Flat Earth is a start-up gaming company run by two brothers, Rohan and Leigh Harris. The pair’s first game, TownCraft for iPad, took two years to develop and was launched at the Pax gaming conference last July.
With Rohan’s creative flair and Leigh’s PR background, they had all the tools they needed to hit the ground running when it came to games development… except cold hard cash, of course.
TownCraft – the ‘elevator pitch’ of which is Minecraft meets The Sims – is a building game also reminiscent of Terraria, in which your character uses natural resources to build a home, a village and eventually a community, trading goods and produce, and employing villagers. Day turns to night and the worst thing that can ever happen is that you may overextend economically, go broke and have to start from scratch. One thing you won’t do is die a horrible death, get chased down a tunnel by all manner of threatening creations or be eaten by monsters. TownCraft is most definitely not that kind of game.
Since launch, the game has received positive word of mouth, great reviews and a heap of downloads. But even with this success, the Harris brothers have an old-fashioned piece of advice for anyone looking to follow in their footsteps. Yes, it’s ‘don’t give up the day job…’
Talking us through the game, Leigh and Rohan Harris explain how it was conceived, the problems and triumphs they’ve encountered so far and what it’s like working cheek by jowel with your brother.
Tell us about the Sims versus Minecraft elevator pitch.
LH: That’s how we usually describe it.
RH: With the main difference between this and a lot of games that are similar to Minecraft is that we don’t really have a ‘lose’ condition and there’s no way to die. It’s designed to be relaxing. You can sit down and play for a couple of hours.
LH: We sort of found that out. We launched it at Pax and we were just watching people play it and hearing their feedback over the course of the three days that we were down there. Our pitch changed from it being like Sim City meets Minecraft to ‘it’s just a really chilled out, relaxing game’. You don’t ever starve or anything if you happen to have your town economy implode because you hired too many people and can’t afford it. The only punishment is you walk away and maybe your crops will die and you have to replant them. So for that reason it seems to have gone down really well with people.
RH: It’s not your online swear-a-thon.
LH: We’ve just found that people seem to be really tired of games trying to induce stress and frustration and for that to be the impetus. So what we wanted to do was try to make the game aesthetically pleasing, so that wandering around and doing your thing was enjoyable in its own right.
I suppose to an extent there’s a little bit of Jenova Chen in there (not intentionally). He’s the chap who created games like Flow and Flower and more recently Journey for the PlayStation – all a very different type of really relaxed game where it just doesn’t try to frustrate a player to create a drive.
What came first? The game or Flat Earth?
RH: The game. It was an idea I had that Leigh and I then developed. We developed the idea and then we developed the game with [game development studio] Epiphany Games.
What were you doing before that?
LH: I started off in PR. For about nine or 10 years I was doing PR for Rockstar Games. When I left there I decided to pick up work writing about games and I was probably less than a year into that before Rohan had the idea for TownCraft. And I’ve still been supporting myself and paying rent while we’ve been making this game, with writing. And Rohan’s been doing IT for a school on the North Shore.
It’s been a part-time thing. With no budget to speak of, we had the support of Epiphany Games. We had to go out and find all the artists and musicians ourselves and go, ‘Hey we don’t have any money, but we’d like you to work for us.’ We’ve got an arrangement now, which is fairly good. When the sales come in and we get paid, everybody is taking their share.
How many people does that involve? How many artists did you use?
LH: Three artists, one animator, a sound designer, a musician and there are a couple of other people who came on for a couple of weeks like interns – just doing a bit of part-time work.
Did you expect it to take two years when you started it?
RH: Nooooooooooo! Morgan [Lean, CEO of Epiphany] very enthusiastically said it would be something like three or four months of full-time development, whereas in real life, if we’d had the full team working full-time, it probably would have taken six to eight months.
This was his guesstimation after hearing a brief summary of the game. It became very different after we’d actually fleshed it all out and knew exactly what we were doing. It would take nearly two years, because we were doing it part-time.
You launched in July?
LH: We launched the iPad version in Australia and New Zealand only in July. We were going to launch with the iPhone version as well, but we just had to make a calculated decision and go, ‘Well, if it comes out for iPhone and iPad it’s going to be broken and unfinished if we actually wanted to hit Pax. So, several months ago we decided that we were just going to focus on the iPad and get something that was polished that we could build off, a really good core and then grow from there. We’re now [beginning of October] two weeks into our international launch.
How’s it going?
LH: It’s going OK. We’ve been getting some reviews in. Our first 5 out of 5 just came in today. I don’t understand why they like it because [the review’s] in French. I could pick up a few words!
In Australia, my PR experience was here, so getting a huge swathe of media coverage was something I was able to quite easily do. We got a pretty significant spike when we first launched and it ended up being the No. 2 paid app in the country for I think a day and a half. I ended up taking a photo on my phone of paid apps. It said No. 1 Minecraft – of course – and No. 2 TownCraft and then No. 3 was the latest version of Worms. Which was a game that we grew up playing as kids. We were kind of blown away by the response.
