Interview with Elias Pietilä, Award-Winning iPhone Student Developer


labyrinth-promoElias Pietilä is a 23-year-old full-time student at the Helsinki University of Technology, although he says he seldom goes there. Most of his time is spent at an iPhone consulting company called Qvik, although he’s not a paid employee.  Earlier this week, at the Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple awarded Pietilä  the Apple Design Award for Best iPhone Student App for Wooden Labyrinth 3D.

Are you a geek?

I do not consider myself a geek, but spend most every waking minute in front of a computer. My shrink thinks I am schizophrenic, but we strongly disagree.

But you are a student, right?

I’m actually not a student. I just lied so that I could enter the student category of the Apple Design Awards. Kidding. I'm on track to become a master of science in telecom technologies at Helsinki University of Technology. It's now my fifth year, but I've completed about three-years' worth of studies. Don't tell my parents, but I've pretty much skipped school for the past 2 years due to work.

The two iPhone games I've developed have opened many doors. I've started Qvik with some friends from the university. Thanks to Pajatzo's domination on the Finnish App Store--the best selling app for over a month--there are now quite a few orders for custom software. In the future, I'd wish to see the company grow and flourish, but to still have time for my own side-projects--mainly games.

Why did you decide to develop for the iPhone?

I've been a Mac user since '96, and I've always wanted to be able to do my own software. However, I had never programmed before the compulsory beginner classes I took at my university. I completed the basics course for Java and C++ before applying for work as a prototyping engineer at Digia. I had never seen Actionscript before, but coding it would be my job in the company. After a little over a year at Digia the iPhone SDK was launched and I knew I had to give it a shot. I took a leave and started coding Pajatzo--later I quit to complete Wooden Labyrinth 3D. Based on the horror stories I heard about Symbian development while working at Digia, the choice of platform was easy.

Why did you decide to create a Labyrinth game--what was the programming challenge?

Ahh, Labyrinth versus Wooden Labyrinth 3D. I'm not going to pretend I didn't know of Labyrinth when working on WL3D. I did, and I loved the game. I just wanted it to have 3D walls, Wii-head tracking style. I read a guide by Pangea software on how to make stereo games using those fancy goggles. I figured it could be a close enough way to implement the perspective distortion. So I made a demo. After a few days I had a labyrinth that looked way cooler than Labyrinth. Now there was a dilemma, complete the game and be deemed a copy cat, or abandon the promising start. I decided to complete the game.

Sure it was kind of scary. Going head to head against one of the biggest names in iPhone gaming. Many of my friends who do not own an iPhone, think Labyrinth comes built-in--even some of who have the phone still do! On top of that, the success of Labyrinth has saturated around 33 percent of all the iDevices in the world. That's a tough market to conquer.

Nevertheless, Wooden Labyrinth 3D and its free version have shipped close to 2 million copies combined--a great huge majority are free. With the cool design and plentiful features I truly feel our version is now the premium labyrinth game on the App Store. It's heart-warming that someone else also sees the extra effort that went into making WL3D the seamless experience it is. Winning the ADA is pretty much the highest level of recognition Apple has to offer, though I wouldn't mind a feature on App Store--something that WL3D has yet to see.

Do you have any features you plan to implement with the release of OS 3.0 SDK?

The new feature set isn't perhaps the most advantageous for WL3D, but there are some new concepts on the drawing board that might utilize them.

How can you take a game, that is already well polished, and make it even better?

In the case of WL3D it was rather obvious what was missing from the competing products. The physics and game play were nailed, but the experience was lacking. It was just a matter of adding every "Hey, that would be cool" thing that was feasible.

What do you think about Apple's rejection/acceptance policy? Is it clear what you have to do to get an app into the store as quickly and smoothly as possible?

I've had my share of headache with rejected updates. The new Lite versions went through four iterations before making it onto the store. I think the policy with demo versions is especially vague and in some cases, detrimental to the customer. It is not allowed to show what you get in the full edition, which is counter-intuitive, at least to me. However, the biggest problem is bug fixes. I shipped a version that caused every updating device to crash--perpetually and on start-up--yay for beta testing, right?. The fix appeared on the store almost two weeks later thanks to the acceptance delay. There should really be a way for small tweaks to get online faster.

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  • Chris

    It's just a _beautiful_ game. I'm not much of a gamer but wl3d is simply overwhelming! It brought back my memories playing with the real thing centuries ago, it's just 1000 times better (you dont lose the ball, for instance...)
    My best regards from Mexico to Finland!

  • Chris

    PD: I 'lll be looking for more of your apps. You are my idol and app hero!!!!!