iTête à iTête – Heroes of iPhone and iPod Touch – An interview with Eugene and Andrey of the Palm Heroes Team

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When I reviewed Palm Heroes in August, it was one of the best games on the iPhone and things haven’t changed since. Nevertheless, the developers continue updating it with better and better controls, graphics, new maps and much much more in the works. Following the 1.1 update that brought into life a completely rebuilt interface, the Palm Heroes team are working to hard to get version 1.2 to the App Store in the next couple of weeks. The list of updates shows the enormous amount of work they are continuing to put into the game:

  • better response to fingers. “quick tapping lag” solved!
  • manual zoom on “pinch in”
  • autoscroll in autozoom can be turned off now
  • Czech language support
  • minimap is scrollable now
  • new “hero” button when infobar is open
  • buttons “switch hero” and “menu” exchanged places for more convenient control
  • better description of controls in the help section
  • more maps to play

And today, Eugene and Andrei of the Palm Heroes Team have agreed to join me and talk about their experience of developing such a complex product for the iPhone, as well as to share some thoughts on the future of both their products and the iPhone in general. My questions are still in bold.

1. Eugene, Andrey, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your team?

Eugene: I’m 23, apart from drawing pixelart graphics from the game, and making maps, my main role in the project is keeping the damn thing going. I guess that’s what team-leader’s occupation is all about :)

If you’re interested in my bio, I’m a linguist, and a musician. Neither a professional designer, nor a professional game-developer.

Andrey: OK. Name’s Andrey, but people prefer to call me Hedin :-) I’m 23, live in Novosibirk, Russia. Graduated the State University, the Mechanics & Mathematics Department. Love Computer Science, IT & Programming. That’s my life :)

Now I’m the leading developer of the Palm Heroes Team.

Eugene: That means he knows how TO make a game, and I’m the one who’s telling him how NOT TO do it :D

Andrey: that’s our main idea, right :)

How big is the team? How did it come together? and when?

Eugene: Well… the team has gone into several reincarnations, so to say…

It all began with Robert (Tutankhamen) and Anton (SIGman), and now there’s a completely different team working on the project.

Right now there are 4 people “in the pack” – Hedin doing the coding, me doing pretty much all the rest. Victor is our main tester right now, and Kevin is the fourth developer.

Andrey: I was invited by Eugene in the mid 2008 as far as I can remember, because no other developers left active. I took the control and we soon released version 1.04 for Pocket PC’s. That was the beginning of our work together :)

Are you all located in one city?

Andrey: Oh, god, no :)

Eugene: Not at all, though we actually were in one city. I live in Bulgaria now, if that may be interesting.

Andrey: And I still live in Russia

Eugene: Vic is in Romania, and Kevin is in the States

And is it difficult working so far from each other?

Eugene: Not really, I think there are even pluses of doing it that way… I believe people get pretty tired of each other’s faces when working in a small office.

Andrey: Somehow. I’d prefer having guys all together, but we now have advanced means of communication: Skype, IM’s, Cells, so we keep it going at high rates.

2. Why did you decide to work on such a complex project as Palm Heroes?

Eugene: I just love the heroes-like games

Andrey: I’m a long-term fan of Heroes of Might & Magic and was excited about participating in a heroes-like game.

3. Did you have any licensing issues with Ubisoft (the current owner of the HoMM franchise)?

Eugene: No. They own a HoMM trademark for PCs, and we ain’t even getting close to it.

4. Why did you decide to bring the game to the iPhone?

Eugene: Hedin, who’s idea was it?

Andrey: I don’t remember, but I can say that iPhone totally lacked good-old games :)

Eugene: right :D

I bought that iPod, and I thought it would be fun to see some heroes action on it… It’s pretty weird…. I’m trying to remember what came first – the iPod, or the plan to port the game.

Andrey: iPhone is an ideal gaming platform, you know :) It’s a sin not to port such a game to it!

Eugene: were it not for Apple :D (you can cut that out)

I’ll think about it. I may need something to blackmail you with after :)

5. You released the first version back in august. Were you happy with the result? How did it do in sales?

Eugene: I think it went TOTALLY wrong from the start…  I mean, what we released back then was still a BETA…  And the game didn’t appear in the “News” category. And the price tag was wrong too! I would NOT advise developers to have a start with a SALE price tag… Never.

