500,000 Apps Interview Series: Matt Gravelle, Skee-Ball
Hailing from the days when Mac shareware was commonplace, hobbyist game developers Jonathan Czeck and Matt Gravelle decided to take their shared interest to the next level when they co-founded Graveck. Things really took off when they adopted the Unity engine in 2005, and since then they’ve established themselves as leaders in the Unity3D community as well as talented game design specialists.
I had the opportunity to talk with Matt about how and why they made the transition to mobile app development. Matt explains that he and Jonathan were encouraged by rumors of small teams hitting it big with the then-young iTunes App Store. Their first game was an unbranded version of Skee-Ball called “10 Balls 7 Cups” which, as Matt put it, “was moderately successful for two guys building a quick game.” [Ed Note: It was also a fun stab at team-wars before there was an OpenFeint/GameCenter by the folks at ThePortableGamer, called Clan Wars]
I’m always curious as to what the working environment is at an app develop company and Matt generously provided lots of details. Graveck is currently a team of eight people, with occasional collaboration from other companies and individuals met though community forums or IRC channels.
They stick to smaller projects that generally don’t involve the entire company at once, so the mix of people changes regularly and colleagues get to interact with different team members. In groups that number three or more, development tends to loosely follow SCRUM methodologies.
People are assigned to projects based on their strengths and interests. When adding new people to the company, Matt likes to look for self-learners with a wide variety of skills. “The thing that keeps game development interesting is that you can apply a huge variety of skills… a lot of creativity and artistry is needed even for a programmer who in other careers wouldn't need a creative hair in his/her body.”
Education takes a backseat to practical skills and experience – the best indicator of future success is a finished game in a developer’s portfolio – but everyone at Graveck has some post-secondary education. Matt himself has a degree in Mathematics and is licensed to teach math and physics at the high school level.
If you could look at a mobile app developer’s personal iOS device, what would you find? I asked Matt what mobile apps he used regularly and enjoyed. He claimed to be a developer’s “worst nightmare” due to his short attention span – an affliction I’ve discovered to be quite common among the developers I’ve talked to. Past favorites include Words with Friends and Angry Birds.
Sitting at a desk can make a person restless, especially a person with a short attention span, so I asked Matt what he does in his free time. Home improvement projects, gardening, making furniture – anything that doesn’t involve a computer – are ideal ways to decompress. When struggling with a difficult programming or design problem he might take his Macbook Pro outside to work in the shade or heads down to a nearby coffee shop. When this doesn’t work, walking away for a day to focus on something else might do the trick, because the solution might appear unexpectedly. And very occasionally he simply needs some help: “Sometimes it's a good idea to let somebody else who's more qualified to handle the problem, or if nothing else just get another set of eyes on it.”
He tries to keep the office a relaxing setting as well. Every Wednesday they order lunch from a local restaurant and try to keep the selections interesting. I asked Matt what his favorite food was. “A better question would be what type of food do I not like? Mushrooms. Sauerkraut. Head cheese. Other than that I love all forms of food and do not discriminate. Oh, and I was really disappointed with the jellyfish we ordered the other day.”
Graveck has recently started developing for the Android platform; this, combined with all the recent advances in the iOS world, is enough to make Matt’s head spin. Looking forward, he sees steady, predictable advancements in the mobile computing field instead of major breakthroughs in the near future. Specifically he agrees with Apple’s move towards creating a more seamless, cohesive user experience between devices by leveraging cloud storage, and Graveck plans on adopting that same philosophy.
Speaking of the future, there are some really exciting projects on the horizon for Matt and his company. Arcade Ball is coming to Android, which should really illuminate how the Android market compares to the iOS. There’s a golf game near completion as well, which has a fun multiplayer mode. Lastly, there’s a top-secret project about halfway done which Matt is really enthusiastic about, but declined further comment. “You’ll just have to stay tuned to learn more,” he says, and I could almost hear him grinning.