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A Conversation With Loren Brichter

Following my review of Letterpress, I sat down with Loren Brichter to chat about his latest effort, developing for iOS, other mobile platforms, and spitting into microphones. In reality, I was still in Italy and our interview was conducted on Skype, but Loren says the part about spitting was real.

Federico: Hey Loren, thanks for chatting with me today. Firstly, so we can get this out of the way: why a game?

Loren Brichter: When I left Twitter I started working on a whole slew of projects that I hadn’t had time to work on since Tweetie took off.

One of them was a game (not Letterpress), which was a testbed for some graphics ideas I was kicking around. It was pretty close to finished, just needed some more polish and content. But around that time I went out to dinner with my wife, and while we were waiting for a table, we were both playing this other (totally awesome) word game called SpellTower. But it was single player only, and I figured I could try my hand at a multiplayer word game. So I dropped the first game, and made this instead.

F: Cool. So you recognize SpellTower was a big source of inspiration for Letterpress?

LB: Yeah, it’s a totally different game, but it’s definitely what got me on the word-game track. Got tired of Words with Friends a while ago.

F: So you’re basically going back to making apps that “scratch your own itch” – just like building a Twitter client for yourself years ago? How does that feel after all this time?

LB: Exactly. I just wanted a fun little word game I could play with my wife.

How does which part feel?

F: Going back to your own little project.

LB: I’m in heaven. I love messing around with stuff, I hope I can keep doing it for a while.

F: Are you somewhat “afraid” of how much the App Store has changed since the last time you were selling software in it? There are thousands of games now.

LB: Absolutely. I’m basically starting over. Tweetie wouldn’t be able to exist today (for a number of reasons). It’s crazy that it’s only been a few years and the App Store has undergone these tectonic shifts. That said, I’m not sure it’s necessarily bad. But we’ll see how this little app pans out. I am changing my pricing strategy: the game is going to be free (with an IAP to unlock some features).

F: It’s really hard to price a game above the average $0.99 threshold or, like you said, free with IAP. Even Square Enix is trying its hand at “freemium” with the latest FF Dimensions. Honestly, have you thought about the fact that some people will buy the game “because it’s from Loren”?

LB: laughs

F: Is it hard, as an indie developer who’s starting over, to coexist with the name you made for yourself in this community?

LB: I think it’s funny that people out there know who I am. I suppose there’s some legacy with the name – that is one of the reasons I think making a game might be a good thing, it breaks me out of that “box”.

But honestly I don’t know, I’m curious to see what happens.

F: So there’s not a single chance you’ll try again with a client for another network…you know where this question is going.

LB: I am liking the looks of Tent.

F: I have noticed.

LB: Yeah. I’ll stop talking there.

F: So tell me, Letterpress is very Game Center-based. Was it an obvious choice for you?

LB: It definitely was, it lowers the barrier to entry because there are already so many people with Game Center accounts. Plus, I don’t have to run my own backend.

F: Does Letterpress uses the new “turn-based games” APIs?

LB: Yep, that API was introduced in iOS 5, I’ll be supporting 5.1 and up. I don’t want to leave iPad 1 users in the cold.

F: Which iPad do you own?

LB: All of them.

F: Life of a developer.

LB: I based performance targets on the iPad 1 and the iPhone 3GS. It’s smooth on those, so it’s effortless on everything else.

F: I have noticed the game has some neat “physics” for when you grab and drop the tiles. Tell me a bit about those without revealing your secrets.

LB: It’s all custom. The whole game is actually written in OpenGL with my own animation system and a bunch of other neat things.

F: And how about the built-in dictionary? Is that local or server-based?

LB: It’s local. I had a hard time finding a word list that I could license (I happily would have paid). So I ended up aggregating a ton of Public Domain lists. And I sprinkled in as many of the wacky 2-letter-words-without-vowels and Q-without-U words as I could find.

“Representativenesses” is my favorite word, six e’s.

F: Wow that’s a good one indeed. How about the Q ones?

LB: QI used to be my go-to. But I just recently discovered QIN, which has come in handy.

Did you know ZZZ is a word?

F: No way. Is that an onomatopoeia for sleeping?

LB: YES. Damn, you figured that out fast.

F: Well, I do read a lot of comics.

In creating Letterpress, did you ever find yourself thinking like a gamer first, but then having to make different decisions as a developer for your own app?

