Road to the IGF: Vectorpark's Metamorphabet

We talk to Patrick Smith of Vectorpark as part of our Road to the IGF series, discussing Metamorphabet, which is nominated for Excellence in Visual Art and the Seumas McNally Grand Prize.

Patrick Smith, better known as Vectorpark, has always delighted with his beautiful animations that invite you to poke, prod, and otherwise fiddle and explore the surreal objects that he creates. Now he's coming along with his first dedicated iOS game, Metamorphabet, and the platform is the perfect fit for the animations that you can't help but paw all over. 

Metamorphabet is nominated for the Excellence in Visual Art award as well as the Seumas McNally Grand Prize in this year's IGF Main Competition, being a standout due to its inventive interpretation of each of the 26 letters of the alphabet, having them evolve and twist as you play with them into objects that start with the letter you're manipulating. It's part-educational and part-toy, and what it lacks in the former it makes up for in the latter. 

I talked to Patrick Smith as part of our Road to the IGF series about how Metamorphabet came into being, as well as what it's like developing for iOS after spending so much time in the PC space. 

What is your background making games?

Self-taught, mostly. I came out of college with a degree in painting, and no computer skills other than a basic familiarity with computers that came with growing up in a science/engineering oriented household (I'm the exception). I had a summer gig at an information graphics shop in St. Louis called called Xplane, which is where I learned Illustrator, and with it how to distill my visual style purely into flat shapes. That felt very natural to me, and since I've always had an interest in animation, so Flash was a pretty logical step. The wonderful thing about Flash is that you can treat it as animation tool, a coding tool, or anything in between. That last option is crucial, because it means you can gradually learn to add interactivity without ever feeling totally lost. For someone like me, who looks at a coding manual and feels a deep sense of despair, having a tool that allowed me to learn and experiment incrementally was invaluable. So I didn't really set out to be a game-designer or a programmer; my art (or at least a major branch of it) just ended up there. 

What development tools did you use?

I decided from the start that I wanted to develop the desktop and iOS versions simultaneously, from a single code base. The logical way to do that now is Unity, but conceptually my 3D framework is pretty fundamentally different than conventional 3D systems, and I didn't want to give that up. On the other hand, if I went the Adobe route and compiled Actionscript to iOS via AIR, the end result would have taken a huge performance hit. So that was out, too.

My solution was to write a parser that automatically takes my Actionscript codebase and rolls it over to Objective-C. This required some groundwork with reverse-engineering the Flash display system and hooking it into OpenGL for the iOS end, as well as writing the parser itself, but in the end it saved me a lot of time, and gives me two sets of native code, but only one I need to maintain.

For writing Actionscript, I use an IDE called IntelliJ. For the iOS end I usually just go straight to Xcode, but when I have to actually do some real editing I use AppCode.

How long have you been working on the game?

From start to finish, about three years.

How did you come up with the concept?

I've had the idea kicking around in my head in different forms for a long time — it just seems like one of those universal ideas that I'd like to see done right. In the spring of 2012, I was following a couple different threads and this is just the one that I picked to finish. I've always liked the idea of treating letters as physical objects, and in a more general sense, I'm drawn to working within a set of arbitrary constraints, as a way to challenge and (hopefully) surprise myself. So, while the point of an alphabet book is ostensibly to educate children about language, from a creative standpoint I see as a structure to work within and push against.

Your games have always been very relaxed in their attitude towards player achievement, urging them instead to enjoy the worlds you've created at their own pace. This goes against the trend with games, with only Hohokum really doing similar in the last year. Why do you think it's such a rare sentiment?

I have no idea, really. Maybe one difference is that I don't really set out to make games. For me, a system of challenges and rewards is simply one way to structure something. In the case of Metamorphabet, it was less about challenges and more about constructing a kind of rhythm — event, silence, event. But even Windosill, which has more traditional "puzzle gates", isn't really meant to be difficult — I just wanted to give the user (and myself) some structure to hang onto, and making the rooms into puzzleboxes was a solution to that.

Metamorphabet frames itself in a mildly educational context, even if only from the theme. Do you have educational aspirations for it?

Sure, I think Metamorphabet has a valid educational angle, to the extent that any alphabet book does. But I think its primary value for children is the same as for adults — as an imaginative expression of concepts, and a journey through some strange (and, I hope, interesting) spaces.

But I don't worry very much about how people come to my work, or the context in which they view it. I like to think that a game — or a novel, or a piece of music — is like a campfire in the woods. There might be many paths that lead there, but in the end you're all sitting in the same circle.

Your games have always been extremely tactile. How has the move to touch interfaces been for you? 

Touchscreens are awkward, clumsy, difficult to design for, and I absolutely love them. One thing I realized when adapting older apps to the iPad is that for the most part I had already been treating the mouse cursor as a finger. In other words, Feed the Head and Windosill were already 90% touch games. But Metamorphabet is actually the first major project I've designed as a touchscreen experience from the start, and while there will be a desktop version tailored to the mouse, I think touch is pretty fundamentally in it's DNA.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you’ve particularly enjoyed?

I haven't seen many of them — I don't play a lot of games as it is, and I find it especially hard to play games while I'm working on one. My favorite out of what I *have* played is Plug & Play, which is short and weird and just terrific. Of the games I haven't yet played, I'm most excited to see Donut County.

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