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360iDev: Interview with keynote speaker David Whatley of Critical Thought Games


David Whatley gave the keynote yesterday at the opening of 360iDev here in San Jose, CA. (a conference for iPhone and iPad developers that is taking place in the first half of this week). He's a developer himself (his company, Critical Thought Games, has released two games (Update: Three -- we forgot geoSpark) in the App Store so far, and he's got plans for more), but he's also become a sort of guru for iPhone devs, giving guidance in terms of how to get noticed and sell apps in the App Store, and on the tactical and motivational fronts as well. Here at 360iDev, he gave a rousing speech about how self-made developers need to put together vision, a commitment, and lots and lots of persistence in order to get their apps just right, and out on Apple's platform.

After the talk (which included anecdotes about Coca Cola founder John Pemberton's original vision to mix wine and cocaine, and how Whatley's own experiences with a pickup artist taught him that it's OK to fail), we got a chance to sit down with Whatley and talk about who iPhone developers are, his plans for the iPad, and his first reaction to last week's iPhone 4.0 announcements.

TUAW: I saw you at GDC as well, and you're really good at talking about this experience of being an iPhone developer, and putting the time into coding and everything. But your background seems to me to be a little different from most iPhone developers. Can you run us through your background really quickly?

David Whatley, Critical Thought Games: I've been in the game development business for 23 years. I have another company, and we make online games -- I've been doing that ever since I founded it. So, when it came time to do the iPhone stuff, it was really just a hobby. I was doing it in my spare time. I didn't intend to make another business out of it, but geoDefense did really well and geoSwarm did really, really, really well, so here we are. So, I brought a lot of experience from the game design and business side to it, but I wasn't really approaching it that way -- I was approaching it as, here's something I'm going to do, strictly in the time I have, weekends, nights, that sort of thing.

This is one of the things, I think, that really separates the iPhone from other types of game development, kind of an individual versus a group thing. When you're working on MMOs, you're with a group of people, but when you're working on iPhone stuff, you're on your own, right?

Yeah the original one was all by myself. And the second one I had some help with the levels and the coding part of it, but everything else was all myself.

Can you talk a little bit about that difference between working on a larger game and working on an iPhone game by yourself?

Well you get to keep more of the money. That's nice. [laughs] But it's temporary, because the next...within a couple months, Critical Thought Games is going to have twenty-odd people. So we'll be back to a big group of people again.

Another thing that strikes me, being at this conference and talking to iPhone developers at GDC, is that the iPhone kind of lends itself to that kind of self-starter developer model. Does it seem to you that the platform fits that model?

Well, the indie can compete with the EAs of the world. That's for sure. You can have a product at the top of the list and knock an EA title off just as easily as another EA title might. I think it's a great leveler of the playing field.

It sounds like a good thing for indie developers. Is it good or bad for the platform, though?

The cream always rises to the top, right? The App Store has 600 trillion games in it, or whatever, and there's a good 100 or 200 good ones, and then there's a handful of totally awesome ones that everyone knows about, the Doodle Jumps of the world. So it shows that the good stuff does rise to the top, and that's what you think about. But you don't disparage it. You don't go well, Doodle Jump's great, but what about all that crap? At worst, all it does it create more noise, and that creates more challenges of discovery for good apps. And there's a lot of people jumping into that space to try to figure out how to get it done. That's what you guys do, right?

Yeah, well that's what we're trying to do. You have this deep background in game design, but it seems like most of the people at this show, and even at GDC, don't necessarily have that. In terms of who you've met, can you describe a typical iPhone developer?

I haven't found a typical thing, it seems to be all over. I was talking to a guy today who was in commercial real estate before this, and he was very successful, managing some buildings, 100% occupied, he told me, and making all this, but he made the jump into the iPhone business, and he was talking about, relative to the speech I gave, how that was a big deal and how it was a big jump. And I said why did you do that, jump into the iPhone business, if that was the case? And I was like, I know why, it's because you weren't doing what you loved. And he goes yup, that's it. I want to make games. His game's doing very well, by the way. It's Zombie Farm.

