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Flight Control lands Melbourne gaming studio a global hit

Rob Murray, head of Melbourne game developer Firemint and the company's smash iPhone App hit, Flight Control.

Rob Murray, head of Melbourne game developer Firemint and the company's smash iPhone App hit, Flight Control.

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April 22, 2009 - 11:47AM

When Australian gaming developer Robert Murray's 61-year-old mother-in-law became hooked on his latest project, he knew he had landed a hit.

His simple yet addictive idea for an air traffic control game that could be played on iPhones has since become a worldwide success and the phone's most popular paid application in 19 countries, including Australia and the lucrative US market.

Flight Control was meant to be a Christmas holiday project for Mr Murray, the chief executive officer of Melbourne-based gaming studio Firemint, and took only $50,000 and three weeks to develop.

Word of mouth, Twitter postings and a feature on the Apple website, spurred on the game's popularity until it topped the charts.

The game is one of thousands available for iPhone users to buy and download from Apple's App store, which is on the cusp of announcing its one billionth sale.

Mr Murray is reluctant to reveal how much Flight Control has netted Firemint before receiving official figures but to be top of the iPhone pops means downloads in the hundreds of thousands at $A1.19 a time, with Apple taking a 30 per cent cut.

Mr Murray said the game's success was due to its simplicity, which had made it appealing to not only his mother-in-law but parents as well as their children. He said it had opened up the widely untapped and "massive market" of females aged in their 30s.

"This has by far been the simplest game we've ever put out. I believe that's brought in those people who haven't played games before (and they) need to start at a pace that's really simple, really elegant and extremely addictive," he said.

Flight Control allows players to act as air traffic controllers and use their fingers to trace curved flight paths on the iPhone screen to land the aircraft safely on to runways.

As the seconds build so do the number of planes and helicopters, making it more difficult for players to avoid collisions.

Mr Murray said he had been thinking of an air traffic simulation game when the iPhone's touch screen allowed him to create a drawing game for the first time.

"It was actually that new feature of this finger touch that really made Flight Control possible. That's why it's a very original game, I don't think anything's been done like that in the past but then it couldn't really because there were no finger touch screens to really open up that idea," he said.

The game was somewhat of an accidental success but Mr Murray stresses it only came after years of research and development by his company, which has won numerous awards for other game titles since its establishment in 1999.

Firemint's offices, in the inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond, are the stuff of teenagers' working-life fantasies with a lime green room for staff to play games and electrical instruments for jamming sessions.

Pizza boxes lie stacked on desk tops, empty soft drink cans form pyramids on window sills, a staff lending library includes Star Wars picture books and sci-fi figurines adorn the latest model computers.

But despite the casual office atmosphere and relaxed dress code, serious business is under way and serious money being made.

The firm's 36 full-time workers, all but two male, are preparing for the launch of a racing simulator iPhone game called Real Racing which Mr Murray said would represent a much larger risk for the company.

He has no doubt that mobile phone games will take over from the world of Playstations, XBoxes and Wii.

"The fact that you can carry your iPhone or iPod Touch around with you and have good games digitally distributed that's the big bonus and we think mobile with digital distribution is the ultimate form of gaming," he said

"Personally I think it's going to cut the knees off lounge room entertainment in time just the same as the Walkman did for music in the lounge room ... eventually games on mobiles, if the user interface is sorted, then there's no reason they shouldn't grow to become the dominant entertainment form."

Mr Murray said research that has found the appeal of iPhone applications to be short-lived said more about the games than the medium.

"The reason people are downloading games and not using them is that most of them are not very compelling after the first use," he said.

"I think people wil keep coming back to games if they really like them."

Flight Control's price will soon rise to $2.99 but to keep people downloading, Firemint is planning updates that will allow players to post high scores online and save games.

Mr Murray said he was also considering creating a version for traditional lounge room gaming consoles.

For the record, Mr Murray's personal highest score is so far 117. The Firemint office record is enough to make fellow players gasp, but Mr Murray said the company was keeping it under wraps so as not to "demoralise" players.

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