donderdag 30 juli 2015

Prologue: It's all shit except for some golden sprinkles

All games in the AppStore are shit. It’s all copied colorful free to play crap that I wouldn’t want to play even if I’m bored to death. Alright maybe that’s not entirely true, but it is the view of a very large group that spends a lot of their time playing games. And who can blame them? Only if you’re looking real actively for the beautiful golden sprinkles in an AppStore filled with dirt left behind by gold diggers you could maybe, MAYBE find one of the excellent innovative titles that will never appear in one of the ominous top- or featured lists. I know this and I have accepted this. So why would I still go ahead and develop my game for this platform? What were my considerations? 

On the day of it’s opening back in 2008, the iOS AppStore was filled with only 500 apps. Only 500? Around 160 of these apps are games, which is actually a lot compared to the average ten to twenty titles serving as the launch lineup of a dedicated video game console. In the wonderful world of the AppStore, these are the smallest numbers you’ll find. Within days after the launch of the AppStore, stories of one-man developed apps and their financial success reached the ears of other money hungry app developers. The result was a goldrush: Already over 10.000 apps were released that year alone. It was only because Apple did not allow non-native apps in their store that it took a while before the daily submissions reached over a hundred(which it did, in 2009). Apple's native  programming language for iOS is Objective C so to be able to release a game, developers had to understand Objective C.

At the time of writing (mid-2015), over 1600 apps are submitted to the store every day. Over three times more then there were apps in the store on the day it went live! Close to 480 of those apps are games. That’s a lot! But let’s admit it: in the eyes of gamers, 99% of these games are no more fun to play then it is to poke a turd. Which is funny, because most of them are shit.

It was my appreciation for Apple’s products and the excitement of self-publish being reality that brought me to add my own turd to the shitpile of AppStore releases. Mr. Kubus is a small and colorful game released in 2010(3). It was developed by two guys: Christiaan Berger (coding, design) and me (2D art, design). The reason I’m not proud of Mr. Kubus is because it did one very, very naughty thing too many apps are still doing today: not being designed for touch-based devices. Mr. Kubus, the main protagonist of the game was controlled by BUTTONS. Yup, what a stinker. I don’t know exactly why we decided on a control scheme with on-screen buttons. Maybe it was a lack of experience in designing for touch. Maybe it was the tight production schedule (one month). Or maybe it was both of those things. 

Screenshot of Mr. Kubus gamplay.

On-screen button controls take what their name imply from the player: control. Because of the lack of haptic feedback a player is never quite sure if or when a button is pressed or released. Using  digital on-screen buttons for action gameplay on regular touch screens means the core of a happy user-experience is damaged. The effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction of performing in-game actions are all affected by the lack of physical feedback. A port of Super Mario Bros. (1988) running on Android made this painfully clear to me one day. My Android owning friend was happy to have Mario Bros. in his pocket at all times. It took 3 deaths at the first Goomba before I realised a game of Mario had never felt so frustrating. This might be Mario in your pocket, but I’d rather have big pockets and put a gameboy in there because this was not even close to how a Mario game should play. So I learned a big lesson from both Mr. Kubus and Android Mario Bros. : Don’t include on-screen buttons in a touch game. But there had to be other ways to control action games on touch right?

Screenshot of Mario Bros emulated on Android.

A lot of action games on the App store would probably work a lot better with a controller. Many of them are in fact playable with controllers designed to work with Apple’s mobile devices. Some controllers look and feel really great (Gamevice is my personal favourite) and they support quite a lot of games thanks to Apple’s Controller framework. Some are actually  really, really great: GTA: San AndreasWalking Dead (S2)OceanhornLimbo amongst others. But these are all games we can play on our Mac, PC or console right? I considered making an iOS game that would ideally be playable with controler. Heck, I even started production of it with the talented 2D Artist Jolanda van Zandbergen. It’s called 15 Second Zombie and the art is still online as it is Jolanda's personal art project now. Production of the game ceased because of design problems and my personal lack of knowledge as a programmer for Mobile (I learned a lot about optimisation since then). I learned my greatest problem with the use of iOS controllers as a game-designer is that when you release the game, you're offering a less-then optimal gaming experience to a large group part of your audience (the ones without the controllers). Luckily I have yet to even achieve having a large audience, so that’s one thing less to worry about. (Edit: Not including Killzone 2 since it was such a big project, I consider my design influence as a play-test monitor to be very small). 

