Buttonless: Incredible iPhone and iPad Games and the Stories Behind Them is coming out December 21 (and available for pre-order now) to bookstores and online retailers everywhere. It’s a book about iOS games and their stories by Ryan Rigney, a freelance journalist who has covered the video-game industry from every angle for publications and sites including Gamasutra, PC Gamer and GamePro. We managed to talk with him for a bit about the inspirations for the book, among other things. Click through to the post for the interview AND an exclusive chapter from the upcoming book, all about Fruit Ninja.
Why iPhone games? How long have you been a gamer, and what attracts you to the platform/genre?
I’ve been playing video games my entire life, and I’ve always loved mobile games. I bought a 3rd generation iPod Touch towards the end of 2009, and I immediately fell in love with it. It quickly became my main portable game machine, and I’ve been closely following the iPhone gaming scene ever since. These games are inexpensive, innovative, and always in my pocket. It’s the perfect mobile compliment to my Xbox and gaming PC.
How does writing about iPhone games and apps affect your gameplay? Do you have more fun, less fun, different fun?
Whenever I wrote my weekly column/regular reviews for GamePro, I was playing between 6-10 iPhone and iPad games every week. Those were the ones I actually downloaded; I probably checked out three times that many within the same time frame. The result is that I have very little patience with new iOS games. Whenever a big batch of new games hits and I get done syncing them to my devices, I’m like a kid after Halloween, digging through my candy bucket and tossing aside things that don’t interest me. I tend to judge whether a game is worth my time within the first 60 seconds of playing it, and I don’t think that’s how most consumers approach iOS titles.
But whenever I find a really great iOS game like Dungeon Raid or Mos Speedrun, I really have a blast with it. I go all out, playing for hours. Seeing all of the crap that the App Store has to offer really gives you a better appreciation for the games that have been created by talented developers. So do I have more or less fun? Probably a mixture of both.
Tell us more about your own process in writing the book – does it parallel any of the stories in the book?
That’s an interesting question. Like most writers, the hardest part of the process for me is forcing myself to sit down and just write. I had never attempted a writing project as massive as this before “Buttonless,” so there were a lot of nights that I worried about deadlines and my own ability to stay focused. Especially by the end, I was really getting worn out, but my publisher was gracious enough to allow me an extension.
There are definitely a few stories in the book of developers going through similar trials. I really identified with Brandon Williamson, the guy behind the excellent Forget-Me-Not. Like him, I sort of began to lose perspective on whether or not the thing I was creating was any good. It wasn’t until I started showing it to people and getting really positive feedback and criticism that I became confident that the book would be something that people would really enjoy.
If you had to choose your top 3 favorite iOS games, which would they be? Why?
Oh man. I never know how to answer this question, because there are just so many that I love. Here goes (in no particular order):
1) Super Stickman Golf – Brilliant level design, snappy yet fantastic physics-based gameplay, and a perfect control scheme make this one of the best golf games ever made (even if it’s not actually anything like real golf).
2) Jet Car Stunts – This game is perfect for iOS. It’s a lot like Super Stickman Golf in that levels are incredibly challenging, but are also designed in a way that gives players freedom to take shortcuts and pull off fun things with the physics system. I really wish True Axis would update it to support the Retina Display, because it’s already a gorgeous game.
3) Battle for Wesnoth HD – I love everything about this game. I love the way the game was created, how beautifully it works across platforms, and––most of all––the sweet strategy gameplay. Many of my all-time favorite games are in the turn-based strategy RPG genre (Shining Force, Military Madness, and Advance Wars come to mind), and BfW is like a super-sized smoothie made from those games. There’s so much fantastic content in this one game that it by itself is almost worth buying an iPad for.
A big thank you to Ryan for taking time out of a busy schedule to talk with us. And now, what we’ve all been waiting for — an exclusive chapter preview from Ryan’s new book Buttonless: Incredible iPhone and iPad Games and the Stories Behind Them. This one is all about Fruit Ninja.
Platform: iPhone/iPod Touch (iPad version available separately)
Developer: Halfbrick Studios
Release date: April 20, 2010
What Is It?
In its original form, Fruit Ninja was as casual as casual games can get. Fruit shoots up, you slash it with your finger. If three fruits fall or you accidentally touch a bomb, you get a strike. Three strikes and it’s game over.
As time has gone on, the game has retained its casual quality while at the same time evolving into something with a lot more depth. Now there are weapons to unlock and different modes, including the fantastic arcade mode, which is a timed version of the basic, endless mode.
Halfbrick has also changed the fundamental mechanics of the game over time. Now, if you manage to cut three fruits in a single swipe you’ll get bonus points. The change lends a risk-reward element to the game that encourages players to wait whenever they see a fruit appear, in case more fruit pops up and allows for a juicy, well-timed strike that will award additional points. Meanwhile, the addition of unlockable skins and achievements contributes to the “one more game” fever that the game has always been so good at inspiring.
Fruit Ninja is a parent’s best friend. It includes a special casual mode in which it’s impossible to fail, which is perfect for kids. Both kids and adults will also learn a few things about fruit thanks to the sensei character, who pops up to share random fun facts about fruit after each game.
Because of its simplicity, Fruit Ninja manages to appeal to a ridiculously wide audience. I’ve seen people age 2 and 52 play and love Fruit Ninja, something that few games achieve. There’s something intrinsically fun about Fruit Ninja’s juicy, squishy physicality.
Behind the Game
Before creating Fruit Ninja, Halfbrick game designer Luke Muscat was working on another game, a racing title for the Xbox Live Indie Games Channel and PSP called Rocket Racing (now called Aero Racer because of a legal issue). Rocket Racing began as a side project for a few members of Halfbrick’s team but it eventually grew into something much bigger, and the company had high hopes for it. Unfortunately, the game flopped in a big way. According to Muscat, the game was received well enough critically, but it was a commercial disaster. “We were so invested in it, so we were excited about it,” says Muscat. “And when it came out it didn’t do much for us and it was really disappointing, because we were proud of the game.” Muscat believes that it was the hardcore, technical nature of the game that made it such a failure. “Clearly making a hardcore racing game for PSP minis didn’t work out, so I figured lets do the exact opposite of that,” says Muscat. “So my new goal was to make a really casual, easy to play, kind of literal game.”
Around this time Halfbrick held a round of “Halfbrick Fridays,” days on which studio employees got a chance to stand up and pitch a game idea to their peers. Traditionally the studio had focused mainly on doing contract work, so Halfbrick Fridays were a chance for its team to do something truly original. Muscat wanted to participate in the upcoming round of pitches, so he tried to think up a game that would work well on the iPhone.
For this particular Halfbrick Friday, Halfbrick CEO Shainiel Deo had laid down a ground rule—each game had to exist completely within a single screen. That meant no scrolling, zooming out, or anything of that sort. For Muscat, this limitation worked perfectly.
Muscat sat down at his desk with a blank sheet of paper and pretended that it was an iPhone. He began dragging his finger over