Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Man, A Plan, A Crane, A Game: Bram Stolk

We've all heard of the app “The Little Crane That Could.”  It’s a unique experience in gaming, and one that’s very deserving of all the great praise and attention it’s garnered.

We recently interviewed the app’s father, Bram Stolk, to get his take on apps, and learn a bit about the developing process and his entire life.  It was quite the story, and we feel everyone would absolutely love to hear it!  He even shares a bit of insider information to help you out with anything you’re planning on doing, also!  Check it:

What made you get into creating and developing video games and apps in general?

Ah... this dream I am living now of an independent game developer, well, it is a dream 29 years in the making! In 1982 I played a friend's video game, which was a PacMan clone called ''Munchkin". I was blown away by it, as I had never experienced something more advanced than pong at that time.

I then begged my father for a game computer. My father told me, "No, but maybe I will get you a real computer."  So I said, "Huh? What is a real computer?" And then my father spoke those memorable words: "It is a real computer that will let you make your own games".

So to make the story short, at twelve years old I was programming my own basic/machine-language games for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. After high school I got my masters in computer science from the University of Amsterdam, and then worked as a software engineer, mainly in Virtual Reality and Computer Graphics fields.  After 15 years or so, I decided it was time to work in the game industry.  I did this for 4 years in Vancouver in larger studios, and during that time I felt I could do a better job as an indie (developer.)

My friend then spurred me to look into iOS development. In my spare time I was able to generate supplemental income, and I was confident I could sustain my family with iOS development if I were to do it full time. So I quit my job (shortly before my first child was born) and started my own private enterprise. The first product release after that was a success (over 1M downloads in 2 weeks,) so the jump going indie paid off for me.

It must be a lot of work doing every little detail yourself.  Would you like it to stay that way or would you like to have a team in the future?

I am wary of teams, especially large teams. I have seen how unproductive or ineffective they can get. Also, my own games tend to be heavy on the physics-simulation side, so creating 3D art for it requires a lot of thought, as I want my visual art to be a good match for the simulation geometry.

It is what I call 'What-You-See-Is-What-You-Collide" technology (WYSIWYC). Hey, I should trade-mark that term! J My programmer-art may be simple, but it matches the game world.
It's one of those cases where less is more: detail should only be added if it is functional. Employing an artist would improve the aesthetics I am sure, but game play and high fidelity simulation is more important to me. That is why I do my own art.

Which app was the hardest to create and fully complete?

Well, I don't view game development as hard, and frankly neither as work. Let me assure you that when I created my games, I had as much fun as the customers had when they played it. In terms of dedication, "The Little Crane That Could" is definitely my magnum opus. Good illustrations of this are the number of releases I made for it: it has seen eight releases so far in only seven months. Each and every release was accompanied by improvements and new content, and often inspired by user feedback.

How did you come up with “The Little Crane That Could?”

"The Little Crane That Could" is a good example of 'technology-push'. Before and after the little crane, I had attempted to cater for the market. I was trying to make what I thought the iOS market wanted. Conventional wisdom says: simple games, casual, super simple controls. This kind of development is what marketers call "demand-pull". Both my attempts of demand-pull production failed horribly and pretty much sold zero.

The little crane was a pet project, of a game that I *myself* would like to play. Many have predicted it would fail, as it was the opposite of casual gaming. There was even a colleague indie who had seen the idea of a crane simulation put forward to a focus group, and saw it go down in flames.

However, it was the game I liked to make and play, so went with it. I love to set up elaborate physics simulations of complex arrangements of levers, forces, torque, joints, masses and such. The little crane is pretty much the pinnacle of this. I had created this technology of accurate simulation of crane physics, and pushed it onto the market, taking no regard in which direction the market was pulling. In a sense, I made it for a market of one: me.

You said you are working on a MacOS port for your app.  What can we expect to be different in the port? Will the MacOS port be free or will it be a paid app?

So going to the MacOS platform brings me a lot of additional CPU and GPU power. I have polished the visuals, but the real game-changer is going to be the physics.

It allows me to put an insane number of simulated rigid bodies in a single vehicle. So I made a new crane, running on tank tracks, with 57 rigid bodies. Each and every link in the tank tracks is simulated, and faithfully interacts with the environment. Also, I have created two new levels that are exclusive to the MacOS that feature this monster crane. Having no touch-display puts the desktop slightly behind iOS in the interface department, but I am confident that the increased simulation possibilities make up for this.

Expect it in the Mac store soon. Like the iOS version, it will be free, with an IAP (In-App Purchase) for extra levels. It's the best business model for this game, as I know a lot of people will get hooked on it after trying.

Can we see some gameplay footage of the port?

I am so glad you asked, and only too happy to comply.  Also: the camera movement is a lot smoother than this video shows.

Do you have any other projects coming up?

As a programmer I had a lot of fun designing the vehicles in my games. So I'm toying with the following idea: Who has more fun, Sebastian Vettel or Adrian Newey? I think designing a F1 car is as much fun as racing one. There are hundreds of F1 race games, but not a single F1 design game. Let the player do the designing, and an AI do the racing.

One last thing:  what do you think is the best advice for developers-to-be to get started and dive in?

Do technology-push, not demand-pull. Only make games that you yourself would love to play, it will give it some soul. Pay attention in your math classes, I often bemoan the math stuff I once knew but is now forgotten.

As you can see, Bram Stolk is a man who went out and MADE IT HAPPEN! And we salute him for that!  Get out there and use your idea to help yourself – you can do it!

If you haven’t played “The Little Crane That Could,” you should definitely try it out.  It’s free! And free is cheaper than cheap! And trust us, this game is beyond fun. It turns the fun all the way to 11.
Bram Stolk can be found on Twitter @BramStolk or at his website, stolk.org.


  1. ...what a story...TLCTC en de Stormbahn Fahrer mooi geintegreerd.
    Nooit kunnen vermoeden dat de aanschaf van een ZX-Spectrum dit als resultaat zou hebben.
    Success met de Bizz.....
    Je vader

  2. Just a quick note to let your readers know that it's available in the mac app store now, for free. Enjoy!