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Team: Howard Tomlinson

Howard Tomlinson

Chief Executive Officer

Howard was Astraware's first full time employee, leaving his previous vocation to take Astraware from being a hobby into being a serious business. His initial role was in development of games, and although he now manages the strategic side of the business, he still contributes his experience on game design and optimising the user experience for PDAs.

Howard brings to Astraware skills in coordination and management, having an eye for new opportunities and the drive and energy to make them happen, and acts as the key contact for most of Astraware's business partners.

Howard holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Physics from Keele University, as well as a Postgraduate Teaching Degree. He taught Physics at high school level, and later Computer Science and Programming at a College of Further Education.

Howard has been involved in the development of many Astraware products, including Bejeweled, Zap!2000 and Text Twist .

Blog Posts by Howard

Favourite iPhone Apps from the Astraware Team!

5th November 2008

We've recently started to create games for the iPhone and iPod touch and many of you have given us great feedback and told us what you like. As a few of us in the Astraware team have also chosen iPhones and are enjoying the App Store too, we thought we'd share some of our favorites with you.

DVD DashboardSunita: DVD Dashboard - a fab simple app. I have a huge catalogue of DVDs and it is great to have them at hand and it is easily updated. I can also email the list to anybody that wishes to borrow my DVDs, no more scrappy notebooks full of my scribbled DVD titles!

ShazamKieren: Shazam - My biggest curse when listening to music on the radio is being unable to identify it. All too often the presenter will tell you what it is (which you ignore), and halfway through the track you think "This is rather good, what is it?"...and you don't hear it again, or miss the name again next time because you don't know what to listen out for. Shazam solves that problem, identifying the track for you, and storing it in a list to later perusal. It's quick (about 20 seconds all told), and has been accurate every time so far. Its only weakness is that it is best suited to identifying original tracks - it won't always manage to work its magic on a hummed tune.

Koi PondAlison: Koi Pond - a lovely restful Koi carp pond in the palm of your hand. You can feed the fish by shaking the iPhone like a pack of fish food, swish the water about or just watch the fish swimming, all the while accompanied by some lovely sound effects like birds chirping and frogs croaking. There's not a lot of point to it - it's just very relaxing.

Kirsten: Moop - It's a very silly noise maker, but it is useful for when you can't quite find the words to express your feelings. It also keeps the kids amused!

ShowtimesAs for me: I like Showtimes because it gives the cinema listings for the closest cinemas to us, in a really easy to use format, and even links seamlessly through to the trailers. Makes it nice and quick to decide what we're going to go and watch!

I also like Guitar Toolkit because the tuner is really good, and it has a nice easy chord reference. No need to carry round a separate electronic tuner now!

Expansion plans and preparing to move!

15th May 2008

Back in 2002 (January 2nd, to be precise!) when the 6 full time members of Astraware moved into our office - a massive 1200 square feet room - at Keele University Science Park, we felt like it was so large we'd never fill it! As we grew the team, however, and added things like a server rack and a device desk to hold our growing collection of (mostly) Palms, it felt a little less spacious... In 2006 we were at over 20 people, and by that point it felt quite cramped! Now, an office where everyone is together is great for knowing what's going on, but a little harder for concentrating in, and we knew it was time to look for more space!

We decided to go with an option of having our own office built - that meant we'd not be sharing with other companies (who always gave us strange looks, especially on September 19th...), and also had the benefit of us being able to have it designed to work well for us!

New building under constructionIt has been a pretty long process - I've had to learn a whole new language and understand more about the building, design, and legal trades than I was expecting, but we're now there! Earlier this week we took posession of the empty building, designed and built to our specification, and we're getting ready to pack up and get everything moved! We're not going far - only a couple of miles down the road (making it within walking and cycling distance of more of the staff!)

