Alumni Interview: Tobiah Marks

Tobiah Marks of Yobonja!

I had the chance to catch up with Tobiah Marks who is super busy with his company Yobonja!  Between the fan emails, conferences, awards shows and more, Tobiah was able to take a few minutes to share his amazing experiences within the company he has built.

Zombie: So Tobiah, what is the name of your company and what is your title there and responsibilities.

The name of my company is Yobonja, and my title is “Co-Founder.” As for responsibilities, I wear many hats and I find myself doing a little bit of everything. I like to just call myself a “Game Developer.”

Zombie: Did you always want to start your own company?

Yes, or at least be in charge/running a game development project, not just be another “cog in the machine” so to speak. I didn’t think I would start my own company so soon after graduating though. It just kind of happened.

Zombie: So how did you come up with the name for your company?

A lot of people ask us that. The answer is, we made it up! Yobonja is sort of an anglicized version of the Turkish word “yabancı,” which means “foreigner” in English. We wanted to make up a word so that when we Googled the name before we made the company there were zero results.

Blast MonkeysZombie: Can you give an example of what you might do on a ‘typical’ day?

I wake up, eat breakfast, then sit down in my living room and start working. Usually I am doing something related to level design, such as designing new worlds, making new levels, etc. Then I’ll move on to answering emails. We get hundreds of emails a week ranging from dealing with customer service issues, getting fan feedback, to business people trying to sell us stuff. Players are constantly emailing us with bug reports and asking about when new levels are coming out. At some point in the day I’ll usually call or meet up with Angelo (Angelo Yazar, another Cogswell alumnus and the other Co-Founder) and we share our progress and plan out our next course of action.

Zombie: Can you give an example of something that surprised you about your job when you first started?

I did not realize how much time and energy the business side of running a company takes. Learning all that from ground zero was quite a challenge. When you’re so focused on game development you forget to factor in time for things such as the massive amount of emails I mentioned before, meeting with other companies, and dealing with all the legal issues/paperwork. Now that we’re more successful, we’ve been able to hire people to help us with those issues, like being able to get a lawyer when we need one. Even with help, I did not realize when we began how much time I would spend not actually developing any games.

Zombie: What projects have you worked on in the past?

I honestly have lost count, we’ve worked on so many. The first project our company started was Zeppelin Nations, a MMO on Facebook back in 2009. We’ve done a wide variety of projects, from mobile to web games, and even some odd ones like a photo manipulation application Angelo made.

End of January/early February 2011, we made Blast Monkeys. It started off small, but we kept iterating and iterating on it, adding more content, new art, new levels, etc. Over time, we built up a fairly large fan base. Now, 15 months or so later, we have over 10 million downloads and over 300 levels across 10 unique worlds. Over the summer of 2011 we were the #1 free Android game. We were even nominated for the “Best Mobile App for Consumers” at the Global Mobile Awards in Barcelona, Spain. The game is currently on iOS, Android, KindleFire, and NOOKColor. We’re also working on a couple other new versions of the game for other platforms as well.

Zombie: What steps did you take to grow your company?

Well, I haven’t really seen ourselves as having “grown” too much. We started off as two people, just Angelo and myself. Later we added a third, Yekta Yazar. After the success of Blast Monkeys we’ve been able to hire independent contractors every now and then when we need them, but I doubt we’ll expand to much bigger anytime soon. We like the size of our company.

Zombie: What do you find most rewarding about your job?

Being able to work every day on a game that I love and then putting a content update out and see how literally millions of fans immediately respond to and enjoy it. I like that nobody tells me what I have to do or have to design. We have total control over what we as a company think is best for our game. We’re making games that are fun for us to make, fun for us to play, and it just so happens others love them too.

Zombie: What advice would you give students preparing for a career like yours?

Learn a bit of everything. As an independent developer, you will at some point be forced to wear multiple hats. If you don’t know something, learn more about it or find someone who can teach you. Also, use version control! I run into so many people who don’t understand how important that is. Most importantly, iterate on your projects. Don’t just work on them, then throw them out there thinking you can move on to the next game. “Release early and often” is sort of the mantra we try to follow at Yobonja. Although we’ve been guilty in the past of not following it, as soon as we started just focusing on Blast Monkeys and iterating on the game, getting new stuff out, and growing the game based on player feedback is when we started to be really successful as a company.

Zombie: What qualities does someone need to have to be successful in this field?

Passion is the number one thing. You can’t just want to do it, you have to really love and be excited about what you are doing. Drive to learn is a huge factor – never stop experimenting with new tools and new languages. Never be content with just repeating what has worked for you/others in the past, especially in mobile. It changes so rapidly so you need to be able to adapt.

Blast MonkeysZombie: How has Cogswell helped prepare you for this career?

I really loved my time at Cogswell. I learned so much. I think most importantly though was the time I spent involved with the Game Development Club. The club gave students a space to meet with other artists, programmers and sometimes even an audio person or two and then work with them on all sorts of projects. Our company, specifically, started with Angelo and I working together on a project for a “Game in a Month” competition run by the Game Development Club.

My experiences at Cogswell really helped me learn how to create/manage a project, stay within scope, manage my time, etc. All sorts of things that are so hard to learn from just reading a book and lectures and really prepared me for my career.

Zombie:  Thanks so much Tobiah!  Best of luck to you in your future endeavors!

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