Indie Developer Offers Insight into the Development of His Award Winning Game

Regular readers may remember my review of the game Virus Strike, a physics-based problem solving game influenced by classics like Tetris and Flight Control.  The game was created by Neil Ferguson, an independent developer from London (UK), who conceived, coded and and released the game with zero budget and no previous iOS programming experience.  The game was honored by Wiley Publishing, Inc, the publishers of the “For Dummies” series of books, including the book iPhone Application Development For Dummies by Neal Goldstein.  It won first prize in their iPhone & iPad Game App Challenge on Facebook. 

Neil was kind enough to provide an interview detailing his development process, from conception to release.  He describes how he researched his idea, the resources he utilized to learn to program for the iOS, as well as the testing phase and promotion. 

Read the entire interview about this successful developer’s experience after the jump.

Where did you get your idea, and what steps did you take to research the concept?

I came up with the idea for Virus Strike about a year ago. I’d been playing a physics-based game called Linerider, as well as Flight Control. It occurred to me that combining a line-drawing physics-engine with a match 3-type game might be fun to play, so I had a look through every single puzzle game in the App Store to see if anyone had done it. It took me hours – several days, in fact – but I couldn’t find one. Only then, when I knew I had an original idea, did I start developing  Virus Strike.
What was your philosophical approach for designing the game play?

I did a lot of prototyping to try and figure out the specifics of the gameplay dynamics. My wife, who’s a journalist, helped me a lot here. She instinctively had a sense of how to create a game narrative for the user and she played the game slightly differently from me, which was useful.  I pretty much ran everything past her and we did a lot of brainstorming together. We’d often head down the pub for a ‘meeting’. Then I’d stay up late prototyping our ideas until 2am and wake up my wife to test them.  I tried four colours, instead of three, as well as bigger viruses and different speeds, and went for the combination that best made for a game that was easier pick up and play. However, I probably will introduce more colours in the future, as well as different virus-sizes and speeds. The great thing about the App Store is that it’s quite easy to release new versions of an app.

What was your programming background?  What skills did you already have prior to creating your game?
I’ve always been a keen programmer, in my spare time as well as at work. Full-time I work at a software start-up in London and I’ve been programming professionally for over 10 years. However, Virus Strike is my first iPhone game and I’d never programmed in Objective C before this, so I learnt a lot while developing it.

What knowledge and programming resources did you rely upon?
Online tutorials helped me a lot – particularly Ray Wenderlich’s at He offers loads of free tutorials on iOS programming, which I found very useful.  I used Cocos2D, which is an awesome free open-source framework for creating iPhone games. It also has an integrated physics engine which made developing Virus Strike a lot easier.  It saved me a lot of time and effort!  I did all of the coding myself.
What was the testing phase like?  Who were your beta testers?  What suggestions did they have that were surprising and perhaps incorporated into your final product?
The development process were very iterative. My wife and I tested the game throughout the development process. It was very useful to get her input. She wanted to be able to tilt the game for example, which I hadn’t originally thought about including.  Testing also helped me to figure out an important part of the game dynamics: how the game should end. I didn’t want the game to end abruptly as soon as the viruses crossed the line. So, after a lot of testing, I decided the game would enter ‘Alert Mode’ once viruses piled up over the death line, and that mistakes would be costly at this point. You’ll know from playing the game what I mean!  Once we had a game we were happy with, we invited friends and colleagues to the pub and asked them to try it out. Their feedback made me realise that it would be helpful to have a tutorial video. I used ScreenFlow to make a one-minute video of the game in play and again, after some more user testing, added a one-page text tutorial to the first load-up of the game for anyone who skipped the video. 
What was the total cost of researching and developing your game?
I spent nothing researching and developing the game, except for my own time. I did it all in my spare time and it took me a year.

How did you engage the press and market your game?
My wife wrote me a press release when I launched the game which did pretty well. I’m pretty lucky in that she’s a journalist so she knows how to write a good story and to come up with angles that will get other journalists interested. We paid $20 to get the release distributed by PRMac and it was well worth it – it got picked up all over the place, and many sites simply copied and pasted in the press release in full!  We have also been writing individual, personalised emails to key writers on app review sites (like this one!) and targeting local and national newspaper journalists in the UK. Journalists definitely respond best to the personal approach. Of course, it takes hours to do this, but with no serious marketing budget to speak of, time is all we’ve got to spend!
How would you describe and rate your overall experience?  Would you do it again? Do you have other games in the works?
Virus Strike is the first IOS app that I have developed and I’ve enjoyed it from a technical standpoint because I’ve had to learn a lot of new things, never having programmed for the Mac before. I like the satisfaction of solving new problems and being confronted with new types of challenges. Virus Strike was particularly interesting to develop because it uses a physics engine, which I’ve never used before. However, it wasn’t that challenging technically. The most challenging part was getting the game mechanics right and trying to produce an enjoyable game.
I’m planning to keep developing Virus Strike in the near future, releasing a Lite version and adding features, such as Game Center. I’m also keen to release it on Android. So that’s my plan for the near future – no other games in the works at present. I’d definitely do it again and would recommend the experience to any budding iPhone developer out there! There’s nothing like seeing an idea you came up with and worked hard on come into reality and people enjoying it.

Based on your experience, what is the single most important piece of advice you can offer fledgling developers?
Pick an original idea. There are so many apps in the App Store that to stand out, you really need to be original. Do your research before you start developing, it will save you a lot of time and heartache later. Plus, you’ll find it a lot easier to get publicity if your game is truly original. There’s no point developing an app if no one ever finds out it exists.

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