The numbers speak volumes. Within 20 days of its App Store launch. Sega sold 300 000 copies of Super MOnkeyball, while Tap Tap Revenge from Palo Alto start-up Tapulous was downloaded by a mind-boggling one million users in a month. With low development and distribution costs, indie game designers are making the most of the Apple iPhone. Christian Donlon talks to three of them.
Dizzy Bee, Igloo Games
‘BUDGET? What’s that?’ laughs Nathan Hunley, Dizzy Bee’s designer, when asked how much the development of his first iPhone game cost. ‘I made Dizzy Bee by begging. Every few months I had to borrow cash from my dad to pay for rent and macaroni cheese. Friends helped translate some text, and did the play-testing, and I was even borrowing the iPod Touch I did my development on.’
Despite the homebrew scenario, Seattle-based Hunley is one of the more experienced games developers currently working on iPhone titles. A graduate of the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Washington (whose alumni crop up almost everywhere games are made), Hunley has previously worked for Sony, Nintendo and QGames in Japan. Although he set up Igloo Games with a friend in 2000, the label has only recently been revived due to the release of the iPhone SDK, and Hunley describes his current staff size as ‘about one-and-a-half people’. ‘The team is me, my artist, who’s a very busy part-timer, and we then contracted out the sounds,’ he says.
While Dizzy Bee’s simple aesthetic may value function over form, its tilt-based play is easy to get the hang of, and the game is filled with flashes of clever design. Chief among these is the rotating user interface, which has to be legible from whichever angle the iPhone is being held while the player twists Dizzy around a series of deceptively simple mazes.
And the childlike art direction is a calculated choice to make sure Dizzy Bee connects with the right audience. ‘We’re basically a company that wants everyone to play our game,’ says Hunley. ‘We chose an art style that appeals to casual gamers and kids. I’ve gotten lots of comments like, “I don’t play games, but I’m really enjoying Dizzy Bee”. The other great thing is many people are asking me what’s next, and when can they get more. That’s really encouraging.’
Rolando, Hand Circus
Despite being one of the iPhone’s more ambitious first-wave games, the oddball Rolando is largely the work of one person – Simon Oliver, a Flash developer who contracts for design consultancies such as Ideo and All of Us. With a day job creating experience prototypes and game-based museum exhibits, Oliver had been circling the indie development scene for some time, searching for a way in. ‘I’d been looking for the right platform to focus on, but the opportunities for innovation and huge potential user-base of the iPhone stood out,’ he explains. Oliver set up Hand Circus, his own micro-studio, in June 2008. ‘It’s just me at the moment,’ he says, ‘but the plan is to bring other people on board on a project-by-project basis, to get the best and most suitable people working on each title, according to genre and style.’
Rolando is regularly compared to LocoRoco, a game for Sony’s PSP, but Oliver puts the distinctive look down to pragmatism. ‘When I started thinking about the visuals, the only real constraints I had were the budget and the power of the device,’ he claims. ‘I could create a much better looking vector-art 2D world, with more polish and variation, than if I was to pursue the 3D route. With illustrators, I was lucky to find Mikko Walamies. He’s able to inject charm and character into a scene without the need for a lot of detail. Less detail means it runs faster and takes less time to implement.’
That’s not the only way the iPhone’s quirks have been influencing Oliver’s designs. ‘Games need to be made specifically for the iPhone,’ he argues. ‘Porting traditional games is far from straightforward. For the majority of genres, the whole control system needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. For Rolando’s interface, I’ve been through a lot of prototypes to try to find the right control mechanics. Along the way, some of the most basic assumptions have had to be thrown out the window.’
By day, Steve Demeter writes ATM software for Wells Fargo. By night, he programmes and releases casual games under his own Demiforce label. His latest, Trism, has become one of the early success stories of the iTunes Apps Store.
A block-matching game with a lever twist – the angle of the iPhone controls the direction new blocks fall from – Demeter started work on Trism as recently as February this year. ‘My three biggest goals were that it had to be a simple, yet complex, game; I had to be able to play it with one hand; and it had to have a “wow” factor that showed off the iPhone’s unique features,’ he explains. ‘When I got the idea for Trism, the Games Developers’ Conference was only ten days away. I asked myself, “Can I learn how to code for the iPhone and do a demo in ten days?”.’
He could. After a handful of all-nighters, Demeter had an early version of the game ready for the opening of the conference, and the feedback it received there was enough to carry him through to completion. A swift turnaround by any standards, it’s still seen Demeter tackle design problems that lie at the heart of iPhone game development. ‘The main challenges are things like “Can I put my finger here on the screen without obscuring the gameplay?” or “Can I allow the user to tilt now?”. It’s forcing me to think in new angles,’ he says.
Demeter suggests the iPhone games market is likely to become crowded fairly quickly. ‘Within the next month, people will start getting their first pay-cheques from Apple. Companies like EA are probably already well on their way to getting a return,’ he predicts. ‘In one year the iPhone will have a lot of all kinds of games on it. I’m interested in seeing how long that period lasts. In the end, I think we’ll see a good variety of simple timewasters – a mix of casual games and toys, simple experiences for busy professionals.’
Christian Donlan is a freelance games writer