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Indie Interview: Flower Garden

Posted on 08 February 2010 by Todd

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Today we bring you an indie interview with Noel Llopis, the creator of Flower Garden!

Company: Snappy Touch
Games: Flower Garden | Free

How long have you been developing for the iPhone/iPod touch? What did you do before you started developing for the iPhone/iPod touch?
I started doing iPhone development in the fall of 2008. I had spent many years in the games industry making PC and console games, so the iPhone was a breath of fresh air. I could still do all the cool game development bits on a great platform, with great tools, and with a very small team.

How long did it take you to develop Flower Garden and how many people were involved?
The most accurate answer is “it took me too long!”. Seriously. From the first line of code until submission it was 6 months (!!). Since then, I’ve probably put an additional couple of months worth of work in updates, PR, and support. It was all done by me with some help from a friend of mine and terrific graphic designer, David Fennema, for most of the graphic design elements.

How did you come up with the idea for Flower Garden?
I was looking for a good idea that met three requirements: I wanted something that was fairly unique, that involved creating or caring for something (instead of shooting or destroying things), and that could be shared with other people. Then one day, it hit me in the middle of a long run. I ran home even faster and jumped on the App Store to see if there was anything like that available.

What inspired you for Flower Garden from initial concept to formalized game?
Before inspiration came a lot of research. I got out the library every book I could get my hands on flower morphology and procedural plant creation. I devoured them in a few days and stripped it down to the bare minimum (good thing otherwise I would still be making it!).

As for the design, I was mostly inspired by other Apple UI. I really tried to keep things smooth, simple, and minimalistic. You won’t see lots of buttons in Flower Garden.

What inspires you? And is it different for each game?
Clearly, other games are an influence on me. I see something I like and I want to make something at least as good. But most of my inspiration comes from other, totally unrelated sources. I’ve always believed that people should have as varied interests and hobbies as possible to come up with the best ideas. Sometimes it’s the combination of two obvious concepts in two very different fields that creates something very new and original.

In any case, I usually have my best, most creative ideas while running or cycling. There’s something about the mind wandering in different ways than normal that causes all sorts of creative ideas.

What have you found most difficult about being an indie developer?
That’s easy: Making money :-) Apart from that, it’s really a dream come true. I’m going to have a really hard time if I ever go back and work for a company.

Can you describe your development process?
I’m a big fan of iterative and agile development. I really believe in making very small prototypes early on and nailing what’s unique about a game. After that, it’s a matter of refining and refining until it’s ready to go.

As far as actual development practices, even working by myself, I still do short sprint/iterations (usually a week or so) and I do test-driven development for almost everything. Totally worth it.

What does the creative process look like during the initial stages?
I try to prototype several ideas, even if I think I found the right one from the beginning. Then I pick the best of those and run with it. I try to get feedback as early as possible in the development cycle.

Did you do any pre-marketing before Flower Garden was released?
Pre-marketing? Not really. I released a teaser video, but probably only a few hundred people ever saw it. I definitely learned how to do a better pre-launch campaign since then.

What are you working on now?
I just started a new project, but it’s unannounced. It will be something much shorter this time though, just under two months. After that, I already have a couple ideas I’m itching to do. Shortage of ideas is not the problem. It’s time and manpower! :-)

Any plans for updates to Flower Garden?
I just finished a big update for Valentine’s Day, which includes a greenhouse garden and a new set of seeds (both available as in-app purchases) as well as a bunch of UI improvements. People have been loving all the new content provided through in-app purchases, so I plan on continuing to make new seeds and other features in the upcoming months. Expect another one at around Mother’s Day.

What was your most frustrating task while developing Flower Garden?
How long it took for sure. Looking at it it’s hard to think why it took so long, but there are so many things that are easy to take for granted. I even ended up cutting the whole cross-polination aspect (which was a good call in retrospect).

What have you found to be the most successful way to market Flower Garden?
This post tells all the story with sales numbers to back it up: http://gamesfromwithin.com/making-a-living-barely-on-the-iphone-app-store Basically, I tried just about everything and it wasn’t making much of a difference. Then I hit on in-app purchases and things really took off. I’m not saying that IAP are the magic bullet for everybody because I think they’re very dependent on the nature of the game and what you’re selling, but they seem to be a perfect fit for Flower Garden.

As you can expect, not everybody loved it though. A lot of people on the App Store left comments complaining about IAP maybe not realizing they were totally optional, or expecting they would get all of that for free. I don’t know. I have been extremely sensitive to that and always made sure I never crippled the game in any way and every update added something new even if you don’t buy it. Most people voted with their money and the sales numbers really show that it was the right thing to do.