Andrey: Personally I think it was actually playable, but needed some enhancement of course. We got plenty of feedback and released an update soon.

6. On releasing your first update you made quite an unusual decision of upping the price from $1.99 to $9.99. Why?

Eugene: The game is quite complex, to start with… not very much casual…  and the $2 price is what you usually have for arcade games… you know, it’s the primitive stuff most of the time.

Andrey: This difficult decision moved us from casual category to serious category I would say.

Eugene: We got a whole lot of people buying the game by mistake, really. Because the price was low, it looked good on screenshots, and they could afford it… And then it turned out too complicated (rules, controls, etc) It was not an easy move, really, but the game was steadily going down in the list… at $2.

7. Are you happy with the result? How are sales now?

Eugene: I’d say It’s satisfactory… sales-wise, and taking into account it is all to be split four ways. Game wise, I think the result is awesome. Really, it’s perhaps the highest time spent to quality ratio possible for a port.

Andrey: Just look how reviews changed in the Appstore. That’s the answer.

8. What are the main challenges in bringing such a game to the iPhone?

Eugene: Apple :D

Andrey: :D Yes :)

Eugene: that’s #1

Apple

that’s #2

Apple

that’s #3

Andrey: Hold on, Eugene :)   I’ll describe more specifically.

That would be nice :)

Andrey: The platform itself is very powerful considering hardware and has great potential.

Eugene: As a device)

Andrey: But Apple has brought very strict limitations to resource usage. We all know, it doesn’t even have task-switching. The problem is wide and deep. Literally anywhere you encounter limitations. You can’t do this, you can’t do that. It was a trick to overcome all of these.

Eugene: And you also can’t really develop for iphone if you’re outside US. There’s a seeming possibility. But it’s NOT possible in 99% of the cases.

Andrey: Apple just ignores you.

Eugene: Or you can’t get the money if you somehow get inside. Overall, I’d say the problem is that the iPhone is still pretty much US-ONLY device…

Andrey: The main problem is you need to communicate with Apple a lot, and it’s not an easy task.

9. Wow, you really ran into a lot of issues with Apple. But it seems you have found a way around the limitations. And what can you say about their approval process? Did you have any difficulties?

Andrey: We are having them till now :)

Eugene: It’s total b******t! as an idea, and as its practical implementation. I think someone HAS to say it is like it is :D

Andrey: We got the 1.2 update rejected for some virtual reason. Now have to wait again, we apologize for the inconvenience :(

Eugene: Yeah, I think they can even lose a lawsuit for that rejection, what would you say, Hedin?

Andrey: I don’t care

Eugene: They said we used a private API. But it was a common C++ API.

They probably are very paranoid after the Storm8 story.

Eugene: :D I think there will be MORE of that. Simply because of their ideology. When you play like a dork, don’t expect people to be nice in return!

10. In any project there are lots of funny stories. Could share one or two of them from your project?

Andrey: Concerning funny stories… I remember the time we were working on monsters animation in combat. This was really funny! We shouted at each other “3 pixels to the right I say!”, “it’s the problem in picture not in code!”.

Eugene: :D We could kill each other for that :)   My pictures are FLAWLESS :D I told you:)

Andrey: Eugene thought animations are perfect and I found glitches and shifts in his perfect frames :)

Eugene: And it turned out that it was both… the code and the frames

11. Did anything change for you with the introduction of the 3GS and iPod Touch 3G?

Andrey: Technically speaking not much. Those devices will run PH too.

Eugene: Well… I think globally – yes. But not for us. Many devs have double the testing problems now.

Andrey: We don’t use digital compass or anything else of the new equipment in the 3GS :)

Eugene: and I mean the jailbreak problems of course :)

Andrey: Yes, the jailbreak is crucial for the development

Eugene: Not only for us by the way – I know many devs who never managed to find the right shaman dance to make it work “the Apple way”

12. How would you compare the iPhone to the other devices on the market? Especially the ones you developed for?

Eugene: That’s a hard question, really. Developer-wise… I think it’s the toughest device.

