Life is funny. You can set out to become a human genome researcher or study bioinformatics and end up making a zombie iPhone game. Just ask Matthias and Thomas Hoechsmann. That's exactly what happened to them.
It was summer 2009, and Matthias was doing post-doc work at the University of Santa Cruz studying Archaeal genomes. You know, the strange single-celled microorganisms that can survive in extreme environmental conditions like the hot acidic lakes in Yellowstone. Matthias was just coming off studying the Human Genome Project. "I believe the Human Genome Project is indisputably one of the most important scientific endeavours of our time," says Matthias during an interview about his work with Kotaku. "Understanding how our incomprehensibly complex genetic code determines who we are - it's a concept that I was drawn to immediately, and I'm humbled to have been a part of it."
But for the past few months in early 2009, he and his brother Thomas had been developing a video game in their free time. Thomas, like Matthais, was in academia, working on his PhD in bioinformatics, looking for structural motifs in RNA molecules. "Matthias and I were always interested in science," says Thomas. "I think we have to thank our mother for that, as she fostered our interest in it." As kids, Matthias got a chemistry set and Thomas got an electricity kit. But, Thomas needed a break from his research. Enter the Apple iPhone.
For Thomas, the iPod (and by extension iPod Touch) represented a platform in which the "little guy" could go up against industry giants like EA and Activision. There had always been outlets for independent developers, but the Apple App store made development feasible and, more importantly, profitable if the game was a smash hit. The iPhone could make it possible. "It really leveled the field," says Matthias. "It was a chance for Thomas and I to do something we've always wanted to do - and to do it on our own terms, with our own resources, and our own vision."
From the moment the iPod Touch and iPhone originally launched in 2007, it was viewed as a possible challenger to handheld portables like the Nintendo DS. The initial line-up of games for Apple devices was hardly spectacular, but as the platform grew, developers, large and small began to blossom. There was shovelware, but there were also flashes of brilliance, gems in the rough and future stars.
Both brothers had careers blooming in the science profession, but gaming was beckoning. "I think most gamers have at one point had the dream of 'getting into the industry' or otherwise making games themselves," says Matthias. "We are certainly no different, and when we saw a chance to do just that, we jumped into the deep end!" Like many in their generation, the Hoechsmann brothers grew up computers, grew up gaming. As kids they were clacking away on a Commodore 64 and an Atari 512 ST, which was a Christmas present for both brothers. "We had to share the computer and it strengthened our passion for video games. But it also got us excited about programming this box," says Matthias, "and we started our own little projects at a fairly young age."
Inspired by a castle defence game, Thomas began work on what would become ZombieSmash! Since they watched Night of the Living Dead when their mum wasn't home, both Thomas and Matthias had long been fans of zombie flicks. "As far as I remember I did not watch the whole movie," says Thomas, the younger brother, "but only the goriest scenes." The movie came out long before either Matthias or Thomas were born - and Matthias points out that this shows just how timeless zombies are. The game itself is a love letter to Night of the Living Dead, with zombies trying to make their way into a dwelling.
And while ZombieSmash! seems to be a castle defender clone with a coat of zombie paint on it, the brothers never intended that - but rather, hoped to take advantage of the iPhone's "flick" mechanic gameplay. When released this past March, ZombieSmash! broke top 25 apps in the US and the following month, thanks to an Easter update, the game hit numero 1 paid app in the US App Store. It beat EA's Monopoly that week and Activision's Call of Duty.
And it wasn't just copying something they had seen before, but taking it and moving forward. And making it work. "In my opinion adding physics was the best we could do for ZombieSmash!, but it was also the feature that needed the most time - not only to get it working, but to optimise it so that the game is perfectly playable also on 1st gen iDevices," says Thomas. And they got 16 ragdolls running on first generation devices. All that science training came in handy.
"Game development is a lot more science than you may think," says Matthais. Case in point: a 3D or a physics engine. "A lot of physics, math, and algorithms is involved and this is far from being trivial. So, a solid background in any of these disciplines certainly helps. Aside from the tech, science teaches you a very methodical approach to solving a problem, or, if you want to, creating a video game." And the brothers are doing that, successfully making the leap into game development.
But what about the science-zombie connection? "As for the explanation of the zombie epidemic, I am not completely satisfied," Matthias says. "Generally, it's a virus that spreads when a human is bitten by a zombie. But why is it there? I think I have a really cool, believable story for a zombie outbreak that is not without some scientific backup. But I won't go into specifics at this point since it's the working plot for a zombie first-person shooter that I see on the horizon and I don't want to spoil!" (Something with Archaeal? The human genome? RNA molecules?)
The iPhone and iPod Touch haven't simply changed the way we consume media. They haven't necessarily changed the way games are developed. There have always been teams of a few guys (or girls!) making games. But just because a game gets made, that doesn't mean it will, you know, make money. What it has done is to democratise game development that any other platform in the last five years, making it possible for even a couple of scientists to go head to head against industry giants while fulfilling their lifelong dream of becoming professional game developers.