What goes into developing a great children’s storybook app? A life-long fascination with computers and gaming technology, that’s what! Recently I talked to Will Bryan (photo of his studio above) about his experience developing The Three Little Pigs. Will’s background is in video games and before joining Nosy Crow as Head of Apps Development – Engineering, he spent 13 years working for Nintendo and Microsoft on titles such as Banjo-Tooie and Viva Piñata.
What was your first computer?
I grew up around computers and the first one I remember having was the Sinclair ZX81. It was customised with a proper push-button keyboard rather than the membrane one they came with. We soon moved on to the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, BBC Micro, Atari ST and beyond. About five years ago I went onto the Internet and tracked down some of these old machines.
What kind of work have you done in the past?
I’ve built websites, developed several video games, and for the last couple of years I’ve been looking into original ideas for Xbox 360 Kinect by day and original ideas for iPhone by night, which is how I came to be at Nosy Crow.
Why have you gone from games to making apps?
Game development has become a bit of a monster. It’s no longer possible for an individual on a game team to have a nice little idea, build it, polish it and have everybody smiling about it on the same day. App development scales all that back. Individuals can have an idea for an app and ship it within a month if they want. Nosy Crow has eleven employees and not all of them are involved in the app side of the business. Those of us that are can sit around a small table and just get on with it. Ideas shared, suggestions thrown about, decisions made.
How do you and your brother Ed (Nosy Crow’s Head of Apps Development – Creative) work together to create an app?
Like a well oiled machine – if only that were true! We’ve been working together for more than 25 years, so we are starting to get the hang of it. My work usually consists of finding how we take an idea and make it a reality. Ed’s much better at honing the fit and finish of an idea once it’s working. He provided a lot of feedback on The Three Little Pigs app features, like flicking the characters. We end up exchanging emails with made up words in them: “Are they flicky enough yet?” “Is the pingyness too much?” If this goes on too long we end up looking at things together and demonstrating issues.
How do you work with illustrators?
It’s a very collaborative process. Since this is a new format, there’s a lot of learning for everyone involved. I’ve found that the quicker we prototype a scene or a character that we can look at and play with, the better. In The Three Little Pigs, we took the original 2d illustrations and arranged them in a 3d model, a bit like a puppet theatre. Each illustration had a place on the stage and we could look around the stage to reveal different things. The accelerometer on the iPad and iPhone allowed us to show how a 2d illustration could be made into so much more.
On the Animal SnApp series we’re working closely with Nikalas and Tim on how to animate their artwork for the app. Their illustration style is very different to that of The Three Little Pigs. As part of our discussions, Nikalas and Tim created a brief video clip to demonstrate how the animation should work. On my side, I expect we’ll produce a bunch of very small prototypes for this project as we work out the best way to proceed.
What was the best part of making The Three Little Pigs?
I always like the last few weeks or months of a project the best. You reach a point where you are on the home straight, the product is mostly complete and you’re busy polishing everything to make it the best it can be. Working with Robin on the music was great. He was keen to make some of the music interactive, which you can hear working in Scene 3 where the pigs first leave home: each pig has his or her own instrument that fades into the music when tapped. It’s detail like this that makes me very proud of The Three Little Pigs.
What was the biggest challenge?
There’s always a worry about whether it’ll all come together on time. The Three Little Pigs is my first iPad/iPhone/iPod touch app and although it’s “just software” I don’t have another engineer sitting across the office from me to talk through problems. Fortunately, over the years I’ve become quite good at figuring things out for both myself and others. Many problems have been solved away from the computer and at the most unexpected moments.
You must see lots of apps. Can you tell us about your favourite ones?
It’s funny, every few weeks we gather together at the Crow’s Nest to discuss projects and the table fills up with iPads, iPhones and iPod touches. I can always tell which devices are mine as I seem to have far fewer apps installed than anyone else. I’ve got a little puzzle game on my iPhone called Glow Puzzle that I continue to enjoy. I like it because I can take as long as I like to study the puzzle before making a move. I’m still waiting for the original Lemmings games to appear on the App Store. I’d be first in line to download them!
What advice would you give to children interested in making their own apps, or computer games?
I recommend looking at other people’s apps or games and begin to question how they work. What happens when you press a button or tap a character? What does a character do if you don’t do anything? If you start to break apps down, they’re often a lot less complicated than they first appear. Software developers are very good at using tricks to make things look cleverer than they really are. Plenty of smoke and mirrors!
What are you working on now?
Our next app is another 3D fairy tale: Cinderella. I’ll be building upon the code I created for The Three Little Pigs but there will also be several new features and some very cool interactive surprises. With the iPad2, I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do to make our storybook apps even more exciting for children.