And we also got the news yesterday that we have Screen Australia funding for porting to iPhone, localising other languages and helping the marketing push for the international release.
RH: So that means that in a month or two I’ll be working full-time. Before now we’ve had to balance rent paying…
LH: I’m currently behind on rent… It’s been kind of exhausting. There have been a lot of home cooked meals involving two-minute noodles. A lot of cheap cleanskin wine bottles, things like that, to help us get through it.
RH: I haven’t been able to afford Laphroig [whiskey] in about six months; it’s terrifying.
Have any major bugs come up in the game?
RH: There’s one where we’ve had two people lost their saved games, but it doesn’t seem to be related to TownCraft. It’s like the entire app’s been deleted. It could be something to do with iOS 7 updating stuff in the background, but I haven’t been able to prove that and only two people have had it. Normally, when you get a bug of any seriousness, you usually have enough people coming in that you can go, ‘what have they all got in common?’ In this case, we’ve had only two people and one of them doesn’t seem to really care, because she hasn’t responded… She sent us an email and then lost interest. Unfortunately it’s one of those things where extremely rare bugs are the hardest to track down.
LH: But we’ve been very much trying to take advantage of the fact that we are a very small team and when people contact us they are contacting the creators directly. We’re being as diligent as we can and responsive as we can.
I’ve adopted the same approach when it comes to doing press releases. What do we have going for us? Before it was being local, so it was support local industry. That angle was really good for sending out press releases originally, but now it’s ‘we’re Aussie, so let’s open with g’day and just kind of go from there and keep the tone really informal’. It seems to have got a decent response.
RH: The other thing is when someone sends an email saying ‘love your game but found these bugs’ and things like that, not only can you help them and try and sort it out, but they can help you track down what the bugs are. More than that, in a few cases where a dialogue’s gone on for a few days, we’re able to talk to them afterwards and say, ‘What are you enjoying about the game, what do you enjoy most, what do you enjoy least about it?’ so we can take very personal feedback from people. Why they’re playing it still. One woman, she’s very unfortunate, she ran into three bugs that I’ve been slowly trying to fix over the last couple of weeks. They’re not major ones, but she managed to find all three of them in one game! She ended up helping us out immensely and we managed to track down one of these extremely difficult bugs just by corresponding with her.
She ended up putting up a review on iTunes as a lot of people do.
After the bugs were fixed?
RH: No, well one of them had been fixed, but it hadn’t been rolled out. Despite that she still actually gave us five stars, commenting in the review how good the support had been.
Has iOS 7 made any big changes? Have you had to do a big update for that?
LH: A couple. I had to roll out a few fixes to make sure it would work with iOS 7. iOS 7 in general runs a bit slower than 6. It’s a bit more of a memory hog. It’s not a fast paced game, so it doesn’t really matter. It’s a couple of frames a second slower than it was on iOS 6. It’s only really noticeable if you’ve got an iPad 3, that’s the slowest iPad. It’s not really a game that tests your reflexes.
RH: So it’s not really an issue. Now that I know it runs a bit slower, I feel obliged to find a way to optimise it and make it a bit faster in the next couple of months.
Have you found much of a mix in genders of the people who are taking up TownCraft?
RH: It seems to be really close to 50/50.
LH: All we can really go off is the people who give us feedback though but, yeah, it does seem to be a really good spread of incredibly young and incredibly old.
RH: This woman who was helping us out, she’s 48 and I’m so used to people who play games being so much younger that it’s really interesting to get such a wide variety. People have emailed us because they’ve got their kids playing it.
LH: There was another guy who emailed in and said he absolutely loved the game, but had a family of six and only three iPads – so could we please insert ‘save game’ slots, so there could be multiple games on one iPad.
RH: …which we actually did.
What’s the rating?
RH: It’s actually a 12. There’s no violence, there’s no profanity or any of that stuff, but you can brew wine and beer.
LH: The actual consumer advice says something along the lines of ‘alcohol and drug use’. Because it all falls in the same category. So the ability to brew and sell beer even though no one is seen drinking it or gets drunk, means we had to go 12+.
What’s it like working with your brother?
RH: It’s good because we got a lot of the getting angry with each other out of our system when we were younger. So even when we get really pissed off with each other, it’s usually because we’re stressed about something else, and then we try to find a way to work with each other.
LH: Especially in the last four months or so of development, where we were just working every weekend – usually at Rohan’s place – until midnight and getting the last train home kind of thing. It started to get to a stage where it was really obvious that we were both getting incredibly stressed about the whole thing. But it was more workload than proximity…
RH: …but also because we both do different things on it. Leigh does all the design, now he’s doing all the marketing. So my heaviest time was right before we released. Whereas for Leigh, it’s more stressful for him now than it was four months ago.
