32 - Flight Control
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Features interviews with Defiant Development co-founder Morgan Jaffit and Firemint founder / Flight Control creator Rob Murray, along with a clip of former Touch Arcade editor Eli Hodapp.
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- You can't get Flight Control on iOS or Android anymore, but the HD Mac and Windows port is still available on Steam — if your computer is old enough to run it.
- The clip of Eli Hodapp speaking on The Touch Arcade Show is from episode 222, published in September 2015 — shortly after Flight Control (along with many other EA-owned games) was delisted from the App Store
- For more from me on the early mobile games business, be sure to check out episode 1 - Race to the bottom as well as the extended interview I posted with Pocket Gamer co-founder Jon Jordan after that episode came out. I also briefly touched on early iPhone hit Trism in episode 6 - ROM Hack — which featured Trism creator Steve Demeter talking about his stint in the ROM hacking and translations community.
If you're curious what these guys are up to nowadays, you'll find Eli at GameClub carving out deals to pull more old iOS and Android games out of purgatory and into their subscription catalogue. Rob is a stay-at-home dad, years deep in a bigger-than-he'd-expected project to design his family's new house. And Morgan is also enjoying the home life after winding down Defiant in 2019, happy that it had served its purpose and was no longer needed. He says he's also writing a script for a new game some ex-Defiant people are building, consulting on various upcoming game projects, and writing short stories (which he describes as a "very nice" change of pace, as he can get a story done in days rather than the years most games he's worked on took to complete).
Thank you to my Patreon supporters for making this episode possible — especially my producer-level backers Joel Webber, Vivek Mohan, Seth Robinson, Simon Moss, Carey Clanton, Scott Grant, Wade Tregaskis, and Rob Eberhardt.
To support my work, so that I can uncover more untold stories from video game history, you can make a donation via paypal.me/mossrc or subscribe to my Patreon. (I also accept commissions and the like over email, if you're after something specific or just don't want to deal through those platforms.)
[Welcome to The Life & Times of Video Games, a documentary audio series about the ideas that changed video games, and the people and stories behind those ideas. My name’s Richard Moss, and this is episode 32, Flight Control, and the simple little game that helped redefine an industry. We’ll get going in just a moment.]
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Revolutions bubble up beneath us, slowly, chaotically, quietly gathering energy — building up pressure, waiting for their moment, waiting for years — decades even — before suddenly something pushes them past an unknowable threshold and they explode out, violently, and change our world.
In videogames we’ve seen many revolutions — many rapid, seemingly-sudden transformations, driven by technological and design innovations that rendered the old ways immediately obsolete: programmable cartridges, gamepads, smooth-scrolling graphics, digitised sound, first-person shooters, CD-ROMs, discrete graphics cards, downloadable content, app stores, multi-touch input, microtransactions, and more — every one of these a revolution, every one foreshadowed by a slow build up of ideas and innovations and trends that ultimately coalesced into the kind of rapid all-consuming upheaval that we know as a revolution.
This is the story of how two such revolutions — one local, the other global — intersect with one simple little game. One simple little iPhone game that inadvertently served as a major catalyst (though not the only catalyst) for large-scale transformation.
This is the story of a game called Flight Control, and of its surprising, outsized influence at a key moment of transition — for the company that made it, the national games industry that rallied behind it, and the global market that embraced it.
Rob Murray: I started with Torus Games in Melbourne as a programmer. So I got a job there when I was 23 or something. And I was working on PC and Sega Saturn 3D games.
This is Rob Murray, the creator of Flight Control. He’d been in the industry more than 10 years before he published his big claim to fame, starting, as you just heard, at Torus, a primarily work-for-hire company that did — and actually still today does — budget licensed games and console and handheld ports for international publishers.
And the opportunity I guess when I left Torus was Gameboy and Gameboy Advance. There was a company in the UK at the time. It was Crawfish — they resurrected themselves a couple of times — that was contracting out. It was run by an expat, Cameron Shepard, here in Australia, and was contracting out some Gameboy titles and Gameboy Advance titles to programmers and artists who would work remotely. And so that was a big opportunity. And I was excited about the Gameboy — I think everybody was excited about the Gameboy Advance. It was a really cool little console. And that sort of was my entry. It was being able to do a bit of work on Gameboy Advance.
But pretty quickly Rob got excited about a different opportunity emerging for a freelance game programmer like himself. It came via a local company called Jumbuck that had found success in mobile chat apps and wanted to branch out into games. This is back in the days where mobile phones had tiny two-inch-or-less screens with input via the keypad, just when colour displays were becoming common and a wider range of games were emerging than…well, Snake, and Snake variants, and some other stuff you played when you got bored of Snake. So he was kind of in on the ground floor of mobile gaming’s rise.
