Interview: Lost Portal's Mike Camilli

By Nick Vigdahl 16 Feb 2017 12

Lost Portal is a single-player, premium, collectible-card game and one of Nick's favorite games of 2016. It combines a Magic: The Gathering like deck building and spell slinging experience with an RPG adventure and the result is very compelling gameplay. You can read much more about the game in our review from last year.

Nick caught up with Mike Camilli, the developer of Lost Portal, and talked with him about the game, his experience making it, and what he's working on now.

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Pocket Tactics: Hey Mike, welcome and thanks for agreeing to this interview. Lost Portal is great, thanks for making it! Can you believe it's been in the App Store for almost a year now?

Mike Camilli: Hi Nick, thank you for having me. I appreciate the positive support you've given me and Lost Portal. It really is hard to believe it has been almost a year since I released version 1.0. The first several months were particularly crazy as I tried to address players' feedback and make Lost Portal easier to pick up and play. Once I got through some of that, it was much more enjoyable focusing on adding new features and content.

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Pocket Tactics: You know I never thought about it until you said that, but a game's version history is almost like a timeline of the developer's effort after launch. I just looked up Lost Portal's and you had near weekly releases for the first couple months where you tweaked a lot of quality-of-life stuff, added a manual, made the app universal, and so on. Then by the end of March and into April your updates spread out a bit more and you're doing the fun stuff like releasing more cards and bosses, upping the level cap, and adding other new features. Looks like a lot of work for sure! Is game development more of a hobby or a main gig for you? What got you into it?

Mike Camilli: I am a software engineer with a day job, so game development is a hobby for me. I've always had an interest in creating games, going back to my first computer, a TI-994/A. When I wasn't playing Tunnels of Doom, I was trying to create games in Basic. Not the greatest development environment looking back. Fast forward to when I got my first iPhone and started playing games like Orions and Sword & Poker. I decided I could create a game like that, got a MacBook, downloaded Xcode and started learning.

Pocket Tactics: Speaking of influences, you've obviously played some Magic: The Gathering in your day. One of my favorite things about Lost Portal is that it scratches the same deck building and card slinging itches as Magic and other CCGs without the unending need to buy booster packs. Did you set out to create a premium variation on Magic? What other games influenced your design process?

Mike Camilli: I've played Magic: The Gathering since Revised (third edition) and I still play with my kids as well as with friends online on Friday nights. It is a heavy influence in my thinking of CCG's. When thinking of creating a card game, I definitely thought back to my love of the Microprose PC game MTG: Duels of the Planeswalkers, generally known as Shandalar. That game also starts you with a basic deck that you slowly upgrade as you find and win new cards. All of the cards are available in the game, including powerful cards like Black Lotus, which most of us had no other way to play. That model appeals to me as a game player and definitely influenced my decision to stay with a premium model. The RPG elements of the game design certainly draw from my playing games such as Baldur's Gate, World of Warcraft, Diablo and plenty of others.

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Pocket Tactics: Well, thanks for keeping it premium, Mike. We certainly appreciate it around these parts. It's fairly unique for a CCG, let alone a mobile one, and a huge selling point for your game from my perspective. I also dig the RPG narrative that holds together the card game. That combo reminds me a lot of Dream Quest and Card City Nights, which are also permanent fixtures on my phone. Have you played those?

Mike Camilli: Over the course of developing Lost Portal, I had to stop playing as many games as I once did. There is only so much spare time and Lost Portal consumed much of it. After Lost Portal was released, I started seeing some comparisons, so I did download games like Dream Quest and Card City Nights to see for myself. Dream Quest definitely pulled me in with its roguelike aspects. I've only recently downloaded Card City Nights so I haven't given it much of a chance yet, but I can definitely see the similarities. I have also taken a look at other card games that have done well, like Solitarica, Card Crawl, Paperback, Sentinels and Guild of Dungeoneering. Some amazing card games there. During development I did take notice of SolForge, Shadow Era and Hearthstone, of course. It was not a great feeling seeing Blizzard decide to release a mobile game so similar to what I had been working on for quite some time. I was happy that I had decided to focus on a solo experience that is quite different from what they provide.

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Pocket Tactics: You just rattled off many of my favorite mobile titles from the past couple years, so that's a great place to start getting caught back up. And yes, I don't see how anybody, let alone an indie dev, could hope to compete with Hearthstone head to head so good call on the single-player focus. It sounds like you've been working on Lost Portal for quite some time. When did you start on it? Has it been a solo project or do you have help?

