Pocket Pioneers

An Interview with Howard Tomilnson, Co-Founder Of Astraware

As the number of mobile game developers grows every day, it becomes more exciting to meet people who were there since the beginning. No, not since iPhone 2G, but since the very beginning — the era of black-and-white screens, stylus input, and AAA battery-powered “connected organizers”, commonly known as PDAs.

As those devices were aimed at businessmen and used by computer enthusiasts, most traditional gaming companies left them without any attention. However, a new sort of game devs had appeared — small hobbyist companies with high focus on digital distribution and creation of small downloadable time-killers.

Despite the fact that they were direct precursors of modern mobile developers, only few of them had survived the transition from PDAs, communicators and clumsy smartphones to iPhone and the likes. Business models were so drastically different, even giants of industry had to close shop. Astraware was the company that didn’t.

Founded in 1993 as ASTRASoft, this British game development studio was one of the very first to create games for non-dedicated mobile hardware. Despite multiple acquisitions and re-acquisitions, expansions, layoffs and the ultimate transformation to a two-men team, it still makes plenty of games — now for iOS and Android phones.

Their staff hasn’t forgot its roots, and Howard Tomilnson, Astraware’s CEO and a “jack of all trades” of the company, was happy to share his memories from early days of the industry.

This interview was first published in Russian retrocomputing fanzine “Downgrade” (№15 2015), and is reproduced in English for the first time, using original transcripts from the author’s archive and containing the updated preface and illustrations. The author takes the opportunity to thank Mr. Tomilnson once again for sharing his insights.

As far as I understand, Astraware was founded by you and David Oakley to make games for Atari ST and PC just to make some cash out of your programming hobby. Could you remember something interesting about your early, pre-PDA years in game development?
Atari ST line of home computers had a huge following in Europe. (M0z4rt~commonswiki, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

To begin with, it was really just about the fun of making games, getting some recognition, developing our skills, and doing something new! The money that began to come in was just a bonus, and of course for many years it was a very small amount. Enough to buy a pizza a month perhaps!

We would develop for the Atari ST doing various projects. David made a MOD (music) playback app called DeskTracker, and then later a composer called StormTracker, which were really well received back in the public-domain shareware days. When we finally moved over to PCs, it was a few apps and simple games that were fun to make (like Bzzz!) and put out for download on the early days of the Internet, hosting them on download sites.

We were working at different careers at the time, so the programming was just an evening hobby. We’d get together every month to catch up and share things we’d been working on. It was very informal!

So, around 1997, Mr. Oakley started to program for PalmPilot organizer, and you decided to make games for it. Why did you decide to make games for what was considered to be a productivity tool for businessmen?

It may sound flippant to say “Because we could!” but that’s pretty much the reason! David converted one our simpler games from Visual Basic to a Java applet and then to C, for which there was just starting to be a toolchain where we could compile for Palm, with the most simple graphics.

And to our surprise, the few games we wrote were popular amongst the early-adopter techie people, and they were willing to part with a few dollars to play our games on their devices!

What was the game that got you so much coverage, you started to get publishing and licensing deals from big companies such as Midway and PopCap?
Zap! and its iterations blasted the way for Astraware to the yet-to-be-explored market. (© Astraware Limited)

We’d made a number of simpler titles, but it was a simple shoot-em-up game called Zap! that was the first that was popular. The first iteration was very simple — just black and white, but it was popular enough that we worked on an upgrade to release in the year 2000 that would be called Zap!2000.

We set ourselves the crazy goal of developing it to release on the January 1st, 2000, sold some preorders, got lots of publicity, and we managed to deliver! That version supported grayscale (cutting-edge for the time), but we updated it as colour displays became available (starting from Palm IIIc), and then 16-bit colour (for Handspring Visor Prism), sampled sound effects, and more.

This got us attention from Palm, plenty of sales, and we did some customer surveys asking what people would like. Some people asked for Bejeweled (Diamond Mine, at the time) from PopCap and we sought permission, struck a deal, and made the game! That gave us another boost which put us in the spotlight for a while, and we were asked to do various licensed titles, including the Midway games (Spyhunter, Joust and more), Tetris, and plenty more over the years!

