The iPhone as a gaming platform: we speak to the Aussie developer of FlightControl

Firemint is the developer behind the extremely popular FlightControl game for the iPhone

What is your background and how did this help you move into the iPhone app field?

The vast majority of people in the studio have a background in game development. We've been working on mobile and handheld games for seven years, so it was a really natural progression for us. The first Firemint developed game on iPhone was actually The Fast and the Furious: Pink Slip, for our publisher I-play, so we eased into things a little bit rather than dealing with all the additional complexities of self-publishing straight away as well.

Who comes up with ideas for iPhone apps at Firemint and how are they conceived?

For our commissioned work, our publishers will give us an outline of the sort of design and features they want to see in the game, and we work up a full Game Design Document from that. For our self-published titles, the initial idea can come from anyone at Firemint, although we will usually then assign one of our game designers to the project to flesh it out. Our programmers and artists also contribute a lot to the design process, and we often do a lot of rapid prototyping as that's really the only way to know for sure whether something will be fun or not. We've got about 10 prototypes that would probably take another week or so to finish enough for publishing, but we just don't find them fun enough yet to put our name on them. We may find that magic ingredient that makes them work, or we may end up discarding them.

Firemint's current offerings for both the iPhone and other mobile devices are a combination of in-house intellectual property and licenced games. Can you explain a little bit more about how the apps came about and the development process? Does Firemint look to focus on its own IP or is it always a combination of both?

It's actually only recently that we've been in a position to fund our own original titles, and the App Store has given us a channel for publishing. We still work with publishers on a number of interesting titles, but we are also doing a lot more of our own IP. Both publisher work and original IP each have their unique advantages and it keeps us a bit diversified rahter than being 100 per cent dependent on publishers. It also means that as a company we take on a lot more risk by self-publishing than by remaining purely a work-for-hire studio.

Is there a particular reason you decided to develop games for the iPhone? Was it a natural progression or something else?

It was very much a natural progression. There are a lot of attractive aspects to iPhone development. The SDK is a joy to work with, and there is hardly any device variation (unlike mobile games where you would routinely have to think about hundreds of different handsets). The App Store makes it extremely easy for people to get content, and when self-publishing we are a lot closer to the consumer than when we work with external publishers. We are able to retain our IP, and we also see a much bigger slice of the profits.

How do you see the iPhone as a gaming platform? Is it a simple, casual device, or do you think it is competitive against the likes of the Nintendo DS and Sony's PlayStation Portable?

In terms of the quality of games possible, it is absolutely competitive against the DS and PSP. It is a more powerful device than the DS, and I think Real Racing has shown that it also seriously competes with games on PSP's level. It's going to be interesting to see what we can push the iPhone 3GS to do! However, I don’t think that the iPhone is necessarily considered a competitor by Sony or Nintendo. I think the iPhone has grown the overall market, rather than simply poaching users from PSP or DS. It may well have a positive effect for all companies in the space. There may come a day when the portable games market saturates and the whole business becomes a fight for territory, but I think we are a long way off from that time when it comes to digitally distributed handheld games. I think this industry is still in an early growth phase, and that means that growing the overall market is more important than fighting for existing customers.

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