Andrey: It’s simpler for me, because I can compare devices from inside, I mean hardware & software. It has outstanding hardware possibilities and great low-level UNIX-like support for C++, but also has a lot of artificial limitations brought by Apple as I said earlier. This makes it somehow incomparable. You can do whatever you want on WM.

Eugene: Let me try to compare it to the WM. On WM – it’s anarchy, you do what you want, and how you want. And you develop your security as well…  I think it’s very good. But with only one setback Selling…

It’s very hard to make a user enter the billing info on a (practically unknown?) website!

With the iPhone, the user is just there, with his/her wallet in iTunes.

13. How would you compare your sales on the iPhone as opposed to the other platforms?

Eugene: :D

We HAVE sales on the iPhone.

Andrey: in times? or in tenth of times?

Eugene: That’s the most exact description)

Meaning, we DON’T on WM :D

14. What can you say on the future of the iPhone as a platform for such complex games?

Eugene: Zero future. As for any other mobile platform. It will never be profitable to make such an impossible complex project virtually from scratch for a mobile platform.

It’s a PC-scale project for a very small market

Andrey: Of course there always will be people who prefer to think, but most prefer to pay $1 for somethink like iFart… You know, a really complex game requires some facilities to exist. You need big screen, convenient controls, a time to think. You don’t have all of these in the street, where you play your iPhone :)

But according to the statistics, the market is steadily moving from the PC to the mobile devices (I think we even had an article on that somewhere in the beginning of September)

Eugene: I’d believe that when I see an iphone every day in the street.

You should move to Moscow :) I see at least a couple every day in the subway.

Eugene: Ok, I’ll describe this in a different light.

The “big” games that we have from the big devs are in fact one and the same game, packed with different 3D models and stuff. No one will develop huge, complex, non-casual game projects.

How about Settlers, C&C Red Alert, Ravensword, Undercroft, The Quest? Those are just are few which come to mind.

Eugene: As I said, that stuff is likely to share the engine with something else. Frankly speaking, I seriously have no idea how that can be profitable :(

Andrey: I have not seen the latter 2, but I can say that you can’t play an RTS on a mobile device. It’s ridiculous.

I’m not only talking about RTS. Though Settlers can be played with no problems, for example. You can check out my review. But they essentially took the complete part of the series 4 and fit it into the iPhone. Maybe a bit less maps, but the model is the same.

Andrey: If so, I would be interested to look at it! But I really think there is no market for some kind of games in 480×320 screens.

Eugene: as with Fallout 3 – I didn’t believe it’s possible to make a 3D fallout game. And it turned out exactly the way I thought… By the way, Fallout 3 is a good example to illustrate my POV about iPhone games that share one engine.

Looks different, but you get that funny feeling that you’ve played that before.

Andrey: To put our common with Eugene POV in the nutshell: the more complex the games is, the lower are the sales.

15. Speaking of controls and engines. How do you envision the perfect GUI for a strategy game on the iPhone?

Andrey: My opinion is – we have done our best to implement our vision of controls.

Eugene: The GUI is – big GFX, the less multitouch, the better. The less buttons on the screen, the better. except big GFX, that’s how we have done it in PH

Andrey: big buttons, sliders… no 1x1px elements… and so on.  The simpler – the better!

16. If you went back to the start of the project, what would you’ve done differently?

Andrey: Nothing differently… We’ve done our best I think. Technically the engine is perfect.

Eugene: Thanks to Robert here.

The graphics is the only thing that doesn’t do its work well now.

Andrey: Yes, it was developed for lower res and looks somehow small…

Eugene: but it was a draw at those times. We couldn’t make VGA gfx for 320×240. It would be ridiculous.

17. What can you say about your future plans and upcoming releases?

Andrey: I was waiting for this question :)

Eugene: me too!

Andrey: We tell them, yeah? :)

Eugene: Right now I’m playing with our second iPhone app – The Jukemaster.

After that, we’ll get back to the WM version. We can’t be dependent on Apple sales – that’s suicide.

We’ll gradually release all our 112 maps. Don’t worry, they will all come to the iPhone. In free updates of course!