Touchscreen controls made Bejeweled easy to pick up, play, and procrastinate at. (© Astraware Limited/PopCap)
How did you distribute your PDA games, especially the ones that were self-published? Did you rely mostly on web stores like Handango, or your games were distributed physically too?

Most of our business was via the Internet. We relied heavily on stores like Handango and PalmGear.com to host downloadables, sell to their userbases, take payments and send us the revenue after taking their share. We did also sell from our own store (this grew quite big over time). When one of our partners fell behind and stopped paying us, that was really painful to revenue and we had to lose team members, but at least we were in control because we were selling some via our own store. Some other developers weren’t so lucky and had to fold their businesses. It was a tough time!

We did try physical copies with various partners in stores, but it was never really that successful. We got a couple of deals that worked, but then various that ended up costing us money. I’m glad everything is digital now — the risks are so much lower!

※ Handango and PalmGear.com were early software stores for mobile devices such as PDAs and pre-iPhone smartphones, dating back to 1998. As of 2010, they, alongside with other members of PocketGear.com store family, had a consolidated catalog of more than 140,000 apps.

Your PDA games had quite distinctive interface, so everyone who was familiar with at least one of your games could identify other ones as yours, no matter if they were playing on Palm or Pocket PC. Did you write some super-flexible and super-portable engine for your games?

Thanks! The similarity in interface was deliberate, but that is simply because we shared so much code from one game to the next, each game would start off as a cut-back version of the one before it, and then the new features put back in. This saved us a lot of time in the early days, but it led to some messy code.

When we were making Midway games, we had a really short timescale — just 2 months to make five games with 4 developers plus one artist. It was really challenging, but we decided to start off by making a common game framework (our Core Technology Library and Core Game Library) and architect properly. That paid off, since the reliability of titles that followed was even better, which allowed us to crank out good games in a reasonable time, which kept us doing well for quite some time!

The CGL and CTL are still in use for some of our games today — including our Crosswords game — but we are now moving over to using Unity for development as we just can’t afford to spend so much time on technology, as fun as it is.

History repeats itself: Most early PDA games, like Astraware’s Bzzz!, were all about high scores — just like in the era of Atari 2600 and arcades. (© Astraware Limited)
Speaking of hardware, which pre-iPhone mobile platform did you like the most? What PDA was your favorite?

I absolutely loved the Palm m500 series, especially the colour device — the m505. It was really slim, had great battery life, lovely screen, and speedy CPU. As a PDA, that was the best. I really loved the Treo series smartphones later on. Their keyboard was unmatched in my opinion, though I still have a soft spot for Graffiti after all of this time!

※ Graffiti: a system of recognizing handwritten strokes and a main text input method for Palm OS handhelds.

Have you considered launching your games on dedicated gaming hardware? I think Nintendo DS would have been a pretty good platform for most of your touch-driven games.

Yes, we’ve thought about it a number of times. It’s a different business, with a lot of investment required — and without any direct experience we always thought it was too much of a gamble; after all, the device manufacturers are the gatekeepers for the content on those platforms.

What were your thoughts on mobile devices in handheld console form factor, like Nokia N-Gage or Tapwave Zodiac?
Zodiac was praised by tech press and PDA user community, but failed to make an impact as a gaming device. (Alex Pappajohn, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Looking back, the N-Gage was a comically bad piece of design. It was too large, and if I recall right, the SD card slot was underneath the battery, making it pretty useless for anything involving putting new files on. Despite that, Symbian was a huge platform for a while!

The Tapwave Zodiac, however, was a gorgeous piece of work — fantastic design, really capable screen and CPU, two SD slots, built-in game controller, slim and light but with a solid build. It was devastating that it was launched on the same day that Sony decided to announce the PSP.

Tapwave were also let down by a lot of “big” game companies who promised they’d be on board with games for the device, but were all secretly waiting to see whether the device was successful before committing substantial development, and, as a result, there wasn’t the compelling content for the device. We think that, if Tapwave could worked with more of the indie Palm developers, they could have had much more on time and it could have stood a chance.

