RiverMan Media started creating its first game, Cash Cow, about four years ago for the PC. Within the next few weeks, we plan to release the much expanded and improved Cash Cow for the iPhone. [Update: Cash Cow was released for iPhone in October of 2009 and iPad in April of 2010.] The new Cash Cow is far more than just a port. Over the last few years, we’ve been listening carefully to reviews and player feedback. We’ve taken all of the suggestions to heart in making our latest game, and we hope that it will be just what new and former Cash Cow players are looking for. Read on to learn about what’s new in Cash Cow, and how we combined suggestions from players with our own ideas to make a game that we think players will really enjoy.

I’ll start with a summary of the Cash Cow series and its history. Then I’ll discuss why we chose to remake the new version on the iPhone. Finally, I detail each of the major changes and improvements from the PC version to the iPhone version.

A Brief History of Cash Cow PC

Cash Cow for the PC was our company’s first game. We had heard that the casual PC game market was a good place for small developers, so we decided that we would try to release our first game on one of the casual PC game portals. Meanwhile, our good friend and fellow game designer Tim Winsky had created a prototype of a coin-matching puzzle game that we thought would be a simple but fun idea to make. At the same time, another close friend of ours and fellow game maker Abe Pralle had been developing a PC game engine called Plasmacore. Armed with new technology and a simple game idea, we set out to bring a new puzzle game to the PC.

(Update: Tim wrote a cool article on the early development of Cash Cow. Definitely worth a read!)

The Game That Almost Wasn’t

About 8 months later, we finished a beta version of Cash Cow. The whole game could be summed up as 25 levels, 3 powerups, and an endless mode (yeah… we were still pretty new to commercial game design). Even though the content was fairly sparse, it was still a polished game with an intuitive concept, and one of the larger casual PC portals was interested. They gave us a long list of changes, but there were talks of a multi-game contract. During this time, we came up with the idea of gold nuggets to add variety, put in a couple more powerups, and designed a farm that builds up between levels to fill out the “metagame” (their term).

A couple months of very hard work later, we sent Cash Cow back to the casual game distributor who had given us the list of changes, only to have it rejected, and all talk of a multi-game contract lost. We couldn’t believe it. We were counting on them and they built our hopes up, only to shoot them down after we had invested a lot more time into the game. Disappointed but not yet defeated, we found another casual PC game portal that did take the game, Big Fish Games, and we finally saw our work pay off.

The Next 4 Years, In 4 Sentences

We were really happy with Cash Cow’s release thanks to the support of Big Fish Games, at least considering that it was our very first attempt. But even though Cash Cow was well received by players, player comments and review sites helped us see that the game could certainly stand to use improvement. At the time, we had other games that we wanted to make, so we kept all of these suggestions in mind but let Cash Cow mature a little longer. A few years and a couple games later, we were ready to give Cash Cow another shot, this time on the iPhone.

A New Cash Cow on a New Platform

Just like we thought that the original Cash Cow would be great for our first PC game, we decided that the new Cash Cow would be perfect for our first iPhone game. It seemed like such a natural transition. There were a lot of reasons that we thought that Cash Cow would benefit from the move to iPhone far more than a typical port.

Why the iPhone?

We liked that the iPhone’s touch screen would let players drag their finger across the coins to make a combination, which felt even better than using a mouse. We saw potential in the iPhone’s accelerometers to create a bonus mode with completely different gameplay. We also liked that the iPhone is portable: sometimes you’re playing for a just a few minutes while waiting in line, and sometimes you’re playing for half an hour before falling asleep. Thinking of these different player scenarios inspired us to add more game modes to Cash Cow. Finally, the iPhone has a large variety of players from casual to hardcore, which motivated us to make a game that would appeal to both groups.

Once again, with design contributions from Tim Winsky and new game technology from Abe Pralle, we set out to make Cash Cow into the best game that we could.

Let’s See How Far We’ve Come

What steps did we take to make Cash Cow better, and how did we come up with those ideas? This next section is all about the improvement and the development process. I’ll go through each of the major steps we took to make the new Cash Cow something that we would be truly proud of.

Improvement #1: A Fully Customizable Farm

I mentioned earlier that in the first Cash Cow, we originally added in the concept of a farm that grows as you win each level because a casual game distributor recommended it. It was a great idea, and people liked watching their farm expand. However, even though we put a lot of work into the farm, it was added in after the game was already “finished.” The implementation was at least a little rushed because we were trying to get the game done (again). You couldn’t choose anything about the farm; each piece was added automatically between levels.

In the new Cash Cow, the farm is one of the central features of the game. We wondered, “How can we have the farm build in the most interesting way, so that players feel it’s truly an important and fun feature of the game?” Some reviewers had said that it would be cool if you could choose the color of certain things on the farm, so that was our first idea. But we decided to take it a huge step beyond that: you’d also be able to place most of the items on the farm wherever you want. Not only that, but you can rearrange the moveable items at any time. Finally, you get to choose what to buy for for farm based on the money you’ve earned from playing the levels, instead of having the item chosen for you.

(Left: old, fixed farm. Right: new, customizable, dynamic farm)

The farm became a rewarding addition to the game that fit in with the story and added a fun diversion between each level. Oh, and we even incorporated one more player suggestion: pricing the farm items somewhat more realistically, at least relative to each other. No more $70 carrots.

Improvement #2: Unrestricted Coin Combinations

In Cash Cow PC, you were limited to specific coin combinations. In fact, there were exactly 5 combos you could make: 5 pennies->nickel, 2 nickels->dime, nickel and 2 dimes->quarter, 4 quarters->dollar, and 10 dimes->dollar. Many players asked us, “hey, why not change the game so that you can make a coin out of any legal combination?” We had actually tried it even before releasing the game, but the problem was that you could just drag your mouse over a bunch of coins without much thought and eventually get to $1.00. It wasn’t very fun because you were no longer paying attention to the board, but instead just watching your running total inch toward $1.00 as you aimlessly wandered the mouse around.

