Mike Kirby: How I quit my day job and designed a top-tier mobile game

Alex Bigman

A few weeks ago, we got an email from our friend Mike Kirby, one of 99designs’ top app icon designers, with some exciting news. The Ories: Super Space Monsters!, a mobile game for Apple devices that Mike visually designed from top to bottom for the past 2 years, was finalized and scheduled for release.

Since then a whole lot of other excitement has occurred, including the release of 3 smaller promotional games and a viral marketing campaign where an Ories was actually launched into space (yes, you read that correctly). Now the date has arrived: The Ories is out in the wild and ready to take the App Store by storm!

We talked with Mike at length about his inspiring story, getting the scoop on how a designer can quit his day job to pursue a project of passion, all the while supporting himself by freelancing in one of Britain’s lousiest economic areas (hint: a certain crowdsourced design platform was key). Plus, we dove deep into the process of designing every inch of a mobile game and the skills it takes. At the very least, you’ll see a stuffed alien toy blast off into the stratosphere. Read on.

kirbyandgreen

How did your idea to create a mobile game originate?

At the time (which is now a little over 2 years ago), I had just closed a small digital media agency, Twisted Studio, that I had been running as creative director for 5 years, and made the switch to freelance. One of the big factors in closing the previous studio was a desire to pursue our own creative projects, as opposed to primarily doing service-based work. I relished the prospect of working on something significant that I owned myself.

Adam Green, a friend of mine, was an excellent coder – highly adept at rapidly creating mobile games in Unity and, though only 21 years old, had an excellent history and knowledge of the iPhone games market and outstanding business acumen. We had huge respect for each other’s particular skill sets and felt we could work well together. So teaming up in a game development partnership seemed like a great idea.


An official teaser trailer for The Ories

Did you ever question whether you’d be able to see such a huge project through to completion?

We were fairly confident that between us, we could pull off something pretty special. That’s not to say we haven’t been terrified at the prospect of launch, as there are never any guarantees. The question wasn’t could we pull it off (we were fairly confident in our abilities), but will people actually download the thing. Which, at the time of writing this, is still something that is enough to keep me awake at night…

How did your professional life change to accommodate the demands of the project? How did 99designs play a role?

The biggest impact on my professional life was that of time. I needed to accompany the game project with client work and other side ventures to pay the bills. At first, much of the work took place in highly intensive bursts of development, where we would do nothing but work for days on end, fueled on caffeine with only a couple of hours sleep here and there. I had a few small client projects then to keep me going, but we didn’t know just how much the concept would grow. As the months passed by and the game project expanded, my own resources began to be stretched rather thin.

However, after about 6 months of being mostly away from client work, I returned to find that much had changed in the local design industry. Many of the government programs for stimulating small business, which local designers were reliant upon for client work, had stopped. Many clients had gone out of business altogether and available freelance work was scarce.

99designs proved crucial in allowing me the opportunity to rapidly build a new international client base in a chosen niche field (app icon design) and hone my skills – best of all, without having to spend huge swathes of time out networking at local business events in the hopes of grabbing a piece of an ever-shrinking pie.

The fast payouts and potential for quick client generation afforded me the ability to rapidly scale up or scale down my client base and paid work, leaving me free to continue to pursue the game development.

profile-image

Could you summarize the plot or concept behind the game in brief?

“On Grand Orb lives a most fascinating race of creatures, known as TheOries. These space roving critters are born of the Great Orbler, a vast interstellar being of mind boggling intelligence, whose mighty brain feeds off rare and mysterious space energies, which can only be found around the planets and the suns of the cosmos.

But space is dangerous, and very very very big, so to ensure the safety of future generations of Orblings, the Great Orbler must be fed humongous quantities to power his most awesome brain and think up new ways for his precious Orblings to explore and reach the great beyond!”

For the mechanic, we wanted to create something that had a simple, singular physics component, but was arcade-like in nature as opposed to the more turn-based or puzzle-based physics in games like Angry Birds or Cut the Rope. The final “inspiration” came when reflecting on the simple pleasures of navigating and swinging around on the ninja rope in the classic Worms games.

We wanted to expand upon this simple mechanic of using circular motion, force and momentum as an interaction and make it the sole means of navigation through a level. Making complete orbits around a target seemed the most versatile way of achieving this, and so this became the basis for selecting space as the theme.

gameplay

What makes the visual look of this, or any, game important?

The App Store is now a very crowded place, fast approaching 1 million apps. It’s not like the old days, when you could throw up a pretty quickly-made game and do okay. The games category, despite having the most downloads and making the most money, is by far the most competitive. There are now many big players with huge wallets and excellent content who can spend vast amounts on paid installs and marketing.

We are really competing for the top-grossing market, where it has very much become the case of “be awesome or go home.” The journey just to have a product that could compete on that level has been long and painful, but rewarding – especially if you are just 2 guys without any funding 😉

As such, having great-looking, consistent graphics is crucial — not just a great app icon and opening screenshot (your shop window), but everything about the whole user experience end-to-end must look top notch.

Your design work for this project has been wide ranging: icons, characters, menu pages and gameplay, in addition to supporting marketing materials. Could you walk us through your design process for some of the central components?

Very early on — and we are talking about the very first mock ups of the game here — the game looked very different and had a more “hardcore tech-y” space look, which was devoid of character and charm. We then took a more careful consideration of the market conditions into account, studying the sort of visual style to which the casual mobile gaming audiences would respond well. It became clear that a simple, cute and charming cartoon aesthetic was the only route to take.

For both ease of design, animation, reproduction and familiarity, the core look of Orblings (player character) took shape as a small, round character inspired somewhat by the simplicity of things like Angry Birds and the alien features of Nibbler from Futurama. We knew this would resonate well with our target audience, but we also wanted to ensure that we added our own touch to them that represented the specific nature of the game.

So, we represented them with an excited, slightly terrified screaming grin affixed to their faces — like they are on a roller coaster ride or, literally in their case, zipping at crazy speeds around the planets of the cosmos.

characters

During the early development, I created the game elements exclusively in Flash. However, as I began to specialize in icon design on 99designs, I was often presented with requests for “shiny” metal, which was a pain to make in Flash. So I gradually shifted my focus over to Photoshop.

However, I was extremely cautious of switching to Photoshop for creating assets for the game, as I had created a polished and distinct style and it was crucial that it remained aesthetically consistent. Additionally, Flash was the better choice for creating the in-game animations. I did end up using Photoshop, but sparingly; mostly for standalone new graphics such as a new logo, or for updating graphic types, such as the planets in batches.

As for brainstorming, we would typically sit down from time to time and discuss the game: what we needed each section to do, where we felt improvements could be made, etc. I would then design much of it in my head and spend a great deal of time mentally walking myself through each screen and aspect of the game experience. Occasionally, I would start with some crude sketches for the planets, ships or characters, but for the most part work could begin immediately on-screen.

menu screens

Were there certain components that proved to be especially challenging?

The icon design was one of the most time consuming tasks as I went through numerous versions, which would either be scrapped as my own skills improved, or we felt a new direction seemed appropriate, or that something was missing from the color palette or the message communicated.

Knowing it would be many users’ first experience with the brand, we felt it crucial to get it spot on. For the final design I actually threw together a crude, but fully rendered, model of the ship and character to ensure the perspective and lighting was accurate. I then painstakingly drew and rendered this in Photoshop vector shapes. Even this final icon went through many variations and final “tweaks” as I would spot minor things that I wasn’t 100% happy with.

mainicon

Localization was also a rather large task. It’s surprising just how much text is in the game. You wouldn’t think it from a quick play, but we actually had over 4,000 words. For Japanese and Chinese the name is slightly different and each have their own localized logos.

The Chinese name translated to something equivalent to “Gem Wizard”, whereas for the Japanese name we used a phonetic approach so the Japanese characters when pronounced sound like “Za-Orizu.”

localization

About a month ago, we also decided it would be a great idea to launch 3 other games, a day or so, before The Ories through which we would be able to promote The Ories — much smaller games of course but all with a commitment to high quality.

Creating those was not an inconsiderable task either, as they each required their own distinct look and game play to attract different segments of the gaming audience. If you want to check them out they are Aztecathon: The Great Maze Race, The Glowing Void 3: Tilt Dodge and Avoid (to which I am presently somewhat addicted), and Crazy Island Golf.

othergames

There have, of course, been all sorts of other materials needed such as banners, social content, game centre and Facebook icons (over 75 unique achievement icons), gameplay trailers, viral videos, video tutorials, and the intro video. Plus a whole host of other things I am sure I have neglected to mention, but we would be here all day….

What are these viral videos you mention?

As part of the marketing campaign, we decided to get a whole boatload of cuddly toys made, based on the character from the game (available soon from Amazon), which was nice in itself, but then I decided it would be a great idea to try and send one home for launch. Yes, home… as in space. We searched around for a while and managed to find an English company with a great track record of launching items into near space.

After many weeks of terrible weather, when the tracking and prediction software kept saying the toy would land in the sea (or Belgium…) we finally managed to catch a break just 2 weeks before the launch date for the game. The flight was superbly successful, sending a cute little Orbling all the way up to 115,954 feet — with a camera! Check it out:


Mike and Adam actually launched one of their Orblings into space as a promotional stunt

Now that this project is nearly over, at least the bulk of it, what is next for you? Going to take a vacation?

A break would be fantastic… however I have a wedding fast approaching at the end of May and, as the game has swallowed nearly all of my time, my bank balance is not as robust as it could be… so I expect I will be plowing headlong into some client projects for a few weeks.

Any remaining time will go to building and helping to support a hopefully engaged social community, studying the analytic results from the game and continuing a heavy marketing push, while we see how well the game is doing.

Hopefully once the dust has settled it will be doing well, begin paying out and I will be able to start thinking about relaxing a little. If it does well we have some exciting things already planned for the future of The Ories brand so keep your eyes peeled!

What do you think of The Ories? Play, and let us know!

Related articles

The fundamentals of responsive website design

The fundamentals of responsive website design

The days of designing a website for a single desktop screen are well and truly over. Technology and the expansion of mobile websites are pushing web designers to re-think how their work is displayed across various devices. Think about it: how much browsing do you do every day on your phone vs. your desktop? Enter:…

The surreal and stylized illustrations of Kuziola

The surreal and stylized illustrations of Kuziola

Andrzej Kuziola is a full-time, self-taught artist who joined 99designs to explore new creative challenges and experiences. We first discovered him when he was nominated—and then won—our first 99awards competition this year with his stunning illustration for a fantasy novel. Born in Poland and now residing in the United Kingdom, Kuziola began his career as a dentist…

How Meella accidentally became a full-time book cover designer

How Meella accidentally became a full-time book cover designer

Originally Mila Milic (aka Meella) wanted to become a psychologist before switching to economics. But somewhere in between, by pure accident, she wound up a successful book cover designer. It began simply enough… While searching through freelance websites for economist gigs, she quickly discovered a need for photo retouching—a skill she had, thanks to her Photoshop knowledge. Realizing design work like this was lucrative,…

Current Design Contests

Designers, check out these contests so you can start building your career.
0%