iTête à iTête – Interview with Charlie McHenry from Trilobyte Games – Like a phoenix, rising again from the flames of the AppStore

The App Store model has certainly revolutionized software development as a whole and games development in particular. Thanks to the extremely low entry cost and a centralized distribution system, it has become a launch pad for many new indie developers both successful and not so much. But that isn’t much of a surprise to anyone remotely familiar with the market. What’s more interesting is that this new platform actually allowed some veteran companies many thought long gone to get back together as well.

And of such phoenixes, born again from the flames of App Store, is Trilobyte Games – the company behind the legendary PC adventure – The 7th Guest (TMA Review), recently re-released for the iOS. Today I’m joined by Charlie McHenry, the current COO of Trilobyte, to talk about their resurrection, work on The 7th Guest, future plans, and more.

My comments and questions are in my usual bold.

1. Charlie thank you for joining me today, especially at this early hour for you. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and Trilobyte Games?

I am an industry veteran, with more years than I care to remember. I started out with AST Computer, went to Quarterdeck, was a marketing guy with a storage manufacturer, then a consultant. I’m the Chief Operating Officer of Trilobyte. Trilobyte Games was re-organized just last January to bring legacy games to iOS. We’ll be developing some entirely new titles as well. Original founder, Rob Landeros is our majority stockholder and CEO. There are three main partners now, some minor investors, and just a few contract employees.

So I gather there is not a big in-house team at the moment? Are you planning to get the folks back together or are you planning to use the “hollywood” model, pioneered by Charles Cecil?

I personally prefer a team, and am not anxious to use the Hollywood model. We’ll be putting a team together, a programming studio, and doing our own thing. We may use the Hollywood model to fund very large projects like The 7th Guest III.

2. Why did you decide to adapt your classic adventure for the iOS Platform?

It is a very large opportunity. And, it eliminates a lot of middle-men, as well as packaging, distribution, and the like. That enables us to do what we do, programming/development & marketing, and not worry about the other stuff.

Are you also planning a Mac Appstore version of 7th Guest?

Though I can’t confirm that yet, it is a very good bet :-)

:-)

3. What would you say are the main challenges in bringing such a game as The 7th Guest to the iOS?

The 7th Guest was unique, with unique challenges. It was originally written for pre-Windows PC’s with a VGA card. It has its own graphics engine called Groovie. We had to do a lot of work to get it over to iOS. Our Chief Technology Officer is very talented, and we got the job done. Other titles have their own challenges, but we are confident we can port our older properties, and, develop great new titles as well.

4. I know that the current build of ScummVM already supported 7th Guest. Did you use it as the basis for your port or have you done the whole thing from scratch?

From scratch. John Fricker is our CTO, and he’s a great programmer.

Are you familiar with the ScummVM project in general? What do you think about it?

I’m aware of it, but John would be the authority and his opinion is the one that matters. So far, we’re using our own devices. We are working on tools of our own, including video (FMV) tools, for future projects.

5. One of the most difficult aspects in porting any game to the iOS are the controls. Do you feel you’ve done a good job with 7th Guest? Would you change anything now that the game has been live for about a month?

We’ve updated once already, and will continue to offer our users updates. But the challenges of the port do constrain us somewhat. We are satisfied to a point, and we look forward to our projects that will be “native” to iOS. The touch interface and in-app opportunities are exciting. We’re looking at ways to offer our users unique gaming experiences based on the 7th Guest brand. That will not be our only brand, we’ll be developing additional titles in the near future as well.

6. Were you involved in the development of the original game? Have you felt like there were things you would change for the iOS release in terms of gameplay design? Apart from the interface of course.

I played a very small role in the original effort. I was around, but not on the core team. I think the port has been true to the original game, with the exception of the 3 puzzles that didn’t make the port. One was simply too small to play on the iPhone. Another, the “microscope” puzzle, is based on AI and that was a problem. I like the iOS version, and our fans have largely approved. We do view the re-introduction as a starting point for our future efforts. Now that we’re back in the market, and back in front of fans, we’ll be offering regular new product introductions to maintain our momentum.

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

Well…. I guess the fact that the company was re-born in a number of local coffee-houses over many Latte’s using the cloud for management has had its moments. If we drink much more caffeine, we’ll all be qualified astronauts. Working around original founder Rob Landeros’ golf schedule has been fun. He’s a committed golfer and when its sunny, we never know. Good thing we’re all so connected these days.

8. If you could go back to the start of the project, what would you’ve done differently?

I’d have gotten started a year or so earlier, but other than that, there’s nothing I’d change.

