Interview with iPhone developer Raptisoft

Apple Interviews iPhone RPG

MasterAbbott sat down and interviewed John Raptis the director of Raptisoft Games.  We ask John a variety of fantastic questions about Raptisoft and their newest title Solomons Keep!  This is one of our best and most detailed interviews we’ve had in a very long time.  Now we don’t have a picture of John but he wanted to let us know that he is married, and lives in Northern Michigan with his wife, two kids, three dogs, and two cats.

Now with all the formalities out of the way lets get down the buisness.  Enjoy the interview 😉  Happy reading

Question 1 – Tell us a little bit about Raptisoft.  How were they created, the origin behind the name Raptisoft, when was it first established, and how many employees does it have today.

Well, Raptisoft is simply mylastname-soft.  It probably wasn’t the wisest decision, since it’s not an easily remembered or spelled or pronounced name, but it was the only thing I felt “close” to.  Some of the names I rejected were about as funny and catchy as a fish.

I started it up in 2001 to sell my game “Eggsucker.”  There’s a bit of a history behind this; I originally wrote that game in 1997 for my wife (she enjoyed playing a similar game at an arcade in Ann Arbor, Michigan).  I had spent so few skill points in “Business Thinking” at that point in my life that I wrote the game… then did nothing with it.

But in 2001 the tipping point happened: I got a mortgage.  I am a bit of a fanatic about debt—I hate it with a passion.  So I quickly rewrote Eggsucker, and set it up for sale on the web.  I felt a bit guilty about it not being a completely original game idea, so I sold it as cheaply as the ecommerce provider would allow: $5.49.  I was hoping to make $50-$100 a month to put on my mortgage.

Well, in its first month it did a little better than that, and I was pleased.  Then in its second month, the floodgates opened!  It doubled my monthly salary at my day job, and then continue to do that for a few months.  Around the six-month point, Popcap games wrote me, offering to publish it.  For some reason they had a problem with the name “Eggsucker” and it was renamed to “Dynomite.”

As for employees… it’s just me, and various consultants.  I do all the coding, artwork, and sound effects, and I hire people to do music and voice work.  Oh, and I should also mention my wife, who plays what I write and generally lets me know if something in the game is tripping her up or spoiling the fun.

Question 2 – What do you believe have been your greatest challenges designing games for the mobile phone market ? Especially games for the iPhone/iTouch and now iPAD.

Without question, it’s the memory space and video card speed, compared to working on PC.  I’ve become used to having memory and speed to spare.  Suddenly, on the iPod, you have to go back to all the 3D card tricks of the 90’s, like batching triangles and reducing your texture swaps, and you have to watch your memory usage.  I don’t enjoy that much.

But it’s all made up for it by having a touchscreen.  While I sometimes wish Apple made a gamepad-type cradle that you could seat the iPhone in, I’ve found through playing around that by using the accelerometer or touchscreen controls, you can come up with control schemes that actually change and improve gameplay.

For instance, in Solomon’s Keep… I don’t think I would have done the secondary skills or the levelup system the way I did if I wasn’t designing for a small screen that could be touched anywhere.  But I was really happy with the way they turned out!

Question 3 – What do you believe is the main reason why the Raptisoft games are such a success ?

Heh, not every Raptisoft game is a success.  My game Boonka (available at Sandlot Games) and my game Hap Hazard are enjoyed by tens of people worldwide.  Boonka especially represents the most development time for the least love I’ve ever done in my life. J

But the ones that are successful… I think the only reason can be because I really *work* these games.   I play them over and over.   If something isn’t fun, out it goes, no matter how good of an idea it was.  I think many programmers are loathe to do that because something was a lot of work to put in, and they’ll be damned if they’re taking it out.  I know their pain… but I have this other pain that I experience when I leave something like that in.  It’s the pain of my wife telling me, up to sixteen times a day, how she likes the game fine, except for this one little thing that keeps getting in her way.

And then, after all the playtesting and balancing, I am so used to the game, and I’ve gone through it so many times, I’m bored with it.  I hate it.  I play it, and I get gloomy, and I say, “nobody’s gonna want this.”  So I start throwing in other things to try to spice it up.  That’s how you get design decisions like “every single level is going to be completely different in Hamsterball” or “the final boss is going to torment you every step of the way” in Solomon’s Keep.

