Ian Marsh on NimbleBit's origins, keeping it small and development fast, despite the pressure of success

Strong foundations before the upwards elevator

Ian Marsh on NimbleBit's origins, keeping it small and development fast, despite the pressure of success
In a story that proves how fertile the mobile market can be for independent developers, Californian developer NimbleBit scored a huge hit in 2011 with Tiny Tower.

Apple named it the Game of the Year in the United States and it was also a runner-up to that title in Europe and Australia.

In our two-part interview with co-founder Ian Marsh, we asked how the studio came to be and inquired about some major milestones, before - in part 2 - getting into a conversation about the recent cloning accusations against Zynga, and what lessons can be learned about navigating the choppy waters of mobile development.

Pocket Gamer: My first question is about your twin brother David, who developed Half-Life mods in high school. How did that influence NimbleBit's formation?

Ian Marsh: Dave ended up creating some high profile levels, which were included in Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat.

After getting an invitation to work at Troika Games in his freshman year, he decided to go ahead and skip the classes he was taking to get the job he was offered.

In terms of influence, I think Dave's experience at Troika and other triple-A studios really illuminated all the shortcomings of the industry.

After working on big budget projects for years at a time, every studio he worked for laid off most employees or went out of business. Developing smaller titles that can't make or break your company individually is a much more stress-free way to live and work.

The lack of a publisher siphoning off the profits from and hit games you do develop is a welcome change as well.

You have a computer science degree and spent time in web development prior to co-founding NimbleBit. Was there an 'a-ha!' moment where you decided to make the switch to game development?

I'd always been somewhat interested in game development, especially after Dave started in the industry. My favourite two classes at UCSD were Games Development and Computer Graphics.

By the time graduation rolled around in 2005, working on games was on top of my dream jobs list and luckily I landed a job at a small mobile game studio named Sandcastle Studios in Carlsbad, CA.

Are there any other employees of NimbleBit besides yourself and your brother?

No other full-time employees. We have one person helping us with customer support part-time and one doing accounting for us part-time. One of our biggest goals is to stay small so that we can continue to do what we love which is making games.

NimbleBit in early 2011: Ian (left) and David (right)

Managing employees and running a company isn't what gets us out of bed in the morning.

In other interviews, you've mentioned having experience in traditional cell phone game development. Can you tell us about that experience, and how it influenced your iPhone work?

Traditional mobile development was a nightmare. The publishers, carriers and license holders had near complete control over everything and device, language and carrier fragmentation made development very difficult.

Luckily since we now only do iOS development ourselves, we don't have to deal with any of those issues today.

Design-wise, we took very little lessons from the pre-iPhone days. The hardware and user interfaces were so different then, they were essentially a different platform.

In August of 2009, you spoke with us about the sales bump that 'featured' status on the App Store leads to, using your game Moon Drop as context.

Do you think success in app development is unfairly tied to who Apple chooses and chooses not to feature?

On the App Store, you have more competition than any other marketplace I can think of. I don't think Apple featuring apps is unfair since most of them are high quality apps that deserve the attention.

There are also many more outlets available to promote an app now, and I would argue that most of the apps in the top charts these days were never featured by Apple.

In 2009, NimbleBit developed the AppClassics meta review tool. Can you tell us about the development of the site? What inspired it?

Like I said, app discoverability was a much bigger problem in 2009 and everyone was trying to figure out what the solution was.

I have some background in web development and thought it would be fun to try and analyse App Store data, so I made the AppClassics web site as more of a hobby than anything else.

AppClassics doesn't seem available any longer. Has it gone forever?

After so many app-centric sites started popping up, I didn't really think there was a point to pursuing something like AppClassics so I stopped tinkering around with it.

AppClassics sounds like a sly method of tracking the performances of competitor's apps. Did you learn anything about recurring design elements in successful iPhone games by watching the results?

I'm not sure my 'discoverability engine' was ever smart enough to really learn anything from.

I did learn that my time is probably better spent developing games instead of web sites though!

Has your development scheme of building and testing without IAP functionality, in order to assure a 'fun for free' design, been part of NimbleBit's mantra from the very beginning?

It is certainly how we've operated since we started developing freemium games. As a game designer, making the game fun is a lot more interesting than worrying about the monetisation, which is why we don't design the game around it.

I hear from a lot of people that their single purchase inside the game was simply a 'thank you' for a game which they spent so much time playing, which we are more than happy to accept.

Your game Scoops was a paid app, yet you cite it as the turning point in NimbleBit's decision to adjust to a freemium model.

Can you tell us about its performance, and how it related to the moment you decided to shift?

Scoops did very well as a paid app, but we were frequently giving the game away for free to build buzz and expand our fan base. When IAP was introduced, we thought adding some purchasable content would be the best way to judge its effectiveness.

After adding a handful of unlockable paid themes and dropping Scoops to free, the game ended up making around the same amount of revenue as before but with a much larger (and very valuable) player base.

To what degree do you attribute the integration of ngmoco's Plus+ social platform to the success of your first proper free-to-play game Pocket Frogs?

Having a social layer in Pocket Frogs definitely had a part in the game's success.

Since trading frogs with your friends can be a big part of the game for some players, we knew we needed the social graph which Plus+ provided. Now that Game Center is here, developers have even more ways to make their games a bit more social.

At one point you cited limiting development to two-month cycles. Tiny Tower was a four-month dev cycle.

Are you changing your development scheme, or was this an adjustment required for a particular project?

We've become a bit of a victim of our own success in that respect.

With the success of Pocket Frogs and Tiny Tower, we've had to spend more time working on updates and supporting our players than we would have in the past, but are working hard to speed development on new games.

When an app developer hits big with a game, it naturally shines light on everything else they have on the market.

Do you think the interconnected nature of a mobile developer's app catalog makes for more pressure to develop and publish games faster than in other markets?

I think pressure to develop new titles faster drops way down after a big hit, no matter how many apps you've developed.

We're working hard to keep the pressure on ourselves to continue innovating and not slow down!
In part 2 of our interview with Ian Marsh, we discuss NimbleBit's recent cloning accusations against Zynga.

Dennis Scimeca is a freelance game journalist and critic from Boston. You can reach him through his blog, follow him on Google+, or drop him a line via Twitter.

Dennis Scimeca is a freelancer from Boston. His weekly video game opinion column, First Person, is published by Village Voice Media. He occasionally blogs at, and can be followed @DennisScimeca.