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Exclusive Interview: Hogrocket
by Alex Wozniak

Hogrocket is an indie studio that arose from the ashes of Blur developer Bizarre Creations in March 2011.

Consisting of Ben Ward (ex-Bizarre community manager), Pete Collier (senior level designer on The Club and 007: Blood Stone) and Stephen Cakebread (creator of Geometry Wars), the team has just released their first game on the App Store, entitled Tiny Invaders.

Co-founder Ben Ward was kind enough to answer some questions and tell us a bit about the game, the future of the studio, and why Hogrocket doesn't have bikini Wednesdays.

Firstly, congratulations on the launch of Tiny Invaders, and being named 'Portable Game of the Week' by IncGamers. Your first game is targetted towards the iOS market; what was it in particular about iOS development that led you to decide to release your first game on this platform, rather than on PC or the PlayStation Network, for example?

We're really pleased that so many people have enjoyed Tiny Invaders already, only a few days after launch. Hopefully more and more people will play the game as we continue to tweak and refine it over the coming months.

There are plenty of reasons why we picked iOS as our lead platform for Tiny Invaders. Firstly, the audience is huge. There are so many iPhones, iPads and iPods out there, and it's a userbase which is growing larger all the time. The idea of working with a touchscreen device was also interesting, as was being able to update our game quickly and easily.

Finally, as a small, self-funded company, money is a real issue for us. We simply don't have the cash to hire fifty people and become competitive in the console space. And, to be honest, even if had the funds I'm not sure we'd want to be there anyway. iOS allows us to be agile, creative, experimental and have some fun. Almost all of the new and exciting game design concepts are coming out of these new platforms, and that's where we want to be.

Do you have any plans to develop for other platforms, or will you focus purely on iOS development? If plans for other platforms are in the pipeline, will we be seeing ports of Tiny Invaders or any other new IPs?

We're playing it by ear at the moment. iOS is a great platform and we'll certainly be creating more titles for it, but we're also interested in the likes of Android, Windows Mobile, and of course the PC and Mac. As I mentioned though, we're self-funded. We need Tiny Invaders to do well enough initially to fund its own expansion onto other platforms, so if enough people buy it then we'll pump that money straight back into getting the game onto other platforms. If Tiny Invaders can't do it then we'll find another way of spreading out; Hogrocket is a multi-platform company at heart.

Tiny Invaders is an action puzzle game. Was it always the plan to choose this as the genre of your first game? If not, how did the decision come about?

Initially, we created several prototype games. We looked at the kind of thing that works well on touch screens: games that involve tapping, sliding, rotating. There were a couple of interesting concepts that came out of that prototype period, but the one that really stuck was a game we called 'trains'. The idea was to create a path-prediction game in which the player used their fingers to alter the path that a projectile travelled along. There are plenty of interesting mechanics that can come from that kind of basic idea, and we started developing some of these in the initial prototype. Over the months we developed 'trains' into a more sophisticated game, and when our art team came on-board it morphed into Tiny Invaders.

Are there plans to expand into other genres for future Hogrocket games? Is there any genre in particular you would love to work with?

The nice thing about iOS and other agile platforms is that they don't enforce rigid genres like the console world used to. You can see it in Tiny Invaders; it's a bit puzzley and a bit actioney. It's likely that many of the more interesting games over the next few years will define their own genres, and for me that's what makes it so exciting.

If there is one lesson you could take from the development of Tiny Invaders into your next game, what would it be?

Make decisions early. Even though we created the game relatively quickly - seven months from start to finish - we lost a lot of time to bad decisions and loss of focus. For example, we spent about a month of that time working on a 3D version of 'trains'. We interviewed an artist, contracted him to make some meshes, built a 3D engine, tweaked with the graphics endlessly... and then threw it all away. The visuals became too messy, we introduced loading times, it was harder to design level,s and it would have cost a lot more to build the assets. All of these things were obvious from the start, but we got caught up in the chase. On our next game we will lock down all of the fundamentals much sooner so that we don't fall into that trap again.

Hogrocket was formed following the closure of Bizarre Creations, a studio which predominately developed for consoles. Were there many challenges in switching focus from consoles to portable devices such as the iPhone?

