EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: TownCraft Creators Leigh & Rohan Harris

With a name like TownCraft, you might expect this crafting and village building game to be completely unoriginal shovelware made by a couple of unscrupulous developers who have no problem ripping off someone else’s hard work. But TownCraft is neither a Minecraft clone nor a riff on Animal Crossing. Instead, it takes elements of both and other games — games that help inspire Minecraft and Animal Crossing — to make an interesting hybrid.

With TownCraft, now available on iPhones and Macs — and, apparently, coming to PCs at some point — after already been available on iPad, I spoke to lead designer Leigh Harris and his brother, lead programmer Rohan Harris, of Flat Earth Games about how TownCraft came to be, how it came to be on iPhones and Macs, and why they couldn’t come up with a better name.

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For those who haven’t played it yet, what is TownCraft?

Leigh: TownCraft is a hybrid of two genres. It’s a crafting game and city-builder in one. So it starts out like other crafting games, with you all alone in a medieval forest gathering stone and wood to make a hatchet, but quickly shifts gears once you’ve built your first building or two and other people start wandering along. You can hire them, get advice from them, trade with them, sell stuff to them, and, over time, it eventually becomes a mid-sized little medieval village builder ,with you as a kind of de facto mayor.

Obviously, it’s been compared to certain other games we won’t mention. But what games do you think it’s like?

Rohan: Well, it drew heavy inspiration from isometric management/city-building games that obsessed me for many years, and still do, such as Transport Tycoon, The Settlers, and Stronghold. In terms of modern work, a clear conceptual inspiration was the early moments of Minecraft. More specifically, the early bits of Minecraft had me musing, “What if instead of just being dumped in a forest alone and asked to survive…I was dumped in a forest and asked to build a whole town?” The idea of a non-combat isometric town-builder with a really personal feel to it kind of went from there.

So what, in your opinion, do you think makes TownCraft better or at least different, from those games?

Rohan: Well, it’s not a survival game. We’ve had plenty of those — and I love them — but as this concept developed, what kept us going with it was the idea of just building this really intimate little settlement, and not worrying about our hard work being wrecked by, say, roaming brigands or a pack of wolves killing off our farmers.

Leigh: We tried it though.

Rohan: Yeah, we did. There was a point where we had hunger in the game, but it just felt like a tacked on mechanic. The game wasn’t about survival, so having like one or two survivaley bits in there felt out of place.

Leigh: For me, the biggest point of difference, aside from those things, is that we adopted a strict no in-app-purchase policy. We wanted to make a game which people could just get Zen and lose themselves in, so the idea of bugging people to buy stuff just felt wrong. And along similar lines, we did away with leaderboards, achievements, annoying people about sharing on social media, ads…all that stuff. Just made it this really pure experience. People seem to have responded really well to that.

Of course, naming your game TownCraft doesn’t help cut down on the comparisons. Did you ever consider any other names? Like maybe FarmCraft or Call Of Crafting or World Of Non-War Craft?

Rohan: Oh, yeah. My original working title was Mercantile. As in it’s tile based? I was quickly and correctly informed I should stop making jokes forever.

Leigh: Yeah, I quickly let Rohan know that that name was never gonna fly. My thinking was that since when you’re scrolling through tiles on the App Store, you’ve only really got a split second to get someone’s attention with an icon and a name, the name had to really tell people what the game was actually about. I actually first said we should call it TownCraft as a joke back in late 2011. But the more we both thought about it, the more it just totally encapsulated what the game was offering. We spent ages wracking our brains trying to come up with something less cheesy, but we just couldn’t do it. So it stuck around.

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TownCraft was originally released on the iPad last year, but is just now coming to iPhones and Macs. Why the delay?

Rohan: Well, we had originally intended to release on iPhone and iPad simultaneously, but due to the visual design of the game — hand-drawing specific and carefully created crafting windows, for instance — we basically had to make a call: either release on iPad, which was always our first platform, on time, or blow out the development by a much longer time. I had no issue with being iPad only at first, because, frankly, I love playing games on my iPad and wanted to see more non-freemium, serious games that are really built for such a nice touch-driven device.

Leigh: Of course, the reason we had a deadline at all — even though we both had day jobs so, in theory, we could’ve taken all the time in the world if we wanted to — was that we’d signed up for PAX Australia. Showing up without an actual game would’ve just flushed a significant proportion of our funds down the toilet.

Rohan: And after that, it was just a work-load question. I had to finish up another contract before I could be back on the game full-time, and once we did, we decided to work on both iPhone and Mac versions simultaneously. Individually, it might have been a bit easier, but we felt releasing both at once was a better plan.

Leigh: Gain more traction that way. I swear, I lay awake at night thinking about the fact that someone somewhere might, right-this-second, be recommending TownCraft to a friend only to have that friend say “but I have an iPhone” and then forget the game exists by the time we finally hit their platform. So more is better.

Are there any differences between the iPad and iPhone versions?

Leigh: Entirely design stuff; the content is the same. The menus in the iPad game were done using these big grand sweeping gestures — swipe from the left for inventory, from the right for crafting, and from the bottom for build mode — but that just wouldn’t work on the widescreen scale and smaller size of the iPhone. So we went back and re-worked the whole interface to be a neat row of buttons running down the left hand side of the screen. Seems to have worked well.

Rohan: Yeah, technically, we didn’t have to build any limitations in for the iPhone, which is nice. It’s literally the same game, just UI tweaks.

How about the iPhone/iPad version and the Mac one, how is the Mac version different and why did you make — or feel you had to make — those changes?

