Saturday, 26 March 2011

Tossing all over the free world

I am making an iPhone game. Here follows some of my thoughts on the process so far. I can't vouch for complete historical accuracy, but I hope at least it will entertain.

I've spent the past four years working at Jagex on the FunOrb website - in fact you may know me from such hits as Geoblox, Tomb Racer and Miner Disturbance. No?

Of the two, I am the dodo
As the industry has changed over the past five years, so did my job.  And inflexible fossil that I am, I decided that like the dodo it was time for me strike out on my own.

The Start

It's hard not to start a project without visions of megalomania; herald angels announcing your new project to the world, women trembling, men fainting - upheavals in the very cosmos brought about by your act of creation. You speak, and behold there is Game!

However reality is not like that. To paraphrase an old testament passage: Our god is in heaven and he does what he pleases. He is not manifest on earth making iPhone games.

Instead, even the act of coming up with a game idea is actually hard work, and even before that choosing which platform to dominate is tough. As I mentioned in my post on choosing wine, it's good to start any adventure by arbitrarily discarding vast quantities of options simply because you don't like the French.

Why? Do you believe in free choice?! This is one of the few moments you may genuinely and arbitrarily rule as you please. Yours are the consequences, yours is the power!

So with some good and arbitrary reasons I decided I was going to make an iPhone game. I knew I could target three platforms with relative ease and without having to invest heavily in hardware: iOS (so iPhone 4 primarily as I own one and I want to make it pay for itself), the Web (which I always feel is bit like trying to set up stall on a dump - hookers to the left, felines to the right, here I am; buy my game) and Mac OS.

Well, the money said the money's on iOS, so like every other halfwit with a text editor and a vague grasp of Von Neumann machines I decided to head for the place where there were very reliable reports that the streets were paved with gold (and in tribute to Marx the toilets too).

The Goal

A few people have presumed I have some sort of fixation with masturbation when I tell them that the initial game concepts revolved around tossing the phone. The rest assumed I was some sort of Android subversive; writing a game which would cause iPhone owners to break their phones while playing - like so many Wiimotes not so long ago.

Not what I was aiming for
I had a dream. A dream of doing what no one else had really pulled off. A dream of using the accelerometer to control the game by tossing (or perhaps more politely: jolting) the phone.

I was going to create a new genre! A new experience! I was going to revolutionise not only the way we play games, but also the very way we experience reality - like some sort of Will Wright crossed with Immanuel Kant!

However, as so often is the issue when I design iPhone games, the basics of the human body undid me!

Hold your hand in front of you as if you were holding an iPhone 4. Don't use two hands to hold your imaginary object of desire; it's not that heavy.

Now toss it forward. Don't let go, it's expensive and you can never trust the insurance to pay up these days.

If you do this repeatedly and observe your forearm, you'll notice that you're probably not moving your hand in a straight line, but an arc. Unless somehow you're using your shoulder to achieve the motion, in which case you're weird, but I may have a great game idea for you.

Your toss isn't that controlled. It instinctively moves in an arc defined by the length of your forearm, and there's not a lot of comfortable directional control there - try for instance throwing your imaginary phone across your body. Performing that action for just a short period of time probably gives you the sense that it's not the best control mechanism for a game.

I do believe that toss controls are the way forward - and perhaps there was just something wrong with my code (or arm), but after months of playing around with them a friend remarked that he'd just rather use his fingers.

More on that next time. Till then I leave you with that which fell by the way side. A game where you controlled the motion of your heroic blue block as he tried to rescue the weak and feminine red block by tossing the phone. Actually when I visualised that idea, I decided I wanted a close up of Martin Luther King Jr. looping in the background. The game was going to visit or call to mind historical moments in time from the Crucifixion to the Civil Rights movement. Perhaps it's best it never got much further than that drawing.