Thursday, October 14, 2010

An Interview with Star Kiwi's Leo Curtis

Star Kiwi member Leo Curtis talks to Max Hart about their exciting game Space Hawk, iPhone games and the New Zealand gaming community.

As a side-scrolling space shooter you have to forgive some people for dismissing Star Kiwi’s Space Hawk as just another R-Type clone.  Yes, there is a big hulking ship (the Space Hawk), that if it dies spells game over; and yes, you have to blow up asteroids and enemy spaceships.  But what’s special is that the game is all about escorting the Space Hawk and making sure it doesn’t go BOOM by defending it with mini-ships via on-screen controls.   Outside of the gameplay, Star Kiwi promises online leaderboards very shortly as well as achievements that go beyond the typical ‘Congratulations! You have completed the game on Hard!’, etc.  Admit it, we all love achievements.

When asked, Leo will tell you that he is a fan of games with a great difficulty curve: “anytime I’m challenged is great”, in particular he cites fighting and sports games as the best examples of this, including his all time personal favourite Fire Pro Wrestling (which his Star Kiwi colleagues mercilessly tease him about).  It seems Leo’s love of difficult games has bled through into Space Hawk itself:  upon completing the Hard difficulty Nightmare Mode is unlocked, which as one reviewer put it: “is quite literally what it says it is”.  Leo laughs when I tell him this, explaining that the mode was actually included more or less as a mistake due to a programmer inserting too many asteroids on the screen at once.  The resulting mode is a slightly toned-back version and as he points out that “to this day our best player can get three quarters of the way but has never finished it”.  As to whether anyone can actually survive long enough to complete the game on Nightmare, Leo doesn’t have a clue, suggesting that if anyone does they would get a very special achievement.

Why make a game for the iPhone?  When I asked this question I half-expected Leo to dive into some technical mumbo-jumbo about accelerometers and particle effects leaving me to stare at a wall for a bit.  Admittedly, he did touch on this but there was a much more simple reason behind the decision.  StarKiwi CEO Ryan Thatcher had become hooked by the iPhone game Air Traffic Controller and was astounded that such a simple game could become so addicting...oh and also sell four million units in a year.  So along came the simple thought of ‘You know what?  I reckon I could do better’, kicking off the Space Hawk process.

While Space Hawk was a plan bursting with ambition, Star Kiwi found themselves without a coder – a somewhat essential part of any game development company – thankfully, the Game Developers Meetup solved this issue.  A once a month meeting off Queen Street, the Game Developers Meetup serves not only as a forum for avid local developers to discuss their projects, but also provides an opportunity to network and find work.  The latter part comes along in the form of a section affectionately called ‘Desperately Seeking’, where anyone can put their hand up to say “Hey I’m working on a project I need a programmer/artist/coder”.  Star Kiwi stepped up to the plate and gave a little spiel requesting a coder and came across the answer to their prayers – a.k.a. Matthew Gatlang: “He was able to fix little issues that we had just over night and suddenly we could see this game coming full circle”.  Star Kiwi had a team.

But what about the funds?  The big boss man Thatcher had some, but that alone would not be enough.  So the Star Kiwi crew got on the wire and began approaching potential investors.  What followed was a somewhat tiresome process, says Leo: “First of all they didn’t understand that it was a game, they kept on saying ‘Why are you building another app? Everyone builds apps,’”.  The frustrating issue was that people did not realise that there were people in New Zealand who knew how to make games that could be sold all over the world.  Leo eventually got the message through that people like to have a game with them, whether it’s Solitaire on their computer or Tetris on their phone – making it an almost universal appreciation. 

With a bit of budgeting and some good ol’ fashioned Kiwi hard work Space Hawk was released, and subsequently people began to see that New Zealanders actually making games was a reality.  After Space Hawk’s release interest in the company sky-rocketed: Star Kiwi began to get numerous phone calls from people saying “Hey I have an idea for a game, I have this much money, can you make it for me?”.  So have they taken up these offers?  Leo was pretty mum to discuss this but he did confirm that due to Space Hawke’s success its sequel is currently in the works while at the same time another IP aimed at a broader audience is slated for a February 2011 release.

Whether you want to prove Leo wrong and earn that achievement Nightmare Mode achievement or just want to play Star Kiwi’s much-touted Space Hawk, the good news is that it’s available right now on the iTunes App Store for just $1.29.  For what is essentially loose change you could have this on your iPhone provided it’s 3GS or 4G (sorry 3G iPhone users, the 3D effects will kick your phone to the curb).  Space Hawk is also about to be released for those lucky punters with iPads too, so watch this space!

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