Fasten your seatbelts: The making of Pocket Planes

When NimbleBit went higher

Fasten your seatbelts: The making of Pocket Planes
Following the success of Tiny Tower, San Diego-based NimbleBit returned to the social management sim with the release of Pocket Planes, securing another strong reception, both critically and commercially.

Yet the project could have been very different.

We talk to co-founder Ian Marsh about the Pocket Planes' origins, balancing the needs of casual and core players, and what it's like working with your twin brother.

Pocket Gamer: What were your aspirations for Pocket Planes?

Ian Marsh: With Pocket Planes we set out to make a game with much more strategy and deeper gameplay than Tiny Tower while still keeping it relatively casual and approachable.

What lessons did you carried over?

I think the most important thing was the sense of a living breathing world that you're playing in. We kept the BitBook and added other world events to give a sense of the world carrying on with or without you.

Can you tell us a little about how you settled on your pixel art style?

Before Tiny Tower, we were playing around with the idea of making a restaurant management game and Dave had started mocking it up in a pixel art style.

We ended up loving it so much that we decided we should make a game with many more environments than a single restaurant.

Will all NimbleBit games take this approach going forward?

I think there is a good chance we'll continue using it as long as it suits the game. I don't think we'll let the art style dictate the types of games we make though.

The game was originally about trains not planes. Why did you make that change?

We had developed the train game to a certain point when we realised that staying on tracks was limiting in a few different ways, and also the average person can relate to air travel much more easily than rail travel.

A screen from the canned Pocket Trains

Luckily most of the systems we'd developed up to that point were still able to be utilised in Pocket Planes.

Were there any other significant challenges you had to overcome?

I'd say the biggest challenge by far was making the simulation deep enough to be enjoyable to more 'core' gamers while still keeping it simple enough for casual gamers.

You founded NimbleBit with your twin brother. What's it like working with a family member?

Working with my twin brother is pretty amazing. We have this shared knowledge of all the games we played, books we read, and movies we saw growing up so we can always reference something and know exactly what the other one is talking about.

The twins Marsh: Dave and Ian (left to right)

We're also able to be brutally honest with each other about our work since we've been beating up on each other for almost 30 years now!

Pocket Planes is very accessible, which encourages extended play, but remains fairly untaxing in terms of gameplay difficulty. Was this something you specifically aimed for?

I think the real problem is that the depth is relatively hidden unless you're looking for it. The game is only as complex as the player makes it for themselves.

We did intend for basic advancement to take little planning for casual play, but for careful planning to be necessary to unlock your airlines true potential.

What elements did you introduce to the game in order to add more depth?

One aspect we changed during beta was preventing the player from upgrading cities to any class. This meant that the player was forced to plan and find the best routes using the best planes rather then upgrading every city on a path to anywhere.

Adding layovers also gave the game much more depth and allowed players to think outside of simple point to point flights.

How long did the development process take and what tools did you use?

I'd estimate around 7-8 months of full-time development, using Photoshop, Xcode, and the Cocos2d framework.

Tiny Tower and Pocket Planes have comparable gameplay, IAP integration, art and social networking features. Are there any differences in terms of the audience, or how players interact with the games?

The audience for Pocket Planes looks to be a bit smaller, which probably boils down to it having slightly narrower appeal than Tiny Tower, although it does seem that Pocket Planes players play more sessions a day, probably to ensure that all their planes are always in the air.

Why do you think Pocket Planes has a narrower appeal?

The goal in Tiny Tower is much more obvious - build higher.

In Pocket Planes, the goals are a bit more nebulous and can be dependent on the player themselves. I think Pocket Planes' appeals to a narrower audience that likes to lose themselves in these sandbox type games with a little less direction.

How important are the game's social features?

I think it's been great for word of mouth, and especially fun for us to see what people are doing with the game.

There's lots of focus in the industry about metrics and analytics. How closely do you measure these and, more generally, what's been the most surprising aspect of the audience reaction?

For various reasons, Pocket Planes includes even less analytics than Tiny Tower. We don't get that much value out of them since our development isn't metrics-driven.

I think the biggest surprise has been the amount of players taking part in Flight Crew competitions.

You've always led on iOS, but have released games on Android. Will you be releasing Pocket Planes on other platforms?

Pocket Planes will be coming to Android in the coming months through DeNA's Mobage network, similar to Tiny Tower.

Can you reveal how you'll be updating the game?

Right now we're working hardest on addressing issues early players are having and improving the experience by clarifying certain aspects and adding a help system to the game.

What issues have players encountered?

There were some rare cases of data loss, and some iCloud syncing issues - all of which where remedied in the following updates.

How many players were affected?

We didn't see more than a few handfuls of people get affected, and luckily we were able to get a fix out quickly, something like 48 hours I think. It is always a scramble after a launch for one reason or another!

What's next for NimbleBit?

That's what we're trying to figure out now! We never roadmap too far ahead so we're exploring some ideas for new games while we spend some time working on updates for Pocket Planes and Tiny Tower.

Thanks to Ian for his time.

Yon can download Pocket Planes - a free-to-play universal app here. [iTunes link].

Contributing Writer

A freelancer for just about anyone that will have him, Lee was raised in gloomy arcades up and down the country. Thanks to this he's rather good at Gauntlet, OutRun and fashioning fake pound coins from pennies and chewing gum. These skills have proved to be utterly useless in later life.


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