We'll share lots of pictures later as we move in, but here were some of the (often conflicting!) design goals we had in mind:

  • Open space, to help communication and for everyone to feel connected...
  • ...but not-too-open spaces, so that individuals and groups aren't constantly disturbed by everyone else
  • More space for each of the teams, business, support, testing, and development.
  • Good natural light...
  • ... but without direct glare from sunlight
  • Lots of whiteboard space (for the big plans and grand designs!)
  • Lots of desk space, with plenty of power and network sockets
  • A dedicated room with *masses* of sockets available for us to keep devices available and charged
  • Comfortably warm in winter, pleasantly cool in summer, and as energy efficient as possible!
  • A good bicycle rack, and a shower (somewhere!) to make it reasonable for staff to cycle in to work.
  • Reasonable kitchen facilities
  • A "conference room" bigger than a telephone box!
  • Space to grow from 20 being cramped to 40+ with good working space.

Almost ready for habitationWe've actually managed all of these! Given the UK weather for the past couple of weeks has been distinctly summery, the prospect of moving into a nice air-conditioned office (that doesn't suffer from the constant baking glare of the sun through biiiig south-facing windows,) is one welcomed by the whole Astraware team!

We did have to cut from the original design:

  • Portholes instead of conventional windows. (Not too good for natural light, unfortunately)
  • a flagpole for running up the jolly roger. (Required extra planning permission)
  • A fireman's pole to get between floors - doubling as a dancing pole, perhaps. (Too many staff wear skirts/kilts)
  • Cannon ports (too drafty)
  • A moat filled with piranhas and crocodiles (planning permission, again. Killjoys.)
  • A deep pit underneath the conference room, with controls to drop individual chairs (and occupants) down to the awaiting spikes/sharks etc. (Health and Safety implications, bah!)
  • Miniature railway for delivering tea/coffee to all staff. (Will retrofit later)
  • Giant searchlight for projecting Astraware logo onto night sky. (May attract too many moths and/or superheroes)

David and Howard visit the almost complete new buildingA bit of a shame about these, but then we don't have them at the Keele office either, so at least it won't feel like a loss.

Designing the internal layout of the building has been an iterative process - with considerable use of Visio to help with plans. One of the coolest things we did was to use a projector and put up an outline of the building from a PC onto our whiteboard, showing the Visio plans and a 1m x 1m grid. From here we could just sketch onto the board ideas for layouts using dry-wipe pens, rub out bits that didn't seem to work, and when we settled on an idea that worked we could add it to the plan on the PC. The result of this was that we were able to minimise wasted space (corridors in particular) and get a layout that seemed quite optimal. The ability to drop in desks, doors, windows, walls and more, made it a quick process to come up with something that was easy to visualise and discuss.

Whether the design turns out as good in practise as it looks on the plans will remain to be seen - we certainly hope it works out well.

Wish us luck - and for the nice weather to hold - for the move!

How I use my Treo!

31st January 2008

Howard with his Crimson Treo 680Lots of people look at smartphones and think that its a phone that can do other stuff too. I take a slightly different view, since I use my Treo as a PDA first, and a phone second. I was trying to explain to someone who didn't know what use a PDA or Smartphone was for, and I was surprised at how many uses I have. I wrote lots of them down, and thought I'd share some examples of how I use the both the inbuilt and third party applications!

Quick messages: My wife and I can quickly send a message to say when we've collected the children from school and when we're on our way home etc. Being able to change the built in messages is good, and of course the smiley buttons and replacements are nice too.

Threaded Messages: Really useful for short conversation, just being able to see the last reply back and forth is enough and keep things on track.

Clock / Alarms: I don't wear a watch, and although I've got a good sense of time, its good to have a backup. When I fly and go to different time zones it can take me a while before I'm adjusted in the new time zone, and this is where having that on my Treo really helps. Auto-Setting time from the mobile carrier is a good idea, but doesn't work reliably enough to trust 100%. Just changing the timezone manually does all I need it to though, which is great.

Camera: I use it for taking quick pictures of things I'll need to remember. My main two are price labels (and model numbers) in shops, and taking a picture of where I've parked my car, if it is either a big car park or I'll be away for a while (like at the airport long stay). Also, signs and things that are funny for whatever reason, so that I can share with Kirk later. Like the strange things I see written on the back of vans!

