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Indie Interview: Tilt to Live

Posted on 26 March 2010 by Todd

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Today we bring you an indie interview with Adam Stewart and Alex Okafor, the creators of Tilt to Live!

Company: One Man Left
App Store: Tilt to Live $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?
Adam: We set our sights on the iPhone around June of last year, and Tilt to Live is our first project. Before that we’d never done anything that would be considered “career” game development. We’ve been working as a team on pipe dream projects since high school, but Tilt to Live is our first commercial offering.

How long did it take you to develop Tilt to Live and how many people were involved?
Adam: Just two of us moonlighting as devs, Alex the Programmer and Adam the Artist. That’s how we address each other in casual conversation.

The moonlighting arrangement slowed the process down considerably. I think the game was started in June of last year, so it was almost 9 months before we agreed it was ready for launch. We could nearly have gestated a human being in the time it took to make this game. Because we both had day jobs to pay the bills, there was no financial pressure to “just get it done”. We took our sweet time exploring different ideas.

How did you come up with the idea for Tilt to Live?
Adam: The humorous look/feel was established as soon as we indulged that title: Tilt to Live. You can’t have a name that goofy and still try to look badass, so we just started running with ridiculous ideas. In the end, that helped set our game apart from all the glowing, techno-thumping shooters in the App Store. I don’t know why more developers aren’t sick of working in that style. It’s not bad, it’s just… well-worn. It’s the town doorknob.

The gameplay was inspired early on by Geometry Wars’ Pacifist mode. That’s the mode where they take away your ability to shoot, and you can only whittle away enemies by running through these bars that exploded. That was our nuke, basically, and from there we brainstormed different survival strategies that became our other weapons. It’s been exciting territory to develop, and we’re still not finished exploring it.

What inspires you? And is it different for each game?
Adam: This time it was an idea within Geometry Wars that we wanted to explore deeper. A lot of our new ideas have been centered around fun ways to interact with the hardware (both iPhone and iPad). I personally get excited when I’m deconstructing something that’s already established. Taking a classic paradigm, deciding what’s fun about it and what isn’t, then brainstorming new ideas around that. It’s not easy to make that work, but I find that reverse-engineering a game or genre really gets my imagination going.

What have you found most difficult about being an indie developer?
Adam: Getting noticed in a marketplace as crowded as the App Store.  That’s the hardest part, which we’re hoping will become easier as we establish some kind of presence or (hopefully) fan base.

What does the creative process look like during the initial stages?
Adam: During the very early stages, the enemies were just red dots and the player just looked like an arrow! We have come a long way since then. For Tilt to Live, our creative process went like this: There are red dots and a nuke … “Try this” … Build … “Was it fun? Okay try this” … Build … ad nauseam.  Just adding weapons and changing waves until it felt release-worthy.

Early Tilt to live!

Did you do any pre-marketing before Tilt to Live was released?
Adam: We sent out preview builds to a few web sites, and did maybe two press releases near the end. Our biggest push was after we had a gameplay video to show. It’s hard to build hype for your first title, since you’re on a level playing field with 100,000 other developers the app sites have never heard of. Any success we had there was due to Tilt to Live’s quirkiness and how we structured the emails. After some trial and error we found that the quicker we got to the point in our press releases and emails, the better our response was.

What are you working on now?
Adam: Tilt to Live isn’t finished just yet. We’re developing a new game mode for the first update that completely changes how you play the game. We call it Gauntlet mode. Players basically run a treadmill of spinning, smashing dot formations, trying to survive the tide as long as possible. That’s coming April 24th.

As far as future titles, we have our sights set on the iPad next. That hardware has a lot of potential.

Do you write games for yourself or for others? And why?
Adam: Both. We use a pretty diverse group as testers, including ourselves. If it’s not fun for the majority of us, or if it’s not a game that’d we’d be satisfied purchasing, it’s probably not worth releasing. We don’t always agree on what’s fun, but I think that keeps the end result from being “too niche”.

We also use reviews on the App Store and app sites as food for thought toward updates. We often agree with the feedback, and treat it the same as tester data.

How close was the end product to your initial conceptualization?
Adam: We set out to make a simple, pick-up-and-play, casual game with minimal decision-making before starting a game. The update will have two screens prior to playing: a Gametype Select and the Assume the Position screen, which is actually two more than we were going for. Both are necessary and fairly common, though, so the concession wasn’t a total copout.

As far as difficulty, the feedback seems to be that half the people think it gets too hard too quick, and half think it’s too easy for too long. This tells us we’ve struck a decent balance between a hardcore and casual audience. We’re going to try to continue “swinging both ways” in the updates, though we’ve announced a hardcore-only mode called Code Red for the April 24th GameType update. The difficulty will be cranked up to 11 from the start, for the hardcore gamer on the go.

How did you keep yourself motivated?
We both just find the work rewarding. And if not for that, we get hungry. The people with the food ask for money. If we have none, we get motivated.

What was your most frustrating task while developing Tilt to Live?
Alex: Coding the more elaborate dot formations such as arrows and ping pong paddles was more challenging than expected. I went back to the drawing board several times trying to get this to work fluidly and still maintain good performance. What we have now works but I still think it could be done much better. We had a lot more ideas for this, but this proved to be one of the things that got down-sized for the sake of time and stability. But with the new update, Gauntlet Mode, it’s almost exclusively all elaborate shapes, so thankfully we’ve got a better system in place now for developing them!

What process do you go through to overcome creative block?
Alex: Stopping what you’re doing and go do something else. Music is always an inspiration, but just getting out and trying to experience new things really helps get those creative juices flowing. Even if it’s as simple as going for a walk to a part of the city or a park you’ve never been to before.

What was the development atmosphere like? What kind of music did you listen to?
Adam: To give a general idea: Horse the Band, The Number Twelve Looks Like You, and The March of the Penguins soundtrack.
Alex: Some days it’s chill-out lounge music, other days it’s classical/orchestral music, others it’s just random music from more mainstream sources.

What was a must have during the development process of Tilt to Live?
Alex: The biggest design goal was to create a game that requires zero tapping of the screen during the gameplay to fully play the game. We wanted to explore the mechanics of tilting exclusively, and also avoid the “hand in the way” problem that could be a huge issue in a fast-paced arcade game.

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?
Alex: The art and music definitely guided the overall humorous feel of the game. But from a game mechanics perspective, the art took a back seat to how the game played. We would come up with abstract mechanics and gameplay ideas first and then try to fit them in aesthetically. The art made the mechanics standout and not the other way around. In the mobile space, I personally feel gameplay is more important than theme. Themes work to get the player initially interested.  If the theme and gameplay are at odds with each other then it won’t hold their interest for long. While working in a constrained box (Like “Tilt only gameplay”) can really help push the creativity of mechanics, trying to make game mechanics ‘fit a theme’ doesn’t seem to have the same effect.

What tools of the trade are a must have for you when it comes to programming, art and music?
Alex: XCode, Subversion, and Dropbox are kind of standard I imagine. As for a tool I use that a lot of iPhone developers probably don’t is Blitzmax. It’s another language entirely, but it’s proved to be extremely useful in prototyping early mechanics and algorithms quickly without all the “gotchas” of setup, initialization, and memory management in Obj-C/C++. Audacity has been key for me. I use it to mix, edit, and export the audio.

Adam: The artwork was wrought primarily by Illustrator, and I used Flash to mock up some of the animations. Also pencils. It took a lot of sketching to get the enemy design just right.

Is there anything else that you would like to say?
Of course.

We want to thank Adam and Alex for their time and we can’t wait for the update for Tilt to Live!

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