With the fast finger-tapping cargo hauler Sky Babes vs. Fly Boys launching for the iPhone and iPod Touch, plus having three more iPhone games in the works, A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. Games is finding that it’s rather enjoying the life of an indie developer. We talk to them about keeping staff flexible (but fully retained) in the current economy, how the idea for Sky Babes evolved from slow-moving sim to twitch-based arcade, and how Alien Assault, their next game, will be completely different.
Please introduce yourself and clue our readers into where you're working now as well as your background in the video game industry.
Hi, I'm Funky Swadling, one of the principals of A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. Games. My business partner Jesse Joudrey and I set up A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. in 2004, because we believed professional game development didn't need to be limited to multi-million dollar projects with teams of 100+ people. Our many years at EA Sports as programmers taught us two things: how to make multi-platform games on time and on budget, and that the smaller and more dedicated the team you work with, the better the game turns out to be. We started small, going from the two of us working in my apartment on an idea for a PSP game through to a signed contract with Capcom to develop an XBLA and PSN game called Rocketmen: Axis of Evil (a new version of our original game idea) with a team of a dozen people -- no longer in my apartment, fortunately! Since then we've worked closely with Capcom and Sony on a variety of downloadable and sports products. We've grown to a team of 18 people now -- a combination of new talent (some of whom have been with us for 5 years and barely count as new), and industry veterans. Joe Bonar and Jesse Roberts, previously of EA and Backbone, complete our management partnership.
Okay, probably a too-frequent question, Funky, but we have to ask: What’s the acronym stand for in A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. Games?
Nobody's ever asked that before! Hmm. Since you're not cleared for the actual answer, how about "Association of Creative Individuals Who Don't Care What Letters in Acronyms Stand For"?
Fair enough. But the company name would have to change to A.C.I.W.D.C.W.L.A.S.F Games…until you changed the meaning again. After forming, you developed the PS2 version of NBA ’08, and the dual-stick shooter Rocketmen for XBLA and PSN, as you mentioned. But the iPhone looks like it just might introduce a new era for you guys. Are you currently firing on all cylinders for this fledgling platform?
iPhone is definitely a new phase in A.C.R.O.N.Y.M.'s development. We have always prided ourselves on making fun games with small teams, and iPhone takes that to a new extreme. Recently, we temporarily found ourselves with more people than work for them to do -- it takes time to sign new console business, especially in these economic times. Rather than laying off staff, as many in our industry have been forced to do recently, we decided to take a chance on self-funded iPhone development with our existing staff. People who weren't working on our console games were moved around to quickly develop iPhone games. As a company, we brainstormed and came up with dozens of ideas for iPhone games that were both fun-sounding and quick to implement. The quick to implement part is very important. When you're self-funding games, you don't want ten people to spend a year on a game before you know if it's any good. Our employees share in the profits made by our iPhone games, so everyone is motivated to keep within scope.
We started experimental development on seven of the ideas, and within a week or two realized that three of them were out-of-scope, so they were put
back in the pile of ideas. Possibly they'll be implemented in our second round of iPhone games, but they've got stiff competition from some other ideas we brainstormed. The remaining four moved into full production. Our team is extremely flexible, so the staff working on any given game changes as games are in development. Need a tileset to make levels with for one game this week? Let's get five artists on that task. Once they're done, we can keep two of them polishing that art while the other three move onto two other games in need of GUI work. The same principle applies to programming and design.
Working on these games has been incredibly rewarding. In around six weeks to two months, we can get a game from idea to finished product. It's very liberating, especially for those who have worked on games that take a year or longer to produce. With so much flexibility, everyone has a chance to try out new things. It's exactly what we had designed A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. to be. iPhone is not the only focus of our business, but it's a great thing to have going on in parallel with more mainstream console development.So Sky Babes vs. Fly Boys made the final cut. How did this vision for a frantically-paced cargo-hauling arcade come about?