I think we coped with the switch pretty well. Some of us had previous experience on iPhone and other mobile devices, so technically there weren't too many surprises. Design-wise, the team took to the project pretty quickly, and it didn't take long to nail the design fundamentals. We did our tech homework at the start of the project, and kept important restrictions in mind right from the start. For instance, we always kept handy a second-gen iPod Touch, running iOS 3.1.3 (which we termed the 'iShit') for testing our base platform. We also tried as hard as possible to keep our file size down throughout development, as we had to fit the entire game under 20MB for distribution over 3G. Luckily, Tiny Invaders runs great on the iShit and is also under the 20MB limit.

The main thing that tripped us up was a silly one. We were lucky enough to be featured on the App Store at launch, achieving a pretty prominent place in 'New & Noteworthy'. However, we didn't realise which of the two icon files we supplied would be chosen for use in the promotion. Unfortunately they used the larger 512-pixel-square icon in places we didn't expect them to, which resulted in a pretty crappy-looking, downsampled image in some locations in the store. Unfortunately, you can't change this icon without patching the game, so the change was delayed for a few days whilst it cleared submission. It's something we'll know to remember next time!

What attracted you to the idea of forming your own company rather than working for another studio after Bizarre Creations closed?

There are plenty of reasons, the main one being the sense of adventure. Even if we mess it all up and make a hash of everything, it'll be our mistakes that caused it and we'll learn from them. Ultimately it'll make us better people, even if we fail. Also, the core team is a pretty flexible bunch so it was great to be able to try things outside of our comfort zone. From my personal point of view, I've got quite a specific vision of how an online-enabled company should be run in this new age of agile platforms, so it's really good fun to try out some ideas and see how things develop.

Hogrocket is an independent studio. Did you ever consider getting support from a publisher or another studio?

Of course we considered it, and we've had discussions with most of the big boys in the space. We wouldn't be doing our due diligence if we didn't investigate all avenues. We ultimately decided against having a publisher for Tiny Invaders because we thought we could do a pretty good job of self-publishing ourselves. Looking back on the launch, we were correct in terms of PR; the game has had a good amount of exposure in the press. However, we have failed in terms of cross-promotion within existing apps. It's become obvious to us that this is a very important string in the mobile publishers' bow, so we'll certainly be looking to strengthen our presence here in the future.

You all currently work from your own homes and meet up a few times a week as a means of keeping costs down. How successful do you feel this approach has been? Did anything arise that you weren’t expecting?

We decided to work from home as a cost-cutting measure, and in that respect it's largely been successful. Turning a profit whilst renting an expensive office isn't something that we could turn into reality, at least not straight away. Despite this, we've tried hard to maintain a professional outlook despite working out of our bedrooms. As an example, we've stuck to pretty rigid working hours and kept a base level of professionalism - there aren't any bikini Wednesdays.

The hardest thing about working from home has been the cabin fever. If you don't leave the house for a couple of days, you definitely start to climb the walls. I've taken to cycling and taking long walks as a way to break up the days, and that's been a pretty good tactic. It'll be great to move Hogrocket into a permanent office space, but realistically we can only do so once we've achieved a decent level of financial success. At the very least it's an incentive to work harder in the meantime!

There’s been much talk over the past year about tax breaks for the video game industry. Do you think such a tax break would benefit smaller companies such as Hogrocket, and if so, in what way?

Of course a tax break would be nice, but realistically it's not going to catapult us back onto the world-wide scene. Ultimately, I think studios should compete in the environment they find themselves a part of. Hogrocket is based in the UK, and being here comes with some inherent costs. However, we also get some great advantages that you might not get in other areas. The games industry isn't so strong right now, but other industries are booming. We've been lucky enough to work with BAFTA-award-winning animators on Tiny Invaders, and a pioneering composer on the music. Both teams are based in the UK, so we see freelancers like those as our competitive advantage.

What advice would you give to people who are thinking of setting up their own video game company?

Take it seriously. It isn't all fun and games. You can expect more stress than you've ever experienced in your life. Your game needs to be amazing. Not just good, but amazing. That's the base line. Then you need to take all the business side of things seriously. That includes marketing and PR. If you can't nail all of those things yourself, then find somebody who can. In the meantime, keep an eye on the pennies and don't overspend. It can be a rewarding thing to do, but goddamn there's a lot of hard work that goes with it!

Many thanks once again to Ben Ward and Pete Collier for the interview. Hogrocket's debut game, Tiny Invaders, is available for purchase now over on the App Store.

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- Alex Wozniak

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