Datebook: Indispensable for recording when I have meetings, so I can avoid clashes. I tend to set an alarm for about 45 minutes before meetings with visitors, so that I can be sure to feel prepared and ready. Also weekly repeating reminders of what days to put the bins and recycling out.

During a conference, I'll set up a category for that conference and enter in my schedule, especially if there's a lot I want to catch and there may be clashes. That can be really useful, since if my first choice is full or cancelled, I can see straight away what my second choice is and hopefully get to it in time that I'm not late for the start. The ability to beam a whole set of items from that category within a date range off to someone else can be really useful. I've shared a whole conference schedule with David that way before now, taking just a couple of seconds of infra-red.

Birthdays and anniversaries are an obvious point for Datebook, since I'm pretty lousy with remembering dates otherwise.

Memo Pad: I have categories for all sorts of things. The ability to drop in bits of information using Palm Desktop, then have them available either on my laptop or Palm is really useful, it allows me to keep much more information available, yet out of my brain, which is ideal!

Just going through a few of my memo categories:

  • Archery: I practise both longbow and olympic style recurve archery. I use a simple memopad entry for each round that I shoot, taking note of the score of each arrow, and add up for the total at the end of each line. I give it a first line (which becomes the title) like "2005.06.26 : American, Stapeley, Recurve, 518". This would tell me the date of the round, what type of round it was and distance it was at, the location, what style of bow I was using, and my total score. I'd also use it to keep notes on anything I changed in my bow setup, sight marks, so that I could refer back to it easily.
  • Astraware: Memos to do with my main Astraware work that isn't specific to a particular game.
  • Business Ideas: Things that might help our business improve, for when I get an idea or when I hear something from a colleague or in a meeting which I can apply later.
  • Creative: All kinds of random ideas for things I might do, from designing a game to an idea for an art piece to an outline for a story.
  • Family : Notes for things to do with the family. A reminder of my children's birth details, everyone's clothes sizes, shopping reminders...
  • GDC: Notes I've made while at the Game Developer's Conference. Some of the info I've picked up has been very useful!
  • Hobby: Things specific to my hobbies, like notes on players in world of warcraft who were really good - or bad - to be in a group with, lists of frequencies of repeaters and band plans for amateur radio. I have a list here of the pieces in the San Francisco Museum Of Modern Art which I loved the most, so that I could research them more when I got home.
  • Knowledge: I keep random things that I've learnt copied here. Like how to add a new hard drive and set it up under linux, the parameters for creating a "tarball", basic phrases in a few languages, my home IP address, what settings to use on our washing machine... I also keep a "packing list" for when I'm travelling. This has helped me to avoid the worst of the mistakes, though the fact that I add something extra to the list nearly every trip says that I've still got some way to go.
  • Moving: All kinds of information that I need to have when moving house. Solicitor's details, packing lists, details of inventories. Even notes made as we looked through houses on what we liked or disliked. I've used the same basic list of "Who to inform when we move" for our last few moves, and every time it has helped me to avoid missing an important company.
  • Poems: I'm not a prolific poet, but I like to keep a copy of everything that I write on my Palm. Sometimes I might write new things when I'm somewhere without a PC or a notepad, and for those times my Treo with its useful little keyboard is indispensable. Starting each entry with the date (YYYY.MM.DD : Title) means that I automatically have my list sorted by date and I can see the titles at a glance.
  • Serials: Registration codes for software I've bought, whether it be for PC or my Treo. Everything goes in here, that way during a reinstall I've got everything available.
  • Songs: I keep lyrics to songs and guitar chord patterns as entries under a songs category. I'm good at remembering the chords, but lousy with the lyrics, so this is very helpful. Sometimes I keep copies of guitar tab in here too, but the screen is too small to display enough to be useful, so that's really just a handy place to archive bits of tab I might want to find later.

Splash ID: I find this essential for keeping all of my web passwords, account details, everything else I need. Again, I tend to use it on the desktop more often than on my Palm, but having it in both places - and kept securely - is really useful. I particularly like the ability to add in a notes field and all kinds of custom information, since not every login needs the same set of details.