Jumbuck hired Rob as a freelancer. He’d do the design and programming and work with local artists on the graphics.
Rob Murray: I think it was six thousand dollars for a game and it took me about six weeks or two months or something like that. And it wasn't very rewarding.
It wasn't very rewarding for quite some time, to be honest. But what was super exciting was this was going to be a game that I was the developer, you know, for the first time. Not just sort of perceived as a programmer, a subcontractor, whatever.
That wasn’t the only thing that appealed to him about the opportunity. He was also energised by the challenge of trying to do more with less.
And I could see also that mobiles were going to follow Moore's Law. So I was pretty clear, even back in 2001, that, yes, these things look rubbish — and they really were rubbish early on, but it was going to move...Well, yes, it was going to follow Moore's Law, but it was going to go faster than that. Because it's just playing catch up to all the technology that existed in desktop.
Rob freelanced for a few years as a mobile game developer and contract programmer for Gameboy Color and Gameboy Advance titles, then he hired a small team and founded a company called Firemint to start scaling up his efforts. They kept doing games for Jumbuck, like Soul Daddy in LA, a tongue-in-cheek shoot-‘em-up designed to play well with shoddy phone keypads, but also larger Gameboy Advance projects like the excellent Nicktoons Racing kart racer — which I consider, as someone who’s played nearly every kart racer published before 2006, to be one of the best old-school Mario Kart clones ever made.
Slowly Firemint built up expertise and a reputation as one of the best work-for-hire mobile game developers in the world, as mobile went through rapid hardware iterations (both good and bad) and technological improvement, and slowly they learnt the lessons that you have to learn when you deal with extreme constraints.
Rob Murray: I think the most useful thing was the psychology of it — or the philosophy is for me [that] this was a wonderful new world, and for many console developers, they were still looking down at it. And many indie developers were looking down at it. And I thought, this is amazing — the technology, right. Oh, there was one other thing that would have that played in. Was where we used to work in very, very limited input mechanisms, but we had to be creative. So what could you do with the button and what could you do with this, you know, poor — some poor touch screens.
So it was it was probably a creative approach to using the controls effectively.
Through all of this, Firemint remained an anomaly. Few game development studios around the world were putting resources into mobile, which was still largely ignored as a market segment by big publishers — who treated it as a dumping ground for movie-licence cash-ins and spin-offs of popular game franchises. Even in Firemint’s native Australia, where work-for-hire development had become the norm, most studios were focused on consoles. And friends of Rob’s in the business, like Warlords and Puzzle Quest creator Steve Fawkner, thought he was flipping mad for concentrating on mobile.
Then in June 2007, Apple released the iPhone. At first it was a bit of a net negative for mobile games makers like Firemint, as it meant that people who wanted a premium phone would buy an iPhone — and they couldn’t buy any games for it.
But a year later Apple opened the iPhone App Store, thereby making it possible for anyone to publish their own mobile apps and games at a price of their choosing — and all they had to give Apple was a hundred dollars a year for a developer account plus a 30 percent sales commission.
Richard Moss So then what was going through your mind? Were you really excited at the potential of the iPhone when this App Store was announced?
Rob Murray: Yeah, so I had two — there's two sort of different things going through your mind. There's one, the business. I think there were about 35 people I had employed at the time. And, you know, you're always thinking, well, how do you keep paying them? And so there's the business end of it.
And the other side was my game developer side, I suppose, and looking at it for its creative potential, which was — I was ecstatic. It was a large screen, you know, the touch screen, the accelerometers, everything in the same package. And it was the first time that anyone had made a phone that could work well as a games machine.
Quickly Firemint development director Kynan Woodman started looking at how they could shift development on their pet project Real Racing, an original, generic mobile racing simulation they planned to self-publish, over from the Nokia N95 to the iPhone.
Soon after, as the Real Racing experiments continued, they started getting work-for-hire contracts on the iPhone — beginning with an iPhone version of a popular Fast and Furious licensed game they’d made for BREW and J2ME-based handsets. But if Real Racing was to succeed, Rob felt, then he needed to get a good handle on how to publish games — as opposed to merely develop them — on the iPhone.
It seems, you know, we're putting so much money into Real Racing development and it had already shown promise. We were showing videos around the world that were getting great responses on YouTube from various people.
So the idea of just cold-dropping Real Racing onto the App Store was a bit scary, after all that investment, to just sort of well, let's go and type in whatever, you know, forms we have to. Drop it on the App Store. And if we make any mistakes, well, I don't know what that means. (laughs)
And at the same time he felt a growing sense of frustration at never having time to actually make something himself.
