Yesterday we spoke with Arctic Empire’s Eli Cymet about their upcoming game, Office Attacks. He told us about the implantation of competitions, the game’s different means of allowing users to obtain new tower parts, beta testing, how to avoid office drama, and how Arctic Empire hopes to work with the community during and after development. Today, we’ll be taking a look at even more community involvement, lessons from AE’s past titles, and an in-game iPhone that makes even Xzibit’s head spin. Check out the interview after the break.
PG: You’re putting a lot of emphasis on community, as opposed to most other iOS game developers who just sort of put a game out there and move on to the next project. So you’ll be working a lot more with the people who play Office Attacks?
EC: Yeah, there’s several levels at which we’re doing it, too. We think there’s value in building a game that we think is strong enough to do that [not integrating social features into the game and allowing users to independently upload screenshots online or independently create discourse], and really fostering the community. So we’re going to be working with users at every level, we’re going to be establishing a forum, as much as possible, depending on the volume of course, to the best of our ability, we’re going to be responding to every user screenshot, really giving our own input and suggesting cool ways that users can tweak their towers based on the parts that we know exist out there, and really participating in our own community and facilitating those kinds of contests and votes online, and then pushing premium currency to the users individual game based on what happens online. So that’s one way we’re going to really get involved and really take a hand in our community.
And then another way is that we’ll be having an Employee of the Week challenge– and this is an in-game infrastructure we’ve built. So every week we’re going to pushing a challenge level to the game server, so you don’t have to update your game to do this, you don’t have to go online and get an Apple update. You’ll pop online, say, Monday, so you have until (we’re structuring it like work weeks) Friday at midnight to get the highest score possible on this level or do the level in this way, we’re going to set challenge metrics like put this many towers in a level or this type of tower, etc. and the best users will be rewarded with two things: the user who is the top will be the Employee of the Week, and their avatar (which is also linked to their Facebook login and their trading system) will be displayed on the game’s menu for an entire week, so you’ll actually be in the game. In addition to that, premium currency will be given to users who place below first. So say, the user who is first place will get a hundred Chachings, user who is second to tenth place will get X amount of Chachings. There’s also going to be a lot of in-game fluff that a lot of people like, that’s completely optional and doesn’t affect the game, like Hawaiian outfits for Steve, vacation outfits for your characters and stuff like that—those are easy giveaways because they’re stuff you can pay for if you want but it doesn’t cost us anything, that’s the brilliance of digital goods, to make those rewards for these contests.
So that’s the two ways we’re going to stoke the community: challenges actually build into the infrastructure of the game itself, and challenges that we throw out on the fly on the Internet to show that we’re really eager to participate with our community. We want to turn this game into something we update very frequently—we already have the first major update planned for the month or two after the game releases, we’re going to introduce living towers into the game, so there’s the office equipment which forms the theme of the first set of towers you’re building (eg: file desks, pencil sharpeners, computers), then we’re going to be introducing office flora to the area, fauna in some cases. We’re going to be introducing office fish, piranhas, plants, and those are going to be our second set of towers. So this a game we feel we can really turn into an interesting franchise in a lot of ways, and we’re really eager to engage with our community to see what they think on that front as well.
PG: So Arctic Empire has a few other games in the App Store, like Burger Joint, Galaxy Express, and Forest Frenzy. What have you guys learned from developing and maintaining those games that you’ve been able to apply to Office Attacks?
EC: I think its a couple levels of learning. Forest Frenzy was our first foray into iOS development, because the studio was founded to build what is actually our biggest project, which is still ongoing in the background, which is Chaching, also the name of the currency you see in Office Attacks. Chaching is actually the name of a full social simulator for different social platforms, for Facebook, Google Plus, and that’s a sim we’re not fully ready to lift the lid on yet, but the long story short of it is that it’s a sim with branching choice and an entrepreneurial theme where you can establish a personal brand and run one of many types of businesses and it’s got a full back-story and a story comic, it’s going to do for social games what we hope Office Attacks does for tower defense, which is add some narrative and engaging elements that the genre is missing. That’s the project that the two founders of the company got together to really make, Rico [Ricardo Evangelho] and Avi [Avi Davies]. As they really built their acumen and mobile exploded, the world that we’re gaming games in changed from the time the company was founded two years ago in a way that’s bigger than, I think, any change has happened before, it’s just going faster than ever.
So mobile is a space that they realized they couldn’t ignore, and they hired another developer who has become our lead iOS developer, Steve [Kanter] out of New York, who actually is the developer on which the main character of the game [Office Attacks] is based, so he gets a lot of kick out of that, because to the tee the character Steve is modeled after him, it’s really almost uncanny. And so once they got Steve on board, Forest Frenzy was the first project we built to test our waters in iOS and see how we could do, and since then we’ve really reflected on it as sort of a game we love and hate because the quality is not up to what we really espouse in a game like Office Attacks, but it really helped us learn a lot about the fundamentals of development. So that’s what the first answer is. Getting stuff on the App Store, acquainting ourselves with what it’s like to develop for the App Store, push updates, deal with consumer demands that are just intensely immediate in a way that is not true on console or other platforms—that’s what the first game, Forest Frenzy, really taught us.