Phone calls: It's pretty rare that I'm somewhere away from either my work or home phone, and not driving, so I tend to not receive or make many calls from my Palm. I actually view the phone part as an added bonus!

Contacts List: Not something I use every week, but very useful. I particularly like being able to look up a contact by just typing their first letter or two of their name, or their initials. Very fast to get to a name in a hurry.

Web browser: It's not a great browser, certainly not compared to Firefox on my laptop, but it makes a pretty reasonable job of doing a quick lookup or checking a site while I'm out.

Google Maps: Very very useful - being able to look around and get a map of a location, and then a street or satellite view, can be essential for finding my way around.

Tom Tom: I have a small bluetooth GPS unit that can provide GPS data for Tom Tom, which I keep installed on a card that's always in my Treo. Again, rare that I need it, but handy to have when I do.

Astraware games: We have lots of games, and I often have many of them on my SD card, but tend to just keep a few main ones in main memory:

  • StarPop: Always a hit with children, and people who don't consider themselves "gamers"
  • Astraware Sudoku: Sometimes I'm up for the challenge, sometimes I'll go for something less stressful. The Sudoku Of The Day is fun to do since you know that everyone is getting the same puzzle that day.
  • Astraware Casino: Just easy fun. Enough to convince me never to gamble in a real casino, because I know I'd get carried away. I've got most of the souvenirs now, just a couple of game specific ones left. Hoping for a really good hand in Texas Hold 'Em...

I have a few extra apps on my Treo - a weather app, a file manager, and a few others, but while they're nice to have, I don't find a regular use for them, so not something I can say I use regularly.

Designing A Suitcase Full Of Souvenirs

5th December 2007

Astraware Casino title screen showing the Souvenir SuitcaseHoward: Our new Astraware Casino has been a project involving all of the Astraware team, and most of the staff. Alison and Mike both suggested having some kind of rewards system in the game, just like we had in Astraware Solitaire which has been really popular. Mike and I spent a lot of time working through ideas about how our "Trophy Room" feature might work in this game, and share some of our thoughts about what we did.

Mike: The original idea came from my thoughts about what we might do for a title screen as a model of a casino, with an open layout, corinthian columns with neon lights, all that kind of thing. I had an idea about a separate room with "stuff" that you might earn as rewards. That felt like a lot of detail for the title screen (we don't have as much space as I want!) so I was thinking about what else we could do.

Howard: And the rewards system from that?

Mike: A reaction to going from having all of the simple games to drawing it all together into something more coherent. We wanted it to really feel like you were inside something cool, with its own kind of charm. Having something that went across all the games was a thought there.

Howard: I'd originally avoided the idea from the start of the project, because I thought that just the "total money" aspect would suit that purpose. Plus, awards didn't seem to fit as well for Astraware Boardgames as they had for Astraware Solitaire, and I'd felt that Astraware Casino was a bit more like Boardgames in that respect.

Mike: Also, not to underestimate the value of kitsch. The graphics were really looking classy, and somehow we weren't conveying Alison's impressions of the reality that there's a blend of classy and kitsch in real casinos. Somehow adding in some rewards helped to bring it together.

Howard: So the first reward?

Mike: The first suggestion was to get some kind of a special chip you get for winning more. We thought of the idea of having more than just special chips that you could win.

Howard: That made me think of souvenirs you bring home - and before long we were discussing all kinds of random things you might bring home from a holiday at a casino.

Mike: We started off thinking of a hotel suite where you might have these, but that would be quite big to model, and hard to see the detail. The room would be very deep and so you'd struggle to see the detail of objects that were far away. That's always a problem to make work and believable, especially with lower resolutions.

Early Elvis sketchHoward: The idea of a suitcase - a container - was obvious as soon as Mike suggested that you'd have some objects on your hotel room bed. I thought that an open suitcase that you fill up with your prizes would be just like when you're packing to go home, and putting everything away.

