Archive for the ‘Business’ Category

Developers need PR

Monday, July 9th, 2012

Us developers have a bit of a PR problem, and by “us developers” I don’t mean media agencies that hire in technical expertise on a per-project basis, that have marketing and sales teams dedicated to selling themselves and hunting down the next pay-check. I mean “us developers”, the guys that those other guys actually hire in, the ones that press the keys, think the deep thoughts and construct from nothing what people end up interacting with on their iScreens.

Traditional perception paints us as weird, socially-inept whizz-kids with bad hygiene, and to be sure I’ve met a fair few in my time. But, contrary to that popular belief (and to that of Hollywood – thanks Jurassic Park) the rest of us are just normal guys and gals, doing the same normal things that other normal people do. Visit friends and family, eat, sleep, drink, and for the most part, wash fairly regularly. The unfortunate thing is, much like my fellow developer colleagues, I don’t have a marketing budget to construct a campaign shouting about our normalcy, and I’m not sure anyone would listen even if I did.

We’re also, much like other creatives, kinda shy. We prefer to spend our time sat quietly focused on a screen, deep in thought, creating excellent apps, rather than going out schmoozing and playing golf. We also tend not to sing our own praises or throw such praises into other peoples’ faces, no matter how it would benefit us. We just tend not to be wired up in that “in-your-face” way.

BUT that doesn’t mean we don’t do excellent work, it also doesn’t mean we can’t work with clients, with designers, artists, authors, project managers in pursuit of that excellence. And it certainly doesn’t mean that if you find someone that doesn’t fit into the traditional developer “mould” that you are somehow compromising on technical excellence.

In fact, far from it. Some of the best developers I’ve ever worked with have been obscenely good at golf, been able to talk into the wee hours about non-Star Trek-related media, and can think of nothing better than working closely with a company and their designers to create products of inestimable quality for all concerned. I have even heard, from sources that prefer to remain anonymous, that some of us are even a pleasure to work with.

So when you look at your next digital project, try thinking about the potential that a partnership with a real-life bona-fide developer could bring. Think about the possibilities for both parties to learn and grow together, about the joys of collaborative overlap between your industry and theirs, and about the return on investment that a developer with very few overheads can bring to the party.

Who knows, it could be the most pleasant and mutually beneficial surprise you have this year.

Time and Tide

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

I have absolutely no idea where the last five months has gone. One minute I’m starting a new iPhone app for DigitalOrigins, the next I’m in an office in Waterloo doing work for Mobile Interactive Group, all private projects forgotten, blog left on a shelf to gather a thin layer of dust.

What’s really crazy is there was still time to eat, drink and sleep in amongst everything else going on. I’m kinda glad really.

Many contracts start as a trial by fire, and the first week with MiG was no exception, finishing up an I’m a Celebrity iPhone app for ITV that unfortunately never hit the app store. It got close, but politics got in the way and it didn’t materialise. A shame, it was a great looking app and had some very cool streaming and voting in it that would have made for a perfect mobile companion to the TV show. But alas, these things happen.

Not all was lost and much of what I ended up learning on this app made its way into Sky’s recent Got To Dance iPhone app. We were lucky with Sky, they were very happy to go with our first set of designs, helping us to help them get the turnaround they wanted. i.e. really really short. It was definitely worth the effort though; the app did well in the App Store Entertainment charts, and the levels of user interactivity for each weekend show were fantastic. It seems people love joining in to vote for their favourite acts through the associated iPhone app. You wouldn’t believe the amount of work behind the scenes to make sure it all ran smoothly week-on-week, but aside from one small hiccup at the start with the CoveritLive stream, it all worked like a dream. A great app to work on, and a great outcome for a great show.

Interspersed in amongst all of these comings and goings was work on the Find a Property app, generally shoring up a rather complex codebase (not entirely surprising considering the project has been passed around several companies before it graced my screen), and adding some cool features to enhance a pretty respectable iPhone app. Hmm, actually I’m underplaying that somewhat, after all it did get onto the Sunday Times Top 500 iPhone apps list.

As did Ministry of Sound’s Ultimate Ministry of Sound app, another project I was lucky enough to have cross my MacBook screen. This app does it all; live radio, ticket purchasing, news, features, video streaming, iTunes track purchasing, there’s really not much missing. If you love dance music, it’s a must-download. I placed my mark on several versions submitted to the App Store before finishing with MiG, the same with Find a Property, before moving on, and it was a pleasure working with MiG, The Digital Property Group and Ministry of Sound (and ITV and Sky of course) pushing everything through efficiently and professionally, as you’d expect with such high profile organisations.