So I guess the one word answer to this question is “insecurity.” J





Question 4 – For people that don’t know anything about, Solomon’s Keep.  How would you describe the game to them and the meaning behind the games name.

Well… what I wanted to achieve with Solomon’s Keep was “Diablo for the iPhone,” right down to the gothic moodiness.  Many factors, like memory, screen real estate, etc, put this lofty goal beyond my grasp, but in working around them, I think I made a game that’s “Like Diablo, but different.”

The game plot is pretty simple.  You’re a young wizard who is about to graduate Wizarding School.  But you must pass your final exam, which is to perform a dangerous task in a natural setting, with only minimal help from the faculty in solving it.

So in the game world, there is this dark wizard (Solomon Dark, natch) who has been running rampart for a bit, and your professors have decided that your final exam is to take him out, by storming his fortified keep (Solomon’s Keep, ta-da!)

You get two onscreen thumbsticks.  One of them controls your character, and the other shoots.  The important factor in this is that you can retreat while shooting (something I always wanted to do in Diablo).  As you play, you gain experience, and when you level up you are given several skill choices.  The choices you get are mostly randomized (…mostly.  There are circumstances where it tries to help you out, especially if it detects that you’ve started specializing yourself).  So, each game really is a different experience—sometimes chance favors you, and you get a devastating build with a tank wizard who can simply walk through the dungeon, glaring at the enemies to destroy them.  Other times, you’ll get a random build that forces you to play very strategically, because you either need to conserve mana, or you’re just not doing as much damage as you could.

Question 5 – What extra features/modes/ etc did you add to make Solomon’s Keep stand out in the crowd of other RPG style games that are out in the market at the moment.

The first thing I do when I decide on a game type to do is avoid, like the plague, anything that might be even remotely similar.  It’s too easy to lose your design and have it morph into someone else’s, just because you think what they’ve done with their game is so nice.  Plus, it’s easy to get “kitchen sink syndrome” which is when you throw everything into your game except the kitchen sink.

So I didn’t really go into this trying to “stand out…” but basically I sat down and said to myself, “now what would I want to play?”  And wrote that.  I’ve always wanted to play an action RPG where the final boss bugged me all the way through, so that by the end I really wanted to kill him, personally, instead of him just being the final anonymous monster with more hit points. 

I had a bad moment when Catacombs came out just a couple weeks before I was ready to release, because the videos I saw of it made it look like the exact same game.   That was dismaying!

But after I released, I went ahead and looked at a lot of games, and, well, I guess what makes Solomon’s Keep different is that it’s a bit more ambitious.  It’s got a full skill tree, a story, a shop, and various things you’d find in a full-blown PC game, but just shrunk down.  Oh, and it’s got a skeletal dragon that pukes realistic maggots.  I’m almost positive no other game has that.

Ambition costs, though.  Before the 1.1 update, the game ate up too much memory, and would crash at times—too many times!   Thankfully, I’ve been able to update it very quickly, but it was very white knuckle for the first few days after release (now I’m white knuckle waiting to see what new bugs will turn up).

And in fixing some of the memory bugs, I was able to free up some memory so that in 2.0 I can add back in some of the stuff I had to take out!

Question 6 – How long was the development cycle for Solomon’s Keep.  Could you briefly explain the start to finish phases: storyboading, concept art etc

Both three months and nine years.  Back in 2001 after completing Eggsucker, I was looking around for another game to write.  I was playing this game called XQuest ( ) back then, as well as a lot of Diablo 2, and somehow I started getting this weird notion… what if these two games could be combined?  Yes!  You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!

Back then it was a different game.  I had always envisioned a lot of chatter from Solomon, but the original design called for you to go into rooms where Solomon would lock you in and send waves of baddies after you (you can see the remnants of this in the actual game that got released).  So it would have been more like playing XQuest or your standard “level 1, level 2, level 3” arcade game.

So then, back in November 2009, I had just finished Hoggy for iPhone and was looking for something to do.  Now, Solomon’s Keep has been my dream game for years, and constantly I was telling myself “when I get a big chunk of free time, that’s the game I’m going to do.”  After nine years I suddenly realized that this big chunk of free time was never going to materialize, so I just said to myself, in about a five second decision, “okay!  The time is now!”

