Q&A with Loqheart’s David Ngo and Don Quach: From Rocket Scientist to Game Developer
Making games (especially good ones) is never an easy task. Just ask David Ngo of Loqheart, a rocket scientist turned app developer. Together with his trusty partner, Don Quach, the dynamic duo have been hard at work over the past several months creating an adorable, yet challenging casual game – Cannon Cat. With its simple “one tap’ gameplay where players launch a fearless cat out of a rotating cannon to save the flying fish trapped in bubbles, there’s something endearing about the game. Set to be released for iOS in a week, David and Don recently took some time away from their busy schedules to answer some questions for TouchMyApps.
1) Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves?
David: Funny thing is I actually used to be a rocket scientist. Got degrees from MIT and Stanford and everything. Worked on satellites, laser defense systems, and lunar base designs. It sounds cool, but the work was actually quite boring and was closer to writing science fiction than actual engineering. So I figured why not take that nerdy rocket science stuff and make something really entertaining out of it. So I went back to Stanford to learn about Design and experimented by creating playful products. I even won an award for one of my toy designs. But I wanted to reach more people. After I met Don at a Facebook game startup, I knew I wanted to make mobile games with him. He had a unique perspective on game design and I think we shared a similar passion for creating great experiences.
Don: If you grill me on my past, I haven’t had much of a career. I’ve always been more of an artist that got into programming because I didn’t know anyone who programmed or wanted to make games when I was a kid. I graduated from UCSD with a Comp. Sci. degree, and from there fell into different odd jobs as I struggled during the recession. I worked as a game tester, a cashier at hardware store, a college admissions specialist, lead engineer at an interactive video startup, Co-Founder of a couple small startups and have held a couple jobs as a developer at different casual games companies. So I’m a bit of an oddball, but I’ve always been into computers and programming.
2) What made you decide to become an app/mobile game developer? And how did the name Loqheart come about?
Don: During my last job, where I was a senior dev on a Facebook game and met David, I decided mobile was the place to be, considering the barriers to success on the FB platform. At the time Zynga was exploding, but after the failure of my prior startup Domisuto where I had spent most of my savings, I decided I wanted to give it another shot in the mobile space. All the signs were pointing towards growth while FB seemed to be stagnating.
I came up with the name Loqheart on a whim. I’ve always liked the ring of Loq (lock) because it evokes a lot of memories about strong characters and companies. And heart helps to romanticize it a bit.
3) So what was the inspiration behind your first game Cannon Cat?
David: Cannon Cat came out of a series of prototyping sprints we did, where we made a prototype of one game each week. We had about 3 or 4 of them at the end of it and let friends play them all. Cannon Cat was by far the one that had the most positive reaction from everyone. As soon as they saw the basic mechanic they wanted to play it. It was easy to pick up and immediately satisfying. Looking back on it, we realized it had roots from our days playing Donkey Kong Country, but we really wanted to push it further and explore the mechanic to its utmost potential. We feel we’re just touching the surface with where Cannon Cat can go, and already have a lot of cool ideas for new mechanics and zones.
4) What were some of the challenges you faced in the initial stages of development?
Don: The biggest challenge was probably picking the right platform to develop a title on. When I first started out, I was trying to leverage tools to develop faster. The Corona SDK offered the right balance of performance, ease of use, and cost for me to start experimenting with game ideas. After that it was about iterating on our ideas: ideation, prototyping, testing, culling bad ideas and being honest about it.
5) Did one of you specialize in certain areas of creating the game (i.e code, artwork etc.) or was the work load evenly shared?
David: We both do a little bit of everything. When it comes to game design I don’t think you can stay isolated in your one discipline and expect a coherent and good product to come out. But having said that, we both had our specialties. I did almost all the artwork for the game, while Don did almost all the programming. But Don was an amazing collaborator when it came to art, level design, interface designs, and any other aspect of the game. We experimented and designed the experience together. And I think Cannon Cat is much better because of that collaboration.
Don: I think it helps you create a more cohesive and innovative product if you have some insight into all parts of the creation process. It helps me to communicate ideas if I can share the same language or be able to execute an idea if things aren’t turning out quite right.
6) How long was the game in development?
David: It’s hard to say exactly when we started, but I think it was about 8 months. It was certainly longer than we initially expected. I remember when we thought we were going to launch last Thanksgiving in 2011. Now it’s April 2012. And we had a few other dates in between those where we thought we could launch. And it seemed to keep getting pushed back. But that wasn’t because we were slow or took on more than we could chew. It was just because we kept wanting to come out with a better and more polished product. And our tendency to be perfectionists usually wins out in the end.
Don: I would say half of that 8 months was spent distracted supporting the tools side of the business. Once we were able to focus only on Cannon Cat the product developed much faster. But the game is still in development. We’ve just decided it’s finally good enough to share with everyone.
7) So did Cannon Cat turn out even better than you’d expected?
David: I’m not sure I had any expectations about “how good” it was going to be. I just knew that I wanted to make the best game I possibly could. Which is why I don’t regret taking those 8 months to polish it to the point where it’s at now. And honestly, Don and I only see how we can make it even better. It’s a compulsion of ours. I don’t think we ever are fully satisfied, and that’s why I think people should stick around with Cannon Cat and experience all the fresh new mechanics and content we have lined up. We’ve already created the beginnings of this world and these characters, and we’re excited to build out new experiences and games around them.
8 ) Now that you’ve created your first iOS game, do you have any advice for all the aspiring app developers out there?
David: My advice is to share your prototypes and development with as many people as you can. But not just your close friends and family. Talk to people who aren’t afraid to tell you that your game sucks. Criticism is way more useful than a mild positive reaction. And get advice and guidance from people who are experts in different areas. I can’t tell you how much valuable feedback we got from other artists, sound designers, game designers, marketing folks, and just people who’ve been through this entrepreneurial process before. But even after getting all that input, do what feels right for you. I think there are many routes to success, so do what resonates with you the most. After all, that’s probably why you’re making your own games right? Because you have a unique perspective that you want to share with the world.
9) Top 5 games on your iDevice
David: Tripletown, Hunger Games, Temple Run, Tiny Wings, Helsing’s Fire.
I don’t nearly have as much time as I would like downloading and trying out new games. So most of mine are pretty mainstream.
10) Any final words you’d like to share with TMA readers?
David: Don’t be fooled by the cuteness of Cannon Cat. This game gets quite challenging and is built for anyone willing to put their gaming skills to the test. Just don’t be surprised if you laugh out loud or fall in love with the characters along the way.
A big thanks to David and Don for joining us with the Q&A. Folks you can find out more about Cannon Cat here and do keep an eye out for it’s planned release on the App Store on April 26th.