Developer Interview: Self Aware Games of Taxiball and Word Ace





 We recently had the opportunity to interview Seppo of Self Aware Games, the developers of Taxiball and Word Ace. We recently published a post about Word Ace and will have a full review soon.

The Current Gamer: First things first, can you tell us a bit about the Self Aware Games Team?

Self Aware Games: Self Aware Games is a clandestine secret society whose goal is complete and total world domination. Well, that’s not exactly true – we’re not all that secretive. We’re a small developer, located in sunny Redwood City, California. We’re really excited about the potential of devices like the iPhone and the Pre, and our goal is to make games that people love to play together.

The Current Gamer: Your first release, Taxiball has gained a passionate fan base since its release. It was generally well reviewed in the iPhone gaming press, known best for its smooth gameplay, vibrant art, and stylish music. What lessons were learned from this initial release that were brought over to the development of Word Ace?

Self Aware Games: Our experience with Taxiball taught us a lot of things, from business issues to designing for the platform. It’d be impossible to relay all the things we learned, but the two that really stuck out and influenced the design of Word Ace were these:

1.) Taxiball was a tilt game, like those old wooden Labyrinth games you might have played as a kid. Since the iPhone didn’t have any buttons, and we hadn’t found any of the virtual controls all that satisfying, we wanted to use a method of control that was really accessible and easy to understand. And while Taxiball’s tilt controls are second-to-none, the simple fact is that a lot of the more casual gamers we know found that it required too much “gamer skill.” For Word Ace, we wanted to make a game that could appeal to *everyone*, so we focused on making something that even the least-coordinated person could play easily.

2.) The second thing that we learned, and probably the most dramatic, was that trying to price your game on the App Store is… challenging.

The Current Gamer: Word Ace is your first multi-platform release on both the iPhone and the Palm Pre. What made you decide to go this route?

Self Aware Games: We started Self Aware Games to build games for this new generation of mobile devices – basically with the goal of allowing people to play games with their friends, wherever they are. So the question isn’t so much why, but why not? I have friends who love their Palm Pre, and friends who are equally passionate about their iPhone or iPod Touch. Rather than keeping those groups apart, why not bring them together? We can’t support every platform, unfortunately, but we’ll be extending Word Ace’s reach into as many platforms as we can.

The Current Gamer: Word Ace is available for free. After playing the game for quite some time myself, it is clear that the level of polish and attention to detail in this game would easily warrant a premium price. This is certainly a different approach to then you took with Taxiball. Can you talk a little bit about your strategy here?

Self Aware Games: Here’s the thing – your success on the App Store is tied almost exclusively into whether you can make it into the top 25 apps, since that’s the most accessible list that users can browse. If you’re not in the top 100 in your various categories, unless someone’s looking for your game by name, you’re completely invisible on the App Store, and no one will ever find your game on their own.

So getting into the top 25 is absolutely critical. But doing so requires people to download your game, since the top lists are based heavily on sales. So companies drop their price to $0.99 to generate sales, and as a result, if you’re not at $0.99, it’s very, very difficult to be competitive unless you’re coming from an established publisher, or are tied to a well-known license. The other side to that equation, though, is that it requires volume to make up for sales at $0.99 – and unless you’re in the top 25, you’re not selling enough copies to keep a business afloat. With Taxiball, we played that game. We went from anything from $4.99 to $0.99, and in the end, what we learned was not that we found the perfect price for the game – we learned that we wanted to get off the rollercoaster, and find a new solution that worked for us.

So, with Word Ace, we’re trying something radically different. You get Word Ace – the full game – for $0. You get a thousand chips for free every day you play. You can play forever and never pay a cent unless you want to.

How do we make money off that? Two things. First, we’ll be making additional chip packages available. For a couple bucks, you can pick up a variety of extra chips, which are useful if you’ve run out, or if you want to play at the higher-stakes tables we’ll be unlocking as the community grows. Second, we’ll have ways that you can simply donate to help support continued development of the game. In exchange for a donation, you’ll get a little icon by your avatar for 30 days that shows that you’re helping to support the game, and keep running.

What it comes down to is this – you can play as much as you want to, and pay whatever you want to pay. If you think the game is worth $0, you can have it for $0. If you love it, and we *love* it, how much you pay for it is all up to you. You get to play the entire game for however long you like, and if you think it has value, we hope you’ll choose to support the game. We think we’ve made an incredible game that you’ll be able to play with your friends for years, and we’re betting that our players will feel the same way.

The Current Gamer: Where did the idea for Word Ace come from?

Self Aware Games: When we decided to make a multiplatform game, we sat down and thought about the most popular types of mobile games. Card games and word games were obvious candidates, so we were focusing on those, and trying to figure out exactly what to do to make something that’d be interesting, and not just some cookie-cutter thing that’d get lost in the shuffle.

One night I suddenly woke up at 2am, sat bolt upright, and banged out an e-mail describing an idea I’d had. Literally, just woke up in the middle of the night and had this thought to combine word games and card games into an online multiplayer game. I was worried I’d forget about it if I just went back to sleep, so I wrote down the idea and sent it off to the other people on the team.

The next morning, we were talking about it. Everyone was pretty jazzed about the idea, but somewhere in the conversation, it became clear something was up. We weren’t talking about quite the same thing. I went back and re-read the e-mail, and while it gets the basic word/card game idea across, it’s otherwise a completely incoherent mess. So the people who read it had understood parts of it to mean totally different things that I’d intended. But as we kept talking through it, it was clear that the misunderstanding was actually better than the original idea. So we went with that, instead.

