The making of iPad social physics-puzzler Casey's Contraptions HD
A joint production from coder Noel Llopis (Snappy Touch) and artist Miguel A. Friginal (Mystery Coconut), it demonstrates that the polish and presentation from committed indie studios can match anything from bigger and better funded outfits.
PocketGamer: How did you first decide working together would be a good thing?
Miguel Friginal:: Noel and I had been talking on Twitter for a while, but met for the first time during 360iDev. Somehow we decided to join forces for its Game Jam: while he was coding, I bugged him for hours on end with ridiculous feature requests. I may have also drawn a couple circles, and sold it as minimalist retro art.
In any case, I must have not been annoying enough for him (or he is a masochist), because after going back home, we still worked together remotely on a few prototypes. None of them went anywhere, so he started working on his own on a prototype of Contraptions for iPhone, while I started looking for contract work.
At the time, I was working as a web developer (the back-end kind), and had done Pip for iOS only as a hobby; but after 360iDev I came back really motivated to seriously become an indie game developer.
A couple months went by, and Noel sent me a first prototype of Contraptions to check out. We bounced ideas back and forth about what parts were the most fun; you could totally see, even that early, the game had so much potential.
He had decided this was the one prototype he wanted to pursue as his next title, and started looking around for artists. But after a few tries he was not convinced with any of the samples he received, so he asked me if I was interested (I guess because he saw the doodles in my blog?).
Although I had spent years in the advertising industry as a graphic designer before doing web development, I had never worked as an illustrator, so I was not even looking into that kind of job. But I sent him a few more doodles of circles (this time I sold it as 50s-style cartoon), and... well, the rest is history.
What was the inspiration for Casey's Contraptions HD?
Noel Llopis: One of the goals I've had since I turned indie has been to make games that rely on creating and sharing things. The kind of feeling and emotions you evoke creating something is very different than what you get by destroying it. Not only does creativity make for more original and interesting gameplay, but I was also sick of working on games that were centered around "blowing shit up" for many years.
After Flower Garden, I knew I wanted to do something different (no Veggie Garden or Pocket Greenhouse), but still using creating and sharing mechanics at its core.
The original inspiration for Casey's Contraptions HD was thinking about what I liked doing as a kid: I used to love to build things out of Lego, Meccano, or anything I had around. Combining that idea with a modern physics simulation and a touch platform like the iPad seemed like a perfect combination.
The origin of Casey's Contraptions HD wasn't as neat and straightforward as that though. Miguel and I prototyped a bunch of different game ideas first, and while there were some good nuggets, none of the prototypes jumped at us as a definite keeper until this one.
Noel Llopis (left) and Miguel Friginal (right)
Why did you think the combination of the gameplay, theme and iPad was a winner?
Noel: For me it was around the time we announced it, in October 2010, when it all came together and I knew we had something special. At that point we had the basic physics gameplay, the character of Casey, and the great art style, all running on the iPad.
The first prototype of Casey's Contraptions HD was running on an iPhone, but the game was screaming for a larger screen and more space to manipulate items in a more natural way. We spent a long time getting the user interaction on the iPad just right. And with what we learned, now we can go back and make a much better interface for small screens.
Also, that initial prototype didn't have Casey anywhere. It was purely focused on the gameplay elements and nothing else. After messing around with the prototype, we came to the conclusion that the game would benefit a lot from having more personality.
After bouncing around a few ideas (mad inventor, laboratory) we came up with the idea of centering it around a child. Not only did that give it a unique personality, but it also directed a lot of future design decisions, like limiting the items in the game to toys and items a kid could have around the house.
Was it always designed as a kids' game?
Miguel: I would not call it a kids' game. Our intention was to have something that any kid could play, and any adult could enjoy.
As the character of Casey evolved during development we started adding more toys and playtime scenarios as main elements. I was worried about making it too kiddy, but at the same time we totally wanted to inspire that kind of childish curiosity, and a love for experimentation for the sake of it, to our players.
After reading all the great reviews and comments online, I think we hit the sweet spot; the game is really approachable for young people, but at the same time is not annoying for adults. I love reading about families playing it together.
What did you think would be the game's unique selling points and did you hit them all?
Noel: Our main unique selling points were creative gameplay and a strong social component. I think we hit them all spot on.
The creative gameplay is emphasised by having open-ended levels with many solutions (not one 'correct' solution you're supposed to guess), and by encouraging players to create their own levels.
The social component is tied to the creative aspect. Because the solutions are creative, people naturally want to show them off. So we're just making it really easy for players to share their solutions and browse their friends' solutions. Also, people want to share the levels they create, so we give them a chance to send them through email.
We've even created a web page to share levels publicly and we're going to integrate it with the game in the next update.
How early did the idea of the shared replays and level editor come?
Noel: The idea was there from day one. The game wasn't defined as a physics puzzler earlier on, it was about creating, building, and sharing, so the social component was on our minds from the very beginning. We even decided to build it around Game Center before Game Center was technically announced on the iPad, so we were anticipating that (and relieved it shipped when it did).
Miguel: To tell the truth, replay was not implemented until a couple weeks at most before we submitted it. You could see your friends' solution initial setup for each level, but you could not replay it. We felt this was a really important part of the game, but were not sure we could technically do it for version 1.0. I am glad it made it though, because is such an important part of the game.
How long was the development and did you use any particular tools?
Miguel: It was eight months of both of us working full time. That's not counting some of the time to create the prototype (or going through several failed prototypes).