The wonderful Oceanhorn running with a controller for iOS.

One of the design problems of 15 Second Zombie was that it’s gameplay was very traditional. It was a 2D side scrolling shooter. One tip I can give you right now is to check possible competition early. Because man was I bummed when I saw any great 2D side scrolling game on iOS (Battle heart being my favourite). Now I’m thinking: what’s the point of making conventional action games for touch platforms? Especially as a small developer. The big(ger) guys will always win: they have more money to run larger productions and thus create more content. So, I decided I did not want to work on a controller based action game myself. 

A screenshot of gameplay of the canceled 15 Second Zombie project for iOS.

Are there any other games out on Mobile that do not have on-screen controls and aren’t an easy port from another platform? (And okay, I’ll admit it: Hearthstone is probably my most played game on iOS and it’s a port). There are some titles that defined iDevices as a gaming platform for me. Critter Crunch by Cappybara games was one of the earliest ones I loved and played a lot. Other favourites are: Year WalkDevice 6 (actually everything Simogo made), Fingle, Friendstrap (unfortunately no longer online), BoundenLuxuria SuburbiaMonument ValleyThrees!Ridiculous FishingBlekInfinity BladeBadlandTiny Wings and Fieldrunners. A lot of these games are great! But there’s something they don’t offer. Something many gamer's hearts are craving for. A solid headshot. Maybe not really wanting to shoot digital heads. But wanting that feeling of pride and joy when performing great, the feeling your motor skills are what keeps you in the game. The feeling of quick tactical thinking, coming up with rapid responses to enemy fire. We all know these feelings because many of us enjoy them almost on a daily basis on console. Of course I’m talking about first-person shooters. Have we ever had this feeling with a game made for touch? Personally I haven’t ever.

When I did enjoy fast-paced gameplay I enjoyed it mostly with friends. There was a time afternoons used to be about a TV, three of my friends, a Nintendo64 and a Goldeneye cartridge. We played, we screamed, we won and we lost. Good times. Why have I never yelled at one of my friends when playing an iOS game? I realised I would be proud if I could create a game like that!

There are a lot iOS titles that do not necessarily feel intense. I guess this is a good thing. It’s one of the reasons Threes! probably works so well as a mobile game. You can put the game away at any moment. The same goes for starting a game. It doesn’t take too much attention to play the game and it’s easy to start or end. There are also a lot (mainly free to play) titles that even make you feel unsatisfied on the long run. But this shallow gameplay is not inherent to the platform. The terrific Fingle made me sort of awkward or even slightly aroused when playing with others. It did not really feel intense to me, but it was a powerful experience. I think Adriaan (designer of Fingle) is a really inspiring and talented designer. His games on touch devices can spark such powerful feelings!  

This is Fingle.

I realised this once more when I was in a bar watching a group of friends and fellow game-developers play one of Adriaan's prototypes that would later develop into ‘Bam fu'. It was amazing to witness the sheer intensity with which player’s were whacking the screen. Everybody wanted to win. Badly. The prototype was controlled by large buttons on the iPad's screen. It looked similar to the released version of BAM-FU only the game-goals varried. In any case, players were motivated to press these buttons fast, and boy did they press fast. And hard! That triggered me to think about a game concept of a competitive game with a character that can shoot. The results were documented by me the moment I got home. Just look at this impressive art and 'design-document':  

‘Rocket riot'

'Putting a finger on the screen means creating a presence in the screen: a dot appears. A second finger is for shooting a rocket in that direction. Goal is to avoid other player’s rocket.'

Impressive right? Not really, I know. When I’m developing an idea or defining a concept I usually draw the most unreadable scribbles. And if there’s no paper I do almost exactly the same thing in a new Photoshop or Illustrator file. I play around with shapes and texts before anything else: Illustrator is usually my greatest design tool (but more about that with more interesting examples in the next developer story!). My frustration with the lack of solid action games on iOS, the play test-session and the conversation I had with players and Adriaan is what drove me to eventually design and develop Should Shoot. 

But why would I want to enter such a crowded market space? I don't really have a choice. I just really think there's a lot of room for innovation in touch-based game design. Also, the AppStore is filled with games made by people that don’t want to make games, they want to make money. With the risk of sounding like a hipster designer and a hint of care bear I will declared the following: I wanted to make a game because I love games and because I want there to be more games made by people who love them on mobile platforms. Care Bear Stare! 

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