Developer Interview: Nice Touch Games

This week we have Richard Bunn and David Green who are the developing power behind the newly formed Nice Touch Games studio. Their first release is Windows Phone 7 exclusive Crazy Horses, which as you can hazard a guess from the title sports fairly strange but incredibly addictive and humorous game play. 

Head on past the break for the run-through. 

Tell us about yourself, what you do, background around programming etc.

Richard Bunn: I'm a console games designer and have been working in the industry since 1995. I started out in Sony QA in the early PlayStation days before I landed a junior designer role at Argonaut - remember them? From there I went to Criterion where I designed levels for Black on the PS2 and helped to create Burnout Paradise. After that I joined Sony again, but this time in game development on AAA action title Eight Days.

David Green: I'm a systems and tools programmer and used to work at Thales doing radar and geographical interpretation modelling, working with Maya, a 3D modelling tool used widely in the games industry. That allowed me to cross-over and I joined Sony - developing tools also on Eight Days. That's where we first met.

How did Nice Touch Games come about? Was Sony a mere stepping stone for you both?

Rich: It's fair to say that games are a passion and a career for both of us. Sony was a serious career move and we both hoped to make AAA titles there. Unfortunately that didn't work out. The PS3 struggled early on, causing doubts about the profitability of Eight Days which resulted in it's cancellation. After that I worked on game design concepts for early versions of both the PSP2 and the Move controller - helping to inform the final features of the hardware. Dave worked on the comic reader for the original PSP. After that we both joined another major project that was never announced - an action game for the Move controller. I was lead level designer and Dave handled all the tools. But again, further problems at Sony lead to wide-spread redundancies and the cancellation of that project too! 

After the disappointments at Sony I decided I really wanted to do my own thing. I had a bunch of good game ideas ready to go - I just needed a kick-ass programmer to partner with. Luckily I knew a place where a bunch of them had just been let go! I met with Dave for pizza, pitched him some game ideas and within no time we were working on a game. We knew right away we would need to form a company to release whatever we produced. Nice Touch Games was formed early on, but we only got around to registering the company a few weeks before we were ready to launch.

Crazy Horses, a crazy concept, but a fantastic title. How was it conceived?

Rich: I had the idea for a game involving drawing lines around shapes to capture them a long, long time ago - it seemed like such a natural mechanic to do on a touch-screen device. I even toyed with idea of making it myself, but unfortunately I lack any significant programming skills! The idea was kind of shelved until I needed some ideas to pitch to Dave. It was only at that point that I added horses, ropes and path-drawing and gave it the placeholder title: Rodeo. Our project folders still use that name today!

I pitched five ideas of varying complexity, but Dave loved the Rodeo idea and started prototyping it right away whilst I fleshed-out the design and started looking into the art and animation style. After just one week we had a playable prototype and I had knocked-up some embarrassingly rough visuals. From there we just kept working at it. As a professional game developer you know (or should know) to keep looking for where the fun is. One important thing I learned from my time at Criterion was to always lead with your best ideas, but to always be honest with yourself about the quality of what you're producing. Never be afraid to change (or indeed cut) something you're not totally happy with - you'll always be glad you did! We'd didn't decide on the name Crazy Horses until quite close to the end - naming your first-born is something you can't rush into!

What path(s) led you to develop for Windows Phone?

Rich: I owned an iPhone and Dave owned an Android. Whilst they do have the biggest user-base right now, neither are ideal markets to try and get a new game out onto. Android is so fragmented and piracy stricken, and iPhone is over-saturated and hard to get noticed on. We would also have had to consider buying at least a MacBook each to get started on iPhone - or use Hackintosh, neither of which we wanted to do.

Dave: I'm a C# programmer and a friend showed us his WP7 phone. We could see it was going to take-off. It was a no-brainer really. We ordered ourselves a couple of WP7 phones and got started! 

Will you cover multiple platforms in the future, or will WP7 remain exclusive?

Rich: Good question and one we get asked a lot! Every day family and friends ask when Crazy Horses is coming to Android and iPhone. We love working on the WP7 - it's such a nice device and capable of a lot. The only reason we have to port our games over to other platforms is the financial one. If we can't make money on WP7 then we may be forced to. We get people telling us "good luck making a living being WP7 exclusive". We think about it a bit differently though: there's certainly an expectation in the air that WP7 is going to take-off in a big way and we'd like to be there when that happens. By the time the Microsoft/Nokia relationship bears fruit and the beautiful-looking N9 arrives we should have several titles in the marketplace. I expect many people will buy that phone and I hope they buy our games to play on it.