As for tools, the usual: Xcode for development, Subversion for version control, and Trac to organise our tasks online; I used Adobe Illustrator and a Wacom tablet for all the artwork. And the physics engine in the game is Box2D. We also relied heavily in the contraption editor included in the game to create all the levels in the game.
How much tweaking did the physics engine require?
Noel: We used pretty much stock Box2D for the physics simulation. The main modifications was a new joint type for the ropes and some tweaking to allow objects to get close enough to each other.
Most of the work went into making sure the items behaved physically how you would expect them to - correct mass, friction, etc. The cartoony look of the game made it so you actually expect things to behave in ways a bit more exaggerated than real life, so we had to tweak things so they would be a bit bouncier and stronger.
Finally, we had to implement all the things that Box2D doesn't support out of the box, like the buoyancy for the balloons, magnetism, or the aerodynamics of the paper plane. All of it highly exaggerated as well.
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome?
Miguel: Getting the user interaction right was by far the most difficult part. It may seem pretty straight forward now that's done, but lots of little details and constant testing and re-testing went into making it that smooth. Rotating an object, or making sure people understand what's going on when an object intersects another... it took months to get it right.
When did you realise you were making something great?
Miguel: I think for me it was the moment we started sending each other levels and solutions, and could not stop laughing at what the other had come up with.
We were having real fun creating those levels, and our list of ideas to make the game even better was just growing all the time. We could hardly wait to put it in the hands of more people, just to see what they could do with it.
Were there any features you didn't have time to implement?
Miguel: Oh my, so many... lots of items were left out, like the ones involving water, air, electricity, or fire. We even had a number of Casey's pets as part of the game initially.
More sharing options, rating other people's contraptions, and having a full community in the game where you could download the best rated ones. More locations, a small storyline of how Casey loses his toys and has to recover them. I don't know, we have a big todo list. All this stuff is going to make it into the game sooner or later, but we had to cut it and just release. The game already had plenty for a version 1, I think!
What part of the game are you happiest/most proud of?
Miguel: The thing that makes me most proud is when people tell us how they are enjoying playing the game with their kids. That a 4-year old can figure out how to play and loves our game is just impressive.
You spend a lot of time at the end polishing. Why was this so important and how did it change the game?
Noel: I'm on record about the importance of polishing. Having a great game is the most important thing, but polishing is what takes it over the top. Polish is the first thing you notice, the first impression. It's the split-decision moment when you decide that the game is worth trying and enjoying. If you look at most of the top 10 paid games, they're all highly polished.
We were willing to cut features, but polish and style was something we didn't skimp on. Features you can add later. Polish, you really only have one chance.
How much discussion did you have about price and why no IAP?
Noel: We went around the idea of using the freemium model a lot! We even flip-flopped a couple of times along the way. There's no doubt that free + IAPs is where the money is right now. It would be a lot easier to make money with that model than with a fixed price game, as I know well from Flower Garden, and I'm speaking on that topic at the Develop conference in Brighton this summer.
But in the end, we felt that freemium wasn't a good fit for Casey's Contraptions HD. It kept feeling bolted on, and we didn't think our audience would appreciate it as much as having a traditional game package.
We're still leaving the door open for IAP in the future though. Once we have enough users, it might be worth adding some IAP that gives the really hard-core players something else, but that doesn't make everybody else feel they're missing out. Easier said than done!
As for the pricing, we were debating between two of the most popular price points for top quality iPad games today: $4.99 and $2.99. In the end, we knew we had a good shot at making it in the top 10, so we opted for $2.99. Looking back at the first week, that was definitely the right decision.
What was your plan in terms of pre-launch publicity?
Noel: We both like to be very open about what we're working on - if you follow our Twitter stream (Noel Llopis & Mystery Coconut), you'll see lots of work in progress and discussion of what's going on behind the scenes. So the plan was to announce Casey's Contraptions HD as soon as possible (October 2010), and slowly build awareness over the following months through Twitter, our blogs, etc.
At GDC, we had the chance to finally show it off to other developers and to the press, and we got some very nice media coverage from it.
Finally, we did a planned release: After the game was approved by Apple, we set a release date in the future, and contacted media outlets ahead of time with promo codes and info about the game. During the week leading to launch, we built more awareness through a preview on Pocket Gamer and a few mentions on the press, and a series of posts on forums and my blog about details of Casey's Contraptions HD.
We were also lucky enough to attract Apple's attention, so on launch day, not only did we get fantastic media coverage, but Apple also picked us as the iPad Game of the Week worldwide.
What was the most surprising thing about the response to the game?
Noel: I was blow away by reaching the #2 position in the US top paid apps chart, and in a lot of other countries around the world. We were hoping for good sales and secretly dreaming of a top 10, but getting so high and so quickly was an incredible surprise.
But what has really moved me even more than the great sales is the universal praise we've been receiving since launch. Both media reviews and user comments have been extremely positive. It's fantastic to see people having a great time and appreciating all the work we put into the game.
In particular, I think it's fantastic how many parents are playing Casey's Contraptions HD with their kids. We're even hearing reports of bedtime stories involving agents Piggy and Doll!
What's next in the world of Casey's Contraptions HD?
Miguel: For sure, we will be adding all those features we could not ship in version 1, but we are just two guys, and that means there is just so much we can do. However, it also means there is no corporate barrier between us and our players; we listen to them, and the next version is just stuff people have been asking us for online. I also want to include new playable characters in the game. Lots of ideas...
Noel: Right now we're putting out an update with some of the most user-requested features, like Miguel mentioned. After that, we're gearing up for a big update that also includes an iPhone version. Fun (and busy) times ahead!
Thanks to Miguel and Noel for their time.