The Land Beyond the Anthill: An Interview with Image & Form

by on November 29, 2011

If you’re a regular follower of our Mobile Monday feature here at GodisaGeek.com then you will have seen us review the iPhone and iPad game Anthill, developed by Image & Form. If you took our recommendation and downloaded the game (as you should have done) then you may have noticed some of the delightful gameplay choices and quirky artwork that adorns the game. We recently had a chance to talk to Brjann Sigurgeirsson, the CEO of Image & Form International, about Anthill and its design, as well as a few other things along the way.

1. Where did the inspiration for Anthill come from?
The first inspiration came from our previous Tower Defense game SteamWorld Tower Defense that we released for Nintendo DSiWare Store (it’s still there, ticking in a few bucks every day). We got a very good review from IGN for that game, which suggested that we knew what we were doing. So me and lead programmer Olle Håkansson sat one evening discussing what we could do in TD style for iOS, since apparently we knew how to make those. We agreed that the competition was fierce and that we’d have to come up with some original gameplay. We came up with a VERY vague idea of mixing TD with line drawing, that it could be a clever way to deploy defenses. But who would populate these trails? Tanks? Spaceships? It had to be something organic… ants? Ants!

2. How easy was it to settle on the art style of the game?
Really quite easy. Our art director Tobias Nilsson is the best one around, in my highly unbiased opinion. However, we actually gave them all slightly bigger eyes after feedback from a few initiated game-industry heavyweights. In the beginning we weren’t sure whether we’d go 3D or stick to our traditional 2D art style. Since it’s a top-down perspective, we felt that we wouldn’t gain anything from making and rendering 3D models. We are of course very happy with how it turned out, but if the iOS devices had been slightly more powerful we would have added more effects, such as dust.

Image & Form: Interview - Anthill Menu

3. Was the idea of in-game purchases something that was decided at the start or something that came about later on?
It came very late in the process – let me explain why it was implemented to start with. Anthill has four ant types: workers, soldiers, spitters and bombers. They can be upgraded using the stars earned for completing the levels. That means that good play is rewarded – it will be easier to perform well on subsequent levels if you’ve aced the ones before. We therefore took a lot of time balancing the game so that also “weaker” players would be able to upgrade ants at a good rate. You can spend maximum 60 stars to upgrade all ants to the max and I think you can earn 62 stars from the levels – which means that you can “fail” a couple of levels (not getting all stars) and still upgrade all your ants fully.

Our idea was not to “milk” players for money, but rather to let them finish it in their own pace. Obviously, players can go back and perfect their star gathering on earlier levels at any point, as it is easier to do with better ants.

Just a few days before we were ready to release the game, I showed it to a fellow game-company CEO, who asked why we didn’t have in-app purchases. I explained that we didn’t want players to feel that we were stealing their cash, but rather had a game that you could go through and finish “organically”. Also, we were worried about any possible negative critique this would bring about. He pointed out that there would always be players that had a hard time no matter how balanced the game was and so I went back to the office and sort of railroaded the idea. We decided that there would be only one tier ($0.99 for 20 stars), and a one-time purchase – so that we wouldn’t be accused of cheating people to pay through their nose, or worse – of giving their kids a chance to spend fortunes on stuff they didn’t need.

We were of course surprised when the in-app rate for Anthill turned out so good. Lots of people want to upgrade their ants more quickly than the pace of the game and seem very happy to do so – today we have more than 4000 user reviews giving us a healthy 4.5/5 and very, very few think that it’s a cynical setup. On the contrary, many players wanted to buy more stars – so in 2.0 we added another tier ($1.99 for 45 stars), also as a one-time purchase so that no one goes bananas and buys more stars than they’ll ever spend.

4. What kinds of things can we look forward to in the future for Anthill?
In the short term, two things:

1. In early December we’ll release a new campaign (free to existing users), which will be pretty hard. It seems that the ones asking for more content are the players that complete the three existing campaigns pretty easily.

2. At the same time, we’ll release the FREE version of Anthill, which is a single, unique campaign that doesn’t come across as too hard. Naturally we are hoping it’ll work as an appetizer and that people will get the real deal – four whole campaigns and the Infinity Mode.

