TACS Games is a rarity in the games industry. Harking back to the 8-bit era when a games development studio could be run from home, Thomas Hopper has been responsible for no less than eleven published games for the Playstation Mobile format at the time of this interview with more in development making him the most prolific PSM developer to-date, but what is more astonishing is that he handles all of the programming, sound and artwork for these alone.
In between working on more upcoming games, he was able to spare some time for us for this interview…
First, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m a male human programmer of lawful alignment. I was born and raised in the heart of the land of the Angles, currently living in Germany. I was a mobile software developer for many years but at the start of last year I began working full time as an indie game developer. This year I launched my first titles including eleven games on PlayStation Mobile.
When did you first get interested in gaming?
I’ve been into gaming for my whole life. I’ve always been playing and making games of some sort. My earliest gaming memory is probably playing Venus the Fly Trap on my dad’s Atari ST.
What prompted you to start programming?
As a kid, when I began to reach the limit of the ‘game maker’ style programs I was using, I naturally progressed onto real programming languages. I tried a bit of everything I had available to me but I wasn’t terribly good. I learned a bit more at school and kept learning whatever bits I needed to put together gradually more and more complex games. Doing is the best kind of learning but it does leave holes in the knowledge you gain. I only ever really began learning to program when I studied at university but, truth be told, I did the bulk of my understanding while doing real work in the real world later in my life.
Playstation Mobile has been compared by many to be the natural follow-on from the Playstation Minis range. Would you agree with that?
They seem to fill the same space, yes. Smaller games, usually at a lower price point from unknown or unproven developers.
How easy have you found it to develop for the format?
Very easy. I’d used c# once or twice before and it’s quite an easy language to get to grips with especially if you’ve done a lot of Java programming before (which I have). The APIs are fair enough but since your game must run across multiple devices you need to be a bit careful with resources and be good at optimisation. As someone with experience with mobile platforms this was not a problem for me.
How supportive have Sony been in helping you bring your games to the platform?
I’ve dealt with some very nice people at Sony who’ve been really very supportive of my efforts and have treated me with respect despite my relative newness to the indie scene.
What have sales been like so far for your games on Playstation Mobile?
Sales have been less than good.
Your games have had a range of styles from minimalistic to some very clearly influenced by the 8-bit console era most evident in Sea Run and Shuttle Quest 2000 which emulate the look and feel of the Gameboy. Are your games generally influenced by the 8-bit era in terms of styling and gameplay or is it just the visual style that appealed to you?
I think you only have to look at Super Tank Poker or Out Of Mind to see that retro mechanics are as important to me as retro visuals and music.
Both Shuttle Quest and Sea Run use a special engine that not only emulates the colour palette of the famous DMG-01 but also the screen resolution, tile and sprite engines. The engine only supports special effects that would have been possible on the original hardware too. Those games are as true to the what the gameboy was capable of as I could make them. (That’s not to say I didn’t make a few mistakes / compromises). I have a great love for simplicity in games and retro games a some of the simplest games we have.
Have you been frustrated by the slow roll-out of PlayStation Mobile globally?
Not personally. It’s coming out in a bunch of new regions this December and I’m excited for that. I know that there are people in those regions who are excited for it to arrive. I hope they’ll check out some of my games.
We’re strong supporters of PlayStation Mobile here at Vita Player and we’ve been frustrated at the limited marketing done by Sony for PSM in comparison to Vita games generally. Do you think Sony could be doing more to help developers with the promotion of the their games?
I don’t think they’re doing a bad job. It’s a tiny slice of what Sony do as a company and I don’t feel underrepresented for the kind of sales PSM produces. This month Sony have been giving away two free PSM games every week, which is a nice way to promote the platform. They’re also about to launch in at least five+ new regions, which is also good. If PSM were making an equal share of the sales as the other stores then I would be calling for equal promotion but that’s just not the case.
What do you think could be done to help address the image that PS Mobile games have that they are “Android ports” as opposed to quality games in their own right?
