The best part of getting in on a new game early is you actually have a shot in hell at making the leaderboard. For a few magical hours last Friday — a total of two, I think — I was ranked fifth in the world in Cool Pizza high scores.
Of course, there were only about 500 total people playing the game released by a boutique Atlanta game development company barely 24 hours before. Since then my score has steady slid from the rankings, ending up at no. 40 at the time of writing.
The wacky, fast-paced game is the second the three-man crew at Secret Library, a start-up based out of a small home office in East Atlanta, has put out since quitting their jobs and diving head first into the videogame, app-building world a year ago.
“It’s really the best time it’s ever been in the history of video games to self-publish,” said Cool Pizza designer and Secret Library co-founder Nick Ralabate. “Honestly, you pay Apple $99 and you can publish whatever you want [to its app store].”
With advances in game building tools, a profoundly low barrier of entry, and the increased adoption of smart phones, just about anybody can get in on the action these days — provided they’re willing to invest the time and energy it takes to turn an idea into some tangible.
At least, that’s the theory.
We caught up with Cool Pizza designers and developers Carlos Quinones and Nick Ralabate earlier this week to get the rundown and see what it actually takes to turn a rough sketch of an idea into an interactive — and hopefully profitable — application accessible around the world.
SIEGE - Southern Interactive Entertainment and Game Expo. Oct. 4-7. Atlanta Marriott Northwest. $35-$230. http://www.siegecon.net/SIEGE2012/.
Clay Duda: It seems like everybody and their mom has an idea for the next “million dollar” app, but you rarely see this things come into fruition. It’s a super broad question, but what does it take to bring a concept like this into reality?
Nick Ralabate: Well, it mostly takes time and patience I suppose. We spent maybe three or four months on our first game, and three or four months on our second game. To be fair, I don’t think they were million dollar ideas — I think they were barely thousand dollar ideas — but we’re doing this because this is what we’d like to get good at and do [for a living].
Carlos Quinones: It doesn’t just have to be an idea. It’s just going through the whole process and making sure you’re putting out a polished product that is worthy of other people’s time. That’s more important than just having a great idea. If you pitched Cool Pizza on paper it doesn’t sound as great as when you’re seeing it in motion and actually playing it.
Nick: Yeah, it’s really just sticking through to the end, knowing at some point you’re going to put this out to people.
Carlos: And a ridiculous amount of work.
I imagine there are different phases to an apps development — concept, design, programming, and ultimately marketing so people know about this thing you’ve spent so much time on. For you, what has been the most difficult leg of the journey?
Carlos: The most difficult part? I’d probably say the marketing.
Nick: Yeah, promotion.
Carlos: I think that’s sort of our weak point. We’re definitely developers. We’ve done that a long time. We’re comfortable prototyping a game, designing, and the art — all that stuff comes pretty easily for us really — but when it comes to marketing, that’s what we’re working on. That’s why we want to put out several games and keep getting better and keep getting more attention as we keep making games.
Nick: The rest of our process is really improvisational. We don’t make any plans or any kind of schedules or anything. We start with a big idea of what we’re going for, sketch it out, and put it in people’s hands. We think about it ourselves and go back-and-forth [with ideas]. The actual making of the game is really freeform and loosey-goosey, but then it ends and you have to promote — and we have no idea what to do.
You guys seem to have the techie-side of things covered pretty well. What are the options for non-programmers who want to get in on the app-making action? What’s the barrier of entry like?
Nick: The barrier of entry is extremely low. Honestly, you pay Apple $99 dollars and you can publish whatever you want [to its app store]. It’s really the best time it’s ever been in the history of video games to self publish.
Carlos: Even just making games in general, it’s gotten a lot easier with a lot of the tools that are out there.
There’s still programming required, but the amount of effort that goes into making a game these days is not the same. I mean, there are three of us making a game in three or four months, and that says a lot.
Tell me about tools that are available and what y’all used to make this app:
Nick: Unity is extremely popular and that’s because it’s really good. I don’t know, would you call it the Photoshop of video game making? It has such a slick design, and just by virtue of being popular it’s easy to get answers to your questions.
Carlos: Not only that, but they also have a nice set of community-made tools and plug-ins you can use.
Even if you’re just a programmer and you want to pick up Unity and put something rough together you can go on their assets store and pick up some free models, sound effects, and stuff like that and put together a rough model of your game in very little time.
Nick: So that’s what we use. GameMaker is also getting a little better, which is another good one for beginners as I understand it.
We’re using the free version of Unity, so [the price is] zero.
You guys started an ambitious RPG-style phone app a while back that ended up being shelved. It seems like there are some lessons to be learned there.
Carlos: If it’s you’re first game, don’t try to make a giant project.
Nick: Unfortunately, that’s like a student lesson, and we’re in our 30’s, so it’s kind of embarrassing.
Carlos: Ha. I think it was good because I needed something to be really excited about, and that was a project we could get really excited about and have the motivation to either quit our jobs or put on hold any other plans we had. So that was nice, and it got us started on a really high note, but then it definitely informed our second and third game.
We realized it would definitely be nice spend a ridiculous amount of time building out this very elaborate and complex game, but we don’t have the time or money to do so.
What kind of advice would you offer to other potential app-builders?
Nick: Focus on one thing at first and definitely put it in other people’s hands. That’s the whole point of making this stuff, and the sooner you can [let other people play it] and the more frequently you can do that the better.
At first you’re afraid of criticism. You’re like, “oh God, I can’t let them play it until we’re done. Oh gee, golly.” But unless it’s an intentionally esoteric art game or something, the whole point is to let people play it. You need to do that as soon as possible
[In an e-mail, Ralabate suggested "Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Drop-outs, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form" as a worth-while read for anyone looking to get started in game development.]
You told me when we talked before that your crew basically hedged their bets, quit their jobs, and devoted their efforts into getting Secret Library off the ground. SL has been around for a year now with two apps under it’s belt. What’s your business model like and how has the start-up journey been?
Nick: We have a ways to go I think before we’re a profitable company. Well, I don’t think, I know we have a ways to go before we’re profitable. Haha. We’re trying to just squeak by and concentrate at getting better at what we do. That’s the main thing.
Carlos: Yeah, we’ve been trying to focus on getting really good at making much better games. We’re trying to make sure the games we put out are fun and people are interested in them.
The second thing is to raise awareness. To make sure people, at some point, know who we are. That was actually the motivation for putting out Cool Pizza as a free game, just because we want to keep growing our audience of people who want to tune into the kind of games we make.
I don’t know if I’d call that a business model, but that’s our plan.
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