Mike Camilli: I had a functional prototype of Lost Portal way back in 2011. It has indeed been a solo project, although I did get feedback from family and friends, who helped with testing. I picked a game that requires a lot of artwork, which took a long time to pull together. I licensed and commissioned artwork from a number of amazing artists, and at some point, I really connected with one artist, Marc Whisnant. He helped me beyond card artwork, working on the design of the cards and each screen, enemies, the backgrounds, dungeon tiles, icons, etc.

Pocket Tactics: The artwork in Lost Portal is very cool, so hat's off to Marc and your other artists. So six years on Lost Portal...that's the age of a first grader. And counting, right? I understand you're working on an expansion for the game. What can you tell us about that?

Mike Camilli: Yes, I am actively working on Lost Portal's first expansion! Currently, this includes 29 new cards, roughly half of which are Avatar cards that can be won off of new enemies. The others are new uncommons, rares and ultra-rares that can be found throughout the game. In addition to new cards, the expansion includes a new town to explore, with new dungeons surrounding it. I am currently testing out the new cards and new enemies, tuning the AI and balancing the cards.

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Pocket Tactics: Nice! I'm sure longtime players will be happy to hear there's new content on the way for their favorite characters to tackle. Do you have a name for the expansion? Have you decided on pricing, and any predictions as to when it'll be ready to go?

Mike Camilli: I haven't settled on a name for the expansion yet, but once I get a story in place, I'll do that. I do want the expansion to be a good value for players, so I expect to keep the price fairly low. As for release timing, I believe I am tracking to release by the end of March or early April.

Pocket Tactics: We'll absolutely be on the lookout for that. So what's next for you after this expansion? More Lost Portal goodies, maybe another game?

Mike Camilli: I have started to do some prototyping for a new card game that I am currently calling Star Portal. As you can guess, it will be science fiction based and will have similarities to Lost Portal, but I do plan to include more RPG elements. For example, you will be able to pick a race and class to start with, and that will help define your abilities and the cards that you can add to your deck. I am hoping to allow you to control a squad of up to four players as you explore the surface of different planets.

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Pocket Tactics: I like that idea of pulling in more RPG elements and taking a squad-oriented approach. I'm curious about how you will approach Star Portal given what you know now and your experiences with having an active game on the App Store. What are some of your biggest lessons learned?

Mike Camilli: I think the biggest lesson for me is to make sure the game is as polished as I can make it and that it is easy to pick up and learn. That first impression can be critical to success in the App Store. I was fortunate that Lost Portal was well received by the community and that gave me time to improve and expand it over this past year. I plan to use TestFlight this time and get some of that valuable feedback from the community before it goes live.

I also learned that the customers for Lost Portal are very evenly split between iPhone and iPad, so it is important for the new game to support both with a universal app. I initially developed Lost Portal for the iPhone and quickly realized I should add iPad support. Many developers do it the other way around, but I've found the game doesn't always scale down well. It was a design challenge for me right from the start to make sure Lost Portal looked good and was easy to play on the iPhone.

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Pocket Tactics: Yeah, TestFlight seems like a must these days for mobile games. You can also build a loyal following by just listening and responding to feedback from gamers who have already bought in, so to speak. It sounds like you've come away with that regardless given all the feedback and support you've gotten for Lost Portal. Did you ever think that'd be the case sitting in front of your prototype back in 2011?

Mike Camilli: I really had no appreciation for that aspect of game development back in 2011. I was just having fun creating a card game and learning about xCode and new programming languages. There is no question that once I engaged with the community it helped improve Lost Portal and fill in the gaps that I had missed.

Pocket Tactics: Absolutely. Alright Mike, I really appreciate you taking the time to have this conversation. I love seeing indie developers making great games and finding success with them. I can't wait to check out the Lost Portal expansion in the near future and Star Portal in the (hopefully not too) distant future. Do you mind answering some questions from our readers in the comments?

Mike Camilli: Thank you for having me, Nick. I'd be happy to answer any questions from your readers.

Thanks again to Mike Camilli for joining us. Mike was kind enough to not only share his time but to give us some promo codes for Lost Portal, so look out for another giveaway soon. If you don't score a code (or don't want to wait), you can and absolutely should pick up Lost Portal from the App Store. And if you've got further questions for Mike, feel free to post a comment below. 

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