For a small, independent game developer, staying in business can sometimes feel like trying to control a car that’s careening around a curve at top speed, where one wrong shift could spell catastrophe.
Aaron San Filippo probably appreciates the metaphor. As the lead programmer of Flippfly, the Madison-based game development studio he co-owns with his graphic designer brother, Forest, he’s been behind that wheel since the siblings quit their full-time gigs to develop games full time in 2012.
Over the past two weeks, the curves have been smooth: Flippfly just released an enhanced PlayStation 4 port of Absolute Drift, a PC racing game developed by the one-man Canadian shop Funselektor Labs in 2015. Absolute Drift: Zen Edition is a top-down racer in which players have to navigate curve-tastic courses by mastering the art of — what else? — drifting.
“We were looking to grow and make our company sustainable,” explains San Filippo, who also manages the Madison Indies group that meets periodically at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery building. “And this project fell into our laps. Our previous game was an action-racing game, so it fit our portfolio.”
Flippfly’s best known for Race the Sun, a gorgeous and addictive 2013 app that puts you in the cockpit of a solar-powered starship, speeding through the obstacles of a minimalist landscape until an untimely crash (or the setting sun) spoils your run. Since debuting in the App Store, the game’s been successfully ported to almost every imaginable gaming platform. (Except Android phones — and San Filippo recently hired a full-time programmer to help make that a reality, as well as work on other projects.)
While Race the Sun has been, as San Filippo puts it, "paying the bills for the last three years,” Flippfly’s left turn into the porting business is a common tactic used by game developers to shore up their work portfolios, make key industry connections and keep the money flowing. Madison’s Human Head Studios, for instance, has made ports a regular piece of its project stable over the company’s two-plus decade history.
“Porting is one of those types of jobs where it makes sense to outsource,” says San Filippo. “It’s one of the few areas in game development where you can do it all and make a profit. The rest is volatile and risky.”
Flippfly added a host of new features to the port of Absolute Drift, including a set of five night-themed tracks, event challenges for each of the game’s tracks, and drift lines that challenge the player to complete a perfect drift.
But porting the game wasn’t a complete drive in the drift-free park. Sony’s certification process for the PlayStation Store is sometimes fraught with unexpected obstacles for developers — in this case, a minor mistake in the game’s final build created a problem, resulting in the PlayStation 4 release date slipping to this week. Learning how the process works has been invaluable, says San Filippo, and has come with added benefits. Buyers who surf to the PlayStation Store to buy Absolute Drift: Zen Edition will see it listed as a Flippfly game, not a FunSelektor game. Flippfly’s handling the port’s PR and marketing as well as the technical support.
“Ideally, we’d like to be spending our time working on our own games,” says San Filippo. “If one of our games didn’t do so well, we’d like to have port work like this in our back pocket.”
Flippfly’s next game is an iOS game called Hexarden, a hexagon-based puzzle/gardening game that San Filippo’s hoping to have ready for release sometime next year. During its development, he engaged in a little work-swapping with friend and fellow game developer Joel McDonald, the man who gave us the zen-like app Prune. San Filippo has greater skill at code optimization, while McDonald, who left Madison for the West Coast earlier this year, is better at game design.
“We’ve honed in on our core mechanic,” says San Filippo of Hexarden. “In the end, though, the marketplace is competitive enough right now that we feel that we need to execute a really quality product if we want to survive long term.”
Absolute Drift: Zen Edition is available on the PlayStation Store and on Steam for $11.99