LB: I’m a pretty bad gamer. I basically keep playing Tiny Wings over and over. I did try to force the developer in me to stay quiet, even though there’s some technical stuff in the app that I had a lot of fun making and am pretty proud of (and nobody will ever see), priority #0 was making something fun.

F: Is it hard to put ideas on the shelf because there’s only so much time you can dedicate to software development? What’s an app idea you had that you can share today?

LB: Yes, I kind of went nuts for a few months experimenting and building tons of things, any one of which could have sucked me in for years. Now I’m at the point where I need to pick a few and finish the hell out of them.

I’m excited by the 3D printing movement, I’d love to make that work better with the iPad. There’s one idea that I’ll likely never have time for.

F: So, for now, you’re focused on games? Or are other ideas non-game apps?

LB: Right now I’m focused on Letterpress, I need to focus to finish it. Depending on how that pans out, the next thing could be another game, or maybe something totally different.

F: I have noticed @atebits has a new profile picture. Are you working on a new, as they call it, “brand identity”?

LB: That’s the new logo. The specific treatment is me messing around in Photoshop at 4 AM because I was stuck on a problem and needed to distract myself.

F: So you code at night.

LB: I don’t try to, but this past week I’ve had some late nights. The last stretch of anything is always tough…it seems like the finish line keeps getting farther away.

F: Tell me about your setup. Both hardware and software.

LB: I finally upgraded to a new Retina MacBook Pro. For years I had stuck with a 17” MacBook Pro, promising myself that I’d update once the “15” MacBook Air” was released. I waited way too long…compiles would take 5 minutes. I have a 30” Cinema Display mounted on an arm to the wall next to me (nothing touches my desk). And a wacky looking ergonomic chair.

Software wise: I live in Xcode, Photoshop, TextMate, Mail, and Twitter.

F: TextMate 2?

LB: Yep.

F: But I assume you tried Sublime Text too.

LB: I tried Sublime Text, thought it was great, but TextMate just fits like a glove.

F: So obviously you primarily work on your Mac. Can you get some kind of work done on iOS as well?

LB: Besides answering email, no. And that makes me really sad. I’d love to build some kind of awesome revolutionary touch based development environment for iPad. But it may be a total waste of time (a) because the App Store wouldn’t allow it, and (b) Apple (justifiably) should own the development tools for its own platform.

F: Why the name Letterpress? That evokes some print memories to me. Which is kind of anachronistic.

LB: Totally. The name just kind of grew on me. And the whole game is you pressing letters with your finger. Letterpress. Not sure. Just liked it.

F: I assume your wife was your first beta tester for Letterpress.

LB: She was. The rules evolved from a lot of games played, and I tried to really keep things balanced.

In the first version, if you played a tile it just turned your color, which was fun for a bit but not very interesting because there was no strategy and little defense.

It went through a few variations before these rules popped out.

F: Okay, tell us the Loren Approved™ way of playing Letterpress with a good strategy. Because Gruber keeps kicking my a** and I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. Damn that guy is good with words.

LB: laughs

I’m getting stomped pretty bad by some recent beta testers. I like to work the corners, they’re easily defended (only need two tiles), and grow from there.

F: I have also noticed sounds play an important role in the game.

LB: I had some fun making those. It’s mostly me spitting into a microphone.

F: No wait, really?

LB: Haha, yeah. Or doing some other odd contortion with my mouth.

F: This is my favorite detail so far. Tell me about the theme choices.

LB: I wanted the Default theme to be really nice, as most people will be using it. But the alternative themes should be really fun. My favorite is Pop – I was going for something like an 80’s ski jacket. There will no doubt be more themes in updates.

F: Maybe you could add special unlockable themes like Clear did.

LB: I was thinking about that.

F: Speaking of which, I was reminded of Clear several times upon playing Letterpress. Mainly because you basically got rid of as much UI as possible. Was that a deliberate choice, or did it just come natural?

LB: The style of the game embodies my (still evolving) personal aesthetic. I really dig the modern look of Windows Phone, but this is a touch more human. Even though it’s mostly flat, there are subtle shadows when you drag tiles, or pop up a dialog. The human eye has evolved to notice details like that, I think it helps.

F: Which is kind of funny when you see the poker felt table Game Center brings up.

LB: Don’t get me started.

