Flick Ninjas Dev Part 1: Creating a platformer for iOS that's better without a gamepad...

I've been developing a game for iOS and thought I'd tackle a big problem. Read on to find out how I made a platformer for iPhone and iPod touch that would actually be impossible to play with a standard gamepad.

I started developing a game for iOS over a year ago.  I started with the simple goal of building something unique on the platform that hadn't been done before.  I scoured the App Store searching for any untapped potential and nearly gave up.  I built three different prototypes with two things in mind: Build a game that plays to the strengths of the platform, and NEVER USE ONSCREEN GAMEPADS!

I'll be honest.  I despise onscreen gamepads.  I've played dozens of platformers and the like that try to use them, and the lack of tactile feedback makes quick-twitch games always feel cheap or unplayable.  These games feel like cheap and easy cash-ins of existing IP's, and I think that it shows a lack of effort on the part of the developers.  iOS offers many unique opportunities for control schemes, that can't be found anywhere else at the moment.  The multi-touch surface alone affords loads of ways to control a game.  It just takes some creativity to figure it out.

I like to look at Nintendo when I evaluate the control opportunities of a platform (and I think that most developers should do the same.)  Using Phantom Hourglass as an example, here are a few examples of how Nintendo utilized the features of it's platform to give a unique experience.

At one point, I was asked to put out a large candle, and sat dumbfounded for a few minutes.  It turns out I just needed to literally blow the candle with my own mouth.  It just used the microphone, but it was still interesting.  Still later in the game I was asked to press my map on the bottom screen against a symbol on the top screen to find the location of an island.  The way this was accomplished was by actually closing the DS.  

To cap it all off, the entire game is played using the stylus and touch screen.  A Zelda game had never used a control scheme like this, but I would argue that I prefer to play both Phantom Hourglass and Spirit tracks this way.  It really feels intuitive to use the screen as an analog stick, and to tap and swipe to attack.

If Nintendo can almost entirely eschew a standard control scheme in favor of touch controls on one of their flagship franchises, I really feel like more people can take these risks on the iPhone.

Back to my own experience.  In the end, the three genres I experimented with were:

  1. A top down vertical shooter
  2. An asteroids clone
  3. A platformer

The top down shooter used basic touch controls to move the character around the screen and shoot.  I ended up opting out of the idea because I found many other games on the store that used the same mechanic, and I wasn't really improving the concept any.

The second I tried was pretty much like asteroids, but using touch on the screen for aiming and moving.  Although I haven't found anybody else doing this type of game this way, I felt that I could be even more creative.

So, I came to my last option.  A platformer.  I had been concepting an idea I had once, where I would design levels simply by doodling a random line on a paper, and treating it like it was the players movement.  I then treated those random lines as swipes or flicks on the screen.  I experimented with this concept for a few months, and asked others to try it out along with my asteroids clone.  I then added a basic clock and asked people to try to beat my times.  Most everybody loved the platformer.

As I started designing the rest of the game, I quickly discovered that I had a tremendous amount of flexibility when it came to level design.  Things didn't need to be exactly on grid lines, because I could jump at any arbitrary angle.  This wouldn't have been intuitively possible with an onscreen gamepad, or a gamepad at all for that matter.

Precision of running and stopping became my final concern with design, as most people ran off cliffs rather easily.  I then added a context sensitive tap system.  These taps suddenly made movement and control feel instantly intuitive.  I originally feared that this would remove some challenge from the design, but quickly found the the timing necessary to stop at just the right moment was very interesting.  

I am now nearing release for my game.  It's called Flick Ninjas (you can find a link to my official trailer on my development blog)  Every time I hand it to somebody, I just have to say "flick the ninja to move him," and the user is instantly able to start traversing the level.  Tapping takes some more explaining in the games tutorial system, but the ease with which I can explain the basic controls makes this control scheme invaluable.  I really don't think that Flick Ninjas would have been possible on any other platform.

Look for Flick Ninjas in the App Store in February, and feel free to "Like" our fan page on Facebook.  Simply search for "Flick Ninjas" and it will come right up.

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