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Interview: Chris Dainty and Super Star Tap

Super Star Tap

As the iPhone user base continues to expand, smaller animation studios and indie animators are discovering a promising new distribution platform. One example is Ottawa-based animation studio Dainty Productions, which recently released its first iPhone game, Super Star Tap (official Super Star Tap website or buy it at the iPhone app store). The game, which will be most appealing to the younger set, rewards players with handsome bits of animation as they complete each level. In this interview, I corresponded via email with game creator Chris Dainty about how they produced the game, creating games versus pitching ideas to studios, and the broader implications of iPhone games for the animation community.

Cartoon Brew: If I understand correctly, the game originally started out as The Constellations, which was an idea for an animated TV series. What inspired you to turn it into a game instead?

Chris Dainty: Jessica Borutski and I created the show concept in 2006. We had lots of positive feedback from the networks, but nothing materialized. We didn’t have enough time or money to invest in a full-out cartoon, and I couldn’t stomach shelving this idea. After looking into iPhone stats it seemed like the perfect vehicle to get the characters out there, stay independent, and hopefully make some revenue. Thirty million people have iPhones, twenty million have the iPod Touch, so there’s a lot of screens.

Explain the game briefly and how the animation plays a role in it. I noticed you’re also planning to offer expansion packs so you can introduce new characters from the universe over time.

CD: Super Star Tap is a puzzle game in which the player must tap the stars to unlock the constellations. The animation portion of the game is the reward the player receives for unlocking the constellations. If you tap the wrong star, it will glow (blue if you’re far away, red if you’re close) to help find the constellation star path. We will be releasing new levels every few months to keep the game new and fresh and keep people playing the game.

Talk a little bit about the production process behind the game. How many people were involved? How long did it take to produce?

CD: Dave McKenney (our programmer) used Cocos2D for the iPhone. It’s a free download from Google and it’s a framework for building 2D games. We then signed up for the developer program on Apple, which cost $100. Dave and I started with a rough idea of game play in August ’09, then tweaked as we did game testing. We had a working version by September. The character designs were done back in 2006 by the very talented Jessica Borutski. Everything was animated in Flash. I designed all the game menus in Photoshop, and my wife, Jennifer, worked as the project manager, game tester and did sound effects using the free program Audacity.

Super Star Tap

Do you view games a stepping stone to other media, like TV series, or is this the end product for your company now?

CD: Sure, eventually I’d like to see the characters in a TV show, but honestly I’d rather the success of this game drive broadcasters to me. I’m building my audience first through games so that it will help fuel the cartoons we want to produce.

If somebody has developed a project and they have the option of pitching it as a TV show or creating their own game, what do you think is the advantage (either creative or financial) of pursuing the game route?

CD: I highly recommend going the game route over pitching a TV show. I’m not a huge gamer, but I’m an entrepreneur that sees more value in selling a game on the app store than doing a song-and-dance for a network that only green lights two or three new shows out of the thousands of pitches they receive every year. Apple only takes 30% from sales of the game, while the rest is profit for us. It’s also a lot cheaper to produce games because two or three people can do it, and you have full creative control.

Super Star Tap

Were there any major difficulties or challenges you ran into while making the game? If somebody is thinking of making their own animated iPhone game, what pitfalls would you recommend they watch out for?

CD: The paper work is a bit daunting and can take a lot of time to get through. With tax forms, contracts to sign, banking info (if you’re Canadian you have to add a 0 in front of your bank number–don’t ask me why, but it was just one of the many things that slowed down the release of the game), it always takes longer than you think it will take to make it onto the AppStore. Many nights, I kept refreshing the screen staring at the words “in review,” but once it was for sale, wow, it’s the best feeling in the world.

What sort of a role could iPhone games and apps play for independent creators like yourself in the future?

