For every Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, the App Store offers something between 100 and 5,000 games that fall into the “sorta kinda a real game” category—titles that everyone knows would never have seen release on a Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft platform prior to the opening of the App Store. Even today, many of these titles are the sort of brief, semi-amusing distractions that no one will remember three years from now, perhaps even three months from now; some are just plain bad, and plenty of others are titles that are just missing a little something special that would take them from okay or good up to great. Since developers have been e-mailing me for advice on how to make their titles worthy of As rather than Bs and Cs, I’ve been mulling a useful, general pointer for a while. Today, I have one.
What I’d like to propose today is beyond my personal ability to actually implement, but it’s something that everyone in the iPod and iPhone development community should be considering right now: partnerships. Having spent the last year and a half testing applications that so often feel incomplete—really great graphics and a nice game engine but no music, or a great puzzle idea with cool levels but awful art, and so on—it’s very obvious that the vast majority of iPhone OS game developers are one- to three-man acts with a couple of core competencies and a couple of big missing pieces. Developers know this, too: the e-mails I receive often acknowledge their missing assets up front and ask how to fix them. Partnering up with the right people is the answer.
I’m going to draw just three examples from the big pile of games I’ve been playing over the past few months in order to illustrate how this could and should work.
Hook Champ (reviewed here): I don’t know them personally, but the developers at Rocketcat Games are clearly very smart, funny, and abnormally talented at transforming a seemingly simple play mechanic into something deep via upgrades. They also need help with artwork and audio. If there’s any game that has been released in the past year or so that plays as well as Hook Champ but looks or sounds this much like an 8-bit game, we can’t think of it; the developers have even said that they are planning an update or sequel that will bring the art into the 16-bit era. That’s 1992, for those who have forgotten the days of the Sega Genesis and Super NES. It’s my feeling that if these guys were paired up with the art and engine team behind, say, Minigore, the world would be their oyster. Probably. There are other talented developers out there, but the trick is finding one that has the right visual style to match a game’s theme, gameplay, and most importantly, potential; artwork is going to become considerably more important as Apple boosts the resolutions of its upcoming devices.
Ramp Champ (reviewed here): There’s zero doubt that The Iconfactory has some of the most wickedly talented art, music, and UI people making App Store software today. Ramp Champ is, at times, an assault of beauty and aesthetic polish on your senses, slapping you out of any delusion that the iPhone has some little-known technical limitation that prevents it from performing pixel-perfect art, brilliantly themed- and crossfaded music, or useful downloadable content. The Iconfactory proved that it’s all about possessing the talent and ability to just execute properly. Yet many months after its release, the game still doesn’t play quite right, as the extremely simple ball-rolling controls continue to feel imprecise relative to other identical skee-ball titles we’ve tested. No game this good should have an almost equal percentage of 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5-star ratings, and this would change in a heartbeat if a partner skilled in polishing gameplay (like, say, people at Ngmoco) worked on tuning the swiping and increased the game’s depth.
Speed Forge Extreme (not reviewed): Over and over again, Wipeout clones show up on the iPhone from companies I’ve never heard of before, and every time, they get part of the way towards replicating Sony/Psygnosis’s series of masterpiece-class futuristic racing games, then fall off somewhere significant. This time, Ratsquare is the developer, and the result is Speed Forge Extreme, which uses blur and lighting effects to create one of the better graphics engines we’ve seen in a Wipeout wannabe, then adds a techno soundtrack that’s sufficient to evoke the same cool Wipeout vibe. That’s two big checkmarks, and on challenging boxes to fill, right there.
What’s missing? Unfortunately, basically all of the gameplay. The action is soulless, and due to a weird little “unlock one item per race” idea, you start the game just doing laps, then move onto a track with one (unbalanced) weapon floating around, then another with acceleration and deceleration pads, and so on. Ugh. Double ugh. Then there are even less appealing arena levels where you and other ships zoom around in an open space trying to hit each other with missiles. It’s this sort of stuff that makes Speed Forge Extreme feel completely unfocused, despite the fact that it actually looks and sounds better than most of the futuristic racers on this platform. One can only imagine how great this title might have been if it had started with the underlying AI and physics engine from, say, Real Racing. And mightn’t a developer like Firemint benefit from having a second team developing cool and diverse spins on its popular realistic driving game? A partnership of this sort could work for all involved, and the results would be much better games for everyone.
For those who might be skeptical of the partnership prospects from either side—the “would a big developer really work with a smaller one,” or “won’t the big developer exploit the little guy” questions—my suggestions are relatively simple. In most cases, developers who want to stay independent should be looking for partnerships with equals rather than companies that are grossly disproportionate to their size; by contrast, those looking to be acquired need to have complete, working teams assembled that are actually capable of turning out polished, finished products. Slightly larger developers with known discrete needs should obviously consider bringing on one or two people to fill their gaps, such as music, level design, or art, which will bring them up to the level of polish needed for growth and an eventual acquisition. But in any case, serious developers need to start figuring out at this point what they’re good at and not good at, and start addressing it.
As I suggested above, it’s not possible for one person—an external person, like me—to get developers to introduce themselves to one another, pitch the deal terms necessary to work together, or even in some cases to realistically identify their own weaknesses so that they can find the right people to make their games better. It is, however, possible for an internal person like you—developer reading this—to figure out who you admire and approach them about working together. If today’s indie game makers hope to become tomorrow’s bigger, better developers, partnerships like this are going to be the way it happens. The alternative is that yesterday’s (and today’s) big Sony and Nintendo developers will so flood the market with ports of Nintendo DS and PSP titles that smaller names and games will fade into the background. Given the success of the App Store and the growth of Apple’s devices as a viable gaming platform, it’s only a matter of time before this happens, and smart companies should be planning now for a better tomorrow.