Interview with Brass Monkey Developer, Chris Allen
Brass Monkey is a unique service for Android users; it allows you to play games on any web browser while turning your Android phone or tablet into the controller. The goal is to create the console experience using the things you presumably already have; an Android device and a computer or other web browser. Currently this service is still in Beta, but Brass Monkey was featured at the Intel booth at GDC recently. We had a chance to chat with Brass Monkey’s main boss man, Chris Allen to talk about the service, the backstory of Brass Monkey, how working with the Android OS is, and the possible future of Android gaming.
GameWoof: Hey Chris, thanks for taking the time to talk to us about playBrassMonkey.com. For folks who aren’t familiar with what Brass Monkey is, explain it a bit in your own words.
Chris Allen: Right, so Brass Monkey is a video game system that uses your smartphone as a game controller and a browser. It’s got a lot of the same functionality of a game console, but doesn’t require proprietary hardware. Basically the philosophy is that we are able to use the devices and computers that we already own to create a game console experience, which is in many respects much like the Wii U.
I also caution calling it truly a “game controller”, as in many ways the controller is just a second screen but it can act as a controller to the larger screen.
GW: Does this work with just PC’s paired with Phones or Tablets?
CA: Yes, it does work paired over wifi to any screen that supports a web browser. So for some of the games you can control, let’s say, your Android tablet using your Android phone, or a Smart TV. There are some limitations with those setups though. An Android tablet doesn’t support Unity Web Player games.
GW: So the prefered set up would be a PC and a phone or tablet?
CA: Either a PC or Mac. Even more ideally a PC connected to your TV via HDMI.
GW: Where did the idea for this come about? Everyone seems to rush to want to make a console and you guys have essentially cut out the middleman here…
CA: So the idea started out of my other company Infrared5 (http://infrared5.com). One of our developers was experimenting with remote control helicopters and getting those to be controlled via his iPhone. Keep in mind, this was in 2009, so this was pretty innovative stuff.
Anyway, I would periodically check in with him because I thought it was such a cool idea. Trevor, the developer, would tell me that he had crashed his helicopter again, stalling the project. So I asked him “Why don’t you just create an emulator? That way you don’t have to worry about crashing them.” That became a real aha moment.
GW: And probably a lot cheaper!
CA: Pretty much. Because when you start to think about it, an emulator for a helicopter flying, is basically a game. I mean, that’s a flight simulator. So we started experimenting further with the concept and managed to get it working well. About the same time, Infared5 was building a game for LucasArts called Star Wars Trench Run for iPhone. We were also tasked with creating a browser version of that same game for Starwars.com. What we found out is that the controls on the web game really, really sucked.
GW: Did that Star Wars game ever make it to Android?
CA: No, it didn’t. This was the early days of the iPhone. I think we were targeting the iPhone 3 at the time. So we ended up making Trench Run work by using the iPhone app to control the browser version. Note: It wasn’t even called iOS back then.
GW: Jeez, the days of old. What neanderthals we were…
CA: (laughs) So true. We didn’t even have tablets. It’s funny to think of 2010 as way back then, but in terms of technology, it’s amazing how fast things change. Anyways, that’s the way it started.
GW: Who are the rest of the squad behind Brass Monkey and how did you assemble your cast of super heroes?
CA: Well, as I mentioned, it started from Infared5, which is a work-for-hire form that does really innovative stuff for their clients. My wife and fellow co-founder Rebecca Allen ended up taking over as CEO there when I moved on to start up Brass Monkey. We have one other business partner and co-founder, Dominick Accattato who stayed on as CTO at Infared5. But both of them also play a role in Brass Monkey. We also acquired another company doing something similar to us called Emotely. That was one guy, Francois Laberge, who ended up coming on with Brass Monkey as CTO. Now we’ve got other guys working with us like Mike Kanarek, our product manager. He does all the hard work of finding awesome games for our system and making the product better. He’s also darn good at spreadsheets.
GW: Spreadsheet skills are really important!
CA: (Laughs) He actually makes spreadsheets seem fun, just because he’s so fluid with him, but its a great skill to have when dealing with investor types. I’m sure he will appreciate that in this interview. We also have two other core developers on Brass Monkey; Andy Shaules and Zach Kamsler. Those guys are really making all the magic happen. That and we continue to get help from the Infared5 side when needed. Oh, and Roger Sanford is our CMO based out of Silicon Valley. He helps hook up the deals and is a great overall resource for the team.
GW: Where do the games come from?
CA: We offer free SDKs for HTML5, Flash and Unity are available for download right off of our site. So a lot of times we just have someone approach us with a finished game saying they want to put it up on PlayBrassMonkey.com. Most of the time it’s Mike going out there and talking to folks and getting them excited about the platform. We strive to be super Indie friendly. We like having all these games you wouldn’t normally find on a typical game console. Games like Mario Von Rickenbach’s Rakete or FlippFly’s game Race the Sun. Rakete is a five player Lunar Lander style game where everyone has a control of just one truster on the ship and you have to work together to land it. That isn’t something that would work on a typical game console. Plus, its so ridiculously fun to play.
GW: Are these titles exclusive to Brass Monkey, or are developers free to release them on Android, iOS or other platforms?
CA: We really don’t force exclusives at the moment. If and when we do decide to do that, we want to make sure its really friendly terms for the game developers. After all, they are our life blood. Without them, were wouldn’t be much point to having this cool tech.