How much does user feedback affect your planning of updates and also future projects?
It definitely plays a big part! The feedback I got through email and the Facebook group helped me choose the priority of the features to be added. For example, as soon as Flower Garden was released, people were begging to have tags in the pots so they could tell what seeds were planted there, so that made it in the first update.

Do you write games for yourself or for others? And why?
I’ve spent too many years writing games for other people. Now I’m making the games I want to make. And one of the things that means is that I’m not going to make any violent games. I have nothing against them, and even right now I’m playing Fallout 3 (which is ultra-violent), but it’s not something I want to make myself anymore. I’d rather appeal to different emotions in the players.

What process do you go through to overcome coder’s block or even a creative block?
Test-driven development totally gets rid of coder’s block. Seriously, I haven’t had a case of that in many years. There’s always a small step you can take, and after that things become easier.

Creative block is tough. Very tough. I can get very depressed if I’m stuck in a creative block, which makes things worse. Creating prototypes for ideas that you know are probably not going to make it is a great way to get out of it though. You’re doing something, and soon a bunch of other ideas come flooding. Bouncing ideas off other people really helps too.

Since its release what you do differently looking back?
What would I do differently? I should have jumped on in-app purchases earlier, but I had no way to know. I’m glad I tried all the things I did (lite version, Facebook integration, etc). My pre and post-launch PR campaign could have been better. That’s something I’m really hoping to improve next time with all I know now.

What was the development atmosphere like? What kind of music did you listen to?
I work from home, from a dedicated room I made into my office. I need lots of light and constant access to tea and muchies :-)

And yes, I’m listening to music all the time. I choose the music to fit the mood or what I have to do: there’s “getting things done” music, there’s “creative” music, there’s “this is great day music”, and “let’s power through this music”. I’m a huge music consumer because I end up listening to 10-12 albums per day. My tastes are very varied from current indie music (Metric, Vampire Weekend), singer-songwriters (Ingrid Michaelson), to more classic rock (Springsteen, Sheryl Crow), and even lots of classical music.

What was a must have during the development process of Flower Garden?
Probably the most crucial thing in the development of Flower Garden was the great community of other indie iPhone developers out there though. It was invaluable bouncing ideas off them, and being inspired by them. Couldn’t have done it in isolation, that’s for sure.

What games influenced you in your decision to make Flower Garden?
Nothing in particular. Even though people keep bringing up the similarities, I never played any Tamagotchi games.

To what do you attribute to Flower Garden success? Did you expect this level of success?
To be honest, until December Flower Garden reached exactly the worst-case scenario I had calculated before its launch. Since then things have really picked up and I’m much happier with how it’s doing now. I really didn’t expect in-app purchases to have this much of an effect considering the number of units that were there in the first place, but I guess the few people who were using Flower Garden were really enjoying it and ready for more content.

How close was the end product to your initial conceptualization?
Very, very close. I have some early sketches that show exactly the screens in the game as they are now. Fortunately the ones in the game are a lot prettier :-)

Before the release of Flower Garden were there any huge last minute changes?
Yes! It was kind of crazy, but two days before submitting the game I decided to try a little PR trick. I added the option to download bonus flowers by entering a code. Then I offered web sites the possibility of having their own seed and having them announce the code to their readers. This was without any strings attached, certainly not expecting a more favorable review, but I think it helped get reviewer’s attention and there were more reviews because of it. It was kind of scary coming up with something pretty major like that a few days before submission though!

How did you keep yourself motivated? What tips do you have for people with AADD like me?
Getting on a regular schedule really helped. I usually go running early in the morning, and then I work at least from 8-9am until 6-7pm. Collaborating with other people is also a huge motivator, as is giving builds to friends. But mostly is enjoying what you’re doing, and I enjoyed every minute of it, even the crazy crunch leading to the first release.

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?
I’m usually a very visual person, and art plays a huge role in my project. Flower Garden was different though because all the flowers are procedurally generated, so there wasn’t a really strong visual theme. It definitely help set the tone of the graphics though, going for a non-ultra realistic look. Maybe more like very detailed hand-drawn style.

What tools of the trade are a must have for you when it comes to programming, art and music?
I always say I can do iPhone development with my Macbook Pro, the SDK, an iPod Touch, and an internet connection from anywhere in the world. That’s really a fantastic change from working with massive devkits for game consoles. But apart from that, I found Subversion, Photoshop, Audacity, and TextWrangler to be essential for development.

We want to thank Noel for his time and all of the great information that he shares with the indie community on his Games from Within blog!

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