Developers Gone Wild! iPhone Gold Rush Uncloaked: Q&A with Rock Ridge Games

The iTunes App Store is a booming marketplace, full of opportunity for independent developers. At an Apple press conference earlier this month, Steve Jobs said that over 30 million iPhones and 20 million iPod Touch devices have been sold to date. There are over 100 million customers on iTunes, and they’ve been busy – downloading over 1.8 billion apps since the App Store launched in July 2008. But with over 75,000 apps and counting (more than 21,000 in the game category alone), it’s a sink or swim space. The unique iPhone platform is luring talented designers from top names in the traditional video game development industry – ambitious artists, code-monkeys and entrepreneurs of all shapes and sizes looking to try their hand at a new medium, and take on whatever responsibility necessary – including new shoes they’ll learn to fill along the way.

There are already more than 100,000 third-parties in the iPhone Developer Program, and the App Store marketplace has created a community mindset among many of these smaller independent companies, who are willing to share some of their “secrets” and learn from their competitors to further their cause and to coexist symbiotically, if you will. One such indie developer is Rock Ridge Games. I had a chance to pick the brains of Rock Ridge’s president and VP, Mike Mann and P.J. Snavely, on what it takes to make the transition from licensed, big-budget console game development to the DIY world of iPhone app development – here’s what they had to say…

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Can you give us a little background on Rock Ridge Games and your experience in game development?
Rock Ridge Games was started in April of this year with the goal of developing interesting and fun original  games for the incredible new smartphones hitting the market. There are only two of us (Mike Mann and PJ Snavely) but we’ve got almost 30 years of combined experience in game development, having come from the console side of development. We’ve worked on everything from multi-million dollar licensed sports games to small independent titles for XBLA. The iPhone is our new frontier.

How did you decide on the concept for Western Wind and Kitty Chorus?
As you can tell by our company name, we have a certain affinity for the movie “Blazing Saddles”. We spent the first month after our company was founded coming up with game concepts. The idea for Western Wind was born from one of the most infamous scenes in movie history, the farting cowboy scene in “Blazing Saddles”. It’s never been made into an interactive experience, so we decided it was time. While watching the scene we kept thinking “Man, those farts are almost… musical”, so we created a music game where each fart is a unique note.

Kitty Chorus is the antithesis of Western Wind.  We had this awesome gameplay mechanic of being able to compose and save songs, on top of the memory game mode, but we were missing a huge chunk of the iPhone demographic. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone wants to play a fart game. So, we decided to “re-skin” Western Wind into the cutest game we could possibly imagine while still keeping the gameplay intact.  What’s cuter than kittens meowing? Kitty Chorus has already done very well in the App Store, especially considering it isn’t listed in one of Apple’s featured lists.

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What do you think are the most interesting/unique aspects of Western Wind and Kitty Chorus?
Without question, the most interesting and fun aspect of both games is the ability to play and record music. Similar to those Fisher Price piano toys that are sold to toddlers, our games give users the opportunity to play notes and work out how to play their favorite songs. From “Twinkle Twinkle” to the Rolling Stone’s “Paint It Black”, you can play just about anything with the 12 notes available.

What do you have planned for the Western Wind franchise in the future?

Future updates include the usual polishing tweaks and gameplay improvements, but we’ve got big plans in store for both Western Wind and Kitty Chorus. We’ll be adding community features that include the ability to upload songs for other users to play and rate. The base games that are out now are only the beginning. There’s also a canine companion in the works…

What is most important to you when developing an iPhone game concept? To gamers?
Most important to us in choosing which concept to make is to pick games that we want to play. We’ve been making games for a long time, but we’ve been playing them for even longer, and we want to make games that we think are fun. For gamers, we want to make sure and give them a unique and entertaining experience that’s easy to play but difficult to master. Something unique that will make them want to come back for more.RRG WW Menu

What are some of the differences between console development and iPhone game development?

The biggest difference is scope… and freedom. Our console games were typically 18 months to two years of development time. iPhone games are closer to two months. It’s great in that you’re never bored- if you get bored during the development of an iPhone game, you shouldn’t be making that game.  Probably the most notable difference is the freedom, though.  We can dream up a crazy concept and have it in full on development within a week.  We don’t have to seek anyone’s approval like we would with a console concept, we can just make it. That’s very liberating.

What are some of the hardest new roles you’ve had to undertake for developing iPhone games?
We are developers, not marketers or business development guys. We’ve had to learn as we go. PJ handles all of the programming, Mike handles all of the art, and we split up everything in between. We’ve had to learn how to create audio from scratch, how to create an interesting Facebook ad, and how to build a community as we go.

How long did the audio process for Western Wind and Kitty Chorus take? Any advice for other developers new to this role?
The audio process took the majority of the development time for both games.  Making a fart sound that sounds like a fart but is musical and can be scalable across 12 notes is definitely not as easy as it sounds. My advice to other developers would be to learn a program like Audacity and play around with it every chance you get.

Many up-and-coming iPhone developers are working on shoestring budgets. What are some ways you’ve had to get creative to cut costs?
We are as boot-strapped as a boot-strapped company can get. So far the development budget for our 4 games has been $0.00.  It’s tough to get help when you can’t offer any money to contractors. We’ve been fortunate that we have a big network of former co-workers who are eager to help when we need it. Mike’s 3-year-old daughter also helped out with the Kitty Chorus intro, what a doll. Without them we’d still be working on our first game.

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Do you take community feedback into consideration? And how important is your fan community to Rock Ridge?
There is a growing community of iPhone gamers around the world. We’ve recently started hitting the forums, talking to people, listening to what they have to say… after all, without their support, we’re just making games for ourselves, and that won’t pay the bills. Most of the people we talk to on a regular basis have proven invaluable as they give feedback, offer up ideas, and lend us the support we need to know, so we aren’t just farting in the wind.

There are over 21,000 iPhone games in the iTunes App Store, and there are a lot of fart apps out there too… How did you go about creating a unique experience?
Western Wind isn’t just a fart app… it’s a musical game that’s totally unique in that you can play and record songs for sharing with your friends and family. Sure, you’re doing so with musical farts, but that’s what has set us apart from the competition. It’s not just a fart button, it’s an actual game. Even the memory modes (Follow That Fart and Here Kitty Kitty) are unique from other listen and repeat games because of the humor and graphic design “love” that went into these games.

What can we look forward to next from Rock Ridge Games?
We’ve got several new games in the works. First will be Puppy Palooza, a follow-up to Kitty Chorus that features 6 of the cutest puppy dogs you’ve ever seen. After that we’ll see… we’ve got concepts that range from time-management and line-drawing to fast and crazy shooters. You never know what sort of game will come out of Rock Ridge next.

Thanks Mike and PJ! You can check out Rock Ridge Games on the web or on Facebook, and Western Wind and Kitty Chorus in the iTunes App Store.

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