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iPhone, iTouch, and Playing for Keeps

COW Library : Apple iPhone : Bob Stevenson : iPhone, iTouch, and Playing for Keeps
CreativeCOW presents iPhone, iTouch, and Playing for Keeps -- Apple iPhone Editorial


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We're all Apple fans and technology geeks. Like everyone, when we first heard rumors about the iPhone, we couldn't quite believe it. Then we thought, well, it's Apple, maybe they can pull this off. If they do, this is going be phenomenal. And they pulled it off!

We all waited in line for the devices, Neil and myself included. After being in the traditional game business, we thought, "This would make a pretty sweet games machine. I wonder what they're going do with it." The iPhone came out a long time before the software developer's kit, before AppStore was released or even mentioned to developers. The birth of the company happened the day that Steven Jobs finally announced it. Neal called me up and said, "This is just awesome!" The two of us agreed, and tied up with the other two company founders, Joe Keene and Alan Yu.

Our notion was that if Nintendo had announced this device as a games machine, and said, "It's got a camera, it's got a GPS, it's got all your contacts, it's always connected, it's multi-touch, it's got accelerometers, and oh by the way, there are 75 million users with credit card accounts already active," you'd say, "Are you kidding me?"

We knew from the way that we were personally using the phone that the world was going to change. We thought that it was going to happen more quickly than many other people did, so we approached Kleiner Perkins, and we got funded pretty darn quickly. Our idea wasn't just to be a games company. We wanted to feel spiritually like we were first-party game developers for the machine. We wanted to makes games that were truly native, that used all the functionality of the phone, and that weren't just licenses of other games that existed.

From our backgrounds, we understand the licensing world, and that it's very powerful. What's even more powerful for a new machine is creating something that was built specifically for the device. That was our mandate: use a completely native experience to make games unlike anything that existed before. We also wanted to be a publisher, creating our own ideas, but we want to build on our experiences as game makers to work with people like Simon Oliver, who created "Rolando." We had a wonderful time working with him to create a truly unique experience on the iPhone and iTouch.

It's also important to us to develop our own marketing and distribution muscle. Obviously, Apple handles digital distribution. But from our point of view, how do we reach the consumer directly? One way is that we have promotions built into all our games. We also have analytics. We can tell exactly how people are playing, which parts they like, and which parts they're frustrated by. We can correct any of those issues, and have the ability to add value into the game at any time.

So there are a lot of elements to it. We thought that this was going to be a revolution - and it has turned out to be. Our notion was that if, we built a better boat, then we will rise more quickly in this rising tide.

NATIVE GAMES

I was playing a bunch of racing games that came out on Day One. They were using the accelerometers crudely, for almost Wii-style motions. It was hard to see the screen as you're making all this kind of movement. I thought it would be better to have a puzzle game that made more subtle use of the accelerometers, for building and stacking blocks. This subtle use would be part of the skill for playing the game, and also for the challenge of building it. We decided to call it "Topple." Eight weeks later, we finished it and put it on sale. After the kind of development we'd all been doing, it was truly liberating to make a game in eight weeks.

We thought that it would do well, but we were surprised at the speed. We released "Topple" in the paid charts and "MazeFinger" on the free charts at the same time - both of them shot to number two within two or three days. We re-released "Topple" as a free game to take it to a wider audience, and both it and "MazeFinger" have been downloaded over three million times. Numbers like this show that there's a truly huge mass market out there for games on these devices.

We decided in each game we made to explore something new. With "DropShip," we wanted to make a classic shooter-style game using the dual-pad control system: one thumb to move around the screen, and the other thumb to fire in any direction. That ended up being a cool experiment, which has given us ideas for controls for a bunch of other games.

"Doctor Awesome" was originally like the arcade game "Kicks," a style that we thought still had life in it. But we stumbled across something much more interesting: we turned it into a game where you save people from viruses. Originally, they were fictitious people, but we said, "Why don't we take the names from your contact list, so that you were actually saving your friends?" When we switched this on internally in our office, we saw that it was much more compelling, to see your friends' names come up. We also designed it so that the more that you call them, the more likely they are to appear in the game.

