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Interview: Firemint's Peters On iPhone/iPad-Fueled Studio Independence

Independent Australian developer Firemint (Flight Control, Real Racing) has built a strong presence on iPhone and iPad. Gamasutra talks to the studio's Alexandra Peters about its success and philosophies.
After establishing itself as one of the most successful independent iPhone game developers, Firemint gained a strong early foothold on the young iPad platform with HD versions of its major iPhone hits Flight Control and Real Racing. Those games have been regular presences in the iPad best-sellers charts since their launch, cementing the Melbourne, Australia-based studio as one of the premiere developers on Apple's App Store. Notably, touch-based plane landing casual title Flight Control on the iPhone had sold 2 million copies as of January 2010, and a DSiWare version recently debuted, in addition to the iPad version's success. Much more complex 3D motion/touch-based racing title Real Racing has also seen major success at higher price points than Flight Control, both on the iPhone/iPod Touch and more recently on the iPad. Gamasutra caught up with Firemint community manager Alexandra Peters to discuss the company's quick rise to success, its current development and marketing strategies, and the deceptive simplicity of casual game design. Prior to your iPhone success, you had a history of working heavily with publishers like EA. Is that in the past for you, now that you have a direct channel to your customers? Alexandra Peters: We haven't stopped entirely. We're still doing a bit of publisher work. We're not going out and looking for it anymore, so this is the first year you see [at developer shows] where we haven't had anyone meeting with publishers trying to sign up new work. We're being asked to do more work than we're really wanting to do. I would say we've gone from 20 percent doing our own stuff to the other way around. We're doing 80 percent our own and 20 percent on a few publisher projects. We've been able to be more selective about the publisher projects that we do, so if something really interesting comes along that we're keen to work on, that's a win-win for everybody. I've heard you have a strategy of developing at least one full-scale game and one smaller, cheaper game simultaneously, so you have acccess to different avenues. Is that an ongoing strategy? AP: I'm not sure I would call it a strategy. It's more about wanting to make good games. When we have an idea for a game that we think is going to work really well, we'll make that game. There's nothing to say that we wouldn't do two casual games at the same time or three hardcore high-end 3D games at the same time. This is why we go for great big long stretches of time not really having much to talk about in terms of what's coming up. Having said that, we've seen the advantages of what that strategy will do for you. You don't get pigeonholed for one thing. People know that, yes, we did Flight Control, but we also did Real Racing. Similarly, you're talking about different audiences and different ways of marketing these games, so it's always good to have a mix, so you can be quite diversified. It's always better to have a few irons in the fire rather than all your eggs in one basket. As long as you don't get your eggs in the fire. AP: Scrambled eggs! Do you think the audiences of your games have awareness of "Firemint" as a brand? Especially on these platform, it's so crowded. AP: We're certainly working really hard to build Firemint as a brand. The reason we're so concerned with making a really good game experience every time you play is that we want to keep building the Firemint brand. So in the future, when you see another Firemint game coming out, it might not be a game franchise you've heard of, but you recognize "Firemint." You remember the games you played before and you think, "I'll give that a go, because I've had really good fun with those games in the past." On the other hand, we don't want anything to overwhelm the game itself. Again, for us, the game drives everything. We wouldn't want to plaster Firemint in front of people at the expense of the game. We're seeing a lot of people saying, "Oh that's another game from Firemint, who made Flight Control." It's working to a certain extent, but we haven't done any research. It's certainly not hurting us. As you mentioned earlier, you're taking a fair amount of time to move to your various projects. That seems really uncommon on the iPhone. AP: That's one of our really big and important mantras. We're not interested in just turning out heaps of average or sub-average games. We want to make sure when a Firemint game comes out that it's really awesome, and good games take more time to make. There aren't many shortcuts you can take. We're in a great position at the moment where we can afford to take our time. People often say that the simplicity of casual game mechanics actually makes them more difficult to create, because so much of the game rests on them. AP: [Firemint CEO] Rob [Murray] likes to talk at length about the crazy math that's going on behind getting the Flight Control line so smooth and beautiful, and making it feel so effortless and easy. And one of the really interesting things about Flight Control is that it's been one of the few games that have been really commercially successful but also really highly regarded by the development community. And, really, that was driven by the device, by the platform, and by Rob sitting down and thinking, "What do I really want to do on this device? I want to draw. Drawing's fun."

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