GW: I’ve been perusing the game library on PlayBrassMonkey.com and I’ve noticed some of the games are pay to play. Do all games cost the same?
CA: Right now they do. But that’s just because its early in our development. All games are the equivalent of 99 cents. But as we start to bring on bigger developers with more intensive games, we will see many other prices.
GW: The apps are paid for using an in house monetary system?
CA: Right, its a lot like the app stores, like Steam or Xbox Live Arcade. We are going to be releasing a subscription service soon as well. So you can get access to the current paid games for a monthly fee.
GW: Now, the controller design, how is that developed. I’ve noticed each game as their own unique design and art. Who develops that?
CA: The game developers get to decide how they want it to look and can change out the graphics and inputs at runtime. It’s all part of our SDK. We are currently working on some really cool stuff that’s going to take this a bit further. Basically, we are replicating the same functionality as the WiiU; streaming live video to the phone at runtime. So, something like a rear view mirror in a driving game will be displayed on the phone for example.
Another thing we are super excited to start playing with is the Google Glass. I’m supposed to get one of those soon and our brains are spinning with the possibilities of combining that peripheral with our SDK. Imagine, heads up displays in the Glass while playing and looking at the larger screen with the phone in your hand. That and being able to track points on the screen with other cool AR stuff.
GW: Google Glass gaming! I’m not going to lie, I’m stupidly excited for the Google Glass. If I had the money…
CA: It just gets sick! People keep talking about multi-screen gaming and I’m not even sure what to call this.
GW: What is Brass Monkey’s vision to grow the user base?
CA: The key to growing is based on the game itself. People don’t get a gaming system just to have this cool setup; they get it for the games. So we plan on really pushing that and bringing on killer next generation games that play well on Brass Monkey. Things that wouldn’t be possible with any other system. So with that, we need to go after some of the big guys to get there. I might add that having guys like you doing interviews like this helps as well. People just need to find out about us.
GW: Aww thanks! Anyone specific you’re targeting?
CA: I can’t tell you that! Ha! No seriously, we aren’t being that elusive really. There are some great games out there and it’s a combination of indies and established studious.
GW: Do you see things like the OUYA or the GameStick as competition and how do you feel what you’re doing is different?
CA: Yeah, sure, they are competitors, but we want them to succeed too. Really our approach is much more like being the Hulu or Netflix of video games. We aren’t focused on the hardware, its utilizing other hardware to get the experience. So technically, our still will run great on an OUYA. We might very well release an app for that thing to being our games onto that device. With that said, we are looking into making out own mini console, because many of our customers are looking for an easy way to get the games on their TV. If we can provide that in an easy package, we should listen to them and provide it.
GW: As of right now, what is the Brass Monkey’s user base?
CA: It’s made up of some great people! HA! Couldn’t resist. But we are seeing a huge number of Android players actually. We are at about 300K install or so.
GW: Well that’s because Android users are great people.
CA: Yeah, no doubt! But, yeah, were at 300K from 10k from back in October. So we are seeing pretty fast growth.
GW: That’s some impressive growth.
CA: In terms of the typical player, we get a lot of people between 25 to 35 years old, but were also popular with teens who use iPod touch. It’s actually a pretty wide spectrum.
GW: Going back to the games, for those who haven’t gotten a chance to try out this service yet, tell us about some of your favorites.
CA: Oh man, that’s like asking me to pick a favorite child! But, I will highlight some. So, I already mentioned Race the Sun and Rakete. I definitely recommend playing Rakete with some friends. Monkey Golf is still a popular game on the system. Really any of Daniel Sun’s games are awesome too.
GW: Monkey Golf was my favorite from the games I tried out.
CA: Culmination and Samurai Autumn, those are from Daniel. They have great graphics and killer stuff. Anyways, any of those games I mentioned are free. As far as paid games, you can’t go wrong with Nitromes games. Try Swindler or Swindler 2, for example. Actually just thinking about that question makes me realize how much great content we have on Brass Monkey.
GW: Now, I have to ask about the name, Brass Monkey. What’s the meaning behind the name? Other than the drink and the infamous Beastie Boys song.
CA: Haha, so the name was simply a code name; we got tired of calling it project iPhone Remote. One of our developers suggested this website that would generate a code name. It had three drop down menus. So on this site, we selected “Metal”, “Animal” and something else I can’t even remember anymore.
GW: Yeah, not so sure iPhone Remote would’ve worked with the Android user base.
CA: Probably not. No. Anyways, this site generated something like Silver Camel Texas. So while we couldn’t have the product name sound like a strip club, we immediately though “Metal” + “Animal” and thought “Brass Monkey”! A poor man’s mimosa, sure why the heck not. But people liked the name Brass Monkey and it just kind of stuck. We finally actually got up to the top in Google search, which took a while.
GW: So Chris, what does the future hold for Brass Monkey?
CA: Well, we are shooting for being the dominate next generation video games and entertainment system, but one that utilizes peripherals like Google Glass, your implanted chip in your head, or whatever, to create that experience.
GW: One more question before we wrap things up. Android: Is it that difficult to develop for?
CA: Oh, it’s easy, it’s awesome. Especially when compared to iOS. No provision files, enough said right there. Oh, and there isn’t the long approval process that there is with Apple. There’s a lot of fragmentation across Android devices, but you tend to get use to the ways of dealing with that.
GW: Well, Chris, thanks a lot for your time!
CA: Thanks man!
You can check out Brass Monkey at www.PlayBrassMonkey.com and find the app to download below.