That’s almost a first in my experience :)

9. What can you say on the future of the iOS devices as a platform for adventure games? How would you compare it to the other similar devices on the market?

iOS is predictable, stable, and user-centric. We’re looking at the Android market, and it is not yet well-defined. It is device-centric and is implemented in a number of different ways – depending on vendor. We hope to have an Android team working by this Summer, but we won’t be devoting a lot of time and effort to that market until clear leaders emerge. The iPad rocks. It is an industry-changing platform, not just a new form factor. We’ve got a couple of interactive movies we’re looking at porting, just for that reason.

10. I know you plan to port the 11th Hour to the iOS as well. What is the current timeframe?

Summer. We’ve got some work to do on that. Anticipate a few new products first. We’re going to let our fans know we’re here for the long term by putting some new titles out there.

11. What are your other plans? You mentioned thoughts of developing an original title for the iOS platform. Could you share some details? Or at least hint?

We like puzzles. It’s a good place to be in the market. We also enjoy simple, graphically rich gaming experiences that have the fan “wow” power. Our programmers are good, but one should not forget that Rob Landeros is a graphic and artistic genius (IMHO). You can expect us to leverage that for new titles.

No chance you could be even more specific? :)

None of the online editors and bloggers would ever talk to me again. I’ve already given you a bit more than I’ve revealed to date. But here: expect our next new product to be ready in February.

No problem, I don’t want you to lose your credibility! I really appreciate all you told me…

12. What do you think about the iPad? Many competitors have announced similar devices at the recent CES 2011. Do you feel Apple will be able to hold their ground?

Yes. Apple has market share, and is standardized. Every other tablet will be based on a unique implementation of Android. We’re expecting the Samsung Galaxy and Motorola’s new device to be the ones to watch. But that’s not news.

13. What are your expectations for the iPad 2? Have you thought about it at all?

Sure, we’re thinking about it. Higher resolution should be awesome. For users, the reported camera and hardware adjustments should be welcome. Beyond that, we’ll just have to see. I am very impressed with the device’s market penetration and share. Apple’s infrastructure, with the brick-and-mortar stores as well as the online stores, is in place and working like a Swiss watch. Going to be hard for anyone to match that. In the 80′s, I worked on an independent marketing research team with Apple’s Ron Roner, that helped lay the foundation for the current stores. That project was called “Apple Fitness Centers” because the Apple team likened the new stores to the many health & fitness centers that were springing up at the time.

Are you keeping in touch with him now? Some insider Apple info? :)

Nope. Did not stay in touch. The market pulled me the other way and I ended up working the Windows and PC side for over a decade.

14. Almost each month some developer publicly announces that they suffer enormous amounts of piracy and lost revenue. What’s your take on piracy on the iOS platform?

It does exist, but we’re not sure it is that widespread. We’re actually looking at that now, to make a determination as to the impact. Like most start-ups, the lawyers are running us around a bit, but we’re really focused on development right now. More titles, more markets, and building fan support. We’re really using Twitter and Facebook very aggressively to communicate and build buzz. That’s where we’re focused.

15. And what about jailbreaking?

We are aware that there are already 7th Guest v. 7.0 copies available for jailbroken devices. Our lawyers are looking into that for us. But again, we’re just not sure how big a problem it really is. Once we get that figured out, we’ll determine the correct level of response.

16. What are your top 3 favourite apps and games for the iPhone?

I use my iPad for playing games, and I like the graphics of Infinity Blade (TMA Review) – which I play. I use Fandango for my iPhone, Twitter & Facebook apps, and I enjoy “Art Authority” a wonderful app developed here locally by our friends Alan Oppenheimer & Jim Teece. I will be buying the translation app. Is it “Window Pane?” (I think Charlie meant Word Lens here) I travel a lot and that will be useful.

17. If you could ask for one new feature for the next iPhone or iPad, what would it be?

Tethering for the iPhone. But that’s not going to happen. I think the iPad is almost perfect and with the reported updates in the next version, I’m quite satisfied the device will remain the industry standard. Perhaps an improved sound system/speaker would be nice.

But the iPhone already has tethering, doesn’t it? And it’s more than possible that they will include the Wi-Fi hotspot feature. Or do you mean something other than that?

Wi-Fi hotspot would be very nice. And no, I am unaware that the iPhone can be tethered with other devices to provide internet access. We do live in a multi-vendor world and it would be great if all my devices could talk to, and be tethered with each other.

18. Charlie, thank you for your time. Could you say some final words for the TMA readers?

Trilobyte Games is delighted to be back in the market, and we’re grateful for the kind reception we’ve received to date. Look for other legacy game ports from us in the future, as well as a variety of newly developed titles that will be built from the ground-up for the iOS interface. Keep on gaming.

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