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Indie Interview: Chalkboard Stunts

Posted on 09 April 2010 by Todd

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Today we bring you an indie interview with Arshad Rahman and Rav Dhiraj, the creators of Chalkboard Stunts.

Company: Manta Research
App Store: Chalkboard Stunts Free | Chalkboard Stunts Pro $1.99

How long have you been developing for the iPhone/iPod touch? What did you do before you started developing for the iPhone/iPod touch?
We actually started developing late 2007 with the reverse engineered frameworks, before an official SDK was even released.  We’ve always had a love for low level tinkering, and this seemed like the perfect platform for it.  In our day jobs, we both work at a company where we develop high-end 3D graphics/video hardware and associated drivers for the Apple platform.

How long did it take you to develop Chalkboard Stunts and how many people were involved?
The original proof of concept was actually developed in the fall of 2008, but it sat on the shelf for a long time as we worked on other projects.  We revived it again in November 2009, and we’ve been focused on it since then.

How did you come up with the idea for Chalkboard Stunts?
We started experimenting with in-game physics in late 2008, and as part of that experiment we put together a simple proof of concept vehicle and rudimentary level builder to see how well it worked.

What inspired you for Chalkboard Stunts from initial concept to formalized game?
We saw the success of some of the other racing titles on the platform in spite of what we felt were serious shortcomings in some of these other offerings.  We thought we could do a better job, so we decided that we had to create our own 2D physics based racing title.

What inspires you? And is it different for each game?
All the good Apps that have found some success in the App Store.  It gives us hope that investing time to create a fun and polished game will be worthwhile.

What have you found most difficult about being an indie developer?
Well both of us have full-time day jobs, so all of our iPhone development is done in the evenings and weekends.  There’s a tremendous amount of effort (over a thousand hours) that goes into putting out a game like Chalkbaord Stunts, and it means making a lot of personal sacrifices with our families so that we can pursue this.

Can you describe your development process?
Generally, it’s broken down into three stages: 1) prototyping and design discussions/notes 2) concentrated development of features 3) testing and iterating on design elements.

What does the creative process look like during the initial stages?
We do a lot of brainstorming and playing around with different proof-of-concept experiments before we actually get down to writing a game like Chalkboard Stunts.

Did you do any pre-marketing before Chalkboard Stunts was released?
Not really.

What are you working on now?
We’re continuing to make improvements to Chalkboard Stunts, and are also working on another game that we hope to bring to market in the near future.  We also have a popular application called “AppSniper” which we’re also in the process of updating.

Any plans for updates to Chalkboard Stunts?
Absolutely.  We have a ton of ideas on how to improve the game, the level editor, offer additional in-app purchases, etc.

What was your most frustrating task while developing Chalkboard Stunts?
Balancing overall project development time with feature creep.

What have you found to be the most successful way to market Chalkboard Stunts?
We tried a few different things without much success.  Sales were very poor, and it was a very frustrating experience for us because we genuinely felt that we had a good product that we had put a tremendous amount of effort into.  At the end of the day, what worked for us was to pay for a spot with FreeAppADay.com.  It was a big risk, and we ended up paying almost as much as we had made since launch (6 weeks worth), but we felt strongly that it could do well if it just had some visibility.

After the promotion, we shot up the charts and we kept gaining momentum all the way to the number 1 spot on the free list.  Of course we didn’t make any money from giving our product away, but we had over a million downloads in this period, and since then we’ve released a “pro” version which is selling reasonably well.

Since we never planned on making the game free, one of the problems we ran into was that our server did not scale well to suddenly having a million people trying to submit scores, vote on levels, and download new levels.  In fact, it completely flattened our server such that all requests were timing out.  We scrambled with our ISP to increase the resources, and make changes to our back-end server queries to help reduce the load, but this only helped a little bit.  We eventually ended up migrating to a MUCH more expensive load balanced dedicated server, but now things are zippy again.

How much does user feedback affect your planning of updates and also future projects?
A lot.  We pride ourselves on our customer support and responsiveness to user feedback.  We are constantly evaluating the suggestions that people send us, and we always try to incorporate any good ideas that people send our way.

Do you write games for yourself or for others? And why?
A little bit of both.  We both love gaming, and we both love programming… and if we can make some extra cash doing it on the side, then it’s a win-win situation :)

What process do you go through to overcome creative block?
Usually playing other games. :)

Since its release what you do differently looking back?
We spent a lot of time beta testing the game internally with a group of friends, but unfortunately all of them were hardcore gamers.  All of them loved it, and had no problems with the controls, but at launch the biggest complaints we got were on the control setup and the difficulty of the game.  If we could do things over again, we would have launched with the configurability and ease of driving that we have now.

The other thing is that we would have been better prepared for the sheer number of downloads and the server scaling required to handle that.  At the number one spot on the free list, we were getting over 200k downloads EVERY DAY!

What was the development atmosphere like? What kind of music did you listen to?
Most of the development was done late at night, so dark and quiet (no music).

What was a must have during the development process of Chalkboard Stunts?
Support from our families!

What games influenced you in your decision to make Chalkboard Stunts?
We looked at all of the games in the same genre, and also games that offered in-game level creation and sharing.  This included games like Jelly Car 2, Monster Truck Nitro, Line Rider, MX Mayhem, iStunt, Labyrinth 2, and iBlast Moki to name a few.

How close was the end product to your initial conceptualization?
The basic premise was still the same, but we ended up adding a lot of things to the final game.

Before the release of Chalkboard Stunts were there any huge last minute changes?
Not really.  We actually spent the final few weeks fine-tuning the game physics and creating levels.

How did you keep yourself motivated?
Feedback from our beta testers and knowing that the core gameplay was fun.

How much did the art drive the game? The vision of what it was to look like how much of that was the driving force?
We had a few different ideas for the look of the game (including a doodle look which we will be releasing shortly as a new theme).  The art assets sort of fell into place as we went, and the chalkboard look just made a lot of sense.

What tools of the trade are a must have for you when it comes to programming, art and music?
XCode, Photoshop, Fission, HTTPscoop, TextMate, Screenium, SoundTrack Pro.

If you were stuck on an island with a laptop and no internet access what apps would you have loaded?
The “Message in a Bottle” App. 😉

Is there anything else that you would like to say?
Thank you for the opportunity of letting us tell the world a little bit of the behind-the-scenes effort that went into making this game :)

We want to thank Arshad Rahman and Rav Dhiraj for their time!

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