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WWDC 2010: Hands-on with Max Adventure and interview with Imangi's Natalia Luckynova


Natalia Luckynova is half of Imangi Studios. Along with her husband Keith Shepherd, she makes iPhone and iPod games, including the popular Harbor Master and a few other titles. We got to meet up with her at WWDC last week, and she was able to show off their latest title, Max Adventure, due out for the App Store in just a few weeks' time. The game was heavily improved since I last saw it in action, and it's shaping up to be a quality dual stick shooter -- a little kiddy, but with a fun element of exploring a nice mix of environments and an actual story to follow.

You can see the game above, and once you've checked it out, be sure to head after the break, where Luckynova tells us how the company's first iPad game is doing, what they think of iPhone 4 and iOS 4.0, and how she learned what a Kraken is.


Harbor Master HD seems like it's doing well.

It is!

I think the last time we talked to you was right after launch. How did that all turn out?

Yeah it was right after launch. Everybody's like, "Oh, so you made it free, huh? How's that going?" We're really happy we decided to do it that way. I think that since most of the games are really high priced, people are excited about good games that are free. It was number one for a while, and I think it's still like number five in the UK. It's installed on like 10% of all iPads, which is ridiculous. NPR recently said they're on 15% and Harbor Master is on 10%, which is awesome.

So you're ad-supported now?

Yeah. Basically for the first month, we didn't monetize at all. We had house ads pointing back to Harbor Master for iPhone. Which really increased the first app's sales. But since we didn't have any other levels and nobody had an ad platform ready, we didn't have anything. So we just recently put in ads by AdMob, which I'm really hoping doesn't get kicked out from the store. Anyway, yeah we have ads by AdMob which are doing really well, and we added a few levels and in-app purchase, and those are also doing really well. I think we've got about 5% conversion.

That's one thing we've seen a lot, is that it's got to be a mix. There's no one solution to monetizing, as people are figuring things out. AdMob, I don't think that they are going to get kicked out, but what do you think about iAds?

I'm really excited about iAds. I mean, the CPMs that they're quoting are off the charts. It's like ten times what anyone else sees. So we'll definitely integrate that when we can. The problem about adopting that early is that most of our customers don't upgrade right away, to 4.0. So if we make our app for the latest OS only, we're going to lose a ton of people. So we usually wait quite a bit, maybe even a few months to a year, to upgrade to the latest thing. So we probably won't be able to use them for a while, but we'll see how it shakes out.

Would it be something where you would use both, or once you transition over to iAds, that's probably the solution you'll use?

We always like to keep a variety of things, and see which one does better for us. iAds is a very different kind of ad, it's very interactive, pop-out or whatever, and there's probably a place for just a simple banner. We'd probably keep a combination for a while. But you know, if iAds are making us ten times the money, it's not really a question.

You did have it out at release, and you didn't have hardware. You built the app on a simulator. Were there issues at iPad's release?


No. Yeah, it worked out great. We didn't have any issues at all.

Since release, then, what have you learned about the iPad, how people use it and how it's worked?

People love it. We personally, Harbor Master has been out for a year, and it's gotten to the point where we're not really playing it much any more. But then the iPad version came out and I totally got back into playing it again. It's so much bigger, there's so much more stuff to do. There's a lot of room for cooperative play -- a lot of people are playing together. And our app is multitouch, so you can have a lot of people playing together. We just got a new, ridiculous high score on our leaderboards of like 10,000 points, which is insane. We emailed that person and were like how did you do that, and he wrote back and said it was actually him and three friends playing together, so like four people, and that they played for hours and hours and paused in between and kept going.

There's no way to track that, though? If multiple people are playing it?


No.

That's too bad, it'd be interesting to see. Personally, I don't know if I've ever really played multiplayer on iPhone or iPad. I've tested it, but I don't know that I've ever actually been like, "Dude, let's play!" Maybe I'm alone in that.


You're probably not like, "Oh, let's have this play session." But I take out the iPad, I start playing, and Keith is sitting next to me, he looks over and he's like, "Let's try this," and we see a lot of people playing with their kids or a significant other, and it just kind of happens. It's pretty cool.

Are there other feature requests that people have had for the iPad?

I think people kind of rightfully want us to make better use of the graphics and the screen, and put in more cool animations like animated water and clouds and birds. Because it is sort of a static screen, which you don't notice as soon as you start playing. But we do want to put more of those elements in.

And you're still updating, right?

Yeah, we're still updating the HD version, so we now have three in-app purchased maps. It started out with just the Treasure Island, and then with updates we added Pirate Passage, Kraken Atoll, Cargo City, and each of those maps is 99 cents.

What's the most popular one been so far?

That's a good question. Since they were added in order, first it was Pirates, then Kraken, then Cargo. So Pirate has been downloaded the most, but I think the most popular now is Cargo. Kraken -- ok, did you know what a Kraken was?

Yes.


Ok. I did not know what a Kraken was. And I think a lot of people didn't know what a Kraken was. Keith thinks I'm crazy, thinks everybody knows what a Kraken is. But I didn't, and I usually know all sorts of random stuff.

Did you see Clash of the Titans?

I did not.

Oh, well there you go. Should have seen that!

I know!

Did you have feedback from people asking what a Kraken was?

No, but for some reason it's a little less popular than the other stuff. I'm wondering if that's what it is. I think it looks really cool -- we have a sea monster type map on the iPhone as well, and there, I insisted we call it Monster Passage, or Monster something or other, because there, nobody knows what a Kraken is. All the guys I've talked to know what a Kraken was. Maybe it's a dude thing.

If you release another iPad title, do you think free is the way to go?

It always depends on the situation. It depends on your competition -- if all your competition is $5 and everybody's doing well, then maybe that's the way to go.

