Recently I got the chance to talk with Tom Elliot, Technical Director at MAGiK ArtS. They’re a fairly small company that make apps for mobile initially starting with client work, and have recently just put out their first game SquareFlip.
PixPen: What’s the company ethos then? What does MAGiK ARtS Represent?
Tom: Our take on the market is you get a lot of indie studios, especially at Teesside, coming out rough and ready, “lets do some retro games”, “lets do some hardcore games”. They have a very clear audience, that’s great. They’re some of my favourite kinds of companies, the kind of companies I play games from.
But with MAGiK ARtS we went out and thought “what’s the niche that people aren’t doing at Teesside?”, “what these new business aren’t doing that we can do?”. And we found especially in our first client apps that we could use a very clean elegant, almost minimalistic style.
That resonates well with the more middle aged, the more middle class, the Steve Jobs kind of people of the world. So we aim for clean elegant apps, which are built for functionality and for your need first, for that kind of age range.
PixPen: MAGiK ARtS is a fairly small company at this point. How many people have you got?
Tom: A grand total of two (laughs).
PixPen: What does that bring to the company then?
Tom: Well for starters we can only focus on one given project at a time. Which has its downsides and its benefits. Its downsides are we can’t produce as many projects at a time as we could. The upside is we have excellent communication speed.
So turnover time for iterations is very speedy, and the best part of it we found is that with only having two of us, it’s really easy to set up contact with a client, with testers, with those kind of people, because there are no gears, no cogs.
Some clients we’ve had, we’ve had some really huge people, we’ve talked to big companies, and I can’t say their names unfortunately as those projects are still in development.
But the amount of time it takes to establish communications with these people, because you have to go through their front-line PR, to their local director, then to their managing director, then back down again to get authorisation, and then back up again. It’s ridiculous!
We’re a two-man company and if someone comes and asks a question, a few days we can turn around and say, “okay done!”
PixPen: Your first game, SquareFlip, what is it about?
Tom: It is a memory tile matcher. Designed to help improve your memory and put you in a Zen, relax you. It’s very good for killing time on a lunch time break, that sort of thing, very background, very nice.
PixPen: Why give a relaxing element to it then?
Tom: Our model for SquareFlip was we knew that we couldn’t make the next AAA blockbuster indie title. We gave ourselves a shortened development time, and built specifically for one platform.
So we figured “right, what is within our scope?” Well that’s not really the right question to start with, “lets ask people what they want and then see if we can build something to that scope.” We went out and asked people, we found our demographic of middle aged ladies mostly, although this game applies to everyone. We found that the kind of games they play, Peggle, Bejewelled, Tetris even are all nice Zen, just relax over your break time and we thought “yeah go for it, we could make that.”
PixPen: Do you have plans for future games.
Tom: Yes we do absolutely, I can’t give the full low-down but I can tell you what our immediate plan is project wise. The next app we’re building is a utility app, a car related one, look out for that if you’re the kind of guy who drives a Ferrari. The immediate app after that, we’re hoping to build another game in a similar vein to relax and chill with.
PixPen: Is that the philosophy when you’re designing games for MAGiK ARtS?
Tom: Oh yes, I’ve already spoken about this simple elegant design system that we’re trying to go for and we’ve found the relaxed chilled Zen puzzle games really fit that ethos to a point because they’re all about just being elegant and smooth and feeling nice.
PixPen: So the platform is all iOS devices then?
Tom: We’re currently focused on iOS devices because when we asked our demographic what kind of games they play, they all play them on iPhones, now we are actually looking to port to Android if enough people call for it, but at the moment we’re focusing on iOS.
PixPen: What other considerations do you have to take when developing for that demographic?
Tom: Technical ones, interface, as in from their perspective. We are two fairly technical people. We’re effectively bringing back bedroom programming but in the new age of the apple market, so we get what we’re building.
For a lot of the time, if you’re building a more high-end indie game, a more focused experience, like a platformer or an RPG, you can assume your users understand how it all works. You can’t assume that when you’re building experiences which are supposed to gel into everyday life, because the less that they have to learn to get into your experience, the better.
One of the biggest challenges we found is just making them learn without realising they’re learning, teaching them these surprisingly technical concepts of game mechanics, while at the same time assuming they have no idea how any of these games works. The most you can have expect them to have played is bejewelled, and even that’s a stretch so definitely understand how much the user gets your mechanics, that’s the biggest challenge I’d say.
PixPen: So the game is out?
Tom: Yes it’s out for free, if you’ve got an iOS device for Xmas, if Santa feels so obliged, it’s immediately available for free on the app store.
Ken Wong got his first videogame job from a piece of fan-art he did on the internet.
He created a piece of fan-art for American McGee’s Alice, and got noticed by the game designer who asked him for if he wanted a job. Eventually that led to him being the art-director of the sequel, Alice: Madness Returns.
Most recently, Ken has been working on his own iOS game, Hackycat, which is a game of Hacky Sack except you kick cats in the air.
Hackycat is the first game that Ken Wong has worked on as an independent, solo developer.
He told me: “I have always been more interested in smaller more expressive games, and so when iOS came along, especially the iPad I got into these smaller tightly designed games, so that’s what I was interested in when I started Hackycat
“The barriers for entry are much lower for IOS, you can make a game with just a laptop and with some free software, and with an apple developer account, and that’s a lot easier than making a console game.”
Moving from a big project with a team, to a small indie title working by yourself can be challenging.
“you have to become very self reliant because you’re the only person there, you can’t turn to the programmer and say ‘hey can you fix this, can you work on this for the next couple of days?’ so I had to get used to not having anyone else and that often means taking on the role of producer, QA and handling marketing and all that kind of stuff.
“I was working from home at the same time, so it was really easy to get stuck in your own head. You’re working on the game design and you think it’s fun, but you’re not sure cause you know only you’re playing it yourself, so you need to get out there and have a few people play it and really listen to their feedback.
“It’s kinda hard when you know what you want and they’re just not getting it, they don’t think it’s fun, and that was challenging for me because I think I know what I want but you have to listen to the audience and analyse their feedback.”
Wong also warned those who wish to immediately want to go into indie development: “I do think that I can only do what I’m doing right now as an Indie because I spent many years working with a team of fantastic talented people who I learnt a lot from.
“I think it would be quite hard to do this without my prior experience, so I would say, if you can, work with people more experienced so you can learn for a few years.
“If you’re determined to embark on this indie adventure, listen and learn to the people around you, read as much as you can from people who have done indie games, listen to their advice, learn from their mistakes.
“I think there’s this idea of ‘I’m a game designer and I’m gonna make a game and people will like it’, it’s a more organic process than that, people will give you feedback and you have to respond to that.”
It’s too early for him to tell if it’s a big financial success, but in some ways, he’s already succeeded: “I think for me what I wanted to achieve with this game was complete the project, to make a game by myself and put it out, so I’ve done that and I’m really happy about it, so the next thing is just to see how well it does financially.”