Interview: Philip Chu; They Don't Make Em Like They Used To

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By: Hillel Fuld

This week’s interview is with an “old school” developer in the positive sense of the word. We are not talking a 15 year old kid, who learned how to develop for iPhone last month, we are talking a hardcore developer, who has been at it for, as he puts it, “a couple of decades”. The sign of a truly talented developer, is the ability to adapt one’s self to the latest technologies, which is exactly what Philip Chu did. Here is the interview.

1. Please tell us your name and a little bit about yourself.

“My name is Phil Chu, although my handle is “technicat” on various web sites, including AppBoy. Technicat is also the name of my consulting firm, Technicat, LLC and web site. After twelve jobs in twelve years I finally concluded I might be better suited for self-employment, and so far that’s worked out. I’ve been working on various contracts over the past seven years, mostly in game development. Darkwatch, a vampire western shooter on the PS/2 and XBox, was probably the highest profile one. There was a PC game called Tech Deck: Bare Knuckle Grind that was kind of cool – the game CD’s were bundled with the Tech Deck figures. Right now I’m doing some work on Avatar Reality’s Blue Mars virtual world (check it out on YouTube, there’s some nice machinima).”


2. How long have you been developing?

“I’m just getting old enough to be bothered by that question, but here goes – I graduated from MIT in 1988 so I’ve been a professional software developer for two decades, but I really learned to program in high school. I first played around with a TRS-80 and a Commodore PET but didn’t really get it (I even asked someone “what can you do with a computer?”), but then my family relocated to Iowa in mid-semester, and I had time to kill in the library, where they had an Apple II.

I read the manual and saw how to draw graphics with Applesoft BASIC and at that moment it just clicked. And then my Dad got an Apple II at home, and I wrote a bunch of programs for fun, even some machine language programs that were really fast but didn’t quite work correctly. It paid off monetarily in getting me some part time programming work on educational software at the University of Iowa, but I didn’t make any money off my own programs, although I found one was pirated ( a schoolmate handed me a floppy disc of pirated games, and mine was on it!).

Since then, I moved on to “professional” platforms like Lisp machines and Unix workstations and worked in a whole bunch of unrelated areas, like submarine battle simulation and software for the Hubble Space Telescope (my coolest work award ever is a poster from the Hubble Repair mission with a patch that was flown on the shuttle). But now, twenty five years later, I’m back programming little games on an Apple platform – seems like I’ve come full circle!”


3. On what mobile platforms do you develop?

“For a while, I dabbled in J2ME development but never found a convenient way to self-publish. So a few years ago I found the Unity engine and thought that fit some of my other development criteria – develop and run on the Mac, my preferred development platform, and publish in a web browser. They support Windows, too, of course, but it was one of those I-love-it-when-a-plan-comes-together moments when they introduced iPhone support. Within days, I was able to move some of my web minigames onto the iPhone (I still have them on the App Store as free apps). For now, the iPhone is the only mobile device I target, but there’ve been murmurings on the Unity forum about support for other mobile devices, so whatever those devices turn out to be, I’ll be able to move my stuff there.”


4. Please tell us about your latest app.

“My latest app is actually a series of apps. HyperBowl Classic is the first lane from a 3D bowling game originally developed by Hyper Entertainment, and HyperBowl Rome is the second. Each lane is set in a different fantasy environment. I’m not sure how to describe the Classic lane – it’s some sort of futuristic or sci-fi world, while the Rome lane is, as you might expect, ancient Rome. The game debuted at the Sony Metreon nearly ten years ago as an attraction game set up kind of like a real bowling lane. The display was on a tall projection screen and you controlled the bowling ball with a real bowling ball that acted as a huge trackball. You really had to put your weight into it when bowling on a rocking ship or up the hills of San Francisco (two lanes that I’m still working on). Part of the fun was watching the unflattering jiggly motions of your fellow players.”

On the iPhone, I’m trying to replicate that attraction game experience as much as possible. The vertical orientation of the iPhone screen is pretty close to the aspect ratio of the original projector screen, and you control the ball by swiping on the touch screen, which I think is a reasonable emulation of the original ball controller. I’ve received the most enthusiastic reviews from people who played the original game or who are still playing it at Dave and Buster’s (there are a couple of D&B’s here in Orange County I go to regularly to verify that the iPhone version matches the original – you can’t beat the game business for fun research!) The biggest complaint I get is that I haven’t delivered the remaining four lanes, yet, but I’m working on it! I felt it was better to release each lane as soon as I could rather than wait for the entire set. The final two (Tokyo and San Francisco) in particular are pretty huge for the iPhone, so I’m not sure about them. But whenever I have the final tally I’ll introduce a “complete” app that of course will be priced more than $.99, and I’ll start adding iPhone-ish features like one of the social gaming networks (Agon Online, Scoreloop, OpenFeint…)