So in the future, more maps?

Yes, more maps. I want to update the iPhone version, and it's just going to be free maps, since that's a paid application. As we've been adding these, most of our users are still on iPhone and they're like, "When are you going to add more iPhone stuff? Don't forget us!" So we can't forget them. And we're working on Max Adventure still.

Perfect, as that's the next thing I want to talk about. Last time I saw it, it didn't have a title yet. How did you come up with the title?

Oh. We're still kind of conflicted about the title, to be honest. But we came up with a bunch of titles, and none of them jumped out at us. So what we did is this cool thing -- a bunch of developers are doing it -- we bought a bunch of ads on AdMob with the different titles. Just a title and an icon and that's it. And see which one got the highest clickthrough.

What did it go to?

It was just in other applications, wherever you see iPhone ads.

What did it go to when you clicked on it, though?

Oh, it went to our website, and said like "Thanks for your interest in Max Adventure," and let them sign up for a mailing list. I don't even know if anybody signed up.

You used AdMob for focus testing, basically? And this is going on all the time?

Yes. Not all the time, people are kind of discovering. Some people swear by it. Especially with the name -- you go into the store, you see an icon and a name. That's all people generally see in order to choose what to buy. So some people thought, why don't we optimize that particular thing, and some people have reported great success with it. So we gave it a try, and I don't know. What do you think, Max Adventure, or Max Attacks?

Max Attacks sounds very violent, but it has that alien connection with the Mars Attacks thing. I don't know. I'm not a developer -- that's your job!

You're our target audience, though. You're a gamer.

That's true. So what's the game like?


As far as the actual gameplay, it is like a dual stick shooter, so you're moving and shooting aliens. But what it kind of adds to the dual stick genre is that first of all there's a story mode. And there is definitely a story -- I wrote a 10-page script, but I don't know how much of it we're going to use -- where you interact with other characters and stuff. You have these multiple mission types, so you have missions like going around and saving the other kids or destroying all of the aliens in the level. There's some boss fights. And I think the really cool thing that we're adding to the genre is big, nonlinear levels. So it's a lot more kind of walking around, exploring while fighting things. Most of the other dual stick shooters out there, even though there's a survival mode, without any obstacles, or it's a linear walk down the screen and shoot things out of the way. But I really like the games where you can walk around and find things. I guess I'm like more of a gatherer than a hunter.

And it's for the iPhone?

We're going to try to make it universal.

Oh okay. I didn't know that, cool. Dual stick shooter on the iPad is an interesting thing. Did you have issues trying to translate the idea to the iPad?

We haven't done it for the iPad yet. It's been all iPhone. But we think we should be able to do it pretty easily. But I don't know how we'll have to tweak the controls yet. I hear Minigore on the iPad does a good job, so it looks like it can be done. It's a little more difficult, just holding the iPad up, because it's kind of heavy.

Yeah, even tilt games, you can get a workout just holding it out in space. How far away do you think you are on development yet?

Well, we've been telling everybody that we're aiming for the end of July, so that's just when it's going to have to be.

And it's a universal app, and you haven't started on the iPad yet.


Right. Well, it's done so that all of the graphics will size up, it's 3D OpenGL. So it's just a matter of getting it to work on the iPad. We'll get it, it's just a few days away from that.

The way that you work is interesting. It's just you guys. You do have someone else who helps now, right?

Yeah, it's me and Keith and Kiril, who's our artist.

When you work -- are you working at the same time, or what's your workflow? Do you yell things across the room at each other?

So we work out of our one-bedroom apartment. I sit at the kitchen, and Keith is in the bedroom, so we either yell at each other or he has his headphones on, so I IM him. Which is kind of ridiculous. But yeah, we kind of have long term goals like finish Max Adventure by the end of July, we want to do some updates on Harbor Master. But short time, we kind of do day-to-day planning. We actually do -- this is really funny -- we do a morning meeting every morning. We take attendance. Do you watch Flight of the Conchords?

I do.


Yeah. And that day we decide what's the highest priority that needs to get done and what doesn't. And you know, our skillsets are a little different. Keith wrote Harbor Master, so Keith's doing all the Harbor Master stuff. And recently I've been the one doing all the work on Max, because he's been so busy on Harbor Master. We also do all the music, and it's been busy, so we just decide day to day.

It's interesting with the App Store is that that's what a lot of people are doing is just hanging out in a room together and punching out these games. The other thing I wanted to ask about was if you had anything like OpenFeint running. You don't, right? It's all your own code?

We have our own leaderboards, yeah.

And have you seen GameCenter?

We have. It's awesome. I think we definitely want to go to GameCenter as soon as we can. The reason we have our own solution is that we implemented it in August of 2008 when there was nothing else available. If it was later, we probably would have gone with OpenFeint or Plus or something. But since then it's been nice to have our own and not have to give over control of it to somebody else. And we're always a little afraid, there's so many companies doing this, we don't know which one's going to win out. We don't want to be stuck with a loser and how do you get your data, and all of that. But now that Apple is doing their own solution, we definitely want to migrate to that as soon as we can. But again, we're probably not going to be releasing 4.0 only games very soon.

And that's the last thing -- it's super early with the hardware yet...

Did you play with it?

No, I haven't seen it yet. But is there anything in there that really intrigued you?


The gyroscope is pretty interesting. We don't have any concrete ideas about what to do there, but that's pretty cool. And just like the graphics speed will be really amazing. That might put pressure on our artist, but it's good to keep stepping up your game.

Great. Thanks very much!

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iPhone iPad

Natalia Luckynova is half of Imangi Studios. Along with her husband Keith Shepherd, she makes iPhone and iPod games, including the popular...