Jones on Fire, by a Denver games developer, sets mobile gaming aflame

Endless runners -- if you've played Temple Run or Jetpack Joyride, you know the routine: Collect coins, jump over stuff, die, rinse and repeat.

Jones on Fire, made by Denver-based developer Glass Bottom Games for iOS and Android, is a little different. Its low-fi graphics and little blocky kittens scream "casual time-waster," but as you control Emma Jones, fierce firefighter and defender of cats everywhere, you realize that Jones on Fire is tough -- and engrossing. Appropriate, really, for a game that was inspired partially by the wildfires that ravaged our state last summer.

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Jones on Fire was conceived during BlazeJam, a 48-hour game-development jam that raised over $2,000 for the Colorado Red Cross during the summer of 2012; a rough prototype of Jones was released as part of the BlazeJam bundle. "It had a lot of problems, but in terms of basic character structure, it was pretty much the same," says Megan Fox, who coded Jones and is the main woman behind Glass Bottom Games. "Very little about the game has changed throughout the eight-month development process."

Jones deviates from the endless runner norm with its tiered structure. As Emma Jones races through the inferno and gathers up floating kittens, you advance up to the next Hazard Level, and the kitties you collect are multiplied. There's a lot of funny touches in the game, from the enterprising accountant kitty on the firehouse's second floor to missions like "rescue 400 kitties. Unrescued kitties will be consumed by the eternal void."

Even though she looks like little more than a big block in a jauntily unzipped firefighter's coat, Jones is a rarity among video-game protagonists in that she's a woman of color. "I'm sick to death of the generic, white male, bald protagonist in every single game," Fox says. And that's a pattern she plans to defy in future Glass Bottom games.

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Jones started life as a free-to-play app. "It's really the only way of making a successful game on iPhone," Fox explains. Think of the iPhone app store as a dingy ice cream shop with a million flavors: It's ramshackle and poorly regulated, and it takes a special flavor to stand out. But disappointing numbers of in-app purchases recently led Fox to scrap the free-to-play model and sell Jones for $1.99. "The weird thing is, it could be something as simple as the icon was slightly less appealing than the one beside it," she says.

Positive reviews from outlets like Touch Arcade and Kotaku garnered Jones on Fire considerable attention and modest numbers -- but that's not enough in the lawless and unforgiving landscape of the app store. "It was a big hit with critics and a big hit with gamers, but the kind of people who download and play games on iPhone aren't necessarily either. They're just average regular people," Fox says.

Though this is Glass Bottom's first published game, Fox and some of her collaborators come from a small but resilient community of Colorado game developers. Fox started Glass Bottom Games right after Louisville-based NetDevil laid off its workers and shut down its ambitious, Massively Multiplayer Online game, LEGO Universe.

Opportunities in the Colorado gaming scene are hard to come by. Only a few outfits like Phobic Studios in Boulder and Backflip Studios exist, and competition for spots is fierce. "That's why I went indie instead of trying to find a job. There's just not much around here to switch to," says Fox.

Despite the challenges, Fox and crew are now working on updates to Jones on Fire. "I want to do a Kitties in Hats update -- and Kitties in Hats is exactly what it sounds like, adding the ability to dress your cats up in really cute outfits," Fox notes. She's also hoping to KIckstart a new project: Hot Tin Roof, starring Emma Jones as a psychic detective solving murders and exploring taboos like sexuality and feminism.

"I love playing games that touch on topics that the industry normally refuses to do, because frat boys don't want it or whatever," Fox says. "That's why I make games like this."

Jones on Fire is available on iOS and Android for $1.99

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