Dave: We do have a PC version of the game working and might release that soon. That's the other great thing about WP7. You just have to change the input from touch-screen to mouse and all the rest of the code just works. We're also considering bringing it to the Xbox. I think Kinect and Crazy Horses could be great!

How do you find the development process of Microsoft's platform?

Dave: It's a dream platform for a C# programmer like me. The hardware features are so easy to get at - the other night I was able to prototype a simple accelerometer-based game, from scratch, in well under an hour. Microsoft are known for having the best development tools in the business - we use them for everything, including developing our website. On top of all that, their app submission process was so simple and quick. We expected it to be more of a headache, but it's really nice.

What devices do you both carry around and use regularly?

Rich: I carry my WP7 and often an iPhone4. I've invested too much in buying apps on the iPhone to drop it completely and it's still where the majority of first-release, top-tier games are. Long gone are the days of carrying around my DS, PSP and Canon Ixus. I used to take a man-bag with me everywhere!

Dave: Ditto, except I have an Android and I never carried a man-bag! Alright, I did...

Where do you see WP7 going in the future, and what future projects does Nice Touch Games have in the pipeline?

Rich: I see WP7 taking off in a big way. Microsoft have really found a new groove and are winning back a lot of fans. I want to see all their devices connected - I would love things to be seamless between my phone, Xbox and laptop.

We're currently working on the first free update for Crazy Horses - I just finished animating a stinky donkey that will be in some of the new levels. I'm currently building levels for our second (smaller) title which should be out within the month.

Dave: I'm just wrapping-up prototyping our next main title and we'll be collaborating with a different artist to make that game. More on that in the future though. Not bad considering we've only been going for four months! We have lots more ideas in the back-pocket and we're currently discussing which one to make next, although we won't decide until I get back from a much needed holiday!

Given the opportunity, what’s the one thing you’d change about the Windows Phone development process?

Rich: I would love to see live feedback on how our app is faring in the marketplace. There's a six-day delay on download and sales data from Microsoft - it's excruciating to wait that long! The only feedback we get on a daily basis is from our position in the marketplace charts, but we have to wait six days to see how that compared to sales. The only alternative is to include third-party tracking software which we haven't used in Crazy Horses. That would give us detailed user-data for every part of the game: most played level, level where most players gave up playing, average session time, etc. It would be nice to see Microsoft offer that as standard for their platforms.

Dave: I would change the exclusivity of Xbox Live. You have to be invited. I understand that they only want the best games on XBL - but it hurts your sales not to have it. We'd love to add that to all our titles and I think we meet the quality requirements. If anyone from Microsoft is reading this pull your finger out and invite us already! 

What advice would you give to other startups in your position with regards to development and brand awareness?

Rich: Be critical of yourself and keep your ideas simple. When you put time and effort into getting something on-screen it's easy to become seduced and believe that it's good when it's really not. Even if your game plays badly, you can still get good at playing it and start to think it's great! Don't fall into those traps! If you're a start-up it's easy to bite-off more than you can chew, so don't over-complicate things - you'll make your life a nightmare!

Brand awareness is a new one for us. Coming from Sony and EA we're used to having hoards of marketing professionals handle that. The newest lesson we've learned is that as a start-up it's good to try and promote yourself as well as your product. If you have an interesting story then get out there and tell it!

Dave: Don't just stop when you think your game is done. Really burn the midnight oil and get it polished. Don't underestimate the value of friends and loved ones. Starting-up your own business is daunting and they're the ones who will get you across the finish line.

Thank you so much for your time. Any parting thoughts for the Windows Phone community?

Rich: You're welcome, and thanks for the interview! It's funny to think that Nice Touch Games is now part of the Windows Phone community and we're still getting used to that. We're new and just starting to make friends in this community, but we really like it so far! We'd love to build a relationship with the people who buy and play our games. Get in touch - we're nice!

You can catch Nice Touch Games on their website or Twitter! Be sure to check out their current exclusive title for WP7 and future projects.

Rich Edmonds
Senior Editor, PC Build

Rich Edmonds was formerly a Senior Editor of PC hardware at Windows Central, covering everything related to PC components and NAS. He's been involved in technology for more than a decade and knows a thing or two about the magic inside a PC chassis. You can follow him on Twitter at @RichEdmonds.