F: If your iPhone were limited to installing only 3 third-party apps, which ones would you pick?

LB: Ha. Hold on, need to look at my home screen.

a few seconds later

Byline (we’re talking iPhone, I use Reeder on iPad). Dark Sky (such a fantastic app), and Letterpress (obviously!).

F: So you can live without a Twitter client.

LB: On iPhone, possibly. I do most of my Twittering from my Mac nowadays.

It’d be tough though.

F: You mentioned you’re developing your own personal aesthetic. What kind of material are you looking at for this process?

LB: Obviously I’m inspired by all the great UI that’s out there now. But I’m also looking at it from the perspective of a graphics engineer, thinking about the intersection between great design and interaction with modern hardware and what it’s capable of expressing.

F: What’s on your iOS wish-list in terms of new system features?

LB: XPC is really exciting on the Mac. And it looks like Apple is starting to use it privately in iOS 6. Once it becomes public (hopefully iOS 7), there will be an explosion in innovation.

F: Can you elaborate on XPC? What kind of innovation do you expect? How will you take advantage of it, or what do you imagine doing with it?

LB: I can’t fathom the extent of the innovation we’ll see, but even simple things that are impossible now like third-party apps sharing bits of themselves with other apps will be possible. I can also envision faceless apps, doing neat things for you in the background without presenting any UI and using minimal hardware resources. It can make third-party apps peers to the system-level Twitter and Facebook integration of today. We may also see much more ambitious apps, as Apple may relax some of their rules regarding arbitrary code execution, as long as you run the code in a super-sandboxed XPC process. That’s the one that has me really excited.

F: If you couldn’t develop for iOS, which other mobile platform would you pick and why?

LB: I’m spoiled because iOS gets so much right. It’s beautifully designed, backed by solid engineering that meshes with the way I think, and has a massive penetrable user base. Plus the hardware is the best in the world.

Windows Phone is beautifully designed. But the implementation is on a totally different branch of the “Operating System evolutionary tree”. That’s not to say it’s worse, but “different” makes sharing code harder. I will admit to liking DirectX better than OpenGL (at least the modern versions), but that there aren’t any GL ES shims mean there’s a huge barrier to entry for an entire class of apps. Plus it has no users. Which stinks because Nokia is doing some great stuff.

Blackberry 10 looks fascinating. The engineering decisions seem great – the perfect blend of open standards – and the design (at least interaction-wise) are neat. But it has even less users than Windows Phone (zero) and who knows what the hardware will look like.

Android has a messy design (though it’s perpetually “getting better”), and questionable engineering decisions, especially at the UI level which still glitches out even on 12-core devices. The one thing it has going for it is market share, but the important thing is penetrable market – people who use their device as more than a feature phone and have a credit card set up in Google Play. Based on what I’ve seen that number is still notably smaller than iOS. And forget about targeting a modern version, you’re still looking at Android 2.3.

I’d pick either Windows Phone because I think it deserves a fair shot or Android as a personal challenge to make something for it that doesn’t stink.

F: Do you think the newly redesigned App Store of iOS 6 can limit the discoverability of indie games like yours?

LB: Terribly, unless I get lucky and it’s a blockbuster hit. I would have preferred to see something along the lines of: one big card at the top for the “Top Hit” (would include a screenshot). But you scrolled down and all the other results were presented as a list (just the name + icon + brief description). That would serve both primary use cases pretty well. The first case is searching for something like “YouTube”. In that case having the Top Hit be the YouTube app with the Download button right there is handy. In the second case – the browsing case – you want to make it easy to skim through tons of apps fast.

F: How did you pick the screenshots to show for Letterpress on the App Store?

LB: Right now I’m only showing two, the game screen and the menu screen. The game screen shows some tiles with different colors (kind of what the game is all about), and the menu shows a bunch of games going on at once. Just two screenshots capture the entire app, which I think is fantastic – it’s a tight, simple game. But maybe I’m committing some cardinal sin of Game Marketing by not having lots of screenshots with text composited across them saying things like “AWESOME FUN”, “SWEET ANIMATIONS”, “OMG LOL KILLER GAME”. I think that’s tacky. I’m probably wrong, but I’ll learn fast.

F: Thanks for your time, Loren. A message to the new Letterpress players out there?

LB: Thanks for trying it! I really hope you have fun playing!

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