From the idea of a suitcase to hold things, we soon started suggesting things to go in, and that's the point where having the Elvis figurine came about. We thought about having easter egg features attached to some of the prizes, like the Elvis might make a catchprase sound, the chips might make an appropriate rattle or jingle. We didn't do those in the end, but they might happen in the future.

Elvis rendered using 3DS Max Mike: The Elvis was the first one I looked at... and was the most fun because he has the element of character. He was quite educational in terms of building him quickly in 3D Studio Max out of the basic primitives (shapes), but I wanted to be able to view from all kinds of different angles, so this was definitely the way to do it. Also when I use Max, I can put on pretty convincing textures and lighting, and then render out for the resolutions we need. There's always a bit of extra work to tidy up in Photoshop too, just to make it a bit easier on the eye. Elvis took quite some time, but after that the other models were a bit faster, each taking just a few hours to create.

Howard: I tried to sketch out my idea for how the suitcase ought to look, how full it should become and things like that, because the developers would want to know as soon as possible how many items there were going to be, and what to award the prizes for. My drawing skills aren't great, but Mike was able to take my couple of lines and quickly came up with a sketch that really carried the idea, as well as giving the idea to have it split into a number of positions where we could try to place the prizes.

Mike: I pretty much reproduced the idea - that's one of the main goals is to get from what's in Howard's head into something visible, where we can really nail it down and get down to some work. I knew we needed a base to start with, and once we had a sketch of the angle of the suitcase, I wanted a reference to work from. Bryan mentioned he had a couple of old battered leather suitcases with brass fittings - these were exactly what Howard had in mind. He brought those in and I got a few good digital camera shots to work from. I tidied up lots of it, but the pattern of the lining still remains in the game now. I had to piece together a lot of bits out of the close-ups, layering in photoshop and adjusting the angles, and drawing in some of the fine details. The final product is a bit neater and more regular than the real suitcases! It has a nice bit of hyper-reality, blending real and generated in quite a nice satisfying way. It helps to blend the drawn from the photographed work in the game together.

Sketch of the Souvenir SuitcaseBuilding the suitcase from photographs

Howard: For the prizes we had quite a brainstorm session with a number of people involved. We had so many suggestions that the poor suitcase would burst if we included them all. All the time, Mike was sketching away ideas. Narrowing down the choices was hard - but we got a number that I'm really happy with.

Mike: It was good that everyone was throwing out ideas - I was just having a scribble when people had ideas and picking out those that stood out to me. Those sketches were never neat, just to give me a way to remember ideas of how I might go about things.

Early sketch and finished bowtie Early sketch and finished cufflinks Early sketch and finished snowglobe

Howard: For some of the suggestions, it made sense to think about where they would go within the suitcase. I had an image of a couple of the items in particular places, like the Elvis standing up in a corner, and a bow-tie draped over the side. There was also the shirt...

Mike: This was probably the hardest to get right. Even though it was easy to picture, it had to go in the right place and have some of the smaller items overlapping it. To get it in some kind of scale we had to have some part of it hang outside the case, but something I didn't get right first time was the scale. I had too much of it hanging outside the case so it wasn't recognisable on every resolution, and we had to change it round. Without the context of the sleeves and collar, it looked more like a big red flowery beach towel. That's still OK for Hawaii, but not quite what we were thinking of!

Early sketch of the Hawaiian shirtHoward: I tried to help out with the images, to try to get things explained so that Mike knew what to aim for. I think my sketches were just enough to give Mike the right idea, but his 3 second sketches were much better than my 1 minute sketches! Ah, the benefit of practise!

Mike: They were good because they gave me just enough to see, and get the right reference for the angle and the types of detail. That's pretty much all I need. I'm much more a visual person, so it helps me much more to have sketches, especially to refer to later. I tend to forget when people list items, so having a sheet in my pad with lots of sketches was perfect.

Howard: Initially we thought of having all of the images drawn and coloured in Photoshop...

