Gears developer explains what it takes to be billed “Game of the Week” by Apple

May 19, 2011

Corey Redlien is a developer who creates his own luck. With a sensibility that appeals to both hardcore and casual gamers alike, Redlien (in concert with Crescent Moon Games) created the ever-addictive game Gears. A casual marble rolling game with just enough “meat on its bones” to reach players looking for a challenge, Gears rose […]

Corey Redlien is a developer who creates his own luck. With a sensibility that appeals to both hardcore and casual gamers alike, Redlien (in concert with Crescent Moon Games) created the ever-addictive game Gears.

A casual marble rolling game with just enough “meat on its bones” to reach players looking for a challenge, Gears rose earlier this year to become a top-selling iPad app in the iTunes App Store and was named by Apple as a “Game of the Week”.

In this edition of Game Theory Redlein shares how Gears transformed from an entirely different concept to the game you play today, how to appeal to multiple demographics, and why the ubiquity of Android-based devices is scaring away many developers from creating titles for what would otherwise be a very lucrative platform.

“I really, really have no interest in buying several $600+ off-contract phones to test on,” he explains.

Read on.

Appolicious: Describe the combination of creative development, marketing and luck that can help an app like Gears rise to become at one time the top-selling iPad app in the iTunes App Store.

Corey Redlien: With over 300K competitors on the App Store, it helps to have a unique concept with great gameplay and visuals.  When I started work on Gears, it was a very, very different concept than the final product.  It was something fun, but it wasn’t anything really all that interesting. It basically looked and played like your standard ball-roller, albeit one with a somewhat interesting concept.  Many iterations later though, Gears as we see it today started to emerge and I knew it could be something more fun and unique.

Fortunately, it was about this time that Crescent Moon Games came along and offered to help with the visuals, and from there, we were able to really blow out the concept to something fully-realized and awesome.

I feel there’s a certain amount of luck to any success, but as a developer you have to make as much of your own luck as possible. Gears was the result of a very large effort over the span of many months, many late nights and generally just a lot of hard work from the interesting and fun parts of level design to the boring “code grinding” work. The quality that that effort resulted in is what helped us get the attention of Apple, got us Game of the Week, and was the primary factor in our success. n between getting the art perfect, Crescent Moon Games also worked tirelessly to get Gears coverage in the press to give the game every chance it could to succeed. Ultimately, what “luck” we did have was really the result of a lot of hard work over a long period of time to get to where we were.

APPO: When developing Gears, did you have a particular target audience in mind?

CR: Yes. Gears was intended for a player who wanted a casual game, but one that had a bit more “meat to its bones.”

Personally, I find most casual games are usually too one-dimensional; with simple play mechanics that keeps getting used and over used in the same general situations. For Gears, I wanted to keep that same “simple play mechanics” but expand the situations in which you would use those mechanics. That meant having more intricate level designs that made you pay more attention and “think before you jumped.”

APPO: What are the challenges of developing a game that appeals to casual and hardcore gamers alike?

CR: Many! In my opinion, casual users are interested in a game with quick pickup and play that they don’t need to invest much energy or thought into. It’s a quick, fun diversion. A more hardcore game is one that demands greater attention and focus from the user. Ultimately, I feel Gears leans a bit more towards the hardcore gamer then the casual, however I tried to not completely lose the casual gamer.

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For instance, many of the levels have at least 2 ways you can play them; one is a straightforward path that’s relatively simplistic and can be accomplished fairly quickly, and the other is a branched path that is harder and more complicated. The casual user who’s not really interested in getting the absolute highest score on Game Center can take the easy path with no timer on and just have fun with it, while the more hardcore user who likes the challenge can take the more intense paths with a timer on.

APPO: Explain how you took advantage of the iPad 2’s superior speed, graphics and capabilities.

CR: The iPad 2 came about towards the end of the development cycle for Gears, and we knew instantly that we needed to support its capabilities. Generally speaking though, we didn’t have to make too many design changes, but we bumped up the graphics to 11. We had a lot of fun experimenting with the capabilities of the iPad 2, and started putting back in all the graphic elements we had originally taken out because of performance issues on the existing devices. You can really see the difference that the iPad 2 brings to the table when you run Gears’ high-quality graphics setting on an iPhone 4 or iPad 1. The game is choppy and slow with many performance issues on those older devices, however on the iPad2 is just flows.

APPO: It is a guessing game as to when Apple will come out with its next iPhone.  As a developer, before new iOS devices become official and you get your hands on them and/or access emulators, how can you best anticipate and prepare for the cutting edge technology that Apple unveils?

