AstraWare is a very popular PDA game maker.
astra Howard Tomlinson from Astraware   interviewed
They usually release their games for multiple platforms and have managed to secure themselves quite a few impressive PR conversions. Howard Tomlinson from Astraware took some time to answer the classic 10 TamsPalm questions – thank you, and here we go!
howard1 Howard Tomlinson from Astraware   interviewed
Please tell us more about you and your company!
I’m Howard Tomlinson, game and PDA enthusiast, co-founder and CEO of Astraware, though my history is in science and teaching. I’ve got a pretty broad range of interests – lots of which come up one way or another in the field of games!

Astraware is probably the best known PDA and Smartphone game development company – we’ve specialised in making and publishing great games for the smarter class of handhelds (phones and standalone PDAs) – something we’re very much hoping to continue in the future, since we’re pushing towards more smart mobile platforms.

Your company sells a variety of game genres. What game genres do you consider the best-suited to handhelds?
I’ve written a number of times about what games are appropriate for handhelds, and my feeling that games which require a large screen to make them feel immersive don’t translate well to a 3″ screen that only occupies a tiny fraction of your vision. Different people like different styles of games, but consistently people ask us for puzzle, card, and board games.

You recently wrote about how ‘heavy-duty’ games became a bad business (I interpreted your article so that it said that games for freaks originally paid). But where did the freaks go? A few readers asked me if this wasn’t a kneejerk reaction to increased market pressure by apps like Arcade Reality – would you like to comment on this a bit?
Freaks wouldn’t be my choice of term for early adopters and hardcore gamers, especially since I fall into both categories ;) My point wasn’t that these people have gone so much as being a much smaller number than the mass adopters who come later. The business of making games that can make enough sales to pay for us to keep developing is harder with the more ‘heavy-duty’ games.

I think I wrote that article a few days before Arcade Reality was released (or at least, before I’d heard about it!) so it wasn’t a reaction so much to that specific game, but the questions I’ve heard from many gamers (especially those early adopters!). I’ve never felt that one game puts market pressure on other games, since most buyers are willing to buy more than just one game. Conversely, any game which makes people play more with their PDAs is great for all game developers. I was really quite impressed with Arcade Reality, so I hope it does well – I noticed the author has released an update which is normally a good sign that they’re getting lots of feedback.

Do you consider advanced graphics and sounds important for game sales?
“Advanced” is a little subjective, but I’d suggest that 3D modelled/texture shaded games aren’t that important for PDA games. I do think that games need to have attractive graphics – but I’d argue that clarity is more important than technical advancement.

At the Game Developer’s Conference there’s often a backlash that games are all graphics and no gameplay – that’s because game developers are frustrated that the fun element is missing from many games. I think this is an area that the casual games movement really understands.

Many of your games are PC ports – what needs to be changed when porting from PC to PDA? How do you find an ideal porting candidate?

Obviously graphics need to be adjusted since PC games are often in 800×600 or 1024×768, and have to be converted down to fit our various resolutions from 480×640, through 320×320, and sometimes down to the lower resolutions like 160×160. That can be a challenge, and for many games we do now, we have to choose 240×240 and higher just so that the game can be a reasonable representation of the original.

There’s quite a change from mouse-driven to stylus driven games. There’s no “mouse hover” with a stylus, so its harder to add in the visual clues like highlighting hotspots as you mouse-over them. There’s no equivalent of “right click” of course, so that can be a challenge to fit in.

We have to make a lot of adjustments to gameplay, difficulty settings etc. to make the games feel appropriate for handheld play. There are often very substantial changes to make to get it to “feel” the same as the original despite the change in format. Sometimes there are changes for stylus play that make it back into the PC games in later versions – the tap-and-drag in Bejeweled came from a suggestion from one of our beta testers.

We don’t usually use the original code from the PC version so it isn’t really a “port” – more of a recreation. That means the team spend a lot of time playing the original to get the right feel for the game and really understand how it works.

Good candidates for games are those with simple concepts and a relatively small graphics set. Most simple games don’t use right-click on the PC as a strict requirement, so that helps us quite a bit. Our licensor partners are critical in telling us which of their games coming up are the ones that they are most excited about, or those that are already selling well. It is nice to work on a game we already know will be popular!

Your company has an impressive multi-platform lineup. Which platform is your favourite one from a technical and a sales perspective?
That’s an interesting question! Currently I’d say that Windows Mobile is my favourite platform from a technical standpoint (because development for it under Visual Studio is quite a bit easier), though Palm OS still forms the larger part of our sales. Where either of these will change in the future is hard to predict!

What do you think on piracy in the mobile market? Many developers told me that this is their primary problem – how do you think about this?
Piracy in the PDA/Smartphone market isn’t a primary concern, although there are some problems. My mantra is to do enough protection to “keep honest users honest” – for instance so that a registered user can beam the demo to a friend, which would let them try it and encourage them to register. We give good demos of our games so users can try them out before buying, which has up and downsides, but does remove one of the major (arguably legitimate) reasons that people might look for a pirated version of a game.

The primary problems are really:

– Making a good game that people might want!
– Reaching prospective customers so that they can see the game
– providing a really easy way for them to purchase the game, so it is a trivial decision.

Compared to these, the piracy problem is secondary.

Series 60 is considered a very bad market by many developers who approach it with ‘classic’ apps. What do you think about Series 60, how would you tackle this market?
I think the problems have been about reaching customers and providing an easy purchase mechanism. The technical capabilities of the platform seem less limiting than the fact that most users don’t know to look “off deck” for content. That’s our big challenge.

Multi-platform is said to be challenging. Could you maybe share a few hints on how to perform it effectively?
We did it by targeting a notional handheld platform, and not making assumptions like having graphics power, connectivity, touch sensitive screens, etc. Each title can then use the capabilities if they are present on the device.

We also found that building in knowledge learnt from porting to a new device into our main libraries is pretty critical, so that all of the games can then benefit.

Anything you would like to add
Just a couple of things -

First, keep your eye on mobile Linux – I think that’s going to be pretty exciting over the next year or two!

Lastly – join Club Astraware – we drop extra tidbits of news in there a bit earlier than elsewhere, plus there are great offers in there, especially with the ability to earn points for taking part in things like competitions, high scores, surveys etc.

Related posts:

  1. Howard Tomlinson from AstraWare
  2. Howard Tomlinson on Palm OS Gaming
  3. Astraware Westward – The Review
  4. Astraware Sudoku Review
  5. Big finance in mobile software: Astraware solo again

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