Wednesday, April 27, 2011

On Game Design

As you may or may not know, Creatures & Castles was originally designed for the iPhone.1
As a platform iOS interested me because it seemed like the perfect platform to support a small development. It has the advantage over PC game development in that unless (like Notch's Minecraft) you happen to be very lucky, a PC game stands little to no chance of garnering any significant attention without a significant spend on marketing and development, as well as a fairly large team of programmers, artists and musicians to produce a game acceptable to the market at large.

Similarly, although they are of a comparable form factor and power to the iOS devices, hand-held consoles such as the Nintendo DS (and variants) have too high a barrier of entry for the casual developer2 due to the ridiculous cost of their development kits, the stringent 'chicken-and-egg'3 developer program entry requirements and bone-headed refusal to support homebrew development - presumably due to a misplaced fear of piracy (which would happen anyway - homebrew support or not). It's a shame. I would have liked to have seen Creatures & Castles on the DS range of hardware. I think it would have worked pretty well.

In any case, back to iOS. With iOS, we have a powerful device (but not so powerful that a single developer can't develop a quality game), a consistent programming interface and a cost of entry for developers of less that $100. Couple that with a vast installed user-base and a well-established storefront, and it's fairly clear to see why the world and his dog is developing apps for iOS (and to a lesser extent Android and WP7).

The most interesting part of the challenge with developing a game for iOS is that the form factor and user interface is virtually unlike any other platform. Attempting to produce a game with 'standard' (e.g. joypad-based) controls is, to me, an unimaginative and intellectually barren exercise. Games such as  Flight Control, Cut the Rope, UFO on Tape and Doodle Jump have successfully married unique and innovative use of the iPhone hardware with simple and compelling games - and as such, have gone on to great and deserved financial success.

With this in mind I tried to make best use of the hardware when I came up with the design for Creatures & Castles. The high concept was "Flight Control in a maze". Possibly not the best high concept ever, but it was good for a start. The aim of the game was for the player to use their finger to trace a path of magical footprints for the hero to follow safely to the exit, using timing and skill to get there in the minimum number of steps. The best score is obtained by reaching the exit in one go; it is possible to break the path up into multiple segments, but a 10 footprint penalty is assessed for each segment. This last point is particularly important.  I did not want the player to get stuck on ANY level. It always annoys me when I buy a game and cannot access all of the content I paid for because I can't get past a particular point. As such, in Creatures & Castles, it's easy to get past any of the levels by using multiple path segments. The catch is that your score will suck.

So the control system as designed is remarkably simple:

  • Drag from the hero to create a path.
  • Touch the hero to set him/her moving along that path.
  • Touch the undo button to undo a path.
  • Touch a collected object to use it.

It's not perfect - particularly when it comes to tracing paths through the maze on the iPhone screen. It can be a bit small and fiddly, so I added the ability to use a two-finger pinch to zoom. Not the best possible solution, I'm sure, but by no means the worst.

1Actually, it was originally designed as an online multiplayer game similar to the current rash of Facebook societal games, but that's another story. I gutted my original design to come up with a simple iPhone game instead.)
2 This may well be something that Nintendo and Sony come to regret with time unless they have a change of heart.
3 With few exceptions, they will not even consider applications from 'first-time' developers without a significant track record.

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