For the new Cash Cow, we realized that the solution was simple. Players want to be able to make any coin, but they still want to be challenged to find combinations in the grid. What we chose to do was allow players to make any coin with any valid combination of coins, as long as the combo uses 10 coins or less. 10 coins gave players the freedom to make a ton of different coin combinations (far, far more than the old 5). At the same time, it’s not enough coins that you can go for a dollar by dragging across random coins. You still have to think about each combination, and yet you are also free to get creative in making more interesting combos. It’s the best of both worlds. Combinations like 1 dime, 2 nickels, and 5 pennies were now possible, opening up far more strategic options and rewarding players who develop the skills to find these different combinations quickly.

(Left: old, restrictive coin combinations. Right: new, free combinations with up to 10 coins)

Improvement #3: More Game Modes

To break up the regular gameplay a little bit, we added in a physics-based Bonus Mode, which plays totally different from the rest of the game. You tilt the iPhone left and right to make coins roll, trying to bypass obstacles and get them into a milk bucket as fast as possible. You play this between every 2-3 regular levels, and the money you make adds to your cash when you go back to the farm. You can also play this mode by itself from the title screen (hint: you start with 5 levels and can unlock 5 more by playing them in Arcade or Relaxed mode).

As I mentioned earlier, we also wanted to appeal to different play situations (e.g., a few minutes vs. half an hour) as well as different player skill levels (casual vs. hardcore). The original Cash Cow was purely a casual game. Like some other casual games, there was no way to lose, so it was more about casually looking for combinations than challenging players to beat difficult levels. Many players liked that they could relax and play the game at their own pace, without worrying about losing. Still, we added an endless “Timed Mode” (with a dynamic timer) to challenge players who wanted a more fast-paced experience.

This led us to 5 game modes (including bonus mode, described above). For a longer game, the new Cash Cow features two versions of the story mode: Arcade Mode for players who want a challenge, and Relaxed Mode for players who want to chill out and enjoy. Similarly, there are three “Quick Play” modes: Endless, Practice, and Bonus. Endless Mode works like Timed Mode did in the original, where you must keep matching coins and using powerups quickly to keep the time from running out. Practice mode lets you earn $100 at your leisure, while gradually exposing you to all of the powerups and obstacles in the game as you go. With all 5 game modes, there are options to accommodate players who want to play for any amount of time, and at any skill level.

(Left: the two modes of Cash Cow PC. Right: the 5 game modes of Cash Cow iPhone)

Improvement #4: More Variety to the Main Game

We always knew that we could add more to Cash Cow to make the later levels more challenging and more interesting. We came up with a lot of ideas, then added our favorites: four kinds of fake coins and ladybugs. Fake coins are cool because you get to pluck them off the board using the touch screen. Just don’t add them to a combo accidentally, or you lose money! Ladybugs are neat in that they don’t just appear on the grid like everything else. They actually fly around the board, landing on coins and powerups to disrupt your progress (you’ll have to play it yourself to figure out how to deal with them!).

Improvement #5: Multiple Player Profiles

The original Cash Cow only let you save one game file, so if you (or a friend or family member) wanted to start the game from the beginning, you’d have to erase your own progress. We didn’t think that this would be a big deal, but a surprising number of people were sharing the game throughout their household, and wanted to be able to save their progress independently from other users. From these suggestions, the new Cash Cow’s player profiles were born. You can save as many files as you want for both relaxed and arcade mode, and you even get to name your farm.

Improvement #6: Better Story Sequence

I don’t think anyone ever commented that the original Cash Cow had a lame story, but we were always thinking it. It was told through a simple comic panel with a voice that read the text. Granted, the new Cash Cow’s story won’t blow you away with plot twists and character development, but our goal was to make the presentation a little nicer and the story a lot funnier. For this we called on Tim Winsky, who wrote a much goofier story for Cash Cow iPhone. In fact, you get a little story for Arcade Mode, one for Relaxed mode, and one for the second playthrough of Arcade Mode. All of them are presented through a more modern cut-scene dialogue style, and add more to the Cash Cow experience than the old one.

(Left: original story comic. Right: story scene from Cash Cow iPhone)

No Quick Buck

You might be thinking that ports of games to new platforms are easy money for the developers. That may be true in many cases, but for Cash Cow, there was hardly anything easy about it. Many iPhone development articles describe the average indie iPhone game being something created by one person in 3 months. Well, RiverMan Media has been actively working on Cash Cow iPhone for almost a year now, and if you count the year it took us to create the original, along with the 2 years we spent reading reviews and thinking about the design in between the two games… it suddenly seems a lot more accurate to say that this game is 4 years in the making.

I programmed the game completely from scratch in a different programming language so that it would work on the iPhone. I also had to recode it because the old program was pretty amateur and would not be able to accommodate all of the new features we wanted to add. And while the new platform gave us new opportunities, it was full of new challenges. We had to deal with the fact that the iPhone is much slower than the PC, and that it takes quite a bit longer to load images and sounds. We had to learn what works and doesn’t as far as iPhone interfaces. The iPhone screen is also much smaller than any platform we were used to. But we’ll save these topics for future articles.

We hope you’ll enjoy Cash Cow as much as we do. We did our best to make it a game that anyone can pick up and have fun with by incorporating ideas from many different players, and pushing ourselves to design and add features that we knew would make the game better.

Check out the Cash Cow page for news about the game. We plan to release it late fall, and soon we’ll be able to announce a release date, price, etc. [Update: Cash Cow was released for iPhone in October of 2009 and iPad in April of 2010.]