LH: I ended up having a really sort of rough time of it in the anticipation of the game coming out and then in the anticipation of the global launch happening. I just seemed to really succumb to stress. I ended up writing a fairly lengthy article on how I was dealing with clinical depressionas a result of the stress of working on the game. It ended up going up on Gamasutra.com. It got circulated a bit, it was quite good.
And what do you do to de-stress? Do you play games?
RH: It depends what the games are. Talking about games being stressful, sometimes stopping to go and play a big budget shooter is not generally very helpful. A lot of the time I’ll avoid screens, and go and do something else. I went on a holiday after TownCraft launched, with my girlfriend. We went up to Queensland and went up to the Daintree and nearly got eaten by a crocodile… which was a different sort of stress!
LH: When I’m really in a stressing out mode, I just try to sit in a café and read a book, especially because my connection to social networks is work – my Facebook page, Flat Earth’s, the various Twitter accounts that we’re running. Checking that stuff and keeping updating is part of my daily routine for work. I actually gave up caffeine entirely earlier on this year and I have actually got a markedly better sleeping pattern since then.
With TownCraft taking so much longer than originally envisaged, what would your advice be to similar start-ups in the position you were in a couple of years ago?
RH: Try to avoid putting yourself in a position where what you’re doing is unsustainable – because we managed to keep our day jobs while doing it. We had to cut back on our hours, that was stressful in that regard, but it did mean that we weren’t staring at a ‘in two months we can’t afford to keep doing this’ situation. We were able to keep going , within reason. However, in complete contrast to that, the other bit of advice I would have is don’t give up the deadline. You need an actual deadline of some sort; otherwise you could just keep developing forever. We were able to keep developing a certain number of hours per week, but the decision to launch the game at Pax gave us a hardline deadline to actually finish the game. Which meant that it was going to get done.
LH: As it turns out we had to crunch and then barely made it. On one platform.
And what about other platforms?
RH: iPhone’s next.
RH: No, then Mac and Windows. We spent a lot of time looking at sales figures for Android versus development costs and we’ve figured out if we’re hitting this number of sales at that point it becomes potentially viable to do an Android port. And we’re just looking at it as a pure numbers game. We’ve kept our options open in terms of using a framework that can build across all these platforms.
What equipment are you designing on and using?
RH: Almost all of TownCraft I programmed on a 13in MacBook Air, that I’d bought fairly recently at that time. So it’s now about 2½ years old. Other than that we have a couple of iMacs that are a bit older than that.
I have a Mac Pro because I do filmmaking as a hobby; however, we did use that for a while because we needed another machine. We don’t actually need that kind of power at all. In fact the fastest thing I found for doing development was my laptop because with an SSD and a faster CPU in it, it just kicked arse over all of the other hardware that we had.
And what about personal gadgets and hardware?
LH: I’m not really much of a gadget person actually. I’ve got my iPad 4 and iPhone 4s, and other than that I’ve got my laptop, but practically everything else I could consider a gadget is gathering dust. I’ve got every gaming console under the sun and I’ve got the PlayStation (Meteor), but I don’t really touch them. My laptop is a Qosmio Toshiba, high-end gaming laptop from about two years ago. It’s the only one that can run Civilisation 5.
RH: Whereas I absolutely love playing with different gadgets. I’ve got a whole tonne of different things sitting at home. I really prefer using Apple stuff. I was a big Linux person for many years. And I still can’t stand using an operating system that isn’t Unix based. So to me going to Mac was the only real option and I’ve grown to love a lot of user interface designs there. I’ve got an iPhone 5 and when I can afford it I’ll be getting a 5s.
And I’ve got an iPad 3. The only reason I haven’t upgraded to a newer one is that I wanted the slowest iPad to be the one that I developed on, so that I wasn’t going to let myself get too slow. But I use my iPad a couple of hours a day at least. It sees very heavy use. Then I’ve got a Mac Pro, I’ve got a MacBook Air, I’ve got an iMac that I work on here. I still keep all my old Macs as well, so I’ve actually got an old 2007 MacBook Pro, the 17in ones and a Mac mini floating around as well. It’s an entirely Mac house. I used to keep a Windows machine around just to play games on, but I don’t bother with that any more. If it’s not on a Mac then I won’t play it.
So what’s next for Flat Earth?
LH: It’s going to come down to how TownCraft does. If we feel that it’s just continuing to sell and the reviews are still being good, we’ll keep on doing stuff. We’ve got ideas for other TownCraft games. If the sales just fell flat tomorrow and no one cared about the game anywhere in the world…
RH: …we would probably make a different game.
by Madeleine Swain
An abridged version of this interview features in the Macworld Australia December edition, available in shops from 28 November. Also featured are reviews of the iPad Air, Mavericks, 13in and 15in MacBook Pros, and a group test of GPS Cameras – among heaps of other great stuff.