Company name: Other Ocean Interactive
Location: Charlottetown, PE (Canada) and Emeryville, CA
Platforms: iPhone, iPad, DSi, XBLA, PC, Browser, PSN, PS3, 360, DSiWare, Wii, WiiWare
Specialty Genres: Arcade, Action, Puzzle, Adventure, Shooter
Company size: 90 employees
With offices north of the border in Canada as well as just outside of Silicon Valley, Other Ocean is one of the premier developers for the iPhone and other gaming platforms. In our inaugural edition of Game Theory, we sit down with head of development Mike Mika who discusses Super Monkey Ball, "fanboy optimism" and why retail distribution is the "path to extinction.
How did you and your firm get into the iPhone game development business?
We had been working with Sega for quite a while, and we had ported Sonic the Hedgehog to the iPod (Pre-touch) with some great success in a previous life. When Other Ocean was formed, we worked with Sega to plan our next project just as the iPhone and the AppStore were announced. With accelerometers, and the graphics power it demonstrated – Monkey Ball was the most obvious choice to pursue. It helps that Gordon Wood, our Tech Director, is a bit of a Monkey Ball Savant. I’ll be honest with you, though, the project wasn’t easy. The team worked very closely with Apple on a really, really tight timeline. It was built almost entirely from the ground up, and if it wasn’t for our fanboy optimism and desire to do whatever was humanly possible – and inhumanly- we’d never have been able to ship it on time. Some folks lost some years on their life, but we’re very proud of the result.
In your opinion, how has the iPhone and Apple's iTunes App Store changed the gaming industry?
Until the AppStore came along, the most common perception in the games industry was that digital distribution was not even a remote possibility since the return on investment was nowhere near as high as traditional retail. Now, almost everyone agrees that retail is on the path to extinction.
It’s something iTunes had proven before games with music. The moment content is easier to obtain by another method, embrace that method. The sad thing is what is happening to the Nintendo DS right now – the piracy issue. I was in a Best Buy over the holidays and I was waiting on customer service for something. A really nice gentleman and his daughter were in line to ask a question. I was surprised to hear him ask, “Where can I find the R4 for DS?” The R4 is a pirate cartridge that has KILLED the DS market.
They didn’t even know that the device was illegal.
Even more, the customer service agent explained that they didn’t carry the cartridge but they should order it on-line. I actually had to interject and explain that the cartridge was illegal and the father was surprised. He thought it was just the device you buy to enable downloading games. That right there is a wake-up call to me.
If you don’t follow the usage pattern of your customer, you’re going to lose to someone else. If it’s easier for a gamer to pirate your game than to go to a store to get it, you need to change your thinking. For a time, it was far easier to download an MP3 than to buy a CD in a store. iTunes came along and changed all that. It not only created a legal method of distribution, but a BETTER method. The next evolution will be to protect digital distribution from even easier deployment methods. We’re seeing that now with Jailbroken phones and the ability to essentially “drag and drop” games from websites. It’s easier for people to jailbreak and manage their content than use iTunes. The cycle continues…
Describe the differences between developing games for the iPhone and the iPad.
First and foremost, the resolution. You need to build assets that look great on the iPad. iPhone games were great because your art budgets and efforts were pretty manageable, but not comparable to blockbuster budgets on consoles. Now with the higher resolution, the amount of game genres that will require more expensive efforts grows. Sure, you can still put out the quirky heavily stylized visuals that a lot of iPhone games provide without much more work, but a lot of the bigger efforts, like racing games or realistic 3D action games – now we have to pay for all that details or risk visual fidelity. There’s a reason why software on the iPad needs to stay at a higher price point, it’s because they cost a lot more to produce overall. The multi-touch, the weight and interface size are all very important differences as well. We need to rethink a lot of our interface designs when we move from iPhone to iPad. We’re very excited by the coupling of iPhone to iPad. With the tie-ratio of iPhone/iPod to iPad very high right now, we can do creative things with interface that requires the phone plus the pad. We were really impressed with the efforts made by EA with Scrabble and the Scrabble Tile Rack application.
What factors go into how you ultimately price your games?
Seriously, as fun as it is to make games, we’re still a business with a lot of people who have families which turns into a massive amount of mouths to feed. The number of people and resources needed to produce any game needs to recover the costs we put into it, and ideally we get some profit after that. If we go out to build a game like, say, a first person shooter with up to 16 players and a gigantic server infrastructure, with a team of say 15 people and we build it over ten months, we’re talking about a game that costs us about $1m - $1.5m to make and that doesn’t count the monthly fees for servers, etc. if we sell that game for $4.99, we have to sell about 430,000 units to recover those costs. That’s a tough number to hit right now, but with that budget, you’d think you’re paying for a stand-out project. Reality is, very few people are spending that kind of money right now without it also being on several other platforms to increase its chance of success. When you get our size, we need to pay for rent, electricity, equipment. It’s a lot of stuff that can keep you up at night.
Describe what your dream game for the iPhone would look like.
I’m a bit of a quirky gamer, so I want my new iPhone to recognize and track my face and map it onto my in-game character as I play, expressions and all, and I want to explore an alternate reality of my real world in the game, with hidden passages and creatures, and I’m playing with my friends. All the data is coming in from the real-world, somewhat augmenting the game world, while the AI and other events in the game are fueled by trends and data from the web. The iPad is something I set on the table at the bar and my friends and I play while the iPad tracks all of our whereabouts and provides a war-room view of the action. The moment to moment is something that crosses Diablo with Second Life, but not quite World of Warcraft. Now I’m just talking crazy talk. Maybe I just want a good Robotron 2084 game.