Distract Me Not: iPhone Games Get Creative

Curator's Note

The perception of iPhone games as temporary distractions suggests their disposability. We find them increasing common in waiting rooms, on commutes, and in life’s unexpected pauses. They have become a genre to themselves on video game blogs and magazines, marked by repeated game mechanics (flick! tap!) and diminutive graphics. iPhone games, we might conclude, are as vapid as the moments they save us from: meaningless, unimaginative downtime between life’s “real” events.

But increasingly, game developers are making the iOS platform a place for astonishingly creative play. These developers are coming to the iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch market because this is where the casual gamers are, and because the platform’s approachability makes development remarkably feasible. Where a console game (Xbox, Playstation, Wii) requires expensive licensing and large production teams, iPhone games can be made at lower costs with much smaller crews. And because iPhone development teams can personally market their product on the App Store, access to real revenue streams incentives indie production. In the face of repeated iPhone game styles, these developers must innovate design and play to stand out. 

Take the Johnny Two Shoes team as a study. Founded and staffed by two brothers, Johnny Two Shoes released a pirate/adventure platformer on the iPad/iPhone that has become one of the devices’ most popular games. The mechanics are simple yet explorative– one’s boat only moves when the entire device is tilted, encouraging players to impart their own sense of gravity into the Plunderland world. From a simple desk in London, two young men have competed directly against AAA publishers like Electronic Arts and Warner Brothers.

In Papa Sangre, a game from fellow London developers Somethin’ Else, a player uses only his/her ears to navigate a dangerous voodoo underworld in search of a loved one. The game has no visuals because, as Project Director Paul Bennun explains, “The pictures are better in audio.”

Game makers continue to push the boundaries of what mobile gaming devices can do. In WeSliders from a Barcelona game maker, the rules of play emerge in playing, with only a palette of shifting colors supplying the visuals. Sword & Sworcery has been one of the year’s most celebrated games, yet it too does more with less. The iPhone game is only a distraction for those unwilling to really play with it.

Comments

Randy Nichols's picture

Escaping the Mainstream 800 lb. Gorilla

Zachary, thanks for an excelent post which ties in nicely to Matt Payne’s comment on my post yesterday. 

One of the things that I find intriguing about the rise of the App Store and of mobile gaming in general is the relative ease of entry into the market it gives new and smaller developers.  Mobile and casual gaming in general are major segments of the modern industry, helping to keep the industry’s growth high even in tough times, which has led to the industry majors spending big and acquiring rapidly.  

At the same time, indie developers have to deal in this market have to deal with a new 800 lb. gorilla:  Apple.  As mobile gaming has become more popular, the company has continued to rework its rules and restrictions, making it tougher for developers.   And, of course, there is the problem of being one product among millions.  While the success stories are great, I wonder about how common they truly are. 

Zachary McCune's picture

A Thousand Flowers

Randy,

That is a a wonderful, thoughtful response. Apple is indeed the major vetting and censoring force in the creative field of iOS games, and the problem of being one product among millions is a major challenge to developers. I would never suggest that simply developing an iOS game means that indie game designers will find run-away success. Instead, I’d suggest we think of the App Store as a "let a thousand flowers bloom" event in which a market generally constrained by production costs is suddenly opened to a flood of both generic and radical ideas simuletaneously. In a crowd of ideas, the game makers must try to stand out. But as you suggest, this does put Apple firmly in control of the situation: even if indie game makers push boundaries, will Apple let them? 

Matthew Thomas Payne's picture

Indie after action reports?

First, thanks for the smart post, Zachary. We’re definitely of a similar mind re: mobile gaming’s exciting potential.

My question, for either you or Randy, concerns the rules and restrictions imposed by publishers on indie developers. Are there project post-mortem write-ups (like those appearing in Game Developer) detailing the challenges of working with game publishers like Apple, Microsoft (for XBLA titles), or Sony? I’d be especially curious to know if there are any comparative publishing stories.

Randy Nichols's picture

Mobile Post-mortems

I don’t know of any post-mortems that tackle the App store regulations (or any other mobile licensing platform) specifically.  There are a few examples of post-mortems for mobile games though.  Here are ones that I’ve passed along as readings in the past (here’s one from Gamasutra, another Gamaustra one for good measure, and  one from Game Developerr). 

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