Andrey: The 1.2 is going to release soon. It’s rather a tweak release than a major one. The GUI just became better, bugs fixed and so on.

And to the big features :)

Regarding Palm Heroes – the main two issues I heard lately were a better tutorial on controls (maybe a video or something like that) and the lack of a campaign. Do you plan on including them in the future?

Andrey: We are planning to include an intercative tutorial, yes.

Eugene: We actually have a detailed description of controls in plain English in the HELP section of 1.2 as well as a 70-something page manual with much more answers than the questions you may have as a player.

Are you planning on adding new races, spells, units, etc?

Eugene: Yes!

To reveal what’s behind the curtain, I can tell about it in short.

We are working on the 2-stage upgrade system, giving a whole new lot of creatures. They are DONE! Everything’s ready in gfx!

Andrey: They just behave badly now :)

Eugene: seafaring – ships are ready in gfx!

Also, in-castle graphics.

Andrey: and to the big ones?  we’ve prepared something even more cool!

Eugene: we’ll add more RPG to the game, patch up the weak stuff, like the excessive map size due to all the translations done in a hurry.

Andrey: and still something more cool :)

Eugene: tell him

Andrey: really?

Eugene: We’re not Apple, no NDA here!

Andrey: we are going to do a random map generator at first. and then…

Eugene: a crossplatform ONLINE multiplayer

Andrey: with a single click

Eugene: yes, the best thing about it is it’s very simple to get online MP. Push a button, and you’re playing!

Crossplatform?! Wow, that will be huge! I don’t think there is any game with crossplatform multiplayer on the market now!

Andrey: You can easily play between WM, iPhone and God only knows where are we going to port, right Eugene?

Eugene: right. It will be a good place to show those “glamour apple fanboys” or laugh at the “breaking down WM oldtimer”. Playing WM against iPhone or vice versa.

18. With such huge plans have you ever thought about partnering with a major publisher, like Gameloft or Chillingo?

Eugene: No way. We’ve had experience with publishers. To all your readers – NEVER buy from Pocketgear!

Andrey: I think we are doing fine on our own

19. What’s your take on piracy on the iDevice platform. Lately there has been a lot of hype about that.

Andrey: Apple doesn’t provide any protection for the distributed apps.

Eugene: you should read my latest blog entry – I just described that. In short, the iPhone is a warez HEAVEN. The only thing that saves the platform is that its users are used to buying things.

Andrey: No, not exactly that. Most of users are too lazy to jailbreak

Do you think that everyone who jailbreaks will pirate apps and games?

Eugene: jailbreaking is by the way not equal to piracy!

Andrey: no, but if you DO NOT jailbreak, you can’t do that :) at least no known way… known to me at least :)

Eugene: Jailbreaking is an absolute must to use the device the normal way. But the coincidence is – it also allows pirate apps.

Do you think that piracy has a significant effect on sales on the platform? Would sales be higher if there was no way to pirate?

Andrey: There is no way to stop piracy

Eugene: Apple is really doing something totally wrong – they are fighting JB, instead of focusing on providing some working measures against pirates. I am totally sure that there are people who will not buy anything… no matter what price you put!

Oh yes, BY THE WAY!

Most of people in the former Soviet Union have no choice but to use pirate apps for iPhone! The US users may not be familiar with that fact… the AppStore doesn’t accept most Russian credit/debit cards, so there’s simply no way to buy stuff for the AppStore for many people

Andrey: And to the second part of the question. Yes, I think the sales would be higher of course, but slightly. Not very much.

Eugene: The sales would not be much higher without piracy. I agree.

20. Eugene, Andrey, thank you for your time. Could you say some final words for the TMA readers?

Eugene: Buy Palm Heroes :D

That’s a joke :)

No matter if you like an app or don’t think about the people that are making it. Something you write may offend the developer very much. Because developing a game like that IS personal. And what we read in the reviews is taken personally too.

Andrey: Computer games are a kind of art. Personally I think so. It’s not only a way to make money. I hope there are people who like what we are doing. We do our best to master our game. Really! Because we love it!

Eugene: And thank you all for your support during those 4 years of development!

You can read more TouchMyApps interviews here.

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