Game Dev Stories: Tin Man Games

Melbourne two-man studio Tin Man Games is about to launch the eighth in its series of gamebook adventures — and its first science-fiction title — Infinite Universe. Coder Ben Britten Smith tells us about the crazy ride so far.

Melbourne two-man studio Tin Man Games is about to launch the eighth in its series of gamebook adventures — and its first science-fiction title — Infinite Universe. Coder Ben Britten Smith tells us about the crazy ride so far.

(Credit: Tin Man Games)

Can you tell us a bit about the background of Tin Man Games? Who are you, and how did you get started? What led you to mobile gaming?

Tin Man Games was founded by Neil Rennison in early 2009 specifically to take advantage of the new mobile platforms. I came on in late 2009 when Neil had to find a new coder for the then embryonic Gamebook Adventures series. Both Neil and I are passionate gamers and lovers of the classic Choose-your-own-adventure/Fighting Fantasy-style printed gamebooks that we grew up with. Our goal has been to revive the gamebook genre on the new digital platforms.

Ben Britten Smith (left) and Neil Rennison (right). (Credit: Tin Man Games)

We were originally drawn to the mobile devices mostly because, before the Apple App store, there were very few options for indie game devs to get their games distributed. Without this lower barrier of entry to the industry, Tin Man Games would probably not exist.

Can you explain a little bit about the process involved in making Gamebook Adventures? How long does it take? Who writes them? How does the gameplay work?

Over the years that we have been doing this, our process for creating a gamebook has been honed and changed quite a bit since our first book (An Assassin in Orlandes). These days, the way it generally works is that we either approach a gamebook author, or they approach us, and we go through a proposal process. We go back and forth hashing out a handful of ideas for a gamebook until we find one that we think is compelling and the author is excited about writing. Once a book is green-lit, the author goes off and starts writing. At the same time, we start looking around for an illustrator whose style fits the feel of the gamebook being created. We have a handful of really talented artists that we use over and over again, but we are also always on the lookout for new and talented illustrators who can lend their unique style to the gamebooks. We try to make sure that each adventure has its own unique voice and feel, we spend a great deal of time making sure that the art styles are compatible with the writing styles and the overall tone of the narrative.

Once the writing and the art are moving forward, we focus on the user interface of the gamebook. Just like the images and the writing, we try to create the user interface elements so that they enhance the tone of the story and help keep the readers immersed in the story. Each little chunk of pixels on the interface is crafted specifically for each book to keep that immersive experience as seamless as possible.

Once all the words, illustrations and interface bits are done, we can assemble to game and actually play it. This is when we start testing. Testing a gamebook is a surprisingly complicated process. We need to make sure that not only does every path you take feel like a compelling narrative, but we also have to make sure that all of the technical pieces of logic work together. We have to make sure that clue you picked up early in the book that changes the way the story unfolds later actually does what it is meant to do, and that the skill checks feel fair and that the combat is balanced and fun. Only after we are sure that it is as good as we can possibly make it do we then release it to the readers.

In terms of the length of time it takes to put all the pieces together? It depends on the book really. Some writers and artists are faster than others. However, our rule of thumb, once all the assets are in place is usually about six weeks to work out all the kinks and make sure the book is as good as it can be.

The gameplay in a Gamebook Adventure is pretty close to the original printed gamebooks. We tried to ride the fine line of keeping all of the stuff that we really loved from the classic game experience and throw away all of the stuff that we didn't like, or that was unnecessary on a digital platform.

(Credit: Tin Man Games)

At their core, all of our gamebooks are compelling adventure stories where you get to choose how the adventure unfolds. Every section of the narrative concludes with choices that you have to make. The choices you make will alter the story, taking you down new paths and giving you new choices.

Occasionally you will be presented with a situation that needs to be resolved with some dice rolling. The gamebook engine lets you throw 3D physics-based dice that roll and bounce as if you were tossing them on a tabletop. Roll the dice to resolve combat by pitting your character against a myriad of enemies. Roll the dice to see if you were able to leap the gaping chasm, or pick the shopkeep's pockets. Roll the dice to see if you won a bet, or caught the plague?

Did you take a wrong turn? Or make some bad dice rolls? Then hopefully you put in a bookmark so that you can go back and try again!

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Playing a gamebook adventure is similar to a tabletop RPG experience, only you can have that story-heavy role-playing adventure while you are on the train on your way to work, or while in bed after a long day. You can get that tabletop experience when you can't get your gaming group together.

Tell us a bit about your latest release, Infinite Universe. What's the story premise, and what does the player/reader do?

We are pretty excited about Infinite Universe, because it will be our first science-fiction gamebook, and the first gamebook that is free to download. Our other gamebooks have followed the traditional sales model of pay-some-money-and-get-the-game. With Infinite Universe, we are going to release the first chunk of the story for free and let people get into it first and see if they like it, then they will be able to unlock each new section as they go along or just unlock the whole thing in one go. We are hoping that this will let people who may have been a bit deterred by the price of our games but have been curious about our gamebooks to really be able to get stuck into a really great story without having to pay anything up front.

In the fourth millennium, the Mandellian Empire of the Tau Ceti system is at war with the rebel army known as DWORF. And lucky you have been chosen for a dangerous solo mission to kill or capture the rebel leader, through mind-bending loops of time and space. But wait a minute. Just who are you anyway? And how did you even get here? Such secrets you must uncover if you are to unlock your destiny...

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There's massive competition in the mobile gaming market. What do you think your titles offer that other games do not?

(Credit: Tin Man Games)

One thing that we do is try to service a pretty narrow niche. We decided early on that we were going to try and avoid the hit-driven end of the industry and just focus on making a high-quality game experience that a small but loyal band of players would be willing to support.

