My interview with Desert Golfing developer Justin Smith / by Alec Kubas-Meyer

Justin Smith (Twitter handle @manbearcar) is an interesting guy who makes interesting games. Most recently, he made the extremely interesting game Desert Golfing, available now for iOS and Android devices.

And it really is extremely interesting, both on the surface and below. I wrote about the game for The Daily Beast, and that article is the closest I have ever come to writing a piece of New Games Journalism, as defined by Kieron Gillen a decade ago. But there were some things about the game that I wasn't quite sure about, so I reached out to its developer and we set up a short email interview. (I generally dislike email interviews, but that is usually because marketing people sanitize them. Since this was just a one-man thing, that didn't seem so bad. Plus, I hate transcribing, so it worked out.)

I used a few of the things he said in my article, but he said a bunch of things that I found fascinating that I didn't use, so here is the interview, reproduced in full (plus a few of my own thoughts about his responses):

Was Desert Golfing always so minimalist, or were extras like menus, tutorials, scores, etc. playtested out?

As soon as I had the mechanic prototyped I knew that I wanted to do something minimalist. There were never any menus or other mechanics besides the ones that you see. I didn't do any playtesting. I knew what I wanted right from the start. It was a very quick development.

At what point did you know you'd hit something really, really cool?

When I went for a beer with my friend Chevy and he wouldn't give me my phone back. That's never happened before. But I still didn't think it would be all that successful. Or maybe it was when Jon Blow started tweeting about it. I nearly swooned.

How do you think it compares to Angry Birds, in the broader picture?

Angry Birds is a small fun game plus a lot of pointless garbage. It has such a great mechanic, possibly the greatest mechanic invented for touch screen games. But then they pile on all this annoying crap. Desert Golfing is the distillation of Angry Birds into its purest essence.

You charge $1.99 for the game, and have done that for several other games. Why $2 instead of $1?

It launched at $1, but when I realized it was getting popular I quietly raised it to $2. I don't have any concrete research to back me up, but I don't think twice as many people would buy it at $1 compared to $2. As a developer I feel comfortable and happy in the niche of developing games that give good value for 2 bucks.

[I really wanted to add this to the story, especially since I make specific reference to it taking guts to charge anything for a mobile game these days, but it didn't really fit with the overall tone of the article. It's a shame, because actually raising the price is kind of a badass thing to do.  Alec]

Are the levels randomly generated, or does everyone see the same progression? And if so, how were the levels designed in the first place?

The levels are randomly generated and everyone sees the same same progression. I'm terrible at explaining things, but random number generators aren't truly random. They start with a seed number, then generate a sequence of numbers based on that seed. So if everyone is given the same seed, everyone will see the same numbers, and therefore the same terrain.

I picked a seed that made the first few holes a gentle introduction, then let the math take care of the rest of the holes.

The non-desert items definitely seem to show up randomly (I saw a cactus at hole 316, water twice during the 400s, a rock at 537, and then haven't seen anything since). How is that decided? (And does everyone see those in the same configuration?)

Everyone sees the same rock and cactus. And also it's random. I thought it was fun to play with expectations. Why draw a cactus and write its code, only to show it once?

[I'm currently at hole 1759 and have yet to see another rock or cactus. I have seen water several times.  Alec]

I'm assuming you can track metrics of time played, holes played, strokes, etc. How many holes do people usually (mean or median) play for?

I don't actually track anything. I find metrics pointless and distracting. I get the sense that people are generally getting to around 1000 then stopping. Stopping there is a good idea. You can play further, but don't expect any great revelations.

[Despite this, I'm still expecting great revelations. Specifically, I'm waiting for that next cactus and/or rock.  Alec]

I've been told there are leaderboards on the iOS version (though don't appear to be on the Android version). How do they present themselves, and why is that platform specific?

It's only on iOS because I am a lazy human. I don't think the lack of leaderboards on Android detracts from the experience. I put a high score at hole 1000 into the iOS version just because I had the code lying around.

Are there any systems in place to retain possibly lapsed players? (For example: If someone hasn't played in a while and comes back, will they be more likely to see a cactus within a few holes?)

Desert Golfing isn't needy. If a player is lapsed, that's perfectly okay. I would be happy to recommend some other games they might enjoy.

[I did not ask what those games were.  Alec]

Where do you think Desert Golfing fits in the grand canon of mobile games? 

I sense that mobile games are starting to shed their skin, getting rid of all the dead things they carry around. Bouncy cartoon graphics, big pop-up numbers, coins, achievements, tutorials, primary colors, pointless congratulation. None of these things are interesting any more. We add them to our games because we see other developers add them to their games. I hope Desert Golfing is remembered as a game that helped lighten the cognitive load of playing (and developing) mobile games and bring back to the forefront the pleasure of flicking a ball around.

Any final thoughts?

Check out the twitter of @loaphn. It's spoiler heavy, but he's played and dissected Desert Golfing like no other. He sees faces in the sand dunes.