The Joystiq Indie Pitch: Life is Crime

Indie developers are the starving artists of the video-game world, often brilliant and innovative, but also misunderstood, underfunded and more prone to writing free-form poetry on their LiveJournals. We at Joystiq believe no one deserves to starve, and many indie developers are entitled to a fridge full of tasty, fulfilling media coverage, right here. This week, crime bosses Pete Hawley, Mikey Ouye and John Harris of Red Robot Labs take the street to your phone in their location-based, real-world social title, Life is Crime.

What's your game called and what's it about?

Mike Ouye: Our game is called Life Is Crime. It's a free-to-play, social, location-based crime-themed mobile game for Android and iOS. Players commit virtual crimes at real locations, visiting their local bar, coffee shop and bank to perform missions, sell contraband and fight with other players. The more active players are, the more turf they control and the higher their criminal reputation becomes.

How vicious is the crime-app competition on mobile devices, and how do you feel Red Robot Labs is faring?

Mike Ouye: We took a unique approach by launching on Android first, then approaching the iOS market, and so far it has paid off. Life Is Crime has over a million downloads on Android since its launch at PAX West in August 2011. This created momentum so that when it released on the iTunes App Store January 5th, it rose to the number two on the Free Apps list.

Pete Hawley: As for Red Robot Labs, our company has expanded into the UK, joining forces with Supermono, and continues to grow rapidly here in the US. In fact, we're still hiring, so if mobile gaming is your thing you should come work for us!

We're hoping that location, high polish, and innovation will help set us apart.

What are the major differences between developing for iOS and Android?

Mike Ouye: Both offer advantages and differences. We found that Android was harder to standardize on -- there are so many carriers, screen sizes, and handsets. iOS has 2-3 standards that you can adhere and very easily cover the majority of the player-base. However, Android gives you the opportunity to iterate extremely fast. There is no review process, you can publish and push new content as often as you'd like, so in that respect it's easier to move quickly while building a new game.

Both have positives and negatives. Both are great platforms and we'll be working with both for the foreseeable future.

What inspired you to make Life is Crime?

Mike Ouye: We got really excited about merging mobile gameplay with location for Life Is Crime. Smartphones are everywhere. People always have them in their pockets. Adding location was really interesting -- a challenge that required creative solutions because it's so new.

Pete Hawley: Life Is Crime takes the literal places you go and drops a game world on top of the real world, so that wherever you are in real life is relevant to your criminal career. We also felt there is audience of core gamers that has been underserved by the mobile gaming market. Life is Crime fills that void.

What's the coolest aspect of Life is Crime?

Mike Ouye: There are three cool aspects of Life Is Crime:

Landmark gameplay. We create custom graphical landmarks for each geographic area -- Alcatraz for San Francisco, the Empire State building for New York and Big Ben in London. These landmarks show up on the game map even when the player is a long distance away, creating huge hot spots for gameplay. Each of these landmarks has over 1,000 players on each leaderboard vying, fighting and competing for position. It was really interesting to see how players were attracted to well-known locations in the game, and how competitive they got for each one.

The community. We built this game with the intention of making it based wholly on collaboration and competition with other players. To that end, we just implemented our "World Worker" crowdsourcing tool that empowers community members to help build out our gaming world. We want the Life Is Crime community to create a world together, not just play in one, so we are allowing enlisted players to participate in map and venue creation, and to moderate locations. We have seen fierce competition for turf among our players, and we hope this new development will empower our crime community to expand into the nooks, crannies and alleyways of every city.

Location! I realize many apps are location-based these days, but think about it this way: In most RPGs, you form an in-game identity by sitting in front of a PC or TV, and project your imagination onto a screen, so that you feel like you're a different person in a different world. With Life Is Crime, it's location-based, so we're bringing the world into your current reality. We think that it's way cooler to fight, deal contraband, or rob Starbucks, rather than just checking in there.

Anything you'd do differently?

Pete Hawley:
If we had to do it all over again, I think we would put less time into the economy of the game and more into iteration. We spent so much time trying to get the math behind the game perfectly balanced. In the end, we've changed it so many times that it wasn't really worth putting so much time into it pre-launch. A lot of this is listening to the community and iterating, fixing, correcting math and balancing on a game after it has an audience at scale.

Why develop independently, rather than work for an established company?

Mike Ouye:
I'm from Playdom (now Disney), Pete and John have both spent some time at EA (the biggest game company in the world). We've spent time at big companies. We really wanted to take on the challenge and the fun of building a studio and a business from the ground up. As an independent studio, we can move really fast and iterate on product and games even faster.

Do you see yourself as part of a larger indie movement?

Pete Hawley:
We do. I think the current indie movement is real and growing. You don't need three years, 100 people and $20 million to produce a game anymore. With iOS and Android, you're able to create games quickly, efficiently and get them to millions of people. It's an exciting time to be an indie mobile-game creator right now. Tons of opportunity, big audiences and the ability to build a successful business around it.

Sell Life is Crime in one sentence:

Mike Ouye: Why check in when you can fight, steal and deal?

What's next?

Mike Ouye:
Pete and I were on the "Social, Mobile, Location-Based Games" panel at SXSW Interactive and we were part of the Mobile App Showcase at Macworld. In addition to world domination, we are focusing our efforts on Life Is Crime game updates, expanding the R2 platform and looking at new hires around the world.

Life is Crime is available for free (so you don't have to steal it, you fiends) on iOS and Android right now.

If you'd like to have your own shot at converting our readers into fans, email jess [at] joystiq [dawt] com, subject line "The Joystiq Indie Pitch." Still haven't had enough? Check out the Pitch archives.