Meet the Developer: Shaun Inman of The Last Rocket

It’s Game Week here at iPhone.AppStorm, and all this week we’re going to have tons of reviews, giveaways and other good stuff, all centered around the gaming world!

Shaun Inman is a hard man to introduce. From his work on the web he’s become somewhat of an Internet rockstar, pumping out amazing products time after time with what seems to be pinpoint accuracy.

Many will know him as the developer of The Last Rocket, a game that I reviewed and gave a perfect 10/10. Shaun was kind enough to conduct an interview with me over the past month or so, and I’m really happy to say that he’s lifted the curtain a bit, showing us how he works on the amazing things that he does.

First, can you just give us a quick background and description of yourself, so our readers can get a feel for who you are?

Sure! I’m Shaun Inman, a game designer and developer, originally from New England and currently working out of Chattanooga, TN. I’m probably best known for my self-hosted stats and feed reader web apps, Mint and Fever, and various contributions to the early web standards movement.

I graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design with a Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design. During my last two years at SCAD I completed a number of independent studies to teach myself web production and development. Over the years I’ve continued to learn; from HTML, CSS and JavaScript/ActionScript to PHP/Ruby and MySQL to, most recently, C/Objective-C and OpenGL. I’m also a self-taught musician. I’ve been playing guitar and composing music for over a decade.

I grew up with the NES, SNES and Game Boy and have wanted to make a game since the first day I laid my hands on a d-pad. I only recently realized that I had, over the years, accumulated most of the skills necessary to tackle this dream.

Tell us a little bit about your work on the iOS platform. Just about everything appears to be game related, with the Horror Vacui series, The Last Rocket and a fun app called NoiseES. Can you tell us about how each of those came to be, from inception to publication?

The first Horror Vacui grew out of an experiment in developing Wii homebrew. The simple turn-based gameplay (influenced by Reversi/Othello and the Final Fantasy series’ elemental spells) and garish 8-bit graphics allowed me to focus on beginning to understand the game engine architecture generic to most games and the C tool chain specific to Wii homebrew.

Shaun's excellent site, detailing his different projects.

Shaun's excellent site, detailing his different projects.

Around the same time, Apple opened up iPhone app development to third parties. Because Objective-C is a superset of C and I had already begun dabbling in Cocoa development porting the original Horror Vacui to the iPhone was a relatively easy and quick task. Within a month of starting the Wii version the iPhone version was already available on the App Store.

Horror Vacui 2 revisited the original with new play modes and updated graphics and sound. The sequel also served as a proving ground for the new iOS framework I had developed (as part of a local Chattanooga MakeWork grant). The framework was largely shaped by the 8-bit needs of my still unreleased iOS platformer Mimeo and the Kleptopus King, an ambitious project that demanded more experience than I had at the time.

I created NoiseES, an 8-bit audio player, while waiting for Horror Vacui 2 to be approved for sale in the App Store. Originally it was a simple, expanded version of the Sound Test feature found on the Horror Vacui 2 Options screen and played only NES sound files. I eventually added support for Game Boy and most recently in 1.3, Super NES and Genesis. NoiseES is a love letter to two of my favorite companies, aping Nintendo’s 8-bit aesthetic and the behavior of Apple’s own

Flip's sprite sheet for different animations.

Flip's sprite sheet for different animations.

The Last Rocket began as a small project to address my inexperience in developing full-fledged platforming games and as an experiment in designing controls specifically for the touchscreen.

As a child of the ’80s, I am inherently skeptical of any gaming device that lacks a d-pad. But translating the familiar d-pad and buttons to a touchscreen often results in imprecise and unreliable controls. With The Last Rocket I think I managed to create intuitive controls that are tailor-made for its unique gameplay mechanics.

After the initial experiments proved successful, I spent about six months expanding the gameplay, developing the story, animating and scoring, and designing and refining the 64 rooms that make up the game. It was a grueling, manic process that took a few months just to establish how to approach the level design and overall pacing of the game. The bulk of the rooms that made it into the final game were designed from scratch over the course of the last month leading up to release. Fortunately, the Last Rocket reuses the framework and a lot of the supporting tools (like my MML TextMate bundle and level editor Mapt) that I developed for Mimeo and the Kleptopus King so I was able to focus most of my time on the gameplay and assets that make the game unique.

What hardware and software have you found essential or gravitated to while you’ve worked on these games and other projects?

My primary computer is a MacBook Pro 3Ghz Intel Core 2 Duo with 8 GB of RAM. I have a 16GB iPad, two 3rd generation 8GB iPod touches and one 4th generation 32GB iPod touch for testing. I use an M-Audio Keystation 61es USB keyboard when composing music.

A view of Shaun Inman's working monitor.

A view of Shaun Inman's working monitor.

For development, I use Xcode and TextMate. I do all my graphics and animation in Photoshop. Composing is done in GarageBand with YMCK’s Magical 8-bit Plug before being transcribed to MML in TextMate and converted to NSF with my MML Bundle. In-game I depend on Blargg’s Game_Music_Emu library to emulate an actual NES audio chip. My level editor is built in HTML and JavaScript so all my levels are designed in Safari. For early stage, pre-gameplay testing I use the iPhone Simulator with Vimov’s iSimulate.

I think we’re about ready to wrap things up, but if you wouldn’t mind is there anything in the works that you can share with our readers? I know that you mentioned a game called Mimeo and the Kleptopus King, can you tell us a bit more about that?

Sure. Mimeo and the Kleptopus King is a game idea that proved too ambitious for my then novice abilities. It’s about a 16-bit boy, Mimeo, who gets downsampled when an 8-bit octopus with an inferiority complex, king of a parallel 16-bit world, invades and siphons off their bits. Gameplay was to be inspired by Super Mario Bros (even the name “Mimeo” is a nod to the titular character) with environmental puzzles based on “resolution” switching.

The game would start out in a black and white “2-bit” mode. Power-ups would affect not just the player but the entire world, going from the black and white “2-bit” to a greenish, Gameboy-inspired “4-bit” to rudimentary NES-inspired “8-bit” all the way up to detailed “16-bit” graphics inspired by the Super NES and Genesis.

The initial tools and framework I built the first time I attempted this game kind of collapsed under the weight of its scope. 32 levels, 4 different “resolutions” for every frame of animation, 4 channels of evolving audio.

Considering that a modern 2-D Mario has 60–120 people working in it with only one “resolution” to worry about, I had definitely bitten off more than I could chew for my first game. Creative assets aside I’m still figuring out to approach level design. I still want to make this game but I want to do it right.

In the meantime, I’m working on a couple of other iOS game designs (including a native version of my most recent Ludum Dare entry), continued updates to Mint and Fever, and I just released a free, simple menu bar clock replacement for Mac OS X called Day-O.