And that's interesting -- you hear a lot about how much the iPhone has changed the way we use smartphones, but from the other side, it's almost also a revolution in terms of software design. Apple has really opened the door to a completely different group of people.

It seems to have opened it up to a lot of people who otherwise would have never been able to make this leap. Someone like that wouldn't have said, you know, I'm going to leave this high-paying, successful career I have, and I'm going to compete with EA. You couldn't even have imagined it, right? But today you can imagine it, and I'm going to give Apple a lot of credit for that. And yes, it's a captured channel, and there are certain things that go along with being a captured channel. But you know what? Apple's motto was never "Don't be evil." Apple's motto is all about innovating, right? They have, and part of that innovation is creating a culture and an ecosystem that allows independence, and entrepreneurs to really flourish.

You obviously have your own company, Critical Thought Games, and you mentioned that it's growing. What are your plans for the iPad?

Along with Imangi, we are going to be releasing geoSpark in an HD version, or I don't know exactly how it will be branded, but probably like that. But we're going to add some more features to it. I didn't want to rush it right out, I wanted to make sure I had the device in hand, and see how it really plays, because the simulator can only tell you so much.

What kind of features?

I just got the iPad before coming out here, so it's still a little premature. We're all in the same place, this week, we're going to talk through it and figure out what we can do with it.

And when would you expect to have that out?

I figure about two weeks, we'll get it into the App Store approval process, and then however long that takes. It'll depend on what we come up with. I've already done all the work -- the game plays high def, it's very interesting the way it is. But all that screen space begs for more stuff to be going on, so we're going to add some more stuff. And then later on, working on geoDefense 2, which will be an iPhone and an iPad game, but they will be different. The bigger screen space means a completely different level design, so it's not going to just be the same game mechanics, it's going to be all different levels.

Have you thought about pricing?

I haven't really thought about it yet. My games have all come out introduced at 99 cents, and then I raised the price after that introductory period, which is the opposite of what people are doing on the iPad, I notice. They're coming out with these $5 and $7 and $15 things, and then, at some point, they're going to have to lower those prices. One imagines, I don't know. I guess that makes sense -- iPad is for the early adopter right now, and the sales of apps on the iPad, I hear, are meager, because there's not 50 million of them out there yet. There probably will be eventually, but today, even if you have a top 10 game, you're not going to sell the same as you would on a top 10 game on the iPhone. So, I can understand why people have the price higher to compensate for that. So, I assume that, as time goes by, the prices will settle down more like they are on the iPhone, I imagine. Who knows. We'll see what happens.

What do you think about geoSpark HD specifically?

I don't think I'm going to go high on that. You notice Imangi came out with Harbor Master HD for free. So I think we're all on the same page. I think we want to get it in front of as many people as possible, and then we'll figure out monetization as we go.

The other factor in this is brand new, and that's iAds. What do you think about what Apple said last week?

Well, I don't use ads in any of my stuff. I'm not against it or anything. But it'll be interesting to see if that can be made to be a workable model. It's just a personal preference -- I wouldn't want an ad in the middle of my game. Maybe in-between games or something is OK?

Some developers think that ads haven't been a good solution yet because there's not a trustable model, but if you have Apple, there's an official solution.

Why, because you trust Apple?

Do you trust Apple? I don't know.

Well you have to. The only way I know how many units I've sold is what they've told me, right? There's no way to even audit that.

But would an official Apple solution be more enticing to you than the ad solutions you've seen so far?

No, I don't think it was ever that...for me anyway. There were some big players -- there still are. I don't know whether their business model persists after this. It's a little scary for developers, right? To wake up one day and find your entire business model has been usurped by Apple, whether it be the ads base, or the social networking, their Game Center stuff, and all of those guys. That's one of the downsides of captured channel. Or worse, Adobe about to release CS5, and that's just been made verboten. Like, what the hell? I'm a big Apple supporter, but I find that particular practice to have a chilling effect, and it ripples through the ecosystem in a way that I don't think is good for it. There's reasons why they're doing what they're doing, big strategic reasons. But there are also big reasons why the iPhone is so successful that have to be considered in all of this.

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