In the meantime, I started a seasonal promotion with the charity Get Well Gamers, , which provides video games to hospitalized children to assist in pain management. It’s a great idea, and they’re based here in my town, Huntingon Beach, so I try to donate at least a little every year. For this promotion, running at least until January, 30% of the HyperBowl proceeds from the App Store will go to Get Well Gamers. That’s after Apple’s cut, so for each $.99 HyperBowl sale, I’ll get about $.70, and $.21 will go to GWG. If that works out, I may try similar promotions with various other charities next year.


5. What inspired you to develop this app?

“Well, to make a long story long, after the aforementioned government work, I moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles to work in computer graphics in the mid-nineties, coincidentally on a CG tool that was used to make many video games. But then for some reason I thought I should do something “useful” and moved to Silicon Valley. That turned out alright since I did end up working on one of the first mobile Internet portals at a company called Neomar, which wrote a web browser for the Blackberry (the original pager-sized ones). That confirmed my interest in software for mobile consumer devices, but Neomar turned to the corporate market and I moved back to LA to work for Hyper Entertainment, where I had friends who developed HyperBowl. I took over for the original lead programmer and worked on various upgrades, like a French version for a customer in Montreal (I think it was Jillian’s), an arcade version for, well, arcades, etc. I moved on to a console project at another company, but then when I started using the Unity engine, I thought, hey, I think I can modernize that old HyperBowl game by moving onto Unity, then I have the option of a Mac/PC desktop version, a web version, even WiiWare. Hyper Entertainment did develop a PC version of the game – one version was released as part of Microsoft’s Plus! Pack and another was sold directly by Hyper, but they stopped actively developing it after Vista came out. They were gracious enough to give me a license for further development, and that deal was finalized just as Unity iPhone came out. That was about a year ago – it took about six months to figure out how to get the old assets into the new engine and recreate the game logic, pare it down or optimize it for the iPhone, etc. I also have the Classic lane running as a web player on where you can find other HyperBowl information like the Facebook page and my other attempts at marketing.”

6. Where do you see the mobile industry 5 years down the road?

“My friends who worked with me on the original HyperBowl agree it looks ancient, but that game is only ten years old! So it’s hard to predict five years down the road, but the current trend seems to show everyone taking a cue from Apple – big touch screens, running an App Store (a big improvement over letting the carriers handle it), developer self-publishing – overall, despite complaints about Apple, the mobile dev situation has become a lot more accessible for indie developers and self-publishers. And of course, the hardware is just getting better and better, witness the 3G-S improvement. But with the big players getting into the iPhone business and 100,000 apps on the App Store, it might be turning into the worst of both worlds – you’ll be crowded out by the masses and steamrolled by the big marketing budgets. I don’t want to sound too negative, but…don’t quite your day job.”


7. Please tell us your impressions on the various mobile platforms from a developer’s perspective. Please include iPhone, Android, BlackBerry, Symbian, and Windows Mobile.

“I’m most familiar with the iPhone, and I like a lot of the technological underpinnings, such as the (MacOSX-derived) iPhone OS and OpenGL ES, even though that’s mostly shielded from me since I use the Unity middleware, and of course, the development is on a Mac. I hear good things about Android, including the Java programming, which is pretty appealing for Java programmers (and ex-Java programmers) like me. The Blackberry is my favorite phone – that’s the one I actually use – I have some loyalty to it from my Neomar days, but I do think it looks great (I have the Pearl) and is the best at email. And they use Java, but as I recall a bit differently from standard J2ME, so I found it cumbersome to use their SDK, plus at least before, they didn’t support development on a Mac.

I always thought Symbian sounded interesting, but I almost never see a Symbian phone and I have no idea what to do with a Symbian app once you’ve developed one. I hear it’s open-source now (is that right?) so that sounds interesting. Windows Mobile? Well, I gotta say, I’m not a big Windows fan – I feel like I’ve lost years of my life dealing with the Win32 API and DirectX, but practically speaking, a big reason I’m using the Unity engine is so I can concentrate on one tool and API and not have to deal with all the others, so as long as the middleware supports a platform, I’ll happily target it. I guess that also answers the previous question – with all these contenders trying to knock off Apple, you’ll see developers relying on middleware like Unity, Shiva and Torque to husband resources and also hedge their bets.”

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