I can think of no better way to get people acquainted with the joys of PSM than have them download a play a few PSM games. With there being free PSM games to be had right now that’s a great way to get people to see there are some real gems in the PSM library.
Hardcore gamers have complained for some time about the lack of leaderboard and Trophy support in PS Mobile games. Although leaderboards have now been added and some developers are updating their games to include them with the promise of trophies in the near future, are these important to you and do you think that their absence has had an impact on sales?
It’s probably true that something as significant as trophy support would improve sales of PSM games but I don’t know if we’ll see every PSM games getting trophies any time soon. Leaderboards have been available in the PSM APIs for a few months now but I know of developers still having problems with them so I’ve been waiting ’til it settles down.
Do you have any plans to go back and revisit your older games to add leaderboard support and – when it is added to the developer kit – trophies as well?
I have yet to add leaderboards to any of my games as I’m waiting for the problems to settle down. It’s something I would like to do for games like SEA RUN and RADIANT FLUX.
You’ve set the price of almost all of your games at under £1. Do you think that the price of PlayStation Mobile games plays an important part in the decision of whether gamers will support the format or not?
I try to price my games such that many people get a chance to play them. I’ve heard that there is such a thing as pricing too low but I imagine this only applies to discovering a game cold on the marketplace. I think more people come to my games via reviews and social media that via people browsing the store at random. Every time you ask users to jump through a hoop to get access to your game you lose 90% of those users. If someone needs to top up their PSN wallet in order to buy my game then I think I’ll probably lose that sale. At the same time if you have less than £1 in your wallet, what else are you going to spend it on?
Overall, so far how would you say that PlayStation Mobile fares in comparison to the other platforms that you develop for, both in terms of a development environment and for sales and distribution?
It’s a nice simple platform that can be used to make some great games. Sales however are not so great. If you think you’ve got something special and want to see it running on something so lovely as a Vita then it’s the only game in town. Making games is the only way to get better at making games so if you’re a new indie developer and the prospect of PSM excites you then jump in.
You took the brave step with Shuttle Quest 2000 to release a trial version of the game first offering some of the levels then making the full game unlockable through an in-game purchase. Did this work as well as you had expected?
SQ2k had by far the greatest number of downloads of any of my PSM games. In this regard it was a success. It was not, however, a success in terms of sales. I don’t know if I gave too much away for free or if a craft-em-up-shooter-rpg in a gameboy style was just too niche a genre. I’ve heard form people who did buy it who tell me they’re enjoying it still, so that at least is something to be happy about.
You’ve released an incredible number of games so far on PlayStation Mobile and reading on your site you always seem to have several in development at any one time. How long would you say it takes to develop a typical game?
Something the scale of SBE3 will take about a week from concept to submission. Something like Super Tank Poker will take more like three months.
Which of your games are you most pleased with to-date?
I think SQ2k and ‘Super Tank Poker’ are my most proud achievements but ‘Out of Mind’ is the game people most like to talk to me about. At the time OOM was my biggest and most complex game but it didn’t get much love. It’s my only game that contains unlockable haiku. It’s also probably my most serious game.
If you could have done anything differently with any of them, what would it have been?
Perhaps I should have taken a different approach to the way I sold SQ2k. On one hand I may have made a tiny amount more money but on the other hand fewer people would have had a chance to play it. I’m not sure which is better.
Finally, can you give our readers any hints at any forthcoming titles that you’re working on for PlayStation Mobile?
I’m not actively developing any PSM titles right now but I have two which are incomplete and may one day be finished. One is a (nearly finished) side scrolling 2.5d run-and-gun platformer. It is a spiritual successor to OOM and stars a tiny hand held games console. The other tells the tale of the adventures of a robot space potato, in space. Also a platformer but with randomly generated levels and mutant vegetables.
I’m also in the prototyping phase for a sequel to SBE3.5. I guess this would be SBE4 (at least).