You were (and are) known for games which are now called “casual” or “time killers.” Have you ever planned to make some large-scale game, like RPG or 3D action, or you were always focused on something more simple yet addicting?

We always have ideas for big games, but it takes a lot of development and content to do something huge. We’ve never had a spare ten man-years (or equivalent funds!) to be able to do anything quite that big.

It’s also a huge risk to do each game —even if we spent a long time on a game it might have still made nothing, so it’s better for us to spread across a range of games, and then focus more effort (and content) on the ones which turn out to be the most popular.

As a person who was active in both “pre-App Store” and “post-App Store” mobile games market, what do you think about differences between the two? What was easier to do back then as a mobile dev and what was harder?

The advantages now are that the market is very large, and the system of getting payments is pretty much solved. The reliability of getting paid is much better too!

However, back then we had a more direct connection with the customers, marketing was easier (we could send a mailshot!), and for good games we could charge a reasonable price ($10–20) and make the cost of the game back in a reasonable time with some profit. Also, as we could sell directly from our own stores, we could make sales and bundles much more easily!

Nowadays, the expectations on every app are much higher too — along with lower technical knowledge by customers. The early days had many of our customers being programmers and techies, so working with someone to fix a problem used to be quite a bit easier!

Nowadays, your old games, like pretty much every other piece of software for PDAs, are in legal limbo: they are not sold, but they are not being distributed for free either. (At least you are still in business unlike most of your previous competitors!) What are your and your company’s stance on abandonware?

I personally think it’s nice to be able to put our a “free” version of a product where possible, once the platform is finally finished. In some cases (a licensed game) it’s not ours to give away, and in some other cases we might bring a title back, so it’s not always so simple. We do have a page giving away as many codes as we can for our old Palm games, so that if someone has a copy of them they can “self-register” most of the time.


Do you have an interest in retrocomputing or retrogaming?

Only a passing interest. We have the same nostalgia for those games as everyone else, and the nostalgia is nice… I’ve found that, when you do go back and play the old games on the old platforms (ZX Spectrum and Atari ST), the experience doesn’t match up to the memory of the pleasure, so in some ways the nostalgia is better than the reality! We’re not short of new games to entertain ourselves and our children with, though — Minecraft and Elite: Dangerous are big in our families at the moment!

One particular part of retrocomputing is still an interest though — the tracked music that was popular in the 90’s and into the 2000’s has a following even now, and we’ve been working on a new player called TrackerFM for iOS (and maybe Android) devices. We don’t know quite when we’ll finish the project, might even run a Kickstarter to fund getting extra features in. It’s a labour of love at the moment so happening in what little down-time we get!

Early look at TrackerFM, playing a composition from Astraware’s game Astro Defence. Astraware Limited/Yannis Brown)
In the conclusion, could you share a bunch of funny or memorable stories connected with making or supporting games for PDAs?

Aside from the usual escapades of going to conferences and office fun, one particular memory we have is from attending a PalmSource conference around 2000. Palm were working on adding Bluetooth to devices, and we were invited to try to get a game working with two players playing head-to-head on their own devices. It was a real race against time, the hardware wasn’t ready, and the software was flaky too — but we were working on the plane, overnight before the day of the demo, and with the help of an awesome Palm engineer, and we were proud to see our game (Biplane Ace) being demoed on the big screen in front of thousands of attendees. We think that might have been the first Bluetooth connected game ever.

Bluetooth adoption had allowed to make simultaneous local multiplayer games for PDAs. (© Astraware Limited)

Making the games has been a tough challenge in many ways (there are always interesting problems to solve!). But, despite the ups and downs of the business side, one big plus has been the people who have got in touch to say that playing one of our games on a handheld is what kept them going through a difficult time — getting through cancer or other illness, struggling with depression, being a carer for someone… and that our game was something that helped them to have focus and keep going. The games might be about entertainment, but to the individual player, sometimes they mean so much more!

Howard Tomlinson,
Co-Founder, Director, Developer/Designer, “CEO”, of Astraware.

Featured image: chadr, Flickr (modified), CC BY 2.0.