Simon Oliver is the embodiment of a dream. He represents what other developers, mining for glory in the wilds of the iTunes App Store, want to uncover; he's an aspirational example to the thunderous horde galloping their way proverbially West with their coding pix-axes held aloft.
His first game, Rolando, was just the beginning for Oliver, however, who recently delivered a healthy-scoring sequel and has long-aired plans for a third game. To find out more about both the games and the man behind them, we tracked down Oliver for a chat.
Eurogamer: For the benefit of those who might not have played the original, can you tell us a bit about how Rolando itself works and what prompted you to make the sequel?
Simon Oliver: Rolando is the first release from HandCircus, a puzzle-platform game that sees you guide a gang of Rolandos through an adventure packed with action, brain teasers, challenges and surprises.
We came off the the release of the first one with our feet still running, with a lot of ideas that we wanted to implement, new mechanics and features that we thought would work well in the Rolando universe, and a deeper knowledge of the device. Channeling all of this into a sequel was a very natural next step. We were really happy with the reception of the original and felt that there was an appetite for a second Rolando game.
Eurogamer: The game's now available on the iTunes App Store alongside the original. What are the big differences that sets the sequel apart?
Simon Oliver: Rolando 2 features a brand new quest set on an exotic island and adds vehicles, inflating Rolandos, water physics, new puzzles, traps, mechanics and much, much more. We've also put a lot of work into the visual side of things, upgrading to a new 2.5D look and packing a lot more detail into the environment. It incorporates Plus+, ngmoco's new network platform, allowing you to compare achievements and scores, as well as allowing you to challenge friends to beat your accomplishments.
With the sequel, we wanted to put more emphasis on character and story. Whereas the Rolandos in the first game didn't have specific names or personalities, those that you guide throughout Rolando 2 are all well-defined characters. We've brought in the talents of a writer to add depth to those characters and shape the overall plot.
Eurogamer: Rolando was praised for the restraint and polish in its control system compared to other iPhone titles. How did you set about achieving that and what sort of lessons did you take from that experience into the sequel?
Simon Oliver: A lot of prototyping! (and a lot of discarding elements that weren't strong enough). Kyle Gabler and Kyle Gray's Experimental Gameplay Project is a real inspiration and helped to guide the early phases of development (iterate quickly, don't be afraid to try things out or throw things away if they don't work). We ended up trying out many, many different control schemes before deciding on the scheme that we have today and that process was really useful in exploring the unique input scheme of the iPhone.
Once we had the solid control skeleton in place, we were ready to add additional layers and mechanics on top. We were still very happy with the underlying control scheme when development on Rolando 2 started, so only made minor refinement to the controls. The new mechanics of the sequel (such as vehicle control) were all based on the foundations and framework established by the first game.
Eurogamer: What will the third game be offering there over and above the content in Rolando 2?
Simon Oliver: The third game is still in the very early phases of development, and there isn't much to reveal just yet, but we'll want to make sure its at least as significant as the progression from Rolando 1 to Rolando 2.
Eurogamer: You've been one of the biggest App Store successes so far - what are your general impressions of it as a business model for small developers?
Simon Oliver: The development and distribution side of things are fantastic. The SDK is a joy to use, and being able to use a normal retail device for development makes it a very accessible platform for a wide range of developers. That said, visibility remains a challenge for small developers - something I hope will be rectified as the App Store evolves.
Eurogamer: What sort of advice would you have to people who see how well you're doing and fancy making an App Store game?
Simon Oliver: Even if you don't have a solid game idea yet, just download the SDK and get playing and making - the experience of getting something up and running on the device to tinker with serves as great brain-food for development of your next project. There are some awesome open-source tools and frameworks out there that can help you get up and running quickly (like Box2D and Cocos2D). Don't try and plan the game too extensively before you start development, and allow it to evolve naturally. Prototype heavily!
Also, don't underestimate the importance of marketing - we've been very fortunate to have the talents and experience of our partner ngmoco. There is a lot of competition in the App Store so if you are planning on going it alone, make sure that you are able to dedicate the time to get your game out there. Kyle and Ron from 2DBoy (World of Goo) gave a great lecture at GDC on their success and experiences as an indie - the lecture notes are all available online.
Eurogamer: The iPhone/iPod Touch is a closed platform despite all the jailbroken devices out there - do you see that as a positive or a negative thing?
Simon Oliver: The system that Apple has put in place has some advantages - there is no distribution fragmentation (all Apps are available in one place) which certainly makes things easier for users looking for software, or developers getting their content out there. There is also no question of trust when submitting credit card data, having to manage multiple accounts or of a company going out of business. While it may not have the level of flexibility of a totally open system, the open approach to development provides a great deal more flexibility than digital distribution models on other consoles.
Eurogamer: What do you make of the iPhone 3GS? Do you think there's a danger of Apple splitting the audience by changing the internal specifications?
Simon Oliver: It looks like a great device. I've not managed to get my hands on one yet (I'm still on a first-gen iPhone and first-gen iPod Touch!) but it's cool to be able to start playing with what will become the standard hardware over the next couple of years. Obviously it does put an additional responsibility on the developer to support both devices, but fortunately the core platform hasn't changed (screen size, connectivity and input scheme remain the same).
Eurogamer: Would you ever consider bringing Rolando to other formats, like the download services for PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, DS or PSP?
Simon Oliver: It definitely depends on the capabilities of the device - obviously the mechanics of Rolando don't naturally translate to a traditional controller, as it was designed around the touch-and-tilt capabilities of the iPhone. We would never create a quick port of Rolando for the sake of getting it on another platform - we'd only ever release something that felt right for the device.
Eurogamer: Are you working on any other projects besides the Rolando titles?
Simon Oliver: Absolutely, we've got two other projects at the early stages of development, one for iPhone, one for another platform, but we're not ready to make any announcements just yet!