So I’m now back from the Waterloo offices in London, with a short holiday under my belt, ready to push forward again with DigitalOrigins work, as well as that of other clients’. Oh, and the website. I really can’t believe how long it’s been since I’ve touch the website. Just to keep me happy, go check out the apps I’ve been working on, and download them at your leisure. I’ll thank you, MiG will thank you, aww heck, you’ll thank yourself once you have them on your phone. They really are rather good.

Busy is as busy does

Thursday, October 14th, 2010

Apple caught me on the hop today. CapitaHD, the iPad version of the pleasantly successful iPhone version, Capita, was submitted to the App Store a week or so ago, and on recent experience I wasn’t expecting any sort of response for at least another week. Time, I thought, to tie up some loose ends, tweak some other projects, update the website and be ready for the green light.

Well, I’m not complaining. Their processes have proven as swift as they are true, and CapitaHD is now available for download on what has now become my most prized of household gadgets. If I had to choose between the laptop and the iPad, it might be a close-run thing. Even the kettle and toaster would be on shaky ground despite the usage they both get.

It’s actually been a tough birth this time around though. Not because of the technical light-bending that goes on to get these things done and out the door. In that regard it has been quite the contrary; moving everything over from the iPhone version actually went surprisingly smoothly, the additional screen acreage proving to be such a blessing for the gameplay that I actually ended up adding more polish just out of sheer adoration. No, the creation of CapitaHD just happened to come at a time when time away from work kept popping up (Rome is a delight at this time of the year incidentally), and contract proposals were being penned and meetings had. It can all put a kink in an otherwise extremely productive production house. Fortunately I now have some hugely-appreciated help in that regard so the delays should evaporate into the ether, or so I have been told. Not quite soon enough for CapitaHD to become my first (and hopefully only) victim of circumstance, but welcome nonetheless.

Of course the other knock-on effect of being away is not having been able to put pen to virtual paper. It’s easy to say that the travelling around shouldn’t make things hard when it comes to things like blogging, but, much as I love the iPad, when it comes to pulling together a post, the limitations of the little terrier come ripping round the corner like they’re chasing guinea fowl. Even using my bluetooth keyboard, much as it improves raw text entry, doesn’t do anything to allow me to efficiently cut/paste links, upload images, research notes… The long and short of it is, as soon as anything complicated is required, the MacBook gets fired up, with its trusty mouse, and fancy windowing shenanigans. Not even multi-tasking will change my mind; all I want from Steve Jobs for Christmas is to be able to turn it off on my iPhone. /stares forlornly at every single app permanently running in the background.

Anyway, CapitaHD is available now, so if you fancy a jot of 80s gaming nostalgia, or are looking for a strategy game that’ll work your brain harder than most, go pick it up. Or if you want to find out a bit more about it, you can always head here. And of course don’t hesitate to drop us a line at info@DigitalOrigins.co.uk, or in the comments section should you feel the need. Don’t be shy, we don’t bite.

Developers as gaming entrepreneurs?

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

There was a question thrown around recently that made me think about my own situation: why do developers seem to be less interested in a career as gaming entrepreneur?

Having spent the last couple of weeks getting Capita onto the iPad, as well as digging my way through the iPhone Audio Queue mire, I think I kinda understand why. The work that we do is, for the most part, utterly absorbing. People talk about “flow” as being something that developers need in order to produce their best work, and when coding, it really is an intoxicating brew. The inevitable downside of flow however is that you can be starting the week reading about buffer sizes, callbacks and latency, and the next time you look up it’s a week next Tuesday. Very bizarre.

And actually particularly problematic when it comes to anything business-related. If you’re running your own show, more often than not you simply can’t afford to be “somewhere else” mentally for that length of time. There are typically too many things that need doing yesterday, be it contracts to chase, accountants to appease, lawyers to pay, and all are eager to destroy the flow that is so carefully cultivated and so ruthlessly defended.

Now I’m reaching the end of both projects I get a chance to sit up and look around, stretch the legs, and put some words onto the screen more of an English bent, a rather pleasant side note to the developing. But the more time goes by, the more I’m starting to think I’m more of an exception than a rule. When caught up in the rush of development, I just don’t think that, for many coders, much else matters, which is why many are only too happy to avoid branching out and away from the work they love.

And the development community is probably all the richer and more productive for it, although I have to say, right now, I think many of us are wondering where on earth the summer went…

How an iPhone App gets developed

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

It is often said that ideas are ten-a-penny, that development is where the real magic happens. I’m not sure things are quite so black-and-white, after all I’ve known some pretty magical ideas (and their owners) in my time, but it is definitely fair to say that some magical development can turn something humdrum into a major-league hit.

