps – for some reason, people who don’t pay for apps are grouchier. My apps drop a star during free app promotions. That’s why I’ve never made HyperBowl free – it’s got a decent set of reviews and I don’t want to ruin it!

D: I get scared when I read my comments.

D: 9. Are you concerned with any of your apps being pirated?

P: I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, how cheap can you get? Pirating a $.99 app? And iPhone developers have a tough time making money, so if you want them to quit making apps, just go ahead and keep cracking their apps and give them away for free. On the other hand, I’d like to think that a pirated app is a sign that the app is popular. But I’ve noticed all my apps that have been cracked are ones that I made temporarily free during a promotion. So it looks like they’re just cracking whatever they can find for free and then giving it away. That’s another reason I don’t like free-app promotions.

D: 10. A quick search through Installous finds Hyperbowl Classic and Fugu Maze cracked available on the internet for immediate download for those who have jailbroken iDevices; are you likely to take action?

P: I complained on my blog, but so far, that’s it. I’m not ruling out any action, but I don’t want to spend time and money on that type of thing (I just got out of jury duty on a civil action case and that’s enough for me). It seems to me that job is best left to Apple – they’ve been taking legal efforts against jailbreaking, but I don’t know if they’ve pointed out some jailbreaking sites appear to actively encourage app piracy. After all, if anyone is losing money from app piracy, Apple is, too. I’d expect the big guys like EA to have an interest, too, or their industry groups like ESA.

D: 11. On a scale of 1-10, how content are you with Apple and its business practices? (e.g. on censorship, etc.)

P: 6. My biggest complaint is that sometimes I have to guess whether they’ll approve or reject an app and sometimes they’re really vague about it. For example, my free app ElektraDance was under review for over a month before Apple rejected it as not having enough functionality. Yet they approved iFart and iMirror, so I suspect it was because of the apparent nudity, although I made it a silhouette. When they introduced their content rating system a year later, I resubmitted it and it got approved!

But then when I tried to upgrade it, they sent me email saying it infringed on a trademark. I figured they were really bothered that it looked like the old iTunes ads on TV with the dancing silhouettes, so I asked if that was really the issue (and not a trademark issue), in which case I could turn off the lighting, but then the character would be nude (since the original mocap character was provided to me that way). They answered that it couldn’t resemble any Apple marketing material (but again, they didn’t specify exactly what it resembled), and they didn’t say whether turning off the silhouette was sufficient or the resulting nudity would be OK. So I decided not to bother updating ElektraDance, anymore – too much trouble for a free app!

But compared to the submission process for consoles – Nintendo, Playstation, etc. – Apple’s process is a breeze. And inexpensive.

D: 12. What is your viewpoint on jailbreaking?

P: As a developer, I can see the appeal of jailbreaking, but as someone who’s trying to sell games, it’s really annoying to see jailbreaking sites describe themselves as a public service while they post download links to cracked versions of my games.

D: I guess this is what comex and the Dev-Team were talking about when they said that piracy gives jailbreaking a bad name. The truth is that many people jailbreak but not all of them have cracked apps. I have a jailbroken iPod touch and Installous but I only try before I buy. Left: jailbroken iPod touch. Right: All of the applications there were purchased legally through the App Store. (iPod touch not iPhone). And the Dev-Team does not support piracy, rather, they are against it.

D: 12.b Are you a jailbreaker? 

P: No. I’ve been curious about it, since the first iPhone dev material I saw involved jailbroken devices, but right now I don’t have any reason to.

D: 13. If you could go back and change anything about any of your games, what would it be?

P: I can’t think of anything, except avoiding bugs, of course. The nice thing about developing for the iPhone is that if you want to change something, you just go ahead and change it and release an update. And then if the change turns out to be a bad idea, you can change it back!

And finally,

D: 14. What did you enjoy more: Making your games or watching the money come in?

P: Making games, definitely. Otherwise, I wouldn’t bother with free apps. And I don’t mess around with in-game ads, since I’d rather have the game look better than bring in a few cents here and there (although if it looks like it’ll be a lot of dollars instead of a few cents, maybe I’ll consider it…). It’s gotten a lot easier to be an indie gamer these days, but it’s still rare to make a lot of money on it, so people should be in it for the fun of it. But I do enjoy tracking the sales stats – every morning I use AppViz to bring up the latest sales figures in a nice-looking bar graph and try to figure out the trend. That’s a game in itself!

D: I made $4 from selling one of my webapps on the OpenAppMkt.

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