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iPhone Kung Fu App Developer Interview – Dave Vout of Big Head Games

While its great having such a seemingly unlimited supply of apps to review, its always nice to find out a little bit about the people behind the apps. So, in order to get the lowdown on one of the UK’s finest app development companies we managed to snare Dave Vout for a few minutes of his time, so he could talk apps with us. Dave is the Business Development Director for Big Head Games who have produced several excellent iPhone apps including International Snooker which we reviewed here. He’s been in the gaming industry for quite some time and having set up Software Invasion in the late 80’s and has since then worked for the likes of Virgin Interactive, Philips Media and Codemasters having varied roles that have included programmer, producer and studio manager. His game credits are extensive and include Predator 2, Tony Hawks, Sky Sports Football Manager and Batman Dark Tomorrow across a multitude of platforms. We sat him down on the Kung Fu couch and asked him about developing for iPhone.

IPKF: At what point did you decide you wanted to make apps for the iPhone. Was it as soon as it was announced or once you’d had a play with the device?

DV: It was gradual, we liked the idea of a new platform that allowed us to publish our own games but sat back and watched it a bit as we finished other projects (also watching Wiiware, PSN, etc.), then yes once we had a device and saw the app store go live that’s when we made a decision to commit to it, but as a bit of back history we have been to date (for five years as 8bit Games) a work for hire developer and working on projects for publishers, in 2007 we kicked off a PS3 PSN project called Elefunk that was entirely our own idea and design, this went live in 2008 after a very painful final development stage including the closure of 8bit and opening of Big Head and the loss of all rights to Elefunk. I guess that made the idea of truly publishing our own games on a simpler platform even more attractive and made the decision much easier.

picture-21IPKF: What were you doing before you started developing for the iPhone?

DV: The three directors are I guess what people call veterans of the games industry, we have all worked in it for a very long time and have had games published on all the key platforms since the BBC micro. We all met at a development studio where we were working on XBox, PS2, GBA titles, we left and formed 8bit Games to develop games for mobile with console quality and values..our experience of GBA and GBC being especially useful. On closing 8bit and opening Big Head we finished off a few projects including a plug and play joystick and then moved over fully to iPhone, so while we’ve been on iPhone for one year now we’ve not really produced as many titles as we are capable of as we’ve been on other platforms at the same time.

IPKF: What is it that excites you the most about about developing for the iPhone platform?

DV: Speed of results, it’s been a steadily more and more painful process making games with project times measured in years and teams in 100’s (how can that remain a creative environment?)…this feels like the 80’s again and yet with up to date hardware and development tools…the best of all worlds. This means we can have an idea and with minimal risk bring it to market, console is totally driven by the bottom line hence so many sequels and unoriginal racing games and first person shooters. Already on iPhone we’ve seen everything from the wacky/novelty app to the PSP contending title…a great range, that’s very exciting, we just love the fact we have a huge list of game ideas and it’s growing daily!

IPKF: As a developer you have intimate knowledge of the submission process for getting apps on the app store – how have you found it?

DV: It’s ok, very simple, remember we are used to having to go through console submissions which require a very strict list of requirements being adhered to and tested against (called the TRC’s) and while Apple have some if you don’t stray out of the SDK you hit them with no problems. You also suffer in console very tight slots, miss them and you have to wait, you can also be rejected for a host of difficult to understand reasons, not so on the iPhone (in our experience anyway!). We have heard horror stories about titles being held back, we had a slight delay on Terminator but only a few days, so far we’re very impressed.

IPKF: Do you speak with any other developers/development companies and share ideas or tips and tricks?

DV: All the time, I was at the Develop conference yesterday in Brighton and caught up with a few friendly developers, it’s quite a small industry and we do bump into each other all the time, we have a number of trade shows and events. Outside of that we do have friends where we can swap stories, techniques, issues, etc. I don’t think anyone is really an ‘open book’ but we do get on and do discuss things all the time. At the moment I feel the US is maybe a little more advanced in the development community for iPhone, probably because of Apple’s location and the key events being held there, but here in the UK most ‘professional’ developers are ex mobile or current console developers dipping their toes in the pool. I have to qualify that somewhat, by professional I mean companies in offices hiring staff, there are allot of ‘bedroom’ coders out there doing very well on the iPhone.

picture-3IPKF: Now that the App Store has been around for a while is it still the cash-cow it was when it was new?

