Exclusive Raptisoft Interview & Solomon’s Keep preview!

Remember that one game I reviewed a while back, Hoggy (gave it a 9.0/10)? Well, sitting with me today (we’re both at our separate computers) is developer of Hoggy, Chuzzle, and various other quailty IPhone games, indie dev John Raptis! We discuss his experience as an IPhone dev, hear some history about his company, and even discuss his upcoming dual-stick epic Solomon’s Keep!
Also, be sure to congratulate him on his newly born daughter!

So, let’s get started:

Me: So, to start off, could you tell me your role in Raptisoft?

John: Raptisoft is more or less a one man show. I usually contract the music, and I occasionally contract some work on the side, but really, it’s more or less one guy, making games.

Me: How did Raptisoft come to form?

John: This is sort of a silly story… back in the 1990’s I was dating a girl (now my wife), and she enjoyed playing this bubble popping game at the local arcade in Ann Arbor. Since I hate leaving the house, I tried to find a PC version of it for her– with no success! So I cracked my knuckles and said “pshaw, I could write something like this for you in a week!” And I did. That was 1997. My level of business acumen was so low that I then… did nothing with it.

Then in the year 2001, a horrible thing happened: I got a mortgage. Thrashing helplessly in this net, I dusted off my old game, quickly re-wrote it, and put it up for sale online. I called it “Eggsucker.” What? It’s a good name. Anyway, I felt so guilty over writing a game that wasn’t entirely original that I priced it at $5.49 (the lowest the e-commerce provider would allow) and I went merrily on my way hoping to make $50-$100/month off it, just to sand the sharp edges off our living expenses.

What followed was shocking… the game sold slowly its first month, but by the second month, it was doubling my income from my day job. I immediately started work on a second game (“Solomon’s Keep,” believe it or not) but then Popcap Games contacted me about publishing Eggsucker. Unreasonably, they wanted to change the name, and I threw a couple of duds at them (“Fossilized,” “Dyno-Pop”) before coming up with “Dynomite.”

Me: How you describe a typical day of development in Raptisoft?

John: 4:30 am, wake up
4:31 am, weigh self
4:31:05 am, day is ruined, hit the computer

I don’t really have typical development days. From what I’ve heard talking to other lone-wolf developers, we’re all manic-depressive. So some days, it’s leap to the computer and do twelve hour’s work in the first hour, and sit on the edge of the seat, creating furiously, all day. Then, the weather changes, and it’s slump at the computer, browsing the web between each compile, arguing with people who are /clearly wrong/ on message boards, and dreading how much work it’s going to be to add in a skeletal dragon that pukes realistic maggots. There’s a little Solomon’s Keep preview for you there too, if you can find it.

But if you really want some idea of what my day is like, read the chapter in “The Princess Bride” where Inigo Montoya’s father is forging the sword for the six-fingered man. There is no better look into the mind of an artist.

Me: What was/were your inspiration(s) for developing Hoggy?

John: Why, Mario Bros, of course! But:

I was chatting with an online friend one day (Steve Verreault at Twilight Games). I’d been doing casual games for too long (and had recently finished the ill-fated and creatively destructive “Boonka”) and I was mentioning to him that I wished I had a nice simple arcade game concept. He said he had an idea that he always wanted to do, but probably wouldn’t get around to it, so I was free to use it. He literally said “You control a little Mario-like guy, except instead of jumping, when you press the button it reverses his gravity.”

Well, this idea exploded in my head in an instant, and I had a prototype the next day, with a little pink slime mold as the main character. As the first week went on, though, the “arcade play” felt a little shallow, so the game did turn out a lot more puzzle driven than it was meant to be. As it started to move away from action and more to puzzle, Steve casually dropped a bomb on me, saying “Hey, you should check out this game “Bound Around,” it’s a little like Hoggy.” So, panicked, I tried it, and no, it’s not *that* much like Hoggy, but it was an idea in the same vein. After playing it, I contacted the guy who wrote it, and we ended up chatting a bit, and lo and behold, he was willing to do some puzzle design for Hoggy. So the Hoggy levels are half mine, half his.

Me: What would you say is the hardest part of developing a game and why?* Favorite part?

John: Oh, that’s easy… the best part of writing a game is the first 2-3 weeks, when you are flush with a new idea and electricity is running through your veins instead of blood. The hardest part is… everything else.

Literally… the core part of every game is a blast. This is the part kids are thinking of when they say they want to be game developers.

But then after that’s done– and that part usually flows so well that it’s literally 2-3 weeks to write the “game” part of a game… then you have to start doing the stuff that’s less fun. Player profiles. Saving the game state. Every little menu interface. Then you show it to friends and they don’t realize that your artistically designed menu button is a menu button. So you redesign that. Some of your friends think the game is too easy. Others think it’s too hard. So for 90% of your game development time, you’re juggling all these plates in pursuit of perfection. And while there’s fun parts in that, it’s also a tremendous creative drain.
So making a game is a lot of fun, and there’s nothing else in life I’d rather be doing. But the surprise is, making a game is work, too. 🙂

Me: We’ve noticed that your company has games in many different categories, are you guys trying to fill a niche in the AppStore, or are you trying to cover a variety of genres?

