Smash The Block Interview with Spilt Milk's Andrew Smith
We discuss crowd-funding and development with the co-creator of Hard Lines.
At last week's Rezzed PC and Indie gaming event in Brighton, England, we spoke to Andrew Smith of Spilt Milk Studios. Andrew co-created last year's smash-hit game Hard Lines with Nicoll Hunt, and he's now hard at work finishing Smash The Block, a new title that plays on the classic Arkanoid brick-smashing gameplay.
Can you tell us a little bit about how Smash the Block came to be developed?
It's kind of a product of circumstance. We're still a very, very small company, it's just me working on multiple projects and it's one of those things that are small scale, fun to make. It's very easy to lose momentum with this style of development.
It's also something that suits mobiles. It's fun for us to riff on classic old games, and people do a really naff job of updating the official ones a lot of the time, and so we thought 'Hang on, Arkanoid/ Breakout, it's a popular game, people still know it', and that's one less thing you have to worry about selling them on, to make the jump to buying it. I sat down, scribbled some ideas out, and thought there's probably some mileage in this.
How long have you been working on it for?
Since just before Christmas. I'm on it pretty much full-time, but the coder I'm working with on it is part-time, and we work with an audio guy and the artist as well, just as and when. It's quite relaxed, it's not how I want things to be going on forever, but it works absolutely fine for now.
Have you worked with those people before?
I've worked with the musician before and the artist.
Did they work on Hard Lines?
No, we worked on a couple of pitch videos and things like that, other projects, and I've worked with the artist, he used to be in the games industry. He's pushing more towards comics but could do with the money so that was good! The coder I hadn't worked with, I met him through Twitter. He's based in Brighton actually, and I was looking for someone to work with on a small scale thing, and he was looking for a bit of iOS experience, so that sounded like maybe we could work this out.
It's amazing to hear, and I've heard it from many other show attendees, just how many people have come together accidentally through Twitter.
It's a phenomenal tool. I wouldn't have achieved half of what I have without Twitter. It's genuinely been completely invaluable. If they started charging for it, I'd buy a subscription straight away!
They probably will one day!
So at what stage of development is the game at now?
It's probably about 90% content complete, but there are still a few underlying systems. We've just added the first pass on achievements, things like that. We've got a framework for the in-game shop and the currency and things like that. But there's a lot of work just under the hood to do for that stuff.
How does the in-app purchase system work in Smash The Block?
We're planning the game to be free when it comes out, and you can earn in-game currency, but one of the things we learned from other people's mistakes, and what we did with Hard Lines, is that people just understandably hate the idea that they're being locked out from things.
No $50,000 chisels?
[Laughs] No, exactly! We're just not going to do any content that you can't play and earn, and that's a sensible thing because that means we make it fun to earn it, and if people want to skip it, then they give a bit of cash and that's fine.
How do you feel about getting that balance right? There are games like Frisbee Forever where you could go and buy coins, but the game is so much fun to play that you're just happy to keep playing and earn rewards. Is that pretty much the route you want to take?
That's the route, yeah. It's kind of the natural thing as well because I've come from a more traditional development background. I just want to make the structure of unlocking cool stuff fun in itself, and then you just add an option to skip that. It's purely the time [saving] if they want it, you don't push it in people's faces.
Is it harder to sell a paid-for app, harder to stand-out do you think?
It's an interesting one, I'm not really sure. I've heard, and this will be the first one we launch free assuming that it all goes according to plan, I've heard from some developers that maybe some outlets aren't quite as interested in free stuff because it's free, and because there's so much of it.
We're going to go to Android as well, and various platform holders have different stances on whether free is good, or a preview's better, or whatever. So, it'll be an interesting one. I don't know how it's going to work, but I would assume that if it's a good game and it reviews well, it's going to find a market.
[B]Have you got any concerns about piracy on Android? Do you have any hesitation? Miles Jacobson [boss of Sports Interactive, publishers of Football Manager] has probably been the most high-profile person to speak out against it.[/B]
I don't know. I'm not very convinced that on Android, and frankly any pirated medium, that they're lost customers. I think the majority of it is opportunistic. If someone sees that they can get this game for free, or circumvent paying, it's not like they ever wouldhave paid.
I don't think that if you introduce a system where they couldn't circumvent it that they'd ever pay you anything. So actually, if you think about it like that then they're just another person who might say to a friend who isn't a pirate that this is a good game.
It's tricky, I can understand people's ire, and maybe it is different in the more core markets like PC and consoles.
You've just started up a fund-raising campaign on Indiegogo. Why start that up at this stage of development?
That's a good question! It's basically this. The way that we're working, and this includes myself, we won't get paid until the game starts making money, and it's a revenue share thing. That's one of the facts, and so while that's fine, and we've all signed things that say that's fine, it'd be really nice if we could get a bit of money to the guys.
So we've got the target, and if we get under the target I'll be the first to drop out of the equation of the shares, and I'll split it between the guys. If we get the target, it isn't a lot, it's like GBP10,000, and it's slightly higher than what we need because of the expenses that Indiegogo takes, but if we hit the target then we all get paid everything we're owed which is great.
Then, sales and stuff means bonuses which is cool. And then if we go further then we can look at porting more quickly, more efficiently, into more platforms, so more people get to play the game.
I'd be lying if I said it wasn't good PR as well! It's helped to get the name out there. We've been talking about it for a long time, it's kind of an experiment. If there's a backlash against it because it's not strictly like the traditional crowd-funding thing of funding the whole project, then maybe we'll learn from that. I don't think anyone's really tried anything similar. I think Thomas Was Alone did something like it for PC.
I was going to say that crowd-funding is typically used to allow developers to put more content into a game, but then I suppose there's an argument that says if people are getting paid then there is more opportunity to put more into the game.
Exactly, it would be hard to avoid that. I think we're avoiding the worry that people may associate with some other crowd-funded game of 'Well is it going to come out?' What if you make the money but then you can't do the content? Well, actually, we've said it's not going to change the content, we've been honest, and it's going to ship, and it's going to be fun, and it's going to be the same game.
What you're doing [by contributing] is you're essentially removing a weight from our lives, and then hopefully if it takes off we'll be able to push it out to Windows phone and all that kind of stuff.
Do you think there's a bubble around Kickstarter and crowd-funding in general? You wonder whether this is going to be great until someone brings out a dreadful game. I hate the term 'entitled gamer' because you shouldn't do-down gamer passion, but there are potentially choppy waters ahead.
It could be. That's another reason we've chosen what we've done, to avoid that sort of iffiness. But I think there's going to be a lot of interest in how the successful big ones do when they actually come out, how they're received. I wouldn't like to be in that position.
From the point of view of covering these things,I think inevitably, sooner or later, something bad is probably going to happen.
Absolutely, and it might be to the guys at Double Fine, it might be the guys doing Wasteland, or whatever.
I've lost track of how many there are!
I know, it's crazy! The people who've given them the money are so passionate about it which is great, but then how do you manage those expectations? That's scary.
Especially where you feel you own a bit of that end-product?
Yeah, "This isn't how I thought it would be, I want my money back". It's going to be interesting.