Sky Babes vs Fly Boys was born from a fusion of two ideas. We had been working on a prototype for another game for PSN, X360 and iPhone that involved detailed 3D planetary rendering. Separately, I had been thinking (for several years now) of a slow paced strategy/adventure game based on running a delivery service. One night the idea came to me to take that game concept, strip away everything that was slow and adventurey, and turn it into a twitch arcade game. That weekend I wrote a 2D mouse-controlled prototype on the PC -- it was ugly (I am not a graphics programmer by any stretch), but it was fun. I brought it in to the office the next day and people liked it. Jesse had the idea of combining its gameplay with the 3D planetary renderer and making a globe-based delivery game. Once we presented the idea to the company, the team built out the rest of the game, adding GUI, characters, airplane designs, level concepts, voice over, etc.
Lightning strikes. Sky Babes employs an admittedly addictive little gaming mechanic of rushing cargo from point A to point B at major airports across the globe. It couldn’t be much simpler, and that’s a fair compliment. What were some ideas that fell to the cutting room floor as you were trimming all the fat?
The game is extremely simple. It's a one-concept idea, which means we have to really nail that one concept. Because we kept that in mind from the beginning, we didn't get too out of scope during development. Our process was to take the game, make sure it was fun, then add as little as possible to stop it from being fun. Examples of non-fun gameplay were: forcing the user to zoom the map, causing the planes to pause as they took off and landed, a mechanic where the game lasted three rounds with the lowest scoring player being eliminated each round, and custom "personalities" to the AI types (which sounds like a good idea on paper, but isn't actually noticeable, and just extends development and tuning time).
Too many companies edit only due to time and money constraints, but it certainly takes more than that. Alien Assault is another iPhone game “coming soon” from you guys. Is Sky Babes something of a prototype for what you want to accomplish in Alien Assault?
As our first game, Sky Babes got our cross-platform technology up and running on the iPhone. What we do with that technology depends on the game.
Alien Assault is the second of the A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. Games' first crop of four games. Its concept is completely different from Sky Babes, as are our third and fourth games. Where Sky Babes is a twitch and click 3D game with some basic strategy, Alien Assault is a tilt game with a beat-the-clock mechanic and a ton of levels with a fun 2D art style. Our third game is a turn based strategy game, and our fourth game is something so freakin' cool we're keeping it tightly under wraps until it's perfected.
Sure, we could have made all of our games different version of Sky Babes -- it would be a lot easier, but probably a lot less fulfilling. To give you an example, at a larger studio, you can find yourself sequeling the same game year after year. Now at A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. I get to work on a delivery iPhone game one week, a strategy iPhone game the next week, and then put in six months on a brand new downloadable console game. That kind of variety really keeps the creative juices flowing.
In addition, while we think Sky Babes vs. Fly Boys is truly awesome, we don't want to put all of our eggs into one basket. What if the iPhone community has spent all this time waiting for a game exactly like Alien Assault? We'd be foolish not to try to get multiple game types out there, and see what people like.
We must be forgetting something. What’s something you want to tell us that we didn’t ask?
It's very refreshing to hear feedback from our players, and be able to act on it so quickly. Some people thought the gameplay in the first two levels was too simplistic, because your planes can only hold one package at a time. So, we've fixed that, and added a more arcadey scoring method with a combo multiplier that you build up from chaining your deliveries together. That update should be out in early April. Being able to turn around and make the game better after it has shipped is another huge benefit of making small games on iPhone.
I also want to let you know how much fun we had making Sky Babes vs Fly Boys. From the silly conversations about what to call it (other working titles were "Sky Babies", "Crate Expectations", "In Cargo We Trust" and "Sky Babes vs. Air Males"), to our recording session where the staff improvised and voice-acted the quips and taunts that the pilot characters use (you should hear the outtakes!), the whole process was one of the most joyful I've experienced in my 14 years in the games industry.
Thanks again to Daniel “Funky” Swadling, CEO of A.C.R.O.N.Y.M. Games, for getting us up to speed on this tight, family-oriented team. If their maiden iPhone voyage is any indication, there are more good things to come from them. Look for our review of Sky Babes vs. Fly Boys for the proof in the pudding. Also, special thanks to Eric Walter and Hillary Lyons for setting up the interview.