DV: No not at all, I welcome the more realistic stories, it is very hard to have a hit, there is no system or rules to making a hit and only the hits are doing those crazy numbers, a key factor is Apple featuring your game and this seems to be purely at their discretion and decision, no amount of food hampers will sway them!

If you do not have a ‘hit’ then the money tails off very quickly, even just outside the top 100 the returns are small, too small to warrant big spending, there are now a good few developers (that’s the wrong term in my book it should be publisher) that have made a name for themselves and do tend to get results from their games however it’s very obvious to see that even they struggle at times and have to do the old 59p/99c trick to get their games up in the charts. That is the main problem as I see it with iPhone, it all started at launch with Sega and co launching at £5.99, where was the market going to go from there? Certainly not up, and mix into that that there are no rules to the pricing and very quickly it has been a market driven by price so now it’s very, very hard    to sell above the lowest price points. This on the surface seems great for the consumer, but it isn’t, even companies like Gameloft and EA have to draw the line somewhere, if this trend continues companies will not want to spend money on big licenses and big development budgets and so games like Terminator Salvation and Tiger Woods won’t happen. Licenses like that cost $50,000+ development $100,000 that’s well over 200,000 copies just to break even.

IPKF: Aside from hoping your apps do well in the charts, what are the best ways to market them? Have you ever paid to be profiled on iTunes?

DV: I’m not aware you can pay Apple for any promotion of any kind, that’s the public line anyway. Marketing is very limited, the impact of websites and magazines are a blip compared to being in the top 50 or featured by Apple, it’s that simple, not enough of the market actually read games websites, the vast majority of purchases are spur of the moment or word of mouth. That’s why most people put their titles on 72 hours sale on launch to try and get a top 100 or better still top 50 position as it will then become visible to everyone. What the development community now needs is help from Apple, we do now need a more structured and reliable way of presenting titles to the public via iTunes and via the device, better search and browse options are key as well as more visible charts that show more than top 100. I would really welcome a few marketing initiatives from Apple, this has to be done fairly so that it’s not a 3 company closed shop as the mobile market is.

IPKF: What developments/improvements would you like to see Apple make in the next version of the iPhone?

DV: Well I’m not a big fan of the radical changes to the platform we’ve seen with the new iPhone, the mobile market suffers from fragmentation and now we see the first stage of it on iPhone, the new device is so much more powerful we could all do some great stuff, I’d say as good as or better than PSP, however no one will because the market is so much smaller than all those ‘old’ devices that are out there and it’ll be years before everyone upgrades, so I’m all for extras to the firmware that can be shared across all devices. One feature I would love to see, and it exists but not usable at the moment, is TV output for gaming, to be able to play games on your TV as well as the device would be fantastic…it’s in the SDK but slows the device up and isn’t yet ‘allowed’ by Apple.

IPKF: Do you think any other mobile phone manufacturer will ever trump the iPhone for features or usability?

DV: Trump, no, there will be plenty who come a good second for a while, the iPhone/Touch is so far ahead how can anyone catch up? Everything is so well done, if anyone gets close Apple will produce the next update and jump ahead again…one key factor is the iPhone is a cool device, it’s not seen as a gamer’s device or a geek’s device, every sector wants one, every age, male, female, no mobile or gaming device to date can claim that and I see no reason for that to change.

IPKF: What’s the most satisfying thing about developing for the iPhone?

DV: Freedom, we can make what we want, how we want, when we want and when we get it right the public tells us and we make some money…the flipside is get it wrong and boy do the public tell you!

IPKF: Have you got anything you’d like to plug on iPhone KungFu?

DV: Well, all our games…The Terminator (not Salvation!), International Snooker and Retro Cave Flyer, but as importantly I would say keep an eye on and our youtube channel as there is already some info about our next releases…oh and look out for MCM Mobile Club Manager from Sanco, we’re developing a football (soccer) management game for them like no other…due out for the start of the season.