But behind the scenes, what makes the magic happen? How can a company like DigitalOrigins turn an idea into a killer App?

First off, we like most companies, brainstorm an idea with a client and mould it, poking and prodding until we understand everything our client is aiming for. Here it’s about aims, not techniques; as long as the aims remain true, the techniques can be whatever is required to get the job done. Once the aims are understood, we start on a simple design and prototyping loop to help contextualise those aims and bring them into something that the client can actually experience. Here we’re simply creating bare-bones interfaces and workflows to illustrate areas of contention, and generate simple movement through an App giving a feel for what could be expected at completion. Things not feeling quite right? Back to the design phase. The idea not quite as strong as expected? Tweak the idea and adjust. As any professional developer will be able to tell you, getting aims and objectives right here, saves time, money, and a whole heap of heartache later. By the time we’ve reached the end of this process, we are in a great position to make time and cost estimates and draw up a general development plan.

Now some companies move onto full development fairly early in this design phase, preferring to hone and adjust details and timescales whilst full-scale development is in progress. These agile-focused companies tend to prioritise the maintaining of close ties with the clients, working alongside them on a short but regular basis to ensure that the design matures over time like a fine wine, and as new features are designed and implemented, they are demonstrated, discussed and adjusted where necessary alongside cost and timescales. I personally like this way of working; it builds trust early on in the development cycle, and lays the foundations for strong communications and relationship-building throughout the project, two major features inherent in any successful contracting project. The drawback is that the cost-estimates and development plan become less black-and-white, only natural when building in the ability to adjust mid-flow. My experience has shown though that the additional transparency and flexibility more than makes up for this rather more “fixed” planning process, even if it can be somewhat less predictable.

Whichever way the company chooses to work, the development phase is where the aims, the design ideas, the code and the artwork are all brought together piece by piece, tested, demonstrated and added into the coherent whole, building the core app up slowly over time. This is a good time, a time of communication and sharing, a time of changes, adjustments, of iterating, but of ultimately moving forward and creating something special. I have yet to find anyone that didn’t get a buzz out of this phase; being able to create something out of nothing with a client really can be a rather invigorating process for all involved.

Once iteration has produced an app that hits all the aims (adjusted and tweaked where necessary during the development phase), the product is nearing release. For most development companies this is the application’s Beta phase, the phase where the app is poked and prodded from all directions, squeezed over and over to force bugs from the system. For some it is also an opportunity to add polish, to add speed where necessary, to add that final layer of gloss that turns a good product into something great, all before sign-off and handover take place.

And for many this is the ultimate goal; completing Hogs of War for Infogrames simply saw the handing over of the gold-master followed by a project post-mortem before moving onto the next project. For others this is just a step along the overall project lifecycle; NavisWorks saw this sign-off process as simply a gate to move through prior to further design, development, testing and release iterations. With today’s electronic distribution, particularly with the App Store enabling ongoing feedback and bug reports, as well as bug fixes, additional features and further releases, all within relatively short timescales, it makes sense to have this milestone as a more open-ended project goal. But at some point the first release must be pushed out, to the clients, to the public, and this is where it happens. Simple.

To some it may seem like a rather complex process, but actually, when working with a good professional software company, one who wants to work with you rather than just for you, much of these elements are managed behind the scenes, and, from a client’s perspective, the whole process can tend to flow rather gracefully. I’ve worked with many companies over the years that have marvelled at just how smooth and efficient the whole process can be. The key? Work with someone that knows what they’re doing, someone who wants to work with you not just for you, and someone that has a passion for making something that’s great, rather than just making something.

As I’ve always found, follow those three elements and you really can’t go to far wrong.

Do one thing well

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

Someone mentioned this “key to success” to me a while ago now, and it kinda bumbled around in my brain until recently when I decided to Google it. Actually, I rather enjoyed the irony in using something that epitomises that statement; type in a word, get a list of pages back, nothing more, nothing less, and this statement throws back one heck of a list that’s even got Janis Joplin in there.

Well the latest DigitalOrigins iPhone App TrendFlow was finally submitted today. It has been a rather tricky birth, though perhaps more so because of the sheer plethora of things going on around the business at the moment than any technical hurdles. Bending a touch of OpenGL and internet communications to your will, encased in a shell of multitasking, has its spanners, but nothing that a few hours and a jug of coffee can’t fix. Despite the delays though, it seems to have turned out rather nicely.

