The Voxel Agents are doing well. Their Train Conductor series has been downloaded more than 5 million times on iOS and Android, and clearly they have a good idea of how to make a successful mobile game. So why are is the Melbourne-based indie now devoting resources to developing games for the BlackBerry?
In truth, I shouldn't even have to answer that question. Few studios want to tie themselves to a single platform; developing for new hardware can be fun. That in itself should be a good enough reason, assuming you have the resources.
But there's such a whiff of despondency about most reporting around the BlackBerry and its parent company, Research In Motion (RIM), that many people assume that developing for the BlackBerry makes about as much sense as building hot new apps for the Commodore 64. The reality is a little more complex.
There's no denying that BlackBerry faces major platform challenges. Once dominant in workplaces because of its excellent email facilities and awesome physical keyboard, the rise of touchscreen phones has seen its smartphone stocks drop. In RIM's most recent financial results, it lost $US500 million dollars. Every hiring, firing or small corporate decision is leapt upon by the tech media as evidence of a terminal spiral, with no possible good news in sight.
Yet consider this: even in that money-losing quarter, BlackBerry sold 7.8 million phones. Those are numbers that the PlayStation Vita or Windows Phone 7 would be ecstatic about. And competition is always good. When there's only one or two platforms around, your choices are limited.
BlackBerry's App World has 90,000 apps — tiny by the standards of Apple or Google, but hardly a no-choice market. And enough developers are lining up to build for it that the approval process actually has a backlog. "You may have heard developers are leaving the platform, but the opposite is quite true," said Alec Saunders, VP for developer relations at RIM.
Against that backdrop, I sat down in a media briefing session at the recent BlackBerry Jam developer event in Sydney with a handful of developers, most with some gaming background and ambitions. The Jam event (obviously no-one could resist the pun) is designed to encourage developers of all stripes to work on the upcoming BlackBerry 10 platform, due in early 2013 after a number of delays. BlackBerry 10 apps can run both on yet-to-be-announced BlackBerry phones and existing BlackBerry PlayBook tablets. (I love the PlayBook, but that seems to put me in a minority; just 260,000 sold in the most recent quarter.)
Obviously RIM wasn't going to invite along developers whose intention was to crap on its plans from a great height. But the arguments mounted around the room made sense.
So first things first: why BlackBerry? Saunders is quick to pump out the numbers. A recent study by Vision Mobile suggests that the average developer can make $US4000 per month from a BlackBerry app — much higher than either iOS or Android. (Those numbers exclude the top 5 per cent and bottom 5 per cent of apps, so they're not skewed by Angry Birds-sized successes.)
Developer registrations are up 254 per cent year on year. There's a range of development environments and tools (including GamePlay, an open source project specifically for, d'oh, game developers) , so you don't need to learn entirely new skills just to build for the platform. And that's before we mention the cash incentives, like the guarantee that quality-certified apps will make $US10,000 in their first year or RIM will pay up the difference.
Saunders notes that on the PlayBook, the top-selling content is invariably games. "The PlayBook is the size of the PSP and its incredibly responsive, so when we talk to game developers most of them are incredibly pleased with it. We've built a capable piece of hardware that should excite developers."
All true and valid enough, but the most convincing immediate argument comes from Matt Clark, director of game development at The Voxel Agents. "There's this attitude that BlackBerry users are business people, and business people don't play games. First of all, I think that's stupid. Everyone plays games.
"The other thing is all these people have children. You have successful middle-aged people with credit cards and they want to distract their children with something shiny!"
One factor that everyone in the room agrees on is that the ability to write native code for the apps makes building games with decent performance and better graphics easier. "It doesn't require you to learn any new frameworks. It's just fundamentally more open and more accessible," said Jarrod Smith, who works for Melbourne development agency Concept HQ but has a long history with game development.
"The operating system doesn't get in your way; it's like programming in a traditional console environment."
Vortex Agent Clark concurs. "The good thing for us developing for BlackBerry is because it's all native code, we got our game up and running in about four days of work."
Developers love being able to reuse the same elements. "We have extensive code libraries available to use, so we recycle quite a lot of code," said Charlie Pohl, managing director at Conduct.
That said, having good developer tools is useful, but it's less important than the resulting game experience. "From a game development perspective, what we are ultimately concerned about is the end user experience," said Willliam Canty, business development manager at Gruden.
As well, while being able to port games easily is helpful, there is the risk that games will be shifted from platform to platform with minimal attention. "You need to have consistency on multiple platforms and a constant look and feel, but at the same time incoming messages and interruptions for phone calls need to be customised for each platform," said Clark. "The customer experience has to be the same on both."
Even RIM's Saunders notes that the option to port Android games into an Android player mode on BlackBerry has resulted in games which are obvious lower-quality ports, with low-resolution screen assets and an interface which looks nothing like the norm on the platform. That might be a quick process, but it won't necessarily produce the best results, he says. "There is an advantage to the developer to produce a native experience; it results in more sales."
A similar logic applies to building browser-based games using HTML5, which is often proposed as an alternative way of developing games that will work on multiple phones. That might work well for basic interactive sites, but it's a trickier equation for complex games.
"I think HTML5 is really awesome but you can't get the performance," said Smith.
"The amount of responsiveness you need from a game, you need the performance that native code gives," Clark agreed.
Saunders isn't entirely convinced by this. "I've seen games running at 60fps inside the browser," he adds. But the consensus around the room seems clear: native is better, and it's good to have the option.
No-one is pretending that BlackBerry will have an easy time of it, even with this level of enthusiasm. Perceptions are hard to shift. But it's clear that these games developers see some potential in the platform. We won't know until 2013, when BlackBerry 10 devices actually launch, if that potential will be realised. But isn't that true of every new piece of hardware?