Rob Murray: You know, there's always frustrations when you're running a company and you're doing a lot of unpleasant business work most of the time. And, you know, you're questioning what you — why you got started in the whole thing, and can you still make a game and can you code any more.
So Rob decided that he’d put these things together — to kill two birds with one stone, as the saying goes.
Rob Murray: And that was my Christmas project where I think my wife had gone away for a week — I can't remember. Some holiday or camp or something. And I had this week at home and I was so determined to do something, just do a little game, try and finish it. We often had these game days and things. It's just the exercise of trying to finish a game, right, in a reasonable time.
The game was indeed very simple. You served as an air traffic controller for a busy airport, guiding a never-ending stream of planes (each coming from a different direction) safely down to the ground by drawing route lines for them to follow — just press your finger on the plane and then trace out a route for it to take to the runway. The goal was just to get as many planes landed as possible without a mid-air collision.
Richard Moss: Did you have any specific influences? I know there were a few air traffic control themed games that had been done before. Obviously nothing using line drawing to make the routes like you did. But were you looking at any of those or any other kinds of games or something outside of games?
Rob Murray: I did remember that — I do recall the idea came from an idea I'd been floating around that games were just work made easy. and that somehow got to the idea that we wanted the most stressful — the most stressful work possible (RM laughs), made easy. And I can't remember. It was a few years before or something. And there's a movie called Pushing Tin, which was about air traffic control. And you look it up and air traffic control was one of the most stressful jobs, one of the most, you know, very high, high stakes, very intense.
And so it sort of came from that philosophy, that idea that, you know, this is even more intense than — I don't know — running a kitchen, which was a lot of popular cooking games at the time, right, and they were all time management and stuff.
That was the first inspiration. And of course it immediately registered that people had made air traffic control games before. And there were a couple — I think there was a MicroProse one back in the 90s or something that was all very serious and boring looking. So there was that as well.
And a third component was the weekend before. It was just what I liked to play with. I liked the touch screen and I was playing with some kind of a, you know, just to rub your finger on the screen and then this sort of plasma kind of follows your finger around. And I was just exploring that, what I like the feel of.
So it was those things sort of intersecting, along with the idea that I had to finish a game this week. So I had to decide. And it was that decision I had to — this was the easiest decision that, OK, this all everything fits together. Doesn't seem brilliant. Seemed like the wrong sort of game because it was too — I thought it was an arcade. It was too intense. It was an arcade game for hardcore gamers, as I saw it at the inception of the idea, because I thought this is asking you to to twitch, to move. You know, it's — so I sort of felt it was not right. But it's a good idea. It's an idea that held together. It was a middle of the road idea. I could finish it this week. And I did it. So that's where it came from, as best as I can recall.
Richard Moss (laughs) Middle of the road idea turns into a million seller.
Rob Murray: Yeah, yeah, yeah, (laughs) well, I — in hindsight, I have a different view. But it's hard to...you've just got to make games — architecture is very similar — something that works. If it all kind of works and fits together. You can't make the dream game. The dream game, the dream home — it's very difficult, but something that actually fits together. The concept matches the mechanics, the story, the idea behind it sort of makes sense. It may not be the type of game that you thought you were going to make. It was too arcadey. But I guess it all fit together and worked. And that's a really big deal because there's not many things that fit together and work like that. A lot of games are forced — creatively forced — to achieve your ideal outcome.
When Rob showed his Flight Control demo to his wife, she immediately got excited and started looking for music and sound effects and helping to improve the user interface.
And Jesse, our art director, got excited about it and he just went home one weekend, I think, and started coming back with art, right, so for the look and feel.
Just a few of Firemint’s 35 staff were involved initially, each fiddling around on the weekend and after hours with ideas for how to improve the game.
And we kept it out of the office throughout its development. So we never did any work at the office, really, except for some publishing form-filling and stuff like that. Everyone sort of worked in it, just played around on their spare time.
After several weeks of spare-time work to finish the game off, Firemint submitted Flight Control to Apple. It got through Apple’s App Store submission process without any major hiccups, and the game came out on March 5th, 2009, just before the Game Developers Conference. They set an introductory price of 99 cents, with plans to jump up to $2.99 soon after release, because that was what low-budget, non-junk apps cost at the time. Then they spent a thousand dollars on ads, just to see if that was something that worked (which it wasn’t), and they emailed a bunch of journalists — with Pocket Gamer providing some positive early coverage, and Touch Arcade not far behind. Then they went off to GDC, happy that they’d learnt some useful lessons about the iPhone publishing process.
Rob Murray: A rocket got under it at some point, right in the middle of the conference, as it was heading up into the hundreds and then right up to — just kept going right up to number one. Right while we were there. And that was an astounding experience actually, being around the whole games industry. And suddenly everyone starts playing your game and suddenly it's the new number one.
