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One-man band: Tak Fung on leaving behind Fables to make iPhone's Mini Squadron

One-man band: Tak Fung on leaving behind Fables to make iPhone's Mini Squadron
When the App Store launched, there were examples of developers such as Ethan Nicholas (iShoot) and Steve Demeter (Trism), who became overnight success stories.

Now, of course, the situation is much more competitive.

But this doesn't mean there's no place for the one-man bands. Talented individuals with a variety of different backgrounds are still entering the market, driven by innovative ideas and the ease of publishing.

In the first of a series of interviews with developers making their own way in the world of iPhone and the App Store, we hooked up with Tak Fung, who's previously worked on games such as Lionhead's Fable series, but now is making his own Mini Squadron.

Pocket Gamer: Why did you decide to set up as a solo iPhone developer?

Tak Fung: I've been working in the games industry for a good while, and I found myself having lots of ideas for games, art or whatever facet of the development process which happened to pop up. I realised that the quickest way of executing these ideas is if I do them myself. So I decided to find the easiest platform on which to develop and publish a game for as wide an audience as possible, and I believe right now that’s the iPhone.

The solo developer thing is due to many factors, but the main one is I couldn't find anyone else in the same situation as me where they could stop what they were doing and literally code with no pay for X months. I am lucky to have been in that position so I did! Scary, and it's involved a lot of jumping before I look, but I basically got tired of talking about it, and decided to put my money where my mouth was and to see just where my boundaries lie.

What previous experience have you had?

I've been a developer on large triple-A games for a long time. I started doing a summer intern job at EA Chertsey, then followed on be a physics coder for Microsoft/Lionhead for an unreleased project, before moving onto being a graphics coder on Fable 1 and then a shader/graphics coder on Fable 2.

I then took a turn working with Geomerics making their real time radiosity demo before going solo as a freelance mercenary coder. That took me into some fairly crazy places - stints at Passion Pictures, interactive light pieces at United Visual Artists (including bits for Massive Attack and an installation for a Japanese museum), and then I ended up at Sony London doing more graphics/shader coding.

So all in all, it's been quite a lot of this graphics malarkey, but I have never actually coded anything on the iPhone up until four months ago.

How do you deal with parts of the game making process you're not an expert in?

This usually breaks down into two categories: things I can learn as I go and things I can't.

For the things I can learn, I use the power of the interwebz and just go through websites. A good example of this is network coding and bits of ObjectiveC. There are enough good basic tutorials for me to get my stuff done using them.

For the things I can't, you have to find freelancers who can come up with the goods, which is the case for art. For things like music, I try to use the copyright free material you can find on the net. When funds are not readily available make do with as much as you can. Testing is the same. Right now it's friends and myself playing the game.

Do you have much contact with other iPhone developers?

I've been in informal contact with old acquaintances who are now iPhone developers: people such as Matt Wiggins, who is working on a secret upcoming iPhone game, and James Brown, who single handedly made Ancient Frog on iPhone.

Apart from that I keep in contact with some extremely talented developers who I use to work with and they are kind enough to answer the odd stupid question on iPhone or indeed anything.

What are the most helpful information resources you've found?

I usually Google any queries I have about coding problems, and the websites that consistently come up with the best answers are iphonedevsdk.com and stackoverflow.com.

I learnt to code networks in a rough fashion from reading Beej's Guide to Network Programming, and also the juicy bits from Glenn Fiedler's blog. Other resources are mostly from the developers I keep in touch with, usually emailing or IMing them.

Freesound.org is good for those emergency sound effects when you can't find any others, and Old Dead Musical Geniuses for background music (thank you Mozart for giving me MIDI Symphony No. 40). But generally, I "just google it" first.

What are the best parts of being a one-man band?

Being solo does have its advantages. You have nowhere to hide, you decide what gets done and you do get a chance to pass your ideas onto the unsuspecting public in its original form - good or bad, but hey, at least it's your idea right?

In that way, it is a very true expression of what you want to do - you're getting real freedom.

The best bit of being a one-man band for me is that whatever slog I'm going through, whatever slow progress or some stupid feature that gets put into the game, I know that I own all the code that goes with it, and that I am owning what I am creating.

I also know that there will be no hiding and no blame can be misplaced when the final product ships - live and die by the sword! No bullshit there. Its a bit sadistic but it's a true test to see exactly how far you can take things on your own.

What are the worst parts of being a one-man band?

They're many-fold. It is incredibly hard work. Working with no steady income means that you don't just invent deadlines for fun, they become necessary so that eventually I can stop eating instant ramen and I can buy a pair of shoes that don't have holes in them.

This is where developing for the iPhone is an advantage for me. The cost was a second hand Mac and an iPhone contract, along with the Apple Dev Program cost, and then I was away doing my thing.

It was nice to not have to go and get an office and deal with the sort of logistics I would have have to if I had wanted to develop for other platforms which may require a devkit etc. I had considered Xbox Live Arcade, but I prefer the more restricted and less powerful iPhone because it limits the resources I would need to complete the game I had in mind.

I've also found managing all the different parts of the project not much fun. Trying to make sure artists and testers are doing what you think they're doing and getting stuff off them (especially if they aren't physically near you) is really time consuming.

Focusing when you're on your own is quite hard too. It's easy to fall into the trap of procrastination, but the ramen are good reminders of what you're doing. Mmmm, ramen. Everyone loves ramen.

Are you planning to self publish on App Store or do you think it would better to look for a publisher?

I will be self publishing on the App Store. I may change my mind but to be honest, it's the simplest thing to do and my brain is not large enough to cope with arranging meetings and talks with X and Y. By the time that's sorted out I'd probably have moved onto coding my second game.

Can you provide some details about Mini Squadron?

Yes! Self promo time!
Mini Squadron is my idea of a simple, fast and frenetic shooter on the iPhone, taking inspiration from games such as BIP (Biplane Duel) and Jetstrike on the Amiga. It's old-skool gameplay, updated for the iPhone with polished graphics and my own take on the physics movement of the planes.

I also wanted to provide a good collection of planes to unlock, giving players a strong incentive to beat high scores in order to finish their plane collection. I like the feeling of completing pretty collections of things (hello Pokemon, yes I love you), so if I can replicate that feeling, it would be cool.

The game is due to be submitted to the App Store at end of October or early November, and fingers crossed will include one versus one local wi-fi multiplayer for some heated battles.

You can catch the YouTube trailer here and my devblog here.

Would you like to build up a larger company or can you survive and thrive on your own?

It's too early to say, but if all goes well I plan to expand to a 'larger company' whatever that might mean. I don't really know too much of what's going on until I charge head first into it!

Right now I need to finish this game and see what happens. Who knows what might happen once you get your Mini Squadron?

Thanks to Tak for his time.

You can keep in touch with his progress via his blog or Twitter.

Contributing Editor

A Pocket Gamer co-founder, Jon is Contributing Editor at PG.biz which means he acts like a slightly confused uncle who's forgotten where he's left his glasses. As well as letters and cameras, he likes imaginary numbers and legumes.

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