The main thing I’m pleased with is that it fits perfectly with the aforementioned “Do One Thing Well” philosophy. When I set out to create this rather svelte app, I had no intention of creating a huge Twitter client, with bells and whistles having their own bells and whistles. There’s already some great software out there doing the job really rather well indeed (thank you Tweetie and Tweetdeck). No, what I wanted, actually for myself, was simply a real-time animated view into what was going on in the Twitterverse. Something attractive that I could have running on my iPhone whilst next to my laptop, something to simply glance at to get an instant impression of what people were talking about online.

And it’s rather gratifying how it just works. The use of size and colour of the Trends, along with the text and background animation communicates everything it needs to. If I see something trending upwards in pink or orange I can touch the screen and see what people are saying. If I want to, I can go another step further and open any website links that may have been tweeted, before heading back to the flow of Trends. Otherwise I can just leave it sat there, just in view, flowing and updating as the day rolls forward.

And that’s it. That’s what it does. Simply, One Thing Well.

Is gaming beginning to run out of ideas?

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

This was a question posted in a recent discussion on LinkedIn. I enjoy these discussions. They often throw out a plethora of views and opinions, many worth taking note of. And of course I am fortunate enough to be endowed with a smattering of industry knowledge that can lend grist to the mill. So, my take on gaming running out of ideas?

Well, the simple fact is, the games business is now far more about the “business” than it is the “games”.

Way back in the 80s when the whole gaming shebang kicked off, backroom boys were writing games that they wanted to write, then selling them to the highest publishing bidder. Elite, one of the most famous, was originally a labour of love of Braben and Bell, before being bought and released by Acornsoft and Firebird et al.

But since then, AAA projects have simply grown too big and too expensive to be developed by two college kids in a garage. Because of this, funding is typically required to take teams through from beginning to end, and such funding will, in all likelihood, need to be repaid, usually with interest. So, the less risk with the project, the more likely it is that the funders will get a return on their investment.

And such risk is the milk on the cornflakes of marketers, managers, lawyers, financiers, people to whom the latest blockbuster game, with cutting edge ray tracing, full physics, and orchestras blaring out in Dolby surround sound, is simply a sku, an RRP, a target demographic and a sales forecast. In all my years I found very few that actually played games, or had that much interest in what their company was actually producing. And to be fair, this is no different to any other industry, after all, what financial controller really cares about the internals of the EMU that sits in the submarine engine they’ve just funded? (thank you Discovery)

So the bigger the business has got, the further away the “creatives” have got from the people steering, funding and controlling the ship. And they have people they need to answer to, and so do they, and so on. So, is it any wonder, when the ships are so big, the funding so large, the risks so great, and so many people need to be kept happy, that companies such as EA and Disney stick to tried and trusted formulae? Not at all. But does that mean the games industry is running out of ideas? Of course not. The flash, mobile and social spaces are all throwing out fresh, new ideas ten-to-the-dozen, and even in big business many interesting new ideas get through the net; back when I was working for Gremlin and Infogrames, my team were fortunate enough to be able to develop and release Hogs Of War at a time when all the other teams in the studio were producing sports games.

There’s always something new and interesting out there, and we as interested parties have two choices; we can keep our eyes and wallets peeled, supporting the less mainstream releases as much as we can (here’s looking at you Ico), or we can take a step out of the corporate machine and head out on our own with only our wit, creativity and development tools to guide us towards creating the Next Big Thing.

Either way is perfectly fine by me.

Small is Beautiful

Thursday, June 17th, 2010

Most days I spend my time working from home. DigitalOrigins is a small company, and if I’m being honest, I like it that way. I’m not a traditional businessman, ever searching for a larger slice of the almighty dollar at the expense of everything else. I love the term “small is beautiful”, and I’m lucky enough to be working in an industry that shares the sentiment. The devices of the day are getting ever smaller and more beautiful, and giving people like me, and companies like DigitalOrigins, the opportunity to stay small, but still afford to pay the bills and enjoy the work being produced.

I read a short article recently about a small design company, Sagmeister Studio. Two designers share the workload, both do the work, both have a major stake in the business. On the rare occasion they will take on interns if they can commit full-time to the studio, otherwise it is just the two of them. And it is a conscious choice for the studio head, Stefan Sagmeister, as it is for me, both enjoying the challenge as well as the efficient and focused work ethic that the situation enforces. But for me probably the biggest driver is actually being instrumental in the creation process. Stefan put it better than I could:

If I would want to become a manager I would much rather go to business school and work on Wall Street where you actually have some challenges.

The work we do is challenging and creative, and being involved at the grass-roots level just feels right. Such intimate connection by everyone in the company can’t help but be good for my colleagues, DigitalOrigins as a whole, and especially our customers and clients. As Sagmeister adroitly put it, “We love our job”, and I hope when dealing with me, as well as the company, a little of that shines through.