And that was happening at the time when THQ I think were — whether they were going bankrupt or into liquidation, I can't remember…
Their bankruptcy came a few years later; at this point it was just financial struggles and a massive cost-cutting effort to stem the bleeding.
…But they were definitely going to have to can our biggest project at work, which was Stuntman on the Nintendo DS. And so I was thinking, well, what are we going to do with this? So much revenue to be lost from that. At the same time as Flight Control was going to number one and we had no idea what that meant. But we could start to see some big days. I think there was a forty thousand dollar day at number one. Like, 'whoa!', you know, that was one day.
And here is where our story intersects with a different, more tragic trend. The global financial crisis had hit its zenith in September the previous year, with the collapse of financial services firm Lehman Brothers, and, like all other big-money businesses, the videogame industry was reeling from the fallout.
The Australian games industry was particularly vulnerable. It had structured itself around work-for-hire development, and its studios thrived on market stability and on favourable currency conversions making them cheaper than similarly-equipped studios elsewhere in the world.
That all changed in a matter of weeks in 2008.
Morgan Jaffit: The Australian dollar went from being worth about 60 to 70 cents to the US dollar to parity. And then it was worth $1.10 to the US dollar.
This is Morgan Jaffit, an Aussie developer who at the time served as Pandemic Studios’ creative director in their Brisbane studio.
And that change was the fundamental linchpin that pulled the rug out from every internationally-owned Australian developer. And when I say every internationally-owned Australian developer, that was all of them, in major terms, with the exception of Krome. And of course, Krome was really dependent on being a cost-effective place to do licensed games. Licensed games were starting to fade away. And without being able to make the cost-effective argument, it was a bad time for Krome as well.
To really give you a sense of the disaster here, let’s run through some studio names. Pandemic Australia was the first big one to go; they officially closed in January 2009, though Jaffit says they were in “desperate straits” for six months prior to that. Krome and Tantalus laid off dozens of staff later that year, with Krome shrinking from 400-plus staff in three cities to 40 people in one location. De Blob developer Blue Tongue Entertainment had layoffs to stem the bleeding, then shuttered completely in 2011, on the same day as THQ Studio Australia. L.A. Noire developer Team Bondi shut down that same year. EA-owned studio Visceral Games Melbourne closed, too; they’d helped make the hit horror game Dead Space. And several other Australian studios also closed between the start of 2009 and end of 2012 as they each either ran out of cash reserves or were closed by their parent company.
Morgan Jaffit: So what we were left with was people like Tantalus and Torus and Big Ant, and those guys did heroic work to hang on through that period. But overnight, the Australian games industry went from employing over a thousand people to employing very few. And there are people who managed to get laid-off four or five times in that season — they'd like go to one company, go to another, get laid off. It was just — it felt like dominos falling down. And so not only was it depressing to watch the entire local games industry — particularly where it felt like the exciting things that were that were happening, just fall apart.
it was distressing because it felt like there was no place for those — that talent to go.
The Australian games industry needed a new model. From the ashes of Pandemic, Morgan Jaffit and a few of his colleagues founded a company called Defiant Development. Their goal was to find that new model — to help rebuild an industry in ruins and to give the world-class local talent a reason to stay.
Morgan Jaffit So we started with augmented reality and we were doing some early augmented reality work. And we were looking at architectural pre-visualisation stuff. And then we were doing — we did some Web games. We helped people do an educational Web title. At one point we were looking at doing some med-tech stuff, which was like training for medical science. And I mean, the thing I think about game developers in general is that they tend to become game developers because they really want to make games. So it sort of didn't stop. Like no matter what we were doing, we always accidentally ended up making games. And it's that that kind of swung us round.
And there was this moment where Flight Control came out and you were suddenly like, oh, well, this is real business. This is a real opportunity for developers at our scale. It's still — like I have no idea off the top of my head how much money Flight Control made eventually, and I'm sure whatever it was, it would have been well worthwhile for the bigger publishers. But it didn't feel — in those early days, it didn't feel like you were going head to head against EA. Because was generally looking at things going, can this make us two hundred million dollars? And it wasn't obvious at that point in time that a Flight Control sort of game could make that sort of money. But it could definitely make half a million dollars, a million dollars. And that was certainly enough to keep small studios plugging along. So all of a sudden that started feeling like a space where we had an opportunity to play.
***That gets you everything up to the mid-episode intermission (around 26 minutes). The remainder of the story is focused on making sense of the impact and legacy of Flight Control — in all three of those aspects noted at the top — and on describing how the conditions are ripe for another big market shift right about now.
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