Our second game, Galaxy Express, was one of our bigger games and it’s got a lot more strategy, it’s a slower game, a puzzle game where you have to place arrows to guide your ship to home planet, and it’s very much work at your own pace. From that we learned a lot about integrating social features and how well that works with the community. Every time you beat a level in Galaxy Express you can go online or use the game’s browser and see how many arrows the best user has used to beat that puzzle, so you can spend hours agonizing over a puzzle, use ten arrows to beat it, and find out that the online best is three and be like, “How do you beat it in three?” It just adds a social element that a lot of puzzle games don’t have, and it’s a small, subtle social thing, it’s not posting your scores to Facebook or anything, but its one of those subtle social motivators that helped us really learn and understand how to use and employ social features in the best way possible. So Galaxy Express taught us a couple things—how to build games of a bigger scope, the importance of polish, we added a full back-story to Galaxy Express, there are interstitial after every puzzle explaining the story of your main character, Jonathon Rowe, and his delivery crew, almost Futurama style, and that really taught us the importance, based on user feedback, of going the extra mile and not just making any other puzzle game, tower defense game, genre X game out there on the marketplace because there are 500,000+ apps out there, I think 650,000 now, and it’s important that you really do whatever you can to stand out.
Burger Joint was actually the fruits of our junior developer Ryan, who I told you about. He came up with the idea of adding a local game jam, a 24-hour game jam here in the city, just to help him build his programming acumen and just because the idea was in our wheelhouse of clever but casual puzzle games at the time, that was really the space we were interested in, we built it out and put it in the App Store, and that was actually a big lesson in cross-platforming because we took that game to Android, and that was our first Android release. So, over the years that we’ve developed, we got broad lessons in how to build for the App Store, how to respond to really fast consumer demands, how to turn games social, the importance of adding a lot of extra polish to games, and how to really exploit all the platforms that exist, because you cannot really be platform-centric in today’s mobile world, you’re so much better off if you’re willing to develop for mobile on iOS and on Android and even Blackberry to an extent, and Windows phones, so those are lessons our current games have taught us. Probably the biggest one overall, just to encapsulate all three games, is the importance of bucking the trend and not building the minimum viable product. So in start-up culture you often get told that it’s most important to build the most basic version of the game you can and just put it out on the App Store and hope it works and improve as you go. We agree on the improve as you go part, because that is crucial, but we think that to stand out amid all these apps you can’t just build a minimum viable product, you have to build the most minimal product that users will call awesome. It has to be a “minimal awesome product,” that’s the way we like to say it here. In order to really stand out, it has to come with things that you haven’t seen before.
PG: So in the game, speaking of platforms, I read that there is an in-game iPhone. What can you do with that in-game iPhone?
EC: The in-game iPhone is really your command center. The main character, other than Steve, is a hyper-intelligent AI almost meant to model or represent either GLaDOS or HAL from Space Odyssey, and her name is IRIS (which is, of course, SIRI backwards). So your iPhone serves as, at the base level, a tutorial for the game. IRIS will pop up on screen as the game begins and over the course of the first three levels of the game you’ll be taught all the basics. Whether it’s placing towers, using the trading system and really getting the most out of our back-end elements of the game—so over the course of those first three levels, IRIS will use dialogue, which we’ve written to be both instructive and witty, to really get you used to and acclimatized to the game. And, at any point, you can go back through that dialogue in still-screens in a tutorial section that we’re building. As you progress she’ll gain more personality and move further away from a tutorial bot to being a game story-teller. We have a whole story planned about how IRIS figures in and what’s really going on with all these employees, why they’re bugging Steve– that will be revealed through IRIS as the game goes on. She’ll transform from just being a narrative component to actually affecting the game in some ways that we’re not quite ready to talk about yet, but she’ll have a pretty tangible effect on some of the later levels.
The iPhone itself, beyond the narrator, will have the function of restarting the level, look at sound effects and adjust and tweak things in the game as it goes on, and it’s also your command center for your towers. So, every time you click on a tower the iPhone will pop into view, non-obtrusively, just over in the corner, and you’ll be able to upgrade your tower or sell your tower or see your tower stats from that iPhone to get a quick look at it, instead of having a menu pop up right beside the tower, which we felt was always pretty obtrusive to the tower path and playing seamlessly. So we used it as a convenient, but also themed way to hide that information in the corner and make it accessible but not obtrusive.
The iPhone will also be the way that you deploy your power-ups. You have an on-screen dock that looks like the dock on most Mac computers that you deploy your power-ups with, and from there the iPhone will flip sideways and Steve will be playing mini-games on his iPhone on screen that serve has field-level power-ups that affect all the enemies. We have power-ups that parody mobile apps and one of them is Office Ninja, so you launch it and play a game obviously very similar to Fruit Ninja, parodying that world of slashing and slicing, and you’re slicing office equipment instead of fruit and you don’t want to hit the Steve bobble-heads instead of the bombs, and if you happen to hit them you lose the level, and based on how long you survive, enemies take a certain amount of damage.
So the iPhone powers mini-games, it powers the tutorial, it’s your companion character, and it’s your tower command center.
PG: I’m sure you guys have already braced yourselves for the Inception and “Yo dawg” jokes about an iPhone in an iPhone.
EC: Yeah, we’re sort of making up memes as we get screenshots and we’re making sure to cut people off at the pass, because every time we hear about it or tell people about it, they’re like, the first thing they say beyond, “Oh, that character sounds so funny,” or, “Which mini-games are you parodying?” is like, “Wait a minute. So you’re in a game about games playing games in a game?” And I’m like, “Yes, okay, yes. Christopher Nolan, thank you very much.”
The final installment of this extremely thorough and in-depth interview will be coming up tomorrow. Look forward to learning whether or not IRIS will kill Steve, why Bicentennial Man was bad and the film AI confusing, what Arctic Empire’s hopes and dreams are, and how to (sexually) satisfy achievement hunters.