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Interviewed: Kieffer Bros. on Aqueduct

Feature by Ben Briggs, August 03, 2010

Aqueduct is a really fantastic sliding puzzle meets Pipe Dreams hybrid; one that has been played for countless hours in our experience. With the new update live in the App Store, we sat down with Michael Kieffer to discuss the origins of the game and what development is like from the perspective of a small studio. You can catch further details about how the game plays in our original review.

What drew your attention to the Apple mobile devices and why did you decide to develop for the App Store?

Curiosity mostly. We’ve always been interested in developing and publishing games. We made some pretty simple and amusing games when we were kids. They never made it out of our family’s basement study, but they certainly got us addicted to the possibilities.

The beginning of our company is closely intertwined with the development of our first game, Enso•Dot. Originally, we thought Enso•Dot would be great for print, but the ridiculous amount of erasing convinced us it would be better suited for some sort of digital interface. The iPhone was the perfect candidate for this test.

After we played it on the iPhone simulator, we knew we wanted to get it on the App Store. A few months later, we set up our company, Kieffer Bros.

It seems that your games all have an iterative process behind them; we’ve noticed many small updates enhancing and refining various aspects of your games. Is this something that we can come to expect from you guys?

Experimentation is in our blood, and for us, it’s a necessity. We’re fairly new to both the craft and industry of game making. We started less than two years ago, so this journey has been a profound learning experience. Our history of constant iteration is proof of that. Case in point, when we first launched Abca (previously Lexic), it didn’t even have sound! Needless to say, that was a bad move, but an important lesson.

At the end of the day, we want to focus on having an addictive game from the first version. If we can enhance the gameplay or add more features that we and the majority of users will enjoy, we’ll definitely consider it.

With this in mind, what is the development cycle like as a small outfit?

Hectic yet focused. Just three people having to do everything—design, programming, marketing—it’s intense but immensely rewarding. We’ve gotten much better at embracing an actual process. No longer do we have a do-what-needs-to-be-done mentality. We’re much more methodical now, which saves an incredible amount of time.

It’s often tempting to jump right into development, but planning is key to staying sane throughout the process. We may be itching to start working, but we've got to put the time in to plan everything out. Without a roadmap, we encounter an exasperating number of moments where the various project elements just don’t fit together. A comprehensive plan can prevent almost all of those moments.

How did you come up with the idea for Aqueduct?

Pinpointing the source and defining the significant moments of its evolution is quite challenging. Every game designer has about a dozen (or more) concepts floating around in his or her head. They’re fun ideas but don’t have much substance. Aqueduct was one of those ideas that slowly percolated over time, and eventually we realized the concept was ready for us to start hammering out the details.

The progenitor of Aqueduct was a simple sliding game—rearranging pieces to connect point A to point B. We knew this wouldn’t be very compelling after three or four puzzles, so we started adding some interactivity. Spinning tracks here, blockades there, etc. Eventually these specialty tiles made the game incredibly intriguing. The variety we could infuse into the game with a simple set of pieces was just too exciting to ignore. At this point, we knew we had something special.

Do you think Aqueduct is a general indication of where you guys will be for future projects, or do you like developing games in other genres?

Experimentation is really important to us, and we love dabbling in different genres. But we do have a natural draw towards games that stretch the mind. This is easily realized in puzzle and word games but can also be achieved through other means. There’s more than just logic and linguistics that help us strengthen our minds—an engaging story that raises emerging ethical dilemmas, character development that reveals oft-forgotten facets of human nature, etc. Developing games like these aren’t quite in our capacity yet, but it’s something we have always had in the back of our minds.

Even so, some of our games were built with the sole purpose of helping people pass time. When we made Orba, we wanted a game players could fall asleep to. You can apply yourself if you wish, but often the mindless tapping is just as satisfying as a new high score.

But like I mentioned earlier, we’re unapologetically curious. We’ll go wherever our whims may take us.

What does the new update bring to the table?

Most notably, the Aqueduct update brings gorgeous hi-res graphics for the iPad and iPhone 4 Retina display. Aqueduct will be universal and iOS 4 optimized. We’re also adding 48 new puzzles for those users who have finished the game and want more. There’s quite a range in difficulty in these extra puzzle packs. Some are simple and clever; some are inconceivably challenging.

It also enhances the puzzle unlock mechanism. Now you’ll be able to play any of three running puzzles instead of having to beat each puzzle consecutively. We know this will make a lot of people happy.

And last, we’ve made the iPod integration more intuitive. If your music is playing when you open the app, Aqueduct won’t cut it off. This works really well on all devices.

Where do you think Kieffer Bros. will be in 5 years time?

We want to continue to make games that stretch the mind and games that cause people to smile. We’d also like to set up a physical studio soon. The flexibility of working from home is nice, but having a creative space dedicated to making games is becoming more and more alluring. We’ll also be looking for other obsessive game makers to join the team. There are too many games we’d like to make and too few hands on deck.

Thanks Michael! If you haven’t bought Aqueduct yet, what are you waiting for?

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