The moral of the story isn’t, “Don’t write incoherent e-mails about crazy ideas at 2am,” (because you TOTALLY SHOULD) it’s, “Recognize a better idea when you hear it, and don’t get stuck on the original idea just ’cause it’s yours.” If there’s anything I’d say about Self Aware’s development process, it’s that we’re an incredibly collaborative bunch, and more than happy to take good ideas from wherever they come.

The Current Gamer: We saw some very cool Word Ace prototype pictures on your blog. Can you talk a bit about the development process between taking the initial idea that you had for your game, and turning it into the finished product that we see today?

Self Aware Games: One of the things that we focus on first in the development process is making sure the core mechanics of the game are fun by prototyping them in the simplest, fastest way possible. I’ve worked on console games, where the development process takes years and can involve hundreds of people. If you don’t make sure your basic ideas work early, you end up wasting a lot of time and money, so you have to make sure the ideas at the core of the game work as fast as you can.

So for Word Ace, the really basic question was, “Is a multiplayer, social, poker-based word game fun?”

To answer that question, you don’t need to write a single line of code. To figure out the letter distribution and scoring doesn’t require anything more than a pen, some index cards, and time. We played dozens of hands of Word ace, tweaking the letter distribution and values, with varying numbers of players, before ever touching a computer. We were able to change things about the game by crossing out one value and writing in another, and we could test it instantly.

When you’re building a game you already know is fun, you don’t have to worry anymore about whether it’ll come together in the end. It’s *already* together. You get to focus on the details that make the game shine – like our picture-based emote system, which grew out of the fact that when playing in person, gloating when you won was a heck of a lot of fun. Being able to get the big questions out of the way let you focus your attention on the small ones, too.

The Current Gamer: Before the release of the iPhone version of Word Ace, you mentioned on your twitter feed that you were already over 40,000 registered users. I assume these were mostly Palm Pre users. In the last hour as I write this interview out, your app has jumped from 13th to 9th in the Top Free Word Games in the iTunes store. There is clearly quite a bit of buzz surrounding your game. How do you feel so far about the fan reception of your latest release?

Self Aware Games: There were 50,000 players on the Palm Pre before the iPhone version hit the App Store. Response on the Pre has been phenomenal – and we got a lot of feedback from early players on the Pre that are going to help us improve the game going forward. In fact, the little tutorial popups that show up when you first start playing on the iPhone were added in response to community feedback from players on the Pre!

The response on both platforms has been great. People want to play with their friends, so word of the game’s been spreading like crazy – beyond our wildest expectations.

In the months leading up to the game’s release, we sent out the code to a couple of our trusted friends. Every night, we’d end up playing Word Ace – often intending only to play for a couple minutes to test some feature, but we’d end up playing for hours. As we got closer to the release date, the thing that we were all the most excited about wasn’t the critical reception, or how many downloads we’d get… it was simply that we wanted to play with new people. That’s how psyched we were about still playing the game, after having played it for hundreds of hours during development.

The thing that’s been the most satisfying about the launch has been that we’re seeing that kind of passion & excitement from our players, as well! As a small developer, we don’t have the advertising budget of EA, or the other big publishers – we’re relying on people to spread the word. All the buzz the game’s gotten has come from the users – and honestly, we couldn’t be happier about the response.

The Current Gamer: How do you plan to support Word Ace moving forward?

Self Aware Games: We’ve got a plan for the next few updates to add features to the game. In addition to rolling out the ability to buy chips and donate to support the game, we’ll be adding in-game gifts that you can buy for other players, and as the community grows, higher-stakes tables. We’ll also be making the Friends feature even more robust, and including ways of avoiding players you don’t want to play with – an anti-Friends List, if you will. Word Ace will also be extending to the web, so you’ll be able to play even against friends who don’t have an iPhone, iPod Touch, or a Pre.

We think Word Ace is the kind of game we’ll be playing 10 years from now. Whatever support we need to do to make sure the experience is fun and fair for everyone, we’ll be doing everything we can.

The Current Gamer: What can we expect next from the Self Aware Games team?

Self Aware Games: Next on the Pre, I’m happy to announce that we’re making Card Ace, a Texas Hold ‘Em app that has the same Friends List, Awards, emotes, and other features that makes Word Ace so fun to play with your friends. If there’s a demand for it, you’ll see that on the iPhone as well. We’re also working on Word Ace for the web, which you’ll see on Facebook in the next few weeks.

Beyond that… you’ll have to wait and see.

Published in: on September 4, 2009 at 2:52 am  Comments (14)  

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14 CommentsLeave a comment

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  4. […] Original post: Developer Interview: Self Aware Games of Taxiball and Word Ace … […]

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  11. […] Word Ace by Self Aware Games Review Score: 5 / 5  A few weeks ago we published an interview with Self Aware Games, the publishers of Word Ace. After spending many hours with the game, I am now happy to review this […]

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  13. […] Read more: Developer Interview: Self Aware Games of Taxiball and Word Ace … […]

  14. […] few weeks ago we published an interview with Self Aware Games, the publishers of Word Ace. After spending many hours with the game, I am now happy to review this […]

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