A large pizza rolls down a snowy hill, smashing evil skeletons as it gets closer and closer to its destination. Wings flap as a flying man straight out of Greek mythology tries his best to traverse as much as he can. The weight of a large silver-mining company on his shoulders, an executive fights werewolves to defend his livelihood.
These are just a few of the games from Riverman Media, a game development company made up of just two people: brothers Jacob and Paul Stevens.
“Until we became adults, we played every game together. Actually, we still do, for the most part!” said Jacob via Skype interview.After Jacob and Paul finished schooling from Northern Arizona University and Arizona University (CORRRECTION: UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA) respectively, both with degrees in computer science, they got to work on game development full-time. Over the last decade, the duo have been releasing games on mostly iPhones and iPads, with one release on the Wii’s old online store for digital games, “WiiWare,” and some for Windows computers. Jacob does the art and music for the games, while Paul does the programming.
Their first games were first Cash Cow and then Primate Panic, both released for Windows. Cash Cow, a puzzle-game based on familiar mechanics of matching shapes together, is probably their most mass-market game, Jacob explained.
“A lot of people, including our relatives, still play [Cash Cow] all the time,” Jacob said.
The two then developed a game called Madstone for WiiWare, which released in 2008. The game was another shape-matching puzzler, which received some negative reception. IGN critic of the time Mark Bozon gave the game a 4/10, writing “it’s a title that isn’t worth your cash, your Wii storage space, or or [sic] attention.” He criticized the game for overly simplistic gameplay, lack of pointer-controls and widescreen presentation, and a dearth of game mode variety.
“Ultimately I think [the review] drove us to make better and better stuff, even though I don’t quite agree with their review,” Jacob said with a laugh. “I do think that it’s intelligent critiques that push you forward.”
Reception was not entirely negative, however. Nintendo Life critic Spencer McIlvaine gave the game a 7/10, writing “Madstone provides just enough new ideas to make it worth checking out.” The review praised the retro aesthetics and simple-to-play mechanics.The two were invited to a “Developers Summit” hosted by Nintendo of America in April of 2008, before the release of Madstone. The two said they loved the event, focused on interaction with fellow indie developers as well as guidance given by Nintendo employees. This was one of Paul’s favorite moments of his tenure with Riverman Media, he explained.
“We grew up on Nintendo. It’s what we love,” said Paul.
In 2009, the brothers released a port of Cash Cow for iOS, published by Chillingo, the publisher behind smash-hit Angry Birds. In 2011, IKAROS, a procedurally-generated endless runner, Space Frak, a shoot-em-up, and Deathfall, an arcade-style game, released on iOS, all games made and released quickly as experiments in iOS game development, Jacob explained.
Space Frak was originally released as an ad-supported game, but the team didn’t like that model for game development, leading to that version being replaced with the $2, ad-free version available now. Deathfall, a $3 game, is very similar, in terms of gameplay, to another game released by Riverman Media during that time, called Fat Roll Santa, released for the holidays. Because Deathfall was the more popular game and Fat Roll Santa was so tied to a certain time of year, the two decided to cease support of Fat Roll Santa, which is no longer available to download, according to Paul.
Noticing a trend? Riverman Media is not prone to releasing games with micro-transactions or ads, both models popular to implement into mobile games.
“We don’t really understand ad-supported or freemium games because it’s not what we grew up with,” said Paul via Skype interview.
Jacob said similar things, offering more comments about these practices.
“I really don’t have any principal against in-app purchases, but in practice I think it makes games less fun,” said Jacob.
Games including in-app purchases have been widely criticized by players and pundits alike, one of the loudest critics being former Reviews Editor for Destructoid and The Escapist and current independent games critic Jim Sterling. In a half-star out of five review for The Escapist, Sterling described free-to-play mobile game Dungeon Keeper Mobile, published by Electronic Arts, thusly:
“A cynically motivated skeleton of a non-game, a scam that will take your cash and offer nothing in return. A perversion of a respected series, twisted by some of the most soulless, selfish, and nauseating human beings to ever blight the game industry.”
Sterling recently reviewed Riverman Media’s latest game, The Executive, for his website The Jimquisition, and awarded it a 9.5/10. He praised the game highly as “brilliant,” and pointed to the lack of micro-transactions as its best feature.
“No bullshit premium currencies, no insidious paywalls. It’s sad that such a thing should even be worthy of praise, but that’s the world we live in now,” his review states.The Executive is widely loved by not just iOS-focused websites but also general video game enthusiast sites, in fact. Kotaku writer Mike Fahey wrote that it’s “a brilliant amalgamation of classic concepts that’s dressed to impress – and it certainly does.” App Spy and Touch Arcade both gave the game a 5/5, and Pocket Gamer gave it a 9/10.
The Executive, a $3, soon-to-be $5 (after the launch sale) beat-em-up game with elements of platforming about an executive of a silver-mining company fighting off werewolves, went through a three-year development cycle and was made with a myriad of influences, Paul explained. He recounted a story about driving home from a video store, thinking about the blisteringly fast and action-packed Jackie Chan movies, and how they’ve barely been properly represented in games. Mad Men’s suited characters also found themselves in Paul’s (CORRECTION: JACOB’S) brain when brainstorming for The Executive, which was originally called “Linear Ninja” behind the scenes, he said.
On the subject of the abnormal enemy designs in the game, Jacob told me a funny yet accurate comment he said he has said on multiple occasions.
“I was trying really hard to make a game that wasn’t as strange as Pizza vs. Skeletons, but I guess I failed,” said Jacob with a laugh.Pizza vs. Skeletons was their game previous to The Executive, released in 2012 to similar acclaim, brandishing a 90% score on the review aggregate site Metacritic. The game is hard to describe, the best genre descriptor being a platformer, but with lots of other elements. It took 9 months to finish, according to Jacob.
Riverman Media focuses mainly on developing games for iOS devices, finding Apple easy to work with, Jacob explained. He also sees the marketplace as both advantageous and disadvantage for them to release games in.
“The App Store is oddly more competitive and less competitive. It’s more competitive because there are a hundred games being released a day… it’s less competitive because the scopes of those games is usually small compared to a console game,” said Jacob.
The team would like to get more games on home consoles in the future, because of the additions of a controller and a television, Paul explained.
Riverman Media also offers consulting services to other designers, and have helped small, college-enrolled indie game developers as well as big, non-game companies on general design. Fees are sometimes charged for these services, but small, local jobs to little guys tend to be free, Jacob explained.
The two developers have been passionate their whole lives together. Jacob had been doing art and music since a young age, learning through self-teaching and various lessons.
“Video games are really the perfect melding of [technology, art and music] for me,” said Jacob.
Programming is something a lot of people probably see as dull, but it’s far from that for Paul.
“To me, programming is like playing with Lego’s, except rather than a physical creation it’s on the screen,” said Paul. The process of building something others can interact with is still present, he explained.
Their passion doesn’t seem to be dying any time soon, either.
“We both hope to do this as long as we can,” said Paul.