Now your question made me laugh, because at Raptisoft, there’s no such thing as storyboarding or concept art or even planning.  I’m an artist as well as a programmer, so the first thing I did was sit at the computer, fire up my 3D Modeller, and model Sirius.  Then I sat at the compiler and made it so I could move him through a grid.  Then I rendered some walls.  Then I had to come up with a way to do the skeletons so that they could have all their rotations, yet not require six iPhones strung together to hold them in memory.

And so on, and so on.  I think the old saying is, the coding of a thousand k begins with a single keypress.

In February, I had to take a break to work on another contractual project,  so Solomon’s Keep’s development was December, January, and March.  But I had the entire picture of what I wanted to do in my head.  All I needed to do was get it out.

The last steps in the game were sad steps.  The game was a memory hog, and I had to remove a boss monster and a horribly large amount of Solomon quips in order to get it to run on the iPhone.  The original tower was 13 floors high (with Solomon on unlucky 13) but without the third boss, it felt drearily long, so I cut it down to ten floors, reminding myself that this was a portable game.

But with the 2.0 update that I’m working on right now, I’m folding some of the cut stuff back in.

Question 7 – What engine / technology is used in getting Solomon’s Keep up and running on the iPhone, how many developers / programmers were involved in creating it.

Well, the game engine is an in-house engine called Rapt, which stands for “Repent! All Programmer Trouble.”  It’s a fairly simple OpenGL texture pumping framework with lots of helper stuff in it so the programmer doesn’t have to think.  It’s a modified version of the same framework I used to write my Windows games, with a lot of stuff torn out to speed it up.  All coded up by me, because whenever I try to use someone else’s framework, theres always something I want to do that can’t be done in it, sigh.

Question 8 – Where there any issues or speed bumps along the way in creating Solomon’s Keep ? And what did the development team do to overcome them.

Speed bumps were mostly iPhone speed and memory.  The game development was really very smooth—I had the whole thing planned out in my head, remember—and the only time there was trouble was when I’d run it on the actual iPhone device and discover that, oops, I was loading just one too many pages of graphics. 

To overcome this, the team manfully sulked in the shower or  snapped at its wife, kids, and dogs until the problem went away.

Question 9 – What was your main reason for creating a fun and exciting RPG game like Solomon’s Keep ?  What other games if any were influential in aiding the creation of it.

Ha, I’ve probably already covered everything I’d say here.  I’m a huge, huge fan of RPGs like Diablo or Titan Quest.  But when I play them, I always get into a position where I say, gee, I wish I could do such and such, or, gosh, I wish the game played this way here.

For instance, the lightning spell in Solomon’s Keep—I’ve been wanting to see lightning work like that in an RPG forever.  But no, they always make it a simple bolt that acts just like a missile, or it’s lightning from the sky that acts just like an insta-damage spell, except for the visual effect.

So that said, my influences are pretty obvious: Diablo, Titan Quest, iDracula, Raiden (for the lightning), and probably most important, this little RPG I downloaded from the web called LooneyLand 2.  And I could not leave Impossible Mission off this list. J

Question 10 – How would you describe the game mechanics of Solomon’s Keep.  What do players need to do to succeed.

I’m kinda proud of how this turned out…the player needs to anticipate, and then they need to adapt.  When you start the game, your first move should be to check out what’s in the store—it never changes, it’s part of the game strategy.  Then the player should go to the yellow wizard and see what skills he is able to improve for money.

Your whole play should be based on what you can use these guys for.  For instance, if the yellow wizard is able to levelup your primary spell—say Magic Missile—then you have the luxury of choosing other helper spells when you play, since you know that you could always go back to town and upgrade magic missile just by accumulating money.  Same with the items—if there’s an abundance of items that will help you recover mana, you can ignore that whole part of the skill tree.

But, then, as the game starts throwing randomness in you, your strategy is changed.  And the enemies are designed to force this on you.  Level 3 might feature slow moving zombies with lots of hit points, and your best course seems to be “increase my damage!”  But then level 4 might be suddenly filled with tiny, fast moving, low-HP imps, and suddenly all the points you spent to make your magic missile do more damage don’t matter a bit, and meanwhile you’re getting swarmed because you didn’t give yourself a way to fight large groups.  Then you get to level 6 and you say, geez, I really wish I’d upgraded my health back when I was young.

Question 11 – Are there any patches or updates planned for Solomon’s Keep, if so what will be included in the updates.