In the long term, we are looking at a number of cool ways to make the ants more powerful and to make the battles more dynamic. We are also looking at making a multiplayer version of Anthill, but it takes a lot of time and cash. We WANT to do it, so here’s the pledge: if you read this, buy the game. Tell everyone you’ve ever known to buy the game. Make them make everyone THEY know buy the game. Very soon we’ll have the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon in effect – so when Kevin Bacon sends me an e-mail saying he’s bought Anthill (with a screenshot that validates the purchase), we’ll start developing the multiplayer version right away. 😉 Of course, if Kevin Bacon reads this and goes out and buys it straight away, we’ll be in trouble.

Also, we are looking at other ways of capitalizing from the game. There are quite a few ways to do it and I think we have some good ideas.

Image & Form: Interview - Swarm

5. Did Anthill end up being the same game as was originally planned or did certain aspects of it change through the development cycle?
Lots of things changed. For starters, we had a very vague idea how the ants would be deployed. We thought that players should be able to divide up trails, like ants somehow do in real life, but it just got confusing. Also, we thought we’d have an isometric, 3D perspective of the game, but decided on a top-down view with nice parallax effects, since the 3D issue really wasn’t the thing – focus had to be on the gameplay itself.

The really cool thing, which in my opinion suddenly transformed it into a REALLY cool game, was when we implemented a “random walk pattern” for the enemies. Let me explain it real quick: an enemy bug will always head for its target – most often the hill itself. But from every position, it can choose to walk either straight for the hill, OR a few degrees to the left or the right. And suddenly it walks EXACTLY LIKE AN INSECT! When I saw it, I was awestruck and knew we had made a fantastic game. At that time, we had only a prototype – endless waves of only three ants and three types of enemies in a very limited setting. And it was impossible to put down.

6. Any plans on developing a version of Anthill for the Windows Phone 7, complete with achievements?
Yes, we are looking at the Windows Phone. It’s a cool device, but we must learn more about it and how the market works there – who owns the devices, what they are paying for games, etc.

7. Was Anthill always designed to be a real time strategy game? Was it always going to be ants?
Well, after a few minutes of discussion, we agreed that it had to be organic units – not dead machinery. Also, the idea of drawing trails for ants isn’t farfetched – on the contrary, that’s how ants know where they are going, by following pheromone trails.

8. What problems did you come across developing a game for the iOS market? How did you overcome those problems?
There are a number of problems, but the technical ones aren’t too staggering. Of course, we had a hell of a time squeezing it under the 20 MB limit, which in itself is mindblowing – the game is incredibly rich. But it could be done. We also made a mistake in Game Center – Game Center is great, but there’s a problematic limit to how many leaderboard slots you can have and we spent almost all the slots on the first three campaigns.

The real problem that everyone’s facing is getting heard through the noise. Yes, Anthill is a great game. Yes, it’s massively underpriced. And yes, lots of people have never heard of it. We simply screamed as loud as we could in all directions when we released and more than a few good people decided to listen.

Image & Form: Interview - Even Bigger Swarm!

9. If you were to develop the game again what would you do differently and why?
We would definitely look at more ways to capitalize from day 1, still taking care not to annoy or upset anyone. We probably would have built a level design tool early on – we sort of had to invent one when we were a bit into the process and it’s quite manual.

10. What does the future hold for Image & Form?
Lots of fantastic games waiting to be developed! We have several genuinely great ideas, which will all see the light of day – soon! We are also looking towards other platforms. iOS is great, but there is very much being released every day and with how things have developed, it’s hard to charge a games worth. Android is sort of like a spoiled child – “if I can’t have it for free, I ain’t getting it”. And Anthill is very far from becoming ad-based. No one buys a TV set to watch commercials.

11. Inverted or regular Y-Axis?
Now, what sort of question IS that? Inverted, of COURSE! With a cherry on top!

And with that the interview came to an end, it certainly looks like some interesting little things are on the horizon for those ants and we will be paying very close attention to it all. That’s if we can stop playing it to pay attention anyway.

Did any part of this interview pique your interest? Did you manage to glean something from it that we missed? Let us know in the comments below or over at our lovely, lovely forums.

Anthill is available to buy now for 69p on iOS devices. Anthill: Tactical Trail Defense - Image & Form International AB