Interview: Spilt Milk’s Andrew Smith and Nicoll Hunt

Safe from the wild ruckus of the Skyrim booth, with its Saturn-ring of queueing gamers, and tucked away at the rear of the Eurogamer Expo is the Indie Arcade. It’s not much to behold from the outside but populating this narrow cave is a troop of beardy 20-somethings all brandishing iPads or hunched over PCs. It’s an eccentric hub of colour, enthusiasm and cordiality despite the fact that across the four days these guys never seem to stray beyond the boundaries of their mobbed lair.

It may also be part of a perverted joke on Eurogamer’s behalf; a twisted study looking to determine which of these developer types is the quickest to trade smiles for a blunt weapon because the Indie Cave is situated within fondling distance of the Just Dance 3 booth. There’s only so many times you can listen to a-ha’s Take On Me at thundering volume and for me that number is 2.

It’s in this loud and crowded cave that Hard Lines developers Andrew Smith and Nicoll Hunt are cajoling gamers into exchanging email addresses for chocolate cake. We like Hard Lines plenty but we like chocolate cake even more – and you wouldn’t believe the price of food in Earls Court – so it wasn’t long before we were wagging chins with the guys responsible for one of the most likeable games on the iDevices.

Fittingly they’re also two of the friendliest developers at the expo, happy to indulge us as we ask about Apple, the future of Hard Lines and all other manner of nonsense.


How was working with Apple?

Andrew Smith: They’re not the most communicative company but they’re enormous and the thing about it is the games segment of their business actually does amazing money but as a percentage of their overall income it’s tiny. So priority wise the developer relationships aren’t that high on their list. But the guys who do it are fantastic at their jobs. So maybe you wake up and you’re in a promotion, which is good, it would have been nice to know but doing a press release isn’t going to get you more sales, it’s all about the fact that they’ve promoted it.


Andrew has written about those promotions extensively over on Gamesbrief, including one where you let the game go free and saw a huge sales spike as a result. Is the free-to-play model something you’re looking to explore with future products?

Nicoll Hunt: I don’t know if you saw but a couple of days ago it was speak like a pirate day and so we had a special sale where we made the game £4 (it’s usually £0.69).


Did anybody buy it?

AW: Yeah they did. I think about 40-50 people which is about our average daily churn anyway. We were still featured by Apple in some list somewhere so our sales dipped and our revenue dipped a little bit but nowhere near as much as I thought. Next time we do it I’m not going to say it’s only for a day because a lot of people probably said I’ll wait.  We really enjoy messing around with it. It’s our game, no-one’s telling us what do do.


So presumably if you do lean toward the free to play model, in-app purchases are going to have a big role to play in future games?

NH: Yeah, big style.


How will that fit with Hard Lines?

NH: Well the game as released was a game you played infinitely, that was it. There was never any progression beyond trying to beat your high score. So what we’ve added is progression where you get what we call widgets so when you’re playing the game you can go ‘I want to be like a ghost’ for five seconds and you press a little button and travel through the lines, or you can go [here Nicoll makes a sound not unlike that of a bear being shot, I reckon] ‘it’s getting too busy’ so you can press a button and all the lines suddenly become stupid and they’ll crash into one another and clear up the screen for you. So you’ve got to earn cash within the game to buy them. You can either earn that cash just by playing the game and getting the pick ups – and we’ve got a new mode called The Daily Challenge where if you complete the daily challenge you get a big chunk of cash you can spend on the widgets – or you can give us a load of money and we give you a load of it for free.


But you can still play the game without buying the in-game money?

AS: Yes, absolutely. There’s nothing locked off at all.

NS: Except for one thing. The one thing is we’ve got Lionel’s Hard Cash mode and it’s going to be stupidly expensive, obscenely expensive, but if you get that mode all of the pick ups in it are money for the game. You get infinite money, basically. You can buy everything in the game by playing this one mode which is obscenely expensive.

AS: A lot of companies do the whole infinite money thing but we were like ‘oh come on let’s make it a mode, let’s make it special.’ We tweaked the scores and the scores are crazy. Like, you pick up 4 things and you’ve got 500,000 points so it just makes people feel cool for having forked out the money.


What was the thinking behind the Daily Challenges?

AS: There’s a cynical side to it, you want people to keep playing. We are being fair, you can just play and get some but we want people to come back to it more often. So it’s a free mode and it takes place on any of the modes that we make, so there’s the six that we’ve got and then any we release as extra content whether you’ve bought it or not is the key so again, it’s not locking anything off. It creates a challenge based on a minimum and a maximum, maybe points or time limits or deaths or kills and then for doing that you get a bonus amount of the in-game cash. Beyond that you can keep playing it that day and keep trying to do better but you won’t get more cash. And every day it’s different and it’ll update itself as we update all the other content. It’s just a nice way of getting people to come back.


