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Monday, April 22, 2013

Interview: Tin Man Games on making a successful career out of the dead gamebook genre

Here's an interesting little Australian indie developer for you. Neil Rennison, the man behind Tin Man Games, has made a career about a style of game that most people would have considered dead.

The humble gamebook was a big deal back in the 80s with the likes of the Fighting Fantasy line, but largely disappeared with the advent of videogames. Some people still get a nostalgic thrill from these games, and Rennison has successfully tapped into that market with what is perhaps the perfect format for the modern gamebook - the iPad.

We had a brief chat with Rennison about gamebooks and his plans for the future. Tin Man Games is a great example of a developer that has found itself a niche and really honed into it, and it's refreshing to see that Rennison is not looking to push beyond what he does best.

Digitally Downloaded (DD): What are your priorities for the next 12 months?
Neil Rennison (NR): Lots more digital gamebooks! We have another seven Fighting Fantasy gamebooks to release as well as some new Gamebook Adventures. We've also got a Dredd sequel and a few other gamebooks planned like Grailquest and the Spellcaster Trilogy. We want to become THE digital gamebook company.


DD: What inspired you to focus entirely on developing gamebook titles?
NR: Mainly because we love gamebooks and felt that new smartphones and tablets were the perfect platform for a game medium that had seemingly died out in the 90s. There was also a gap in the market early on in this technology cycle and felt we could do much better than some of the other interactive fiction titles out there.

DD: What are some of the challenges that you've found in developing gamebooks?
NR: Adapting to technology changes has been our biggest issue and finding ways to fund the development. When we started we were only iPhone focused. Then the iPad appeared and we had to redesign our engine to cope with that. Then after exhibiting at PAX East in 2011 we realised that over half of the people visiting our booth were Android users and loved our apps, but couldn't play them. So that meant re-designing the engine from the ground up again to support releasing gamebooks across iOS and Android simultaneously - we had some financial help to do this from Film Victoria in Melbourne. We can now do just that using our Unity-based engine.

DD: Obviously these games are more subtle and niche in interest than action games. How do you approach the marketing of your work?
NR: Basically by targeting people that enjoy reading, adventure games and RPGs. The PAX audience in particular have been really welcoming as basically PAX is an expo that crosses the video game and tabletop role-playing game industry boundaries. So basically people that visit PAX are our perfect customers! We also like to latch on to the 30+ year old nostalgia factor in the way we design the app's features as well as making sure we cater for the younger, more feature demanding audience, who are hungry for new gaming experiences and may well have not even been born when gamebooks were at their height in the 80s and 90s.

DD: You've worked in many different countries - where do you think the best game development environment is?
NR: Australia! I've never worked anywhere before that has such a great community industry spirit as there is in Melbourne in particular. So many experienced and junior devs willing to share ideas and help each other out. That shows in the successes of some of the big Aussie indies in the last few years.

DD: Do you think there is room to expand your development projects beyond the iPad and iPhone?
NR: Yes! We're obviously now on Android which spreads us across into Kindle Fires and Nook tablets, as well as releasing desktop versions on Desura and the Mac App Store. We've discussed Windows phones and even actually releasing real paper books - whatever those things are! ;)

DD: What opportunities do you see to further expand on the gamebook formula?
NR: We're looking to expand some of our gamebook properties over the next few years so that they get closer to that tabletop RPG experience that we grew up with. I can't say any more than that at the moment.

DD: How do you manage the risk of being an indie developer, and build a career out of it?
NR: With difficulty! I have two kids and a mortgage too and times have been tough - still are in many respects, but things are growing. The trick is to be committed to a long-term vision and be very careful in where you place your next foot. It only takes one wrong project resulting in poor sales and things get messy financially. I made some good decisions around 2005-2008 when I was running my small 3D art outsourcing company, Fraction Studios (now defunct), and put some money aside when things were going good. That money has been really useful to fall back on in the last couple of years when their have been financial bottlenecks.

DD: Finally, what games are you playing at the moment?
NR: Right at this moment I would say King of Dragon Pass (iPad), Mr. Crab (iPad), Legend of Grimrock (Mac), Fez (Xbox), Super Soccer Champs 2013 (iPad) and lots of Trial of the Clone and Forest of Doom (mainly for testing purposes!)
Interview: Tin Man Games on making a successful career out of the dead gamebook genre
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