Yes.  The first patch (which should be out now) will be to fix bugs.

I’ve gotten some very good feedback from various message boards, and have gleaned some very good ideas from there.   In the 2.0 update, which should go out in a week or two, will add two additional difficulty levels to the game (i.e. you can play it over again with harder monsters), and will have a few surprises that I won’t tell anyone ahead of time!

Question 12 – Please explain the list of character skills currently available in Solomon’s Keep,  Classes, Skills, etc.  Will there be new characters available in future updates.

I happen to have a handy skill sheet available… it’s crude, but I haven’t had time to give the Solomon’s Keep website the full dork lord treatment.    So you can see the skills here:

There’s only one class at this time, Sirius the Wizard.

Now, this seems to be causing consternation, but I am going to release other classes.  Because of memory problems, they’re going to have to be separate apps.  There’s just so much stuff in Solomon’s Keep that I couldn’t just throw in all the graphics and sounds an archer would need and keep everything else.  Yeah, it’s causing consternation.  On some of the message boards, when I broke this news, I was voted Not Quite As Bad As Hitler, but only just.

But upcoming there will be, subject to change, circumstance, and the vagaries of fate:

Archer Edition: After losing one of their most promising students in Solomon’s Keep, the trio of wizards set out a call to the local lovable outlaw to see if he can assist. 

Warlord Edition: When the local lovable outlaw fails to solve the “Solomon Dark problem,” the wizard tribunal contacts the local lord to let him know a necromancer has been quietly building a skeleton army out of his peasants.

Acolyte Edition: With the local lord missing, presumed dead, the wizard professors grit their teeth and turn to an unsavoury hero… a former and embittered acolyte of Solomon Dark himself.  So pit your dark skills against the dark skills of your former master.

After that, I would like to add a druid, but we’ll see what happens, because I really want to put out an expanded version for Windows, Mac, and iPad that will add more depth to the game and even give the player a chance to explore the nearby countryside and fight Solomon Dark’s mother.

Question 13 – Trophies / Achievements are what drive a number of players to play games now-days .. Does Solomon’s Keep have goals to accomplish  or achievements to unlock.  And if not will there be any possibilities of adding them in future releases / updates.

No, it has no goals at the moment.  I… ahem… always felt adding these things to a game were just a way to make a very small game seem fleshed out without actually adding more features.

If I put goals into Solomon’s Keep, they would feel a little bit like little league participation trophies.  I could make the “Every One Of Us Is Special Award” and the “You Played The Game Trophy” because really, you play the game through, and since game difficulty is so dependent on randomness, some people will get trophies without even trying, while others would have to fight ten times as hard for the same award.

Some people have suggested feedback for completing floors in record time and things like that, so maybe that’ll go in eventually.  But honestly, I’d prefer to find a way to squeeze the extra boss monster back in, I think players would prefer that.

Question 14 – What can players / consumers expect from Raptisoft moving forward.  Are there already plans or upcoming games that you are able to let your fans know about ?

Heh… until Solomon’s Keep hit the top 100, I had very, very, very concrete plans.  I was going to put out an expansion to Hoggy with the levels that we had deemed too hard to go into the original… then I was going to do a Win/Mac/iPad version of Hoggy, complete with editor and a web space to share levels on…

But now it’s looking like it’s going to be Solomon’s Keep for the foreseeable future.  I truly love the game, but I didn’t expect it to rise the charts as high or as quickly!  So that gives me an excuse to do the fleshing out that I wanted to do (other characters).

But I do feel this is letting down the Hoggy fans—so that stuff IS coming, but I want to get these Solomon’s Keep characters living while I’m still pumped and in the “zone.”

Question 15 – Finally.. What do you love most working at Raptisoft?

Well.  The other day, I was plugging away at my bug fixes for Solomon’s Keep 1.1, and my boy Alex came thundering down the stairs to my office.  “Dad,” he cries, breathless, “I have this great idea for Solomon’s Keep 2!”

It doesn’t get much better than that, does it?

Capsule Computers woud like to thank John for his time in answering these questions.  If you haven’t tried Solomon’s Keep! on the iPhone or any of the other great titles from Raptisoft check out their website and visit the iTunes store and grab yourself some great titles for a fantastic low price.

Download Solomon’s Keep! here click on the link  ==> Solomon's Keep

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