Rohan: Well, at a glance it doesn’t seem too different to move from mouse to touch or the other way around. Both are pointing devices. But in terms of what people are used to, it’s a pretty huge difference. From right-click context menus to lack of pinch-and-zoom, there was actually a lot of design work to do. And that’s before we got to the technical stuff. We had to write a lot more mouse-specific code, too.

Leigh: Then there’s the new interfaces for trading and world interaction. I couldn’t stand the idea of having to manually click and drag for each and every item you wanted to trade. Didn’t want it to be a spreadsheet either, of course. I think we found a good middle-ground.

It’s interesting to me that you decided to do this for the Mac and not PCs. Or at least not Macs and PCs. Why did you decide to go Mac only?

Leigh: Two reasons: Firstly, developing for Mac involved fewer devices and was way easier to bug test. Adding the countless variants of PCs out there would’ve blown it out by a heap. But also, since it started as an Apple game, we liked the idea of rolling it out to the entire Apple family before we did anything else.

Rohan: Also, distribution on Mac is very centralized. Beyond some folks using Steam, if you release things on the Mac App Store, you’ve hit pretty much everyone. It’s very rare to even find boxed copies of anything for Mac any more. The questions about releasing on Windows are more complex. Do we do the Greenlight thing on Steam? Do we try and go DRM-free on something like G.O..G. or Humble? Or self-distribute?

A bigger problem is also that TownCraft receives near-constant updates. So we needed a service where auto-updating was just a natural part of the service. None of these problems or questions are show-stoppers, of course, but when you’ve got very limited resources they all play a part.

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So are there plans to bring it to PCs?

Leigh: Yeah, we’ll bring it to PC. That’s our next cab off the rank.

What about Android devices or other phones and tablets, are you bringing TownCraft to them anytime soon?

Rohan: Not very likely. Our co-developers have released quite a few games on Android, and even ignoring the piracy rates, the sales on the platform are so sufficiently low for premium games that we’d have to basically be a runaway success on iOS to even have a partial guarantee of making our money back. Especially given that TownCraft is specifically designed and drawn for certain screen sizes. It’s such a UI-heavy game that it simply doesn’t scale very well on nearly-random aspect ratios and DPIs.

Then there’s the support problem. If we got bug reports on some obscure sort of Android handset, what do we do about it? In contrast, we own one of every sort of Apple device we support, and that wasn’t a huge feat to pull off.

You guys are brothers. And if The Kinks, Oasis, and The Black Crowes have taught me anything, it’s that brothers don’t get along, ever. So what did you and your brother fight over the most while making TownCraft?

Leigh: Really trivial shit. Like, one of our biggest clashes was about whether to allow you to walk through fully grown crops or not.

Rohan: …or whether to allow farms to be only one tile apart instead of two.

Leigh: But I feel like we got most of that stuff out of our system when we were kids. Had the angsty phase, had the non-communicative phase, had the truth-telling and reconciliation phase, and by the time we were actually working on TownCraft together, we’d already been able to solve most of our differences.

Rohan: Yeah, especially as we fell very quickly into our respective grooves. If it was a technical limitation, my argument would usually win. A design or marketing one, Leigh’s would. Either that, or we do the very common working-with-a-partner of “the person who cares most about an argument, wins.” If one of us felt more strongly about a specific creative detail, the other would just end up going, “Okay. I don’t care enough about this to keep discussing this. We’ll do it your way.”

Leigh: That strategy may come back to bite us in the ass later on though. Fortunately, we’ve been pretty in tune with the game we were making this time around, but that may not always be the case. Time will tell…

On the FAQ on your website, one of the questions, oddly enough, is “Why, if TownCraft is so great, doesn’t it have a voiceover by Jeremy Piven?” Was Piven supposed to do voiceover for the game or something?

Leigh: In my mind there is no greater triumph in life.

So, what celebrity would you want to have as the voice of TownCraft? Martha Stewart? Rachael Ray? The guy who played Turtle?

Rohan: I suspect anyone who’s seen Ted would agree with me that Patrick Stewart should do all voiceovers ever from now on.

Leigh: I totally cried in the pre-credit 15 second sequence for Oblivion. That man just…does things to me.

Uh, okay…. I usually like to end interviews with developers, especially indie ones or people making games for cell phones and tablets, by asking which of their other games people should check out. But since TownCraft is your first, I’ll ask something different: If someone liked TownCraft, what other games do you think they should check out and why?

Rohan: I guess it depends which aspects of the game appealed to them. For the very resource-oriented city-management aspect, I still occasionally replay the most recent Settlers game, and often go back to play the slightly obscure classic Knights & Merchants. Both have a combat aspect, but you can really play either in a sort of pure-economics mode, depending on the scenarios.

It may sound a little strange to say this given “city-building” and “crafting” are becoming so ubiquitous, but there actually aren’t many I can think of that really do have both those aspects.

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Leigh: One funny thing I learned while making TownCraft is that whether or not you know which games you’re similar to, you’ll know eventually. People will tell you.

I’ve been told we’re similar to Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, and Don’t Starve by more people than I can remember. But I’ve never played any of them.

Honestly, I wear that as a mark of pride. I mean, if I’ve never played those games, our game can’t be a copy of them, can it? But like Rohan says, our influences are older games. Transport Tycoon, SimCity,  Knights & Merchants, and especially Stronghold were huge influences on the game, and are all games I’d recommend people play. The Minecraft influence is also an obvious one, but most of what made the game what it is today came from stuff we played in the ’90s.

Rohan: Oh, and I would also recommend Dwarf Fortress, if you can stomach the nearly-impenetrable ASCII-style and lack of tutorial. It’s easily the most impressively detailed small-scale town-management game I can think of…and it’s free!

 

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