We recently released "Word Fu," the first word game that we've done. We all liked word games, but some of us kind of came from a more physical universe. We created a physical word game in which you essentially do a Kung Fu punch to set the words in place. We added some really nice music and sound effects, and when we started playing it in the office, we thought, "Hey, this is going to work!" And it has.

All five of our first games have gotten into the top 25, three of them into the top five. This is especially remarkable, because these are all completely new games that have never existed before on any platform. Our sense that people wanted entirely new experiences is clearly playing out.

SOCIAL GAMES

Our first range of games explored physical functionality, like accelerometers and multi-touch. Then we added the contact list, and we are now starting to explore the next stage. These devices are absolutely, fantastically well suited for social games, and "Touch Pets" is going to be our first game that really explores that. It will be the first pet simulator with its own embedded social network.

What does that mean? Imagine that the hub of this game is a kind of like a friends list. Players are playing with their dogs, nurturing them, feeding them, grooming them - and over time it gets harder. Successful players are able to earn points to buy things from the network.

They can also create a "Dog Feed." You can send messages about how your dog is doing, and then you can meet up on the network to essentially have play dates. "Hey, check out my Labrador!" And your Labrador will come in, maybe with something extra, some things that might allow you to unlock a new world for the other person who's playing with you.

You can eventually unlock a "career" mode. Say you've got an Alsatian puppy, and you've built up its skills catching Frisbees. This might be exactly what it needs in order to become an excellent rescue dog. Now you can go on a play date with a friend, where you go off and save the people in a burning house.

I think it will cross people over who used to like "Nintendogs." We can imagine parents giving "Touch Dogs" to their kids to play on their iTouches, but we can also imagine people tricking their dogs out, teaching them awesome tricks to then show off to their friends on the network - then going off to save the world together. I think it's going to be quite cool.

THE FUTURE

"Topple 2" will be out by the time you read this. It's very important for us: not an update, but an actual sequel. We want to be sure to add a lot to it, to make it a meaningful step forward in the world of "Topple."

Then we have an awesome tower defense game called "Star Defense," set on an actual 3D spherical planet. We're working with a great team, Rough Cookie, who are in the Netherlands. They've done a great job visualizing the space, and I think it's going to be a great addition to that genre of games.

Down the line, microtransactions will be a key thing. There will potentially be subscriptions, and gifting each other games. Once the market unlocks the whole transaction model, whether people are doing it for themselves, or whether Apple does it, I think it's going to change the way that people consume games.

We've also got games that will make more and more use of the social features that I was talking about. As for myself, I'm really looking forward to making games that, rather than make me feel like I'm playing with 2000 strangers, make me feel that I'm playing with four of my best friends against 2000 strangers.

I like the notion of having a very tight contact list to accomplish this. I love Facebook, but one of its limitations is the way it propagates itself. You end up almost spamming your friends. There's an evolution that needs to happen, which is that you can value the intimacy of your friendships. People don't have 995 friends.

It would be good to just play with your closer friends who have the device, the people that you see, the people that you hang out with, who happen to have specific skills in a particular game. You've chosen to buy them into the game because you know that they're good at it. You're close friends. You know that you can work together as a unit.

I think that games that incorporate this kind of thought process will create a new type of interest for people who don't like spending vast amounts of times just being alone in a game.

It's what I'd personally like to see. The more that I play on the device, the more I start to think to myself, okay, how would I like to be having this experience with a small group of people, and feeling like the world is vast? This is what you do in real life anyway, right? That is life. You go through it with your friends. You experience a similar, but different enough, perspective of the universe. You're in it together.

It would be good to reflect that in a game that has its own reality.


Bob StevensonBob Stevenson
San Francisco, California USA

Bob began his career as a game artist and designer and quickly established himself as a notable talent. He has worked as an independent developer on games that have appeared on nearly every major platform in the history of the industry. They include "Myth," "The Jungle Book," "Robocop vs. Terminator," "Giants: Citizen Caputo," "Armed & Dangerous," and, in partnership with EA, "Wii SmartyPants."



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