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King of the Blockheads propelled to game fame

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Keith Newman10 May 2013

Keith Newman talks to games developer David Frampton about the real world of coding, mind-enhancing virtual worlds, time crystals and his desire to top the iPhone app charts.

A recent study from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University credits regular tablet and smartphone game playing with improved cognitive and multi-tasking skills and enhanced memory.

Top Kiwi games developer David Frampton is not surprised.

The author of the enormously successful Chopper 2 and Blockheads games who relocated to Hawke’s Bay in October 2011, says his early engagement with SimCity and SimEarth taught him planning, resource management and problem-solving skills and techniques.

David Frampton

Frampton, who runs Majic Jungle Software, says smartphones are having a considerable impact on gaming, forcing changes to the console world, including lowering the cost of games.

With iPad sales now rivaling PlayStation 3 and Xbox consoles the games industry is having to rethink its approach, with touchscreen technology meaning the game designer has to write for a different kind of experience.

“Console players will typically spend an hour or two on a game, but mobile is more about playing for a few minutes at a time and then picking up where they left off.”

Frampton gave up a law and social policy degree at Victoria University after a year, had an even shorter spell in retailing and was relieved when his hobby, painting Wellington and Dunedin coastline landscapes, began to pay the bills.

While an avid game player, he never imagined life as a developer. The idea of coding seemed “mindblowingly complex”. However, after experimenting with the games development tools on the OSX operating system disk of his 2003 iMac, it all began to fall into place.

Stimulating simulation

An early achievement was developing a plant growing simulation. “At the time there was a popular game called Dope Wars and it seemed like a fun thing to try and make a cannabis plant grow.”

When his invention began attracting a lot of attention he realised the controversy he was heading into. “It was sending out all the wrong messages so I decided not to go ahead.”

Instead he entered the three-month-long uDevGam Mac developers challenge with an idea inspired by playing Choplifter on the Mac II when he was a kid. The result was Chopper, focused on smooth game play, a good feel for flying a helicopter and realistic action.

He was pleasantly surprised at how many downloads he got and soon found his new skillset in demand, animating weather graphics and installing software at TV stations, including TV3 where he designed and wrote the code for the atmospheric effects, clouds and little sunrises for the daily forecasts.

When the iPhone was released in 2008 he ported Chopper across to that platform, charging $US8 per download from the iTunes AppStore. It took off, and with Apple’s cheques for 70% of the revenue initially bringing in close to $5,000 a day, propelled him into the role of fulltime developer.

Frampton began improving on his winning game, adding new content, better controls, more immersive 3D graphics, 36 action packed missions, 12 locations and more menacing enemies and weapons.

Chopper goes classic

Chopper 2 became an instant bestseller, honoured as one of two locally developed games alongside Pac-Man, Space Invaders, The Simms, Angry Birds and Minecraft in the Game Masters exhibition at Te Papa in Wellington from December to the end of April.

With Chopper 2 continuing to pay its way, Frampton – still inspired by his original plant growing simulation – was dreaming up a whole new vista. He envisaged a self-propagating, randomly generated, virtual world, populated by square headed pixellated people who would evolve in sophistication as they mastered different challenges, used different tools and built their block-like homes and cities.

Frampton’s mission began in earnest after he and his young family scoured the country looking for the ideal location for their creative lifestyle, eventually choosing Hawke’s Bay and nestling themselves up in the Tukituki hills.

When Blockheads for the iPhone, iPad and iPad Touch was launched in January this year, it was clear he was on to another winner. There were two million free downloads in the first few days and by the end of March that was tracking toward 4.5 million with more than 100,000 people soon playing every day.

Frampton says the online forums, using V Bulletin software, have provided a real sense of community among users who share their gaming experiences and screen shots.

He keeps a close eye on his virtual world and while he gets a huge amount of feedback and suggestions, he has to take extreme care about the ideas he implements for fear of throwing the entire game out of balance.

Although in gaming terms Blockheads is already a great success, Frampton says it’s still early days and he has a long list of his own enhancements planned to encourage players to stick around.

“There are compost blocks that make things grow faster and you can go from flint to steel tools but I want to add machinery, automated mining and train tracks.”

There are two player and multiplayer modules but his desire is to make it even bigger and more complex so more players can work together in the same world, something, he says, the classic Minecraft does really well.

A one man brand

Essentially Frampton is king of the Blockheads. It’s a one man show and because he knows how his kingdom works, it’s hard to involve others. Although two US gaming companies and an angel investor have made overtures, he’s told them he’s happy going it alone for now.

“My knowledge of the entire code base means I can make changes quickly, whereas in a bigger company you would have to go through an approval process.”

Frampton makes his revenue through the sale of time crystals. Although these are randomly located in the Blockheads terrain they can also be purchased separately by those who want to speed things up, skip a sleep or bring in extra Blockheads.

Being able to progress beyond the routine grind to build an increasingly sophisticated world makes the game more compelling and even addictive. “Some people are happy to put in the game play hours, while others are happy to invest, knowing it’ll make the game more interesting and help pay for future development.”

The audience is fairly broad. While Chopper appealed to mostly older males, the Blockheads demographic is mainly young: 70% under 17-years, although he admits there are more than a few stay-at-home mums who play.

He’s recently added another good reason for those who play less frequently to check what’s been happening in their absence. The Blockheads world is starting to evolve on its own.

Android apps ahead

Frampton’s world is also evolving, with a growing demand to see his game on other platforms, something as an Apple iOS developer he doesn’t have time to focus on. He’s just cut a deal with Canadian company Noodlecake to release an Android version later this year.

On its launch Blockheads became the top-ranking free iPad app in the US and seven other countries and the number two iPhone game in the US, leaving Frampton with the challenge of cracking the number one spot.

“That’s a little goal I still have. I want to be able to work on this game for the next five years or longer as it has so much potential.”

When BayBuzz spoke to him, Frampton was heading off to the annual Games Developers Conference in San Francisco where he enjoys hanging out with other independent developers, swapping tips and ideas and helping to promote each others’ creations.

Keith Newman10 May 2013

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