Slide To Play Q and A: Solomon’s Keep

Solomon’s Keep, a twin-stick dungeon crawler, pleasantly surprised us with its addictive and streamlined take on a classic genre. We got in touch with John Raptis, the creator of the game and head of his own independent game publisher, Raptisoft. We asked him about being a small developer, the making of Solomon’s Keep, and got few hints about what might be in store for his next game.

You have previously released titles on Mac and PC platforms. How would you compare publishing on the App Store to self publishing on the internet?

John: It has its ups and downs! Probably the biggest difference I see is in how quickly you can respond to bugs and glitches. When a user writes to say they found such-and-such a glitch in a PC title, I go to the computer, find it, fix it, and upload the fix, usually with less than an hour’s turnaround (barring the unusual, most bugs in my programs simply need me to know they exist to fix them).

With the App Store, the turnaround on getting an app approved and published is so long that you have to fix bugs in batches. This is unpleasant both for the end user, and for our poor protagonist who has to frantically assure people on message boards, for a week or more, that yes the bug is fixed, and yes the update will be coming soon!

I wasn’t used to that. Because my operation is so small, I don’t have an extensive clan of beta testers. So I went into Solomon’s Keep with the PC model in mind, and then was horrified that when I uploaded the 1.1 fix, it was a full four days before Apple made it live. Watching one-star reviews pile up for four days because of an already fixed bug is truly awful.

Other than that, I prefer iPhone to PC. It’s a nice central location for users to get access to your stuff, and for a guy like me, more artist than businessman, not thinking about how you’re going to collect money or unlock your product is pretty dang nice. I only wish I could somehow get the status of “safe developer” so that my code could be made live without going through the approval process.

We noticed that the end credits feature your name a lot. How many people contributed to Solomon’s Keep, and how long did it take to create from start to finish?

John: Well, heh… I’m more or less a one man band. I bring in people in the end to fill in the gaps that I can’t. While I can create art and code, I’m hopeless at music, so when a game is far enough along that a musician can get the general gist of things, I send it to my friend and collegue Peter Hajba.

We have a strange symbiotic relationship, where often what I send him inspires him to write a particular piece of music, and then, when I receive the music back, I end up making changes to the game to make it fit the music better. A few times in the past we’ve ended up in an endless improvement loop together, where my changes made him adjust his music, and then the new music made me tweak the game, and so on.

Other than Peter, the contributions were voices and testing. An old and dear friend Noel Reichel did the voice of Solomon– he’s got this great voice– and truthfully, we’ve been talking about something like this ever since we were roaming coffeehouses looking for girls in the 90′s.

The one downside is that the memory and load-time limitations of the iPhone did not let me put in as much dialogue as I wanted, but I’m hoping to rectify that with an expanded Windows/Mac/iPad version later. Can you imagine my grief when I found that I wasn’t going to have enough texture memory to put in the mid-game boss battle with Solomon’s mother?

As for creation time, Solomon’s Keep, the 1.0 version, took three months to complete, at slightly above full-time work (I tend to work 10-14 hour days when the muse is restless). The 2.0 update, which added quite a bit of stuff, was another month, so start to finish about four months. It’s probably a bit longer in terms of a 40-hour work week+weekends, but 40 hours would be a very slow, leisurely week for me, and I only have a nodding acquaintance with the idea of “weekend.”

What do you think about the gaming potential of the iPad? Do you have any plans to bring any of your new or existing games to the platform?

John: Before I got the iPad, I would have told you it’s the ultimate pain-in-the-butt friend device, where you’d go meet your friend, and he’d pull out his iPad and start telling you for hours how revolutionary this thing is. Now, ugh, I’m that guy. I really love the iPad for games. The convenience of app access, combined with how portable the thing is… it makes me buy games I’d never consider buying on any other platform. And yeah, I’ll be developing for it. Anything I ever do for Windows/Mac is going to get an iPad port from now on.

Currently, I plan to bring both Hoggy and Solomon’s Keep to it… and the main mental fight in my head is going to be which one first. I want to do Solomon’s Keep, but I have big plans for that game with the extra memory, so it will be a long development process. On the other hand, I can probably knock out the expanded Hoggy in a month or two. Choices, choices…

Solomon’s Keep has many possible strategic combinations. We have to ask, what is your favorite type of character?

John: I’m a ball lightning guy! I love to hurl missiles at an enemy and watch it stick to them, damaging them, and sending off sparks to nearby critters as well. It’s quite satisfying, is devastating at high levels, and lights up the screen nicely too!

Cuz that’s what playing a mage character is all about in RPGs… destroying everything in the room with a wave of your hand while enjoying the light show, right?

It seems like you enjoy making games based on some of your old favorites, so what are are some of your other favorite titles that you think would make good iPhone games?

John: Oh boy, answering this question would mean revealing a secret! I will say that I have an idea for a turn-based fantasy game in the works, and when I finish it, you’ll see the influence immediately. Or, well– maybe you won’t, because sometimes these things mutate wildly. But shrinking down big PC games to iSize is darned fun, especially when you have to really change it around to work with the touch interface.

But if I had the ability to buy the rights to one game to do for iPhone right now, I’d do Space Taxi. There’s a way to make the touch interface just perfect for that game. On a modern front, I’d enjoy taking Crush the Castle and seeing if I could find a way to make the castles look like more than skeletons of castles, but preserve the gameplay.

What is the development process like when you only have one guy at your scrum meetings?. Bathrobes and Coors Light? What advice would you give to an aspiring independent iPhone game developer?

John: Ha, bathrobes and Coors Light isn’t too far from the mark– jogging shorts and ouzo. The ladies love it. I’m not really that big a drinker, but some programming puzzles honestly can only be solved in the Ballmer Peak.

Here’s what I say to aspiring independents: What are you doing aspiring? Get to work! Man, back in the days I was learning, you had excuses for not being a game writer– you had to find a publisher, there was no internet, people had to mail physical checks to register shareware… but today? No excuses. You can have an Apple Dev Kit today, and have your first game for sale, available to a HUGE population of people, in two weeks! I would have killed for this opportunity when I was 21. Don’t make me kill you for not taking it.

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