John: No thought goes into this whatsoever. It’s simply… I feel like writing [fill in the blank] for the next game. I think this has cost me somewhat… people often come away wanting more of the same, and I don’t have anything to offer them. I’m adapting, though… soon I’ll be putting out an iPhone game called Hoggy’s Lost Levels, which will include all the levels that didn’t get put into Hoggy because they seemed too hard. Also, if Solomon’s Keep performs well, I’ll expand that as well.

I’m also at work porting both Hoggy and Solomon’s Keep to Windows/Mac/iPad and give them good features that aren’t possible or are too cramped on the iPhone. For instance, Hoggy for PC/Mac will give users the ability to make their own levels, and share them. And with luck, people will even be able to make and share iPhone levels.

Me: What is your opinion on the Apple IPad? Do you see it as a potential home for your future games?

John: Well, my business handicap makes anything I predict completely worthless. I have one on order, and I plan to port to it, so we’ll see. I’ve killed other devices before by planning to port to them.

Me: If you had to list your top five all-time favorite apps (besides your own), what would they be?

John: On iPhone I tend to lean toward little “time waster” apps. I like Tower Bloxx, Sword of Fargoal, Catcha Mouse 2, Plants vs. Zombies (of course!) and this crazy app called Mazefinger. Anything I can sit down, play a bit, quit, and resume exactly where I left off. I try to make my own iPhone apps capable of that– so that you can shut them down and come back exactly where you were with no fuss. That’s the point of portable, right? At yet a lot of apps don’t seem to want to do that.

For AAA games, I haven’t played too many of late because they seem to be played one, played them all. I still fire up Titan Quest now and again, but the really unusual find I’ve been playing lately is this old game called Dr. Lunatic. From the screenshots, you’d pass this game up… but if you DO download it, I guarantee you’ll be playing it far longer than you ever imagined you would.

And now…Solomon’s Keep!

Me: Could you provide us with a short description of your upcoming game Solomon’s Keep?

John: Solomon’s Keep is a game I’ve been wanting to write for almost ten years. The basic premise is, you’re a young wizard who is about to graduate wizarding college. For your final exam, you have to take down a dark lord in his dark fortress. So the game begins with you and your teachers on a rainy night in the small town of Dead Hawg, and they explain the rules of the exam (they can only help you so much, etc, etc). Then off you go.

It’s not meant to be a sweeping save-the-world adventure. This is just a little chapter in your personal wizarding life.

In gameplay, the game is literally “mini-Diablo.” Diablo is the direct inspiration. You will fight skeletons, you will fight zombies, and you will fight demonic creatures, because that’s what a necromancer has in his personal army. You can buy items to pump skills, and when you level up you’re dealing with a Diablo-like skill tree– except, and this is my personal little touch– it’s randomized. So each game literally *is* a different experience, and sometimes you have to cope with not having your favorite skill. On the other hand, sometimes you’ll end up with a game where everything goes your way, and by the end you’re some sort of demi-god slaying everything left and right. This forces you to be very aware of your play style. If you aren’t getting such and such a skill, you’ll need to make up the lack with magic items. If magic items are plentiful, you can spend money on some of the ‘luxury’ skills that you don’t really need.

It’s also set up so that a person could literally sit down and have a 20-30 minute adventure, start to finish, storming Solomon’s Keep. This is a portable game– it’s not for spending days and days on. I think that’s a problem some of the deeper iPhone dungeon games have had, just too much experience, when players really want to play in small chunks.

Me: By the looks of the video and screenshots, Solomon’s Keep appears to be a dual-stick shooter. We’ve already noticed the awesome Medieval theme, but what else sets it apart from all the other dual-stick shooters in the app-store?

John: You’ll find that Solomon’s Keep has a lot of personality. As you storm the keep, Solomon is constantly yelling at you, taunting you, bugging you with traps or surprises. I wanted to make the final fight personal– by the time you reach the top and face Solomon himself, you’ll be so mad at him that you’ll deliver the killing blow with relish.

Plus, each monster has its own little behavior– these aren’t simply “chase bots” with a different graphic. They force you to play in different ways. I don’t think anyone enjoys “RPG grind” too much, no matter how doggedly they go at it, so I thought it might be possible to make it a little less grind-y. Of course, getting a good, devastating area-effect spell destroys all my careful balancing and you just walk through the dungeon like an avenging angle. 🙂

And, so far as I know, this is the first iPhone game that uses neither 3D graphics, nor a direct overhead perspective. And I had to use a lot of tricks to fit that many character poses into the iPhone’s memory limits! So you get nice looking little 3D guys without the ugly look of low-polygons. It’s a different experience!

Me: So there you have it. John Raptis from Raptisoft! Thanks to John for spending time answering our questions, and you, the reader, for tuning in! Be sure to look out for the upcoming game Solomon’s Keep coming out in the next few days, and also stay tuned to IFanzine for extensive coverage!

On a high note, let’s end with a gameplay vid: