Having worked on games like Sally’s Salon and Sally’s Spa before forming their own development house, the team at BigStack Studios really thought they understood the casual female audience. Despite this pedigree, their portable time management game Hottie Hookups failed to capture the market they were looking for. Rather than accept defeat, BigStack took their game back to the drawing board to re-invent it for a whole new audience: vampire fans.

We recently had the chance to speak with Dan Kratt, Senior Designer at Ph03nix New Media/BigStack Studios about the frustrations felt with Hottie, the transition to Dead of Night, and what’s in store for the future of BigStack.

Earlier this year you released Hottie Hookups, a line-drawing game about the dating scene aimed at a primarily female audience. How did the game perform?

Hottie Hookups was an enormous misfire for us. We truly believed that the game’s mechanics and tongue-in-cheek humour would resonate with what we believed to be the iPhone audience. We couldn’t have been more incorrect with regards to the humour.

For the most part, when people play games, I don’t think they really understand that there are people behind those games. Hottie Hookups made fun of nerds of all kinds, shapes and sizes. The catch is that the people who made the game are all massive nerds and proud of it. I’m not ashamed of how much I paid for my mint condition copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga. I’m not ashamed of importing games like Cosmic Smash and Vib-Ribbon. Unfortunately, it was a huge mistake on our part to assume that players would understand that. We really wanted our fellow nerds to be in on the joke. Furthermore, on an ever so slightly deeper level, we’re making fun of the “Hotties” in Hottie Hookups just as much as we are the nerds. They are very intentionally made to look and dance like the cheesiest people on the planet.

Finally, the name of the game was a big mistake. Lisa Cowdell of Gamezebo nailed this in her review. We just kind of rolled with the name that we had been using from day one. We now actually spend some time ensuring we’re naming our games properly.

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Five months later you released Dead of Night, a game with nearly identical mechanics that focused on vampires and other ghouls. Did you find that it performed better?

It’s still a little too early to tell, though it appears to be on course to outsell Hottie Hookups. Critically, there hasn’t been much coverage on Dead of Night but for the most part those who are picking up on the game seem to really like it.

How much time and effort did it take to redesign Hottie Hookups and release it as Dead of Night? Would it have been just as costly to create a new game from scratch?

Hottie Hookups took about four months to develop from scratch. Dead of Night took about six weeks. The bulk of the Dead of Night development was obviously spent on new artwork and making sure that we were making choices that fit into the framework we had created with Hottie Hookups. Long story short, creating a new game from scratch would have been much more costly but we were very diligent with regards to not letting things spiral out of control.

Going forward, do you see any value in developing similar games simultaneously with two different audiences in mind?

Yes and no. I’d like to make sure we don’t fail that hard ever again putting ourselves in a position in which we don’t have a choice but to “re-skin”. Six week development times are rarely fun for anyone. That said, I’m a big fan of using the technology we’ve built for past games as a backbone for future projects.

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What’s next for BigStack Studios?

Last year could basically be summed up as a testing of the waters. We managed to get four iPhone games out (Poker Genius, Hottie Hookups, Sigma and Dead of Night). I was also away on paternity leave for four months. It was a crazy year to say the least.

This year will be much more methodical. We’re busy evaluating technology, game ideas, and potential partnerships that we hope will pave our future for an extended period of time. Let’s cut to the chase though, I really hate it when I read interviews with people who say “I can’t really talk about anything right now…” So I’ll do my best to not do that.

Craig Rushforth (Technical Director) and myself (Designer) were core members of the original Sally’s Salon and Sally’s Spa team. There’s a chance we’ll be revisiting our roots this year. Other than that, I’ll be acting as a producer of sorts on a game that BigStack will be publishing from the creator of Castle Conflict (iPhone). What excites me about this game is that we’ve created a three way partnership between BigStack Studios, Stephen Gazzard (Castle Conflict) and Sean Dunkley (Sally’s Salon & Spa Art Director now independent). Last but not least, I’ve delivered the initial design document for Sigma 2 to the higher ups.

Do you have any parting words of advice for other developers that are struggling to spread the word about a game they truly believe in?

Love your craft, roll with the punches and email jim@gamezebo.com.