CD: I think the iPhone has a lot of potential to help make independent animation profitable for individuals with creative and innovative ideas. Apple has made the app store accessible to everyone and this is huge for indie content creators who want to compete against the big companies out there. I also think that people getting into the mobile industry need to adapt as it changes. The way people pay for entertainment is constantly evolving. I think micro-transactions and freemium will play a big part for the whole of the entertainment industry from games to animation. One business model that I’d like to experiment with in the future is releasing exclusive mobile shorts that also include a small game.

  • optimist

    I could swear that Katie Rice did some very cool designs for this and posted them on her blog. Does anyone else remember that?

    I’ll be interested to see if this does well. It seems like it should(although if it’s for really “younger” players that might be a bit of a problem-very few have iphones).

  • chipper

    Almost makes me wish I had an iPhone. But I still can’t wrap my mind around phones having games and doing stuff other than phoning people.

  • Earl Flatt

    Chris Dainty should take a meeting at the new Hasbro Studio. They will kill to get their licensing mitts on designs like his. Better they should do his stuff than the 355th version of My Little Bowel Movement. Oh, wait. That’s already in production.

  • Hey Optimist, Nope, Katie Rice didn’t work on this. Jessica Borutski designed all of the characters. Like Katie, Jessica also has that rare natural ability to create cute, appealing characters.

    In regards to the younger audience, it is a slightly smaller market. However, a recent study by AdMob reported that 69% of iPod Touch owners are under 24, with 46% of them between 13 and 17. 26% of iPhone users are 24 or below. Parents also buy kid-oriented iPhone games and use them as a cheap way to occupy their kids during car trips, etc.

    Earl, that’s a good point, this would make an awesome toy. A super talented sculptor, Jason Peltz ( sculpted one of the characters, which you can view on his site. We would like to make cool, vinyl toys, and produce them independently at some point.

  • LOVE IT!!

  • Thanks Amid for doing this story. Congrats to Chris & crew on getting their app approved! The App Store approval process is indeed like black magic. I envision Apple’s approval team as a secret klan of black hooded techies living in a dark dungeon beneath Cupertino! We’ll never know who they are.

    It took our first game, BATTLE BEARS, 8 days to get approved but it took almost 3 months to get our StoryBoy kids eBook Reader approved.

    However, success on the App Store doesn’t instantly guarantee success in the pitch rooms. BATTLE BEARS is approaching 1.5 million downloads (paid & free) and some execs still aren’t convinced that there’s an audience for our characters. Some of them refuse to see the iPhone/iPod as a powerful media platform. They see apps as “snack games” that people quickly throw away. At the end of the day, it’s whether or not your stuff sits well next to the stuff they currently have.

    So as an independent animation studio, we’re really excited that we can get our characters and stories out into the world fast and easy while making enough money to do our own thing.

    Anyhow, it’s great to see other animators bringing good character design and storytelling to the app world.

    Chris – I’ll download your app and give it 5 stars!

  • Just bought it and played a couple levels. VERY easy but, like everyone’s saying, the animation is super cute, fluid, and looks great! That’s enough to keep me playing. I’m a happy customer.

  • Iritscen

    Thanks for the story, Amid. Gets the mind working, it does.

  • @Allan Turner, try getting all platinum medals on all the levels :)

  • Ashanti

    Nice to know that games can now handle 40’s animation designs instead choppy-jagged pixel sprites! This looks great!

  • Matt

    I just downloaded the game, awesome! The animation looks so good.
    Great interview, very informative.

  • congrats chris! the game looks great!!!

  • corey

    My fiance just purchased it. The characters coming to life after each game is really amazing. It’s really cool to see on the tiny iphone screen for some reason.

    The gameplay itself we felt was a bit too easy though.

    We’re just glad to support something like this!

  • Angry Anim

    Very cool! The animation is great!

  • Please keep us updated on what the revenue stream is like.

    The App Store is the current Gold Rush – the dirty little secret of the App Store is that it’s hard to make money.

  • These are brilliant character designs. Makes me want to get an iPhone.