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TUAW Interview: Danielle Cassley of Aurora Feint

Danielle Cassley took one of the strangest paths you might find to game designer -- just out of a computer science degree at Berkeley, she was trying to get a job as a babysitter when she met Peter Relan of the YouWeb Incubator. And rather than have her take care of his kids, he decided instead to put her in an idea farm and see what happened.

Aurora Feint was what happened -- she and Jason Citron, full of ideas, created a game in just ten weeks that took over the App Store out of nowhere in its infancy. The game originally released for free, and while it promised to be an MMO, it started out as a puzzle/RPG game -- people didn't quite understand what it was, but they liked it anyway.

Almost a year later, Aurora Feint has spawned four different versions and even a social platform, and Danielle and Jason are still full of ideas. In this exclusive interview with TUAW, she talks about how Aurora Feint came to be, what she thinks of the App Store so far (and if developers will ever be able to charge the prices they want), and what's next for the Aurora Feint series (they've just released a new version of The Arena called Daemons) and the iPhone platform. Click the link below to read on.

TUAW: Let's start at the beginning -- how did this all start? It's you and Jason, what's your background in game design, why did you guys begin with Aurora Feint, where did this all begin?

Danielle Cassley of Aurora Feint: OK, so it probably began about two years ago to be totally honest. Me and Jason, we both were kind of at the point where we were looking for something new. I was coming right out of school, it was actually probably about six months before I graduated, and I was looking for a trip to Europe, actually. It's funny. So I applied for a babysitting job, and ended up with Peter [Relan] who is now our business guy, he contacted me about the babysitting job and then kind of from there found out that I was a computer science graduate from Berkeley, and offered me a job at an incubator. So, I started working at the incubato r and we worked on a bunch of different web stuff, I was really into mobile, I had been working with a few friends from college on a mobile-based company. And at that point, I was their "mobile, interested in games, always been a casual game player." Still love like the Final Fantasy, Legend of Zelda-type stuff as well. So that's where I was at.

Did you say incubator? Is that a company?

Have you ever heard of an incubator, or any of those types of companies?

No?

So an incubator, kind of like a baby incubator, but basically what they do is, depending upon the company, the one that we were with, they basically invest in people. So Peter thought that me and Jason had an interesting approach to technology and life and just a general knowledge of how things work. So he hired us, invested in us as people to come in, come up with ideas, and in the end, after a year, we were supposed to basically leave the company and start our own company. So Jason, around the same time I was going through this whole thing and meeting up with Peter for the babysitting, had been living with Peter's nephew, and so when Peter's nephew kind of joined the incubator and was doing the projects, we ended up basically having Jason get introduced to Peter through his nephew. So then Jason offered to join the incubator, and started working on his own set of projects.

Ok, so you had this idea, and you had been playing casual games, and did it just come out fully formed, as let's do a puzzle game that has MMO qualities, or how did it begin as Aurora Feint?

Right, so Jason is a massively multiplayer guy -- he is the World of Warcraft guy -- but basically over the last few years, you do college, you're working, you lose time, and you just don't really have the time to play something as invested like that. So both of us got together, we were like iPhone, super excited, we both had iPhones, we were both ready to go, and we sat down and I was like, "I have this really great idea about how you can make Tetris Attack like totally iPhone-d out," and we sat down, came up with that idea. We went through a bunch of other casual games. Originally, I was working on like a casual game platform, and then Jason was working on like a massively multiplayer fighter game, actually -- he had made like a prototype of a Street Fighter-like game over WiFi using old Wolverine sprites. And we ended up realizing that the two projects that we both had in mind were just way too large, so we came up together with a really cool thing: iPhone is going to be great with casual games, we also thing it's going to be huge for social games, we also think that massively multiplayer is a great idea, and we threw it all together and came up with Aurora Feint. We launched our first game which was singleplayer purely due to time constraints -- we developed the entire game, beginning to end, including design, and it was in the App Store in 10 weeks.

And that's the original free one that came out, and everyone was kind of confused, because you suggested that it was going to be an MMO, but it just had this puzzle stuff, and it was really fun to play, but it kind of had all of this extra stuff that wasn't quite completed on there.

