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[Interview] David Kalina of Tiger Style Games

Posted under Interviews by Staff on Sunday, August 9th, 2009 -

tigerstyle

A few months ago we came across a surprising little iPhone game by the name of Spider. In it, you use your eight-legged-platforming-prowess to scale walls, spin webs, snack on bugs – y’know, the usual bad-ass spider stuff. I got a chance to talk with David Kalina, Co-Owner and  Lead Programmer at Tiger Style Games and an industry veteran (Splinter Cell, Deus Ex: Invisible War, Thief), about Spider and why he made the jump from big-budget studios to indie games.

The game’s premise is about as simple as I’ve just explained: you’re a spider, go nuts! But Tiger Style games has managed to build some depth, as well as instant fun, into that seemingly basic package. Flicking your finger against the iPhone’s screen causes the spider to spring across the room with pinpoint precision. Building a web, which you can walk around on and use to capture prey, is as simple as connecting dots. Combine these  solid platforming mechanics with hand-drawn art and a helping of online features and you’ve got a promising game.

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GD: So what’s Spider in a nutshell?

Kalina: Spider:  The Secret of Bryce Manor is a unique action / adventure game for the iPhone and iPod Touch.  You draw webs with your finger, trap bugs and eat them, and explore an abandoned mansion, uncovering its secrets.

GD: What drove you to make the game in the first place?

Kalina: We threw around a ton of concepts in the very early days.  Ideas are cheap; picking the right idea for our goals as a developer is hard.  It was very important to us to find something that was unique for the platform, had strong personality, and was possible to build with a small team in a short period of time.

The initial concept was just a couple of sentences.  Our friend and contributor Jon Whitmore gave us this:

“You are a spider, and you spin your web with your finger on the screen.  You have to eat the flies.”

As we filtered through the many, many possibilities for our first game, we started developing a few of the simple concepts into more elaborate game design treatments.  The initial game design treatment for Spider was actually quite different from the game it turned into, but it helped us get focused on something attainable and got us excited about the possibility of making a Spider game.

GD: How long has it been in development?

Kalina: From the first line of code to our submission to Apple, the entire game’s development took exactly 8 months.

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GD: One thing that stands out about Spider is its physics. How did you capture that feeling of spring-loaded energy?

Kalina: Getting the physical motion of the spider right was one of the hardest and most important problems we had to solve for this game.  The main challenge wasn’t really technical — Spider actually has a very simple physical model.  The challenge came from developing a control scheme that is completely native to the touchscreen and getting it to “feel right” for everyone.

If you tell a group of people who have never seen the game before that they need to “swipe to jump” you’re going to get a wide range of actual input.  Some people will swipe their finger quickly and aggressively, some will move slower and more tentatively.  Ultimately, this one action has to work reliably for everybody who plays — it’s the most important, most common action in the game, and it had to be fun and accessible.

The real trick was playtesting early (our first internal build was sent out back in February) and iterating often.  In earlier builds, playtesters had a lot of trouble controlling the Spider’s jumps.  We took that information, simplified the way it worked, and kept tuning and tweaking it until people started getting it immediately.

Quality animation also makes a big difference in the feel of the Spider.  We were lucky to have a really great animator named Jen Cha working on the Spider with us; her contributions really impact the look and feel of the game.

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GD: What kinds of  features does Spider offer, aside from the core game?

Kalina: Spider does feature online leaderboards for each of the four game modes (Adventure, Feeding Frenzy, Hunger, and Precision).  We also have integrated Facebook Connect into our leaderboard system.  If you sign into Facebook through Spider, you can compare your high scores directly with your friends’ high scores.  It’s super sweet to see your friends’ faces inside the app, and it’s fun to compete against their best performances.

In some ways, the game has a casual feel; it’s fun to just drop in and build webs and explore.  But there is also a lot of content to satisfy more hardcore gamers.  In addition to the 4 distinct game modes, we have 24 achievements to unlock and 12 secret areas to discover across 28 levels.  Spider has plenty of content to keep you engaged for hours.

GD: So when can we download Spider, and for how much?

Kalina: If all goes well, we hope to be in the App Store in mid-August for $2.99

(Edit: Spider is available for download from the Apple Store as of today 8/10)

As well as launching their new game, Tiger Style Games has been busy launching itself as a studio.

GD: Having worked at big-budget studios like Midway, Ion Storm, and UbiSoft, what brought you to indie games?

tigerstyle2Kalina: Randy Smith and I found ourselves looking for an inspiring opportunity at the same time, and the traditional AAA development jobs were starting to lose their lustre.  We had both worked on projects for over 3 years that never saw the light of day.  The iPhone market offered a clear opportunity for a small group to quickly make something exciting and different.  Both Randy and I have 10+ years experience in the industry and it just felt like the right time to take the plunge and try to do it our own way.

On top of that, we both love our iPhones and believe that they have tremendous power as a gaming platform.  It is a space in the gaming universe where an independent developer can take some real creative risks and still have a shot at success.

Being fully independent has incredible perks (creative freedom, flexibility of hours and lifestyle, working from home / anywhere) but is also risky and challenging.  We could get rich or we could end up penniless, but either way we will have made games that we are passionate about.

GD: What’s the present for Tiger Style Games, and what’s next?

Kalina: We are currently moving into full-time promotion mode for Spider.  Most importantly, we are working on putting together a video trailer, which will hopefully be available within the week.  As a fully independent developer, we need to go out and talk to everybody ourselves and try to build up some excitement for our game.  After the game is released, we plan to do an update and a lite version.

We are also super excited to start working on Game #2.  We intend to leverage our experience on the platform and the technology we’ve built to take on new creative challenges.  Our second game will hopefully be very different from Spider, but like Spider, our goal is to continue making stuff that is different from everything else available in the App Store.

Keep up with Spider and the folks at Tiger Style Games by following them at @tigerstylegames on Twitter. Also, there’s some sweet tiger-related art.

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