Instead of trying to make a bunch of money with a big splash that fades away, instead we are focusing on making a stable of high-quality games that people will want to come back to over and over again, and will tell their friends about. Most mobile games have a huge sales spike in the first few weeks. There are all these crazy schemes to try and drive traffic to your game during this narrow window of opportunity. Once that window is closed, the sales plummet and the game devs abandon that game and try to repeat that process over and over again. We think that this hit-driven design philosophy tends to produce very disposable games. It is fun for a very short while, but the pleasure fades quickly and you move onto the next thing right away. I enjoy playing these games, but I don't even remember them a week or two later. Think back to the last 12 months, how many can you name? Angry birds, Fruit Ninja, sure. But I have played dozens and dozens of these games and I remember hardly any of them. Don't get me wrong, I love these games, and I love that I can get a quick fix of fun from them, but that isn't what we are after here at Tin Man Games.

Our strategy flips this on its head. We are not trying to squeeze out every last bit of revenue in a short window. Instead of a quick, shallow experience, we are trying to create deep compelling adventures that stick with you. We want people to collect our games and get excited when the next instalments are released.

Most mobile games are a quick snack. Ours are more of a fine-dining experience. This is definitely a harder sell on the app store, but we love what we do and are in it for the long run.

What is the biggest challenge in creating gamebook adventures? How do you overcome it?

Like most indies, our biggest challenge at the moment is simply finding enough resources and money to create everything that we want.

There are only two full-time employees of Tin Man Games, Neil and myself. Because we are in a niche market, the sales are not huge or impressive. We make enough to get by and make more games, but, from a business perspective, we probably spend way too much time with each book, as they tend to cost us almost as much to make as we make on them in sales.

(Credit: Tin Man Games)

Our focus is always on how we can streamline our creation pipeline without losing the handcrafted quality and feel that we give to each book. At the moment, we have a pretty huge backlog of projects and books that are in the process of being created, and we are just trying our best to make them all as fast as we can without sacrificing anything.

What do you think is the essential ingredient in a truly awesome mobile game?

Your games need to have an audience, and you need to know exactly who those people are and what they want. Most indies will try and make a game without first thinking about who is going to be playing it. Both Neil and I have had that experience before Gamebook Adventures. In order to have an awesome game, you need to know who it is that you are making the game for, and what they think is going to be awesome.

Our fans tend to think that our games are pretty awesome because we tailor the games to their tastes. Obviously our games don't appeal to everyone, but no game appeals to everyone, so game devs need to find their audience and make sure that the game they are making really appeals to that segment of the market.

What is the best thing about working in mobile gaming development? What is the worst?

There are so many great things about mobile game dev, from the freedom of being an indie to the excitement of new hardware and new capabilities that the hardware companies are releasing all the time.

(Credit: Tin Man Games)

However, I think the best thing is that we can be very close to our players. The mobile market feels like a much more intimate relationship with the players. When we go to PAX or GDC and meet with the people who actually play the games, that is so rewarding. People come up and tell us what they like and what they don't like and we can have a chat with them and it doesn't feel weird. We have email chats with our players all the time. It is more like we are just a bunch of friends instead of a company that makes games for some faceless demographic. You just don't get that with the big console and PC games.

The worst thing is probably as indies (or any small business really) is that we have to wear all the hats of a functioning business. While we would love to just focus on the things that we do best (ie, making games), instead we have to split our focus and do things like marketing and accounting and all of those things you have to do to keep a business afloat. Sometimes you just wish you were working for some big studio and you could just focus on making sure your piece of the game is as great as it can be, but instead you have to do a hundred other things that have nothing at all to do with creating a compelling game experience. This can be very frustrating.

What advice would you offer aspiring devs looking to set up their own mobile game studio?

Make as many games as you can as fast as you can. Creating games is like any other set of skills, it takes time to get good at it. We hear these stories about games like Angry Birds or Minecraft from companies that most people had never heard of before, and this mythology springs up that these people are overnight success stories; when, in reality, Rovio (makers of Angry Birds) had released something like 60-plus games before Angry Birds. Notch (the creator of Minecraft) worked as a game dev for years, and built a heap of little games before creating Minecraft.

So my advice to newly formed start-ups is to start getting those years of experience under your belt as fast as you can. Create lots of small but complete (and fun!) games and learn from each one you create. Don't expect to sell a million copies of the first game you make. After you do this for a few years, all of a sudden you won't be a start-up game studio anymore, but you will just be a game studio and you will have a portfolio of games and you will be able to take on bigger and bigger projects.

What's next for Tin Man Games?

Well, we announced a new Judge Dredd gamebook late last year, and getting that finished is our main focus right now.

We are also re-releasing our existing books in multiple languages, starting with An Assassin in Orlandes in French and then Italian. Those should start rolling out in the next few weeks, and we are going to try to get the rest translated as quickly as we can.

When we go to events like PAX, we get tons of feedback from our readers, and one of the biggest requests is for more female-targeted content, and we have an exiting new series of gamebooks being written right now that is aimed squarely at that demographic.

We also have a heap of upcoming new titles that are in development that span all genres from fantasy, sci-fi, steampunk, horror, romance and even some kids titles!

There are also some really big exciting deals happening right now that I can't talk about, so follow us on Twitter or the blog, and keep your eyes out for some announcements in the coming months!

It is a pretty exciting time here at Tin Man Games!

Infinite Universe will launch on Tuesday, 28 February 2012 (free). Meanwhile, you can check out the rest of Tin Man Games' titles here.

 

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