Right, exactly.

Where you've gone from there is probably the most confusing thing about Aurora Feint -- you have released like four different Aurora Feint and Aurora Feint IIs, and I tried in a post to list them all out and try to figure out how it went. First, explain all the different products that are available right now, and then why did you decide to do that the way you did? Split up all of these different things instead of doing one product or doing a few separate products? What was the choice behind the direction there?

Right. So what we ended up kind of learning over time was that there were several markets in the iPhone. There's a casual and a more hardcore gamer market, in both single and multiplayer. So our original game was aimed at the more hardcore, but not totally hardcore singleplayer game. So we made that game, there were a few problems, and when we basically went on to move to our next stage, which was we are now going to move to be a hardcore massively multiplayer game. We wanted to make a game for gamers, a game for Jason and I. Something that the two of us could play for hours. And that's when we started working on The Arena. The Arena was basically a huge jump for us. And in building The Arena, we kind of improved a lot of the things that had been not as good with the original game. And when we did that, we released The Arena. There were a lot of people that just didn't want to deal with the multiplayer, but wanted some of the social features, and so we pulled the multiplayer out, and we released Aurora Feint II: The Beginning. So Aurora Feint II: The Beginning is basically the original game, plus social features, and basically all upgraded: the art is better, the music is better, the gameplay is better, the performance is better. Everything about the game is that much better. So we did that, and because of all the social features, we decided we had to charge for it. And that's kind of where we were at with that. We also kind of saw that there was this seriously casual market. We noticed that there were a lot of little games that were succeeding. So we decided to kind of see what would happen if we built a game like that, and so we built Tower Puzzles, and Tower Puzzles is just a casual game, you play it on your own, there's no account system, there's no anything, it is the casual game. But a very high-quality casual game. And that's where we were going with Tower Puzzles. We wanted to test out all of the different markets and find out where we truly where aiming to be on the iPhone.

The original game was free, The Beginning, I think, was released at two dollars, or it's at two dollars now. Tower Puzzles was 99 cents -- the prices have kind of been all over the place. And a lot of developers, as we've heard on TUAW, have issues with the App Store pricing. The main problem, and you've probably heard this, is that people who put a lot of time and effort into the games are afraid that even at $9.99, they can't get the return back that they want to get back, especially when a lot of the games are out there for free now. So what is your take on that kind of experience? What's your experience been in terms of pricing? Have you found, by checking all of these markets, that you haven't been able to price it as high as you might want in terms of getting your return back on the effort you put in?

Originally we did release Arena, the multiplayer game, at $7.99, I believe, and at that point, we basically were like this is a top-notch game, it should sell at $7.99. And we've since lowered the price -- I think the current price is at $4.99. So it definitely is, at this time, hard to sell an expensive game in the App Store. And I think that's because it's an early market, and at this point, people are just taking whatever they can get, not caring at all about the quality. And because of that, high-quality games are forced to compete with some of the less high quality games and sell for cheaper. We still are a profiting company, we pay for our burn. So I guess we still are getting a lot of out of the fact that we can sell at $4.99 and do well, but we still believe that it's a $7.99 game. I think that over time, you'll see that, as people kind of.. Like on Facebook. Early on, any application on Facebook could succeed relatively well, make some money really quick. Now if you want to put an application on Facebook, it needs to be a really high-quality application in order to get any traction. And I think you'll find that the same thing happens with the App Store, and when that happens, we can sell games for $7.99, $9.99 and so on.

Do you think that's going to come from players, or from developers? Will players be willing to pay, will there be kind of a killer app kind of game that comes out at $9.99 that sells 100 million copies, or will it come from developers who generally try to raise their prices as much as they can?