When can we expect to see the challenges?

NH: I’ve got a couple of little bugs to fix but within a fortnight.


Quips are a big part of Hard Lines’ appeal and there must be thousands of them in the game by now. How do you come up with them all?

AS: I just sit there with Word open and if there’s any sort of memes or cool things… so like, there’s a lot of Portal references and when Portal 2 came out we happened to be writing some quips for the cash mode. On twitter if people have got funny jokes, or if I see a funny joke and I Tweet it, then generally people will Tweet their funny jokes along the same lines. There was a bunch of really bad jokes about chemistry in one of the updates and I don’t know why. I just found one online that made me chuckle so I put it in.

It doesn’t take itself too seriously though and I think that’s a release valve for us because of our history in big companies, so this is a chance to do what we want. It’s amazing, it’s inappropriate but I don’t care.


Were there any games on the iPhone that inspired you with Hard Lines, made you think about pricing models or features?

AS: Games like Tiny Wings were an inspiration, it’s so simple and rewarding and that’s something that you really have to nail on mobile platforms.

NH: I play a lot of iPhone games, way more than I probably should. The good ones are really concise and small gameplay experiences. You can start playing it within seconds and if you die you can start again within a fraction of a second. There’s just no gump around it. I love that. It’s pure gameplay experience and then they extend that with all the progression stuff. It’s always like I’ll just have one more go. Zombie Gunship inspired a lot of the widget stuff in Hard Lines. It’s the same, just one more go and then I can upgrade the ghost mode.

AS: I think one of the other things is the personality and that’s specific to Hard Lines because it’s just lines and so the personality sticks out a mile but without it you’re one of a million exactly the same games. Like Tiny Wings, you know it’s Tiny Wings just by hearing it or looking at a screenshot.


We come from a games course and the consensus tends to be that once you leave a good way to get a name for yourself, or just start out, is with development on the iPhone. What are your thoughts on that?

AS: It’s tough, I would say that. It’s an interesting platform because it’s so swamped but everyone keeps an eye on it. So anything that does do well tends to get trumpeted about. We were talking to a guy earlier about Xbox Live Indie and how there’s so much shit on it, so few good games, and if you do a good game on it you instantly get a lot of press and so if you’re not talking about making money that’s a really smart move. It actually bodes quite well if you’re going to convert to PC afterwards. A lot of guys have proven that, not on purpose, they’ve made an indie game and when they ported it they’ve made a load of money. But without all the PR they got because they made a good game on Indie they wouldn’t be making all that money and Steam wouldn’t have looked at it and all this kind of thing. But iPhone is easy, it’s cheap.

NH: That’s what I like about it. The barrier for entry is tiny; it’s $99 for a developer’s licence for a year. And as long as you’ve got a Mac you can make the game. There are no other requirements.

AS: Similarly Android, even though it’s a bit of a ballache because of all the different OS’, you can just release a game whereas Apple might say no because it’s not finished. If it’s just a project and you want to prove something Android may be a bit easier in that sense.


Any plans to release the game on other platforms?

AS: Yeah, we’ve got an Android version here at the show that will be coming out in maybe a fortnight, ish. It’s very, very close. The good thing about Google is you just submit it and there’s no process of approval so it’s just out. We’ve got plans for some other platforms, we’d love to see it on Vita and 3DS but that requires proper publisher connections. We’ll see. Even PC is an option.


Finally, where next for you guys?

AS: Other than all the support we do for this, I’ve got two more iPhone games in development. I work with a different person on each game, that’s more because these are valuable to support for so long. It would be silly to just release a game and that’s it. So I’ve got two games hopefully coming out on iPhone and a little PC project bubbling away.

NH: I’ve got plans for my next game after Hard Lines. It’s going to be just me, I’ve set myself the challenge of 30 days to write an entire game and release it. I’m going to take another popular thing from the past and make it modern and good. My plan is to do it in 30 days and do everything myself so it might end quite badly but it’s something a bit fun to do.

Thanks to Andrew and Nicoll for both the chocolate cake and for chatting to us. You can read all about the exploits of Spilt Milk here or, if that’s not social enough for you, you can follow both guys on Twitter; Andrew here and Nicoll here. Finally, Hard Lines is a meagre £0.69 on the App Store. It’s a sexy, contemporary take on one of the least sexy games of all time. That alone ought to peak your curiosity. It’s also really rather good and is regularly updated and tweaked. It comes highly recommended.


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