iTête à iTête – Interview with Vincenzo and Valentina of 7th Sense Studios – The scary side of iPhone gaming

The “Jesus” phone has been around for quite some time now and one of the trickiest things to get right on it has always been the atmosphere. Franchises like Silent Hill and Resident Evil failed miserably and turned out to be  titles that can’t even scare a baby. But it seems all is not lost for the platform and a small indie group named 7th Sense Studios  have recently released the first and only really scary Survival Horror title on the platform – Fallen. And joining me today to talk about their unique creations are Vincenzo Alagna – the Technical Director and CEO and his lovely colleague Valentina Cioliono – the Producer at 7th Sense Studios.

My questions and comments, as always, in bold.

1. Vincenzo, Valentina, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and 7th Sense Studios?

Vincenzo: Well, I’m Vincenzo Alagna, and I’m actually the Technical Director and CEO here, where Valentina Cioliono is the person in charge of communications and following the production stages of our games.

I started 7th sense as a hobbyist team… way back in 1997. We were 7 people in a kind of a small office :) just one small room. I was the youngest of the team, still going to high school, and I had 3 years spent with the others trying you know, to break in the industry. In the year 2000, I made a tech for Game Boy Colour… well we made a game called The Fish Files for GBC, a really nice game that entered the GBC gems, and got very high marks…  That gave the start to everything :)

In the last years we have been producing for a variety of platforms and are official developers for NDS, WII and PSP for example, so the iPhone was really an experiment and a will to make something new and free without a publisher in the middle :) In the last years the company changed a lot, some of the original team members went out, I’m the only one left, and a lot of people changed, but with high peaks and bad moments, we managed to complete 12 professional titles :)

I think this summarizes a bit.

Valentina: There is also a lot of information about us on our official brochure on the web.

2. The iPhone is not exactly the easiest platform to make horror games for. Why did you you choose this genre as your first major game for the iDevice?

Vincenzo: Well, there are different answers.  Fallen began as a concept for Nintendo DS, and was a more adventure game at the beginning. At some point we had already a DS demo that was really gross, technically speaking very solid, but we were “blocked” by publishers. Everyone was interested but as always there were a lot of calls, and meetings, and so on.

One day, I went to the US, and took a new iPod Touch. The sound was amazing as well as the screen. When I came back home I talked with the other guys, and we agreed that with the headphones and in a dark room, with improved visuals we would have been able to get something creepy on the device…

Valentina: On the other side, we had some suggestion about iPhone-development, the most important one being: do something new. And there were no survival horror games on the App Store, nor any adventure games with the quality we had on our DS demo. The only problem was the length of the story… so we simply cut it into episodes.

3. It has been a couple of weeks already that Fallen is out on the AppStore. Are you happy with the result? Are sales on par with your expectations?

Vincenzo: Well, honestly we don’t know what to think :), because just after 3 or 4 days out, we have been put in New and Noteworthy. And this changed visibility a bit, plus we went for the promo price drop and this changed things again. Let’s say that if we keep on selling like we are doing now, that’s fine. But since that’s our first real product there and the competition is heavy, we don’t know :)

4. You have achieved the unachievable with Fallen – I literally had shivers going up my spine while playing it even surrounded by lots of people. How did you manage it? What’s the trick?

Vincenzo: Well, I think that was the huge part of the work. Consider that to conjure up, 5 minutes of gameplay, can take from 1 week up to 10 days! We spent during concept and design stage 1 month just to study everything horror around, movies, games, and so on, and one of our best inspiration is the work of Akira Yamaoka on silent hill. The combination of sound and unexpected behaviour gives the right results. But to be honest, we conceive the story and produce it in layers.

High concept, we play it… Is it scary? Do we love it? If not – fine, we go over it several times, until that playthrough gives us the chills as well :)

Valentina: Moreover..: it’s due to Vincenzo’s talent: playing as a film director with sounds, cameras, videos and characters, and asking for the best result from everyone in the team.

5. What was your main inspiration when working on Fallen?

Vincenzo: Well as I anticipated, the master of all was Silent Hill… jeez… I think I played it 5 or 6 times. But the influences are of course a lot, I think I went back to a lot of games like RE series, Parasite Eve, Rule of Roses. But I had to look past the games as well – all the Romero movies, and, if you ask me, books in the end were the best sources.

I personally studied a lot from Prison Break, and read a lot of books about prison life, prison buildings, and all that goes on inside those places. That was terrible because sometimes at the end of the day I felt really bad… If you fill your head for 10 hours in a row with all those story of life inside those places, you end up with a bad mood … really

6. One of the most challenging issues in any iDevice games are controls. How do you envision the perfect GUI for action/adventure games on the iDevice? Try to forget any limitations Apple has put in place.