Souvenir Suitcase with rewardsMike: In hindsight, it turned out to be faster in 3DS Max. It was a good opportunity for me to spend the time to learn how to use Max better, since it wasn't something needed for the in-game graphics. I was able to fix up mistakes more easily. Because they were being rendered, I didn't have a polygon limit, so I was pretty free to create the models in any way I wanted. The "hand drawn" images as placeholders didn't look in the right style, so switching all of them to modelled helped it to look more consistent too. I had the advantage that when something needed to be shown at a different angle, that was easy to do instead of spending hours redrawing. After they'd been rendered, I still touched them up with Photoshop in places, since it is a more powerful tool for getting the look just right.

Howard: We did come up with lots of prize ideas, more than we needed initially. There's a couple of items reserved for adding if we get to add some additional games in, after all, they'd need their own prizes too.

Mike: I've left some spaces to add in some more souvenirs later. It's one of the features I've noticed since working for Astraware that we try to think ahead, because of the possibilities of coming back and adding more features. We might need to squeeze some of the existing items together in places within the suitcase, but we've planned ahead for that.

Howard: Always the way when you pack to come home... you've got to squash everything together!

Mike: We hope everyone has as much fun playing the games and earning the prizes as we did coming up with the ideas and seeing them come to life!

Try Before You Buy!

2nd November 2007

Why do we provide demos?

Some games have a time delay startWe know that many of our customers buy games from us just based on the reputation of the game, or that they've bought from us before and can trust the quality of our software! Some people do buy games before checking to see that they are compatible with their devices - and occasionally find that a particular game won't run on their device. Normally this is because a version hasn't yet been created for the screen resolution of the device (in which case, it may do its best and "scale" the graphics it has built in, but that never looks as good as a "native" version.)

I've always felt that you should know what you're getting before you buy - and so we've always made sure that people can try out our games before they commit to paying for them.

Of course it is a fine balance - we want to give customers long enough to try out the game and see if they like it, that it has the features they want, and works well on their device, but also we've got to put a limit somewhere and remind people to come back and register.

Some games have a limit on the number of games or levelsSometimes we limit how many games can be started, so you might get five "free" plays before it asks you to register, sometimes we put a limit on how many levels or modes are available, but we're always careful to make sure you can get a reasonable feel for what the whole game is like.

I've seen games on sale where all you see is screenshots on a web page, and that isn't enough to get an idea of the game - you have to try it on the device and see how well it loads, runs, animates and plays. I've even seen an action game that gave you a whole 15 seconds of play (not quite enough to reach the first enemy) before it kicked you out and told you to register - and that just felt mean! We try to be pretty generous with our demos, and give you enough time to be confident that it's a game you'll want to keep playing.

We've always tried to make it as easy as possible to get our games - and now if you have a connected device you can try out our demos directly from your device - I was able to get StarPop® onto a Palm for a friend for his daughter directly from the Astraware website when we were out, without having to go via a PC or an SD card. (Of course, it helps if you have a good data plan - if you pay by the megabyte it can cost quite a bit if you download all of our games over-the-air!)

If you've just bought a new device - and we're coming up to the time of year when plenty of people get new devices - then its wise to check that our games are compatible before you buy them. Because we try to get games right first time (rather than a new bugfix release every other day!), it means that some of our games stay compatible with devices for several years... that is until a new manufacturer makes a device with a different screen resolution, or keyboard type... or any of the other hundred variables they can change. It takes us a while to catch up and update even the major products in our catalog, so its always worth checking. We do try to keep each page up to date with what works on new devices, but sometimes our customers are early adopters and get hold of a device before we do! If that happens - drop a note to our customer support if you find a problem with a device - we might ask you for a little help to make our games work for you too - quite a few of our beta testers started off by getting in touch that way, and now they help to check lots of our games (getting the earliest view on what we're working on into the bargain too!)

We know that many more people try the demo versions than end up making a purchase - that's OK! We like to make sure that you're happy with the games you purchase - and if that means you try lots and only buy one or two that you really like, that's great with us! Some people might keep the demos to show to friends... and we love it when people share the demos - it means even more people get to try out our games... and maybe later look on our site for more for themselves. After all, there's no harm in looking!