CR: As a developer, I look forward to a new iOS device not just because of what new capabilities and performance it will bring, but also because it usually means a “sunsetting” of a new set of older devices. One of our biggest challenges was making sure that the game would run and perform well on the last 2 generations well, including the iPhone 3GS and iPod 3. Unfortunately, below that level the game doesn’t perform as well due to memory constraints and other technical issues. We try and communicate this issue with users, strongly suggesting that they do not run the game on anything older then a 3rd gen device. However, many users are still using iPod/iPhone 2nd and 1st gen devices.

Fortunately, this number is getting smaller and smaller with each new device cycle. To create really exciting games and applications, developers need the freedom to start cutting loose from the very old devices whose performance is nowhere near acceptable anymore, and new devices help with that progression.

APPO: Is there typically enough lead time between when Apple announces a new device and when you need to have fresh titles and updates available to download?

CR: No, not usually. However, I would also suggest that in some regards it’s irrelevant. Any product I’ve ever been involved in and/or worked directly on is something that takes months to complete and will target both the latest tech and at least 1 or 2 generations before it.  New device uptake doesn’t happen overnight, and you’ll end up creating a better product if you focus more on making an amazing product that a lot of people can enjoy, regardless of whether or not it hits all the right “technical notes” of the latest and greatest.

APPO: Do you develop games for Android or other mobile platforms? From your vantage point, how does Android as a gaming development platform compare to iOS?

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CR: So far just iOS. I have done quite a bit of research into Android. From a pure development and business standpoint, Android is not much different than iOS. It has different languages, different ways of doing things, but ultimately it does the same general thing. Android also has a large user base that trends demographically younger and I feel most of the games I would make, including Gears, would be one that’s well received on Android.

From a game maker perspective, Android presents a lot of potential challenges so far. Gears in particular, and the types of games that interest me in general, are intense “big” games that need to be finely-tuned to their hardware. Gears was tuned to death to get the best balance of graphics and performance out of it on the iOS devices we support.  This basically amounted to 4 devices:  iPhone/iPod 4, iPhone 3GS/iPod 3G, iPad 1 and iPad 2. This allowed us to make sure that everyone on those platforms had a good experience relatively painlessly.

With Android you have a much, much greater variety of devices to worry about, many with different performance and device characteristics, from speed and graphics capabilities to simple things like touch-screen responsiveness and screen size. Doing actual development for Android isn’t terribly complicated or difficult, testing for, and having to QA and certify many, many different devices will be a significant challenge that adds a lot of roadblocks to developing large horsepower-intensive games.  If there’s one giant issue I’ve already run into, it’s actually procuring devices to test with. There is no clear “iPod Touch” of the Android world that can be a good, generic and inexpensive stand-in for a broad set of high-performance Android phones. I really, really have no interest in buying several $600+ off-contract phones to test on.

From a consumer level, my head is still spinning trying to figure out what the differences are between the many different “Droid” models, for example. What makes each of the many different HTC models unique, and the differences between the slew of other devices being made by other manufacturers? If I were to go to the AT&T store and pick up a new Android phone, is it really the “best one” they have?  Everyone’s opinion of what’s “best” is going to be different and device manufacturers seem to create devices that have one or two “best” features as their focus (screen size, 4G, etc.), but leave the other features to be at or below par. As a consumer, it’s a frustrating shopping experience.  As a developer, it adds a lot more to the complexity of developing and releasing your product. (and I haven’t even gotten into the “which app store is best…” discussion.)

In contrast, Apple provides a very clear answer to consumers and developers on what to buy and what to develop for. Each year, they produce a newer, better model that’s standardized for that year. There’s no question to a consumer what type of device they have and if it’s better or worse then last year’s model, and no question to the developer what features those devices support. Also, if the developer doesn’t wish to pick up the new phone (with contract or at full price) to develop/test with, the developer can pick up the iPod version for a lot less and get right into developing and/or provide several of them to testers for QA purposes.

APPO: What is the next project you are working on, and when will we be able to tap into it?

CR: Still under wraps 🙂  I’ll just say that what interests me are games and apps that present something really unique and take advantage of being on a very personal and mobile touch-screen device.

Here’s our recent video review that showcases the game’s appeal.

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Brad Spirrison

Brad Spirrison is the managing editor of appoLearning and Appolicious Inc. In this capacity, he has sampled and evaluated thousands of iOS and Android applications. He also holds an M.A. in Education and Media Ecology from New York University.

Spirrison worked in concert with appoLearning Expert and Instructional Technology Specialist Leslie Morris while curating and evaluating educational applications.

A longtime media and technology commentator and executive, Spirrison is also a regular contributor to ABC News, The Huffington Post, TechCrunch, Bloomberg West and The Christopher Gabriel Program.

Spirrison is married and lives with his wife and young son in Chicago. As his son was born just weeks before the debut of the iPad, Spirrison takes his work home with him and regularly samples and enjoys a variety of educational applications for young children.

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