I honestly think it's actually going to be the users -- I think the users at some point are going to get fed up with the low-quality applications, and they're going to be aiming more for the high-quality stuff, and when they start actually reaching and grasping more for high-quality things, we will be able to raise our prices. That's basically where it's going to be at. And I think that most developers will, because I know that I've talked to people over at ngmoco and places like that, and they'd like to see that they can release their games at the rate that they want. A lot of people are doing some interesting things like release it really low, and they try and skyrocket into the top 100, and once it reaches the top 100 they increase the price, basically so that they can get the profits at the high price while they have the ability, and then if they fall off the top 100 they lower it back down. There's a whole bunch of different ideas right now about how you can do that. But between people not wanting to pay a lot and visibility in the App Store being such that you need to be in the top 100 to basically see anything, it's an interesting environment. Which is one of the things that we're hoping to solve with OpenFeint.

Well that is perfect -- that's my next question. Talk about OpenFeint and what you guys have done with that. I reported on it when it first came out -- it's kind of a developer thing more than a user thing, but talk about why you have done that and what it is and how it works.

What really made us start with OpenFeint is that we built out The Arena. When we built The Arena, we added all of these social features -- we really wanted to make our asynchronous multiplayer game feel very social, feel like there were lots of people around. Because one of the things that I believe people bought the iPhone for is standing in line for coffee, sitting around the train station for half an hour, basically burning time where they're alone, where they might like to feel like they're with other people. So we had this idea that social games would be popular, so we put all of these features into The Arena, and when we did, we found out we were absolutely correct. People ate that up as much as they were eating up the actual game content. So we did that, and then what happened was we were like Ok, well, nobody else is doing this on the iPhone, why is no one else doing this on the iPhone. And we talked to a few developers, and what we found is that a lot of iPhone developers are mainly client developers. They don't really want to deal with having a web backend and actually dealing with any scale that might come along, and that kind of thing. So Jason and I have some experience there, and so we sectioned everything out into our social platform that we're calling OpenFeint, and we added a lot of cool stuff, and made it basically all of the things that our users have requested for The Arena that we haven't been able to push in yet, we have now put into OpenFeint. What it is is like the Facebook wrapper for its applications -- we are trying to be the wrapper for all iPhone applications, so that users can let everyone know what they're playing, what's good, have these social features within, and we gave developers some of the gamer features that they need, as well as basic social features that they want, so we have leaderboards, we have plans to do some sort of accomplishment/achievement type system, and right now we have chat and we have player profiles and walls, and all that kind of stuff coming shortly. It's exciting.

The last time I reported on it, you had basically just announced it, and I just went and looked at the website again, and now you have a few games that are using it -- how many games out there are hooked into the system at this point?

There are currently somewhere around 36 applications that are pending for the App Store. There are a few that haven't quite submitted yet, or are on the verge of submitting, but there are around 36 applications. There have been a few extras that some of our developers have in the last few minutes decided to integrate with, which we didn't originally count into our numbers, so there's that, and we've got actually some really big names that have gone ahead and done the integration. Chillingo has decided that OpenFeint is their social platform of choice, so they are pushing it to all of the developers that come through their publishing/marketing deal that they have. I think they have eight games that they're pushing it to right now, and others are coming shortly. And then we also have PocketGod, which is huge -- we were on TechCrunch today, I guess. They have integrated OpenFeint, and that should be released by like Friday or something like that.

So what's the model here, too -- it's called OpenFeint, is it free for developers or what's the plan for you all?

Yes, it is called OpenFeint. From a user's perspective it's actually called Feint. So what they'll see is Feint-enabled games. And everything is branded within the world as Feint, which is good because it will at some point be able to give them some sort of web portal or something like that, so they can kind of see what games they're playing, what other people are playing. As far as like our model, currently we are absolutely free to developers if they're using it for free applications. And then we have a monthly active user model for the paid applications. So based upon your number of monthly active users, where we define monthly active as returning to the game twice, you pay a couple of cents per monthly active user.

Ok. And I'm sure that we will see more about that, and I'll try to follow as it comes out. It sounds like a lot of the games that are being worked on and being included in the system are still pending approval in the App Store.

Yeah, most of them are pending in the App Store. Actually all of them are pending in the App Store. I think one of them should be out shortly. It takes about a week.

Click here to read part two of the interview, in which we talk about whether Warcraft will ever make it to the iPhone and what other iPhone games they're playing around the Aurora Feint office...

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