Vincenzo: Well you got a real point here. The key word here was prototyping. We changed the control scheme I think at least 4 or 5 times before getting to something really working! We started with a point and click, but felt it was not working. The space on screen is vital, since you can’t use any buttons, and you have to exploit any pixel you can, still you have to avoid ruining the graphics impact.

Even the color scheme of the controls gave headaches, until one of the artists, after 10 different tests, ended up with metal elements that worked well. The Virtual pad was a no brainer, the problem was is using a RE tank movement, or a complete camera dependent one, that is the actual one we use.

7. Fallen is an episodic title – are you planning on releasing further episodes as free upgrades, in-app purchases or separate titles?

Vincenzo: Well, I think this is the hot question of the moment :) Everyone is asking, and we wanted to really think about it. We still want to support the 2.2.1 so the DLC is not possible. So, ok this is the first time we talk about this, but they will be separate DLs.

Valentina: And for the rest of the issue: TOP SECRET.

8. How many episodes are you planning? When is the next one due?

Valentina: We are actually working on the finalizing of the second episode and we will release it as soon as possible, since we noted (and we are really excited about it) the people want more! That was obvious.

Vincenzo: Ok, Valentina wants to kill me for this, but let’s say anyway, story wise, that it’s not over on our design, just when you get out of the prison :)

Looks to be quite a long adventure. I just hope that you will be able to keep up with new episodes. For what amount of gameplay (hours-wise) is each one designed?

Vincenzo: Well, consider for example, that as you see at the end of the episode 1, we already have good part of ep.2 done.

Truth is that we designed almost the whole prison in advance, and then played as movie directors inside it :) Well, we knew it was not really long, but we wanted it to have a bite size adventure, just like a comic book release. So, it is meant to be around 1h to 2h per episode; it can vary depending on the part of story we are telling.

Valentina: And it depends on the funding!! 😀

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

Vincenzo: Well, this is a though one :)

Probably the way the story have been introduced, I would have loved more cut-scenes to explain the story. And, probably, we should have focused more on the short term tasks.  Like having just a small project for the first two episodes. Instead we went a lot into details for a huge, console style game! That can make you frustrated, because the amount of work, and the time before you see the “glued” thing is really a stress.

But in the end we are satisfied with the whole process… we could have done things easier, that’s it, but probably Fallen wouldn’t come out with all the details it has.

10. What are the main challenges in bringing horror action/adventure games to the iPhone?

Vincenzo: Well, honestly that’s easy:

  1. The budget
  2. The device controls limitations (and some more horsepower would help…)
  3. Right people at the right moment.

11. What can you say about Apple’s approval process? Did you have any difficulties?

Well, let’s say this:

We come from “official” console development. We are a long time developer on Nintendo Platforms. And well we can’t give the details. But really there you have a very very clear process. You have precise guidelines to follow, and you know in advance what to test and what to do in order to be compliant, plus you have “personal reference”.

The approval process is not clear at Apple… you don’t know what’s going to make your title rejected or not…! That simply drives you crazy! So if there is something I really have to criticize, is the “black boxed process”.

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

Vincenzo: Well you are right, every project has its own ones. And things get paradox when you spend hours and hours every day with the same people in the same room :)

Valentina: I can speak about myself became a “scary-level tester”. They never showed me any part of the video and only once sounds and music were added they came to me with the iPhone and headphones… (I really hate horror movies, due to frightening music).

So they showed the game, and had a lot of fun just watching my reactions..:(

But I am a brave girl, and I never shouted.

Vincenzo: Better one, we were animating one of the monsters that is not in this episode. Well the artist, at some point made a mistake with the bone implant IK system :) And what was supposed to be a scary animation of a monster killing bloody, became a Samba dance… we had a video internally about him :) And from time to time, in stress times, you could see us talking about the next blood spot or ripped off body in one scene… then somebody with really a few hours of sleeping… putted “y to conga” from Gloria Estefan … and … well O_O .. we were a group of idiots dancing with the monsters in the monitors…

Valentina: And I suggested to add a dancing monster during the credits.. but they still don’t agree 😀

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

Vincenzo: Well, honestly, when we saw the potentials with the new set… we felt like we could have added more features, but at the point where we were… that was too risky…so for Fallen the engine won’t change…

Valentina: Don’t forget that team has to bear as well an additional cost to buy the device to test. Why am I only speaking about costs?! You are supposed to be the CEO!

Vincenzo: Because I’d start to cry :)

14. How would you compare the iPhone to the other devices on the market?

Vincenzo: What I like:

  1. Easy to program after a short study
  2. iTunes and App Store is great for reaching audience
  3. The cool overall design and good amount of power and video res.

What I don’t like:

  1. Approval process… many ways to improve it, they should hire some veteran from Nintendo or Sony
  2. Inappropriate mix of apps on iTunes, visibility would greatly improve with a more moderated approach
  3. Part of the OS…. yes… I rewrote a lot of functions, and still there are things to address those are blocking a lot of power of the machine

15. What can you say on the future of the iPhone as a platform for games, such as you developed?

Vincenzo: Well, now I think people will yell at me… But, I think that’s in great danger…

If they want to push it as a gaming device, for real (and it has all the potentials)… they have to start thinking about it a little more… Without the proper support and a new “division” in the iTunes… with a screening of the developers jumping in that could scare away developers that come with a lot of good intentions.

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

Vincenzo: We have a lot of prototypes that we would love to explore… differentiating the kind of games to propose, but we are strong in Adventure games and arcade/puzzle games… so we would follow this path…

But we really have to see how Fallen is going to perform in the long end, … probably other platforms could come in the next months other than iPhone, so yes, we could step back for new fresh projects on other platforms… it really depends :)

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

Vincenzo: Well, I think we would put a DONATE button on the next games :)

Fallen was out as pirated about 1H after it was released :) We saw some forums with HUNDREDS of “thank you” for the release and people comments enjoying the game. I think, well, they don’t get to the point, that we are already proposing titles at a very low price… just because we cut publishers away and take an honest income as indies here… Of course we can’t live up of air :)

Anyway that’s a huge problem, I can understand nobody wants to spend 60euros for a game… but anything between 0.99$ to 4.99$ should be acceptable.

But do you think the impact is that great or is it blown out of proportion?

Vincenzo: Well yes… I could compare with the sales at day one, and the number of posts, comments, DLs counters and so on around. So probably they are outperforming sales by a great number. They are already “lost buyers” due to jailbreaking… so you don’t have to count them, and I don’t complain too much, but with more money we can just improve the products, that’s true :)

Do you think any user who jailbroke their phone is using pirated apps?

Vincenzo: No but probably they are less keen to buy if they can find it for free. I would agree on a try-before-buy system, and if you really enjoyed donate :) that would be the perfect world. On the other hand, consider our audience, is not casual gamers, that’s probably hard core gamers, for whom is easier to spot the IPAs or just are more forum addicted… so we are more in the spot.

Do you Jailbreak?

Vincenzo: No. And I keep spending a good amount of money every week on the AppStore. So does everyone in the team.

As do I, though I am an owner of a jailbroken phone.

Vincenzo: Well probably that’s a matter of personal choice here… simply I didn’t have to or it wasn’t essential for my use of the device :)

18. Lately we have seen many good games fail while mediocre and even quite poor games succeed. What is the secret of success on the AppStore?

Vincenzo: Well, that’s a real question 😀

If we all knew it, probably we would be rich 😀 Anyway there is not a formula. You have to try… We did what we loved to, a 2.5D survival horror with adventure game elements… if you try too much to imitate other AppStore apps, we are going nowhere… Differentiate and give a nice product, if the audience likes it, results will come…

But probably the fact is that ALL of us want to see the iPhone and iPod as gaming devices while we should remember they are a mobile phone and MP3 player in the end… so the audience is different from a console, even an handheld one. Players buy them already with mindset of a gaming device

19. Could you name your top 3 apps and top 3 games for the iDevice?

Vincenzo: Well, I personally don’t use it too much for apps, so I have a few of them installed, and none so useful to replace my Mac or PC.

For the games, I like just a few of them, but If you ask me technically speaking one I’m most impressed with is Terminator Salvation… but don’t make me mention more :)

Valentina: I don’t have a iPhone… but as girl potential buyer, can I just add “Badaboo” as casual game with funny sounds? It’s simply and nice and its music is addicting.

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

Vincenzo: Well Thank you a lot for you time, well we really hope they are liking our games as much as we loved making it… and I would love to add that we are really really interested in all the community and players feedback! That’s a really exciting part of being a developer! So keep the comments coming via e-mail, Facebook, or whatever mean comes to your mind ! :)

A project manager in a major telecommunications supplier, an iPhone junkie and lately - a TMA editor. Love long walks on the beach and my wife, who is the most beautiful girl on the face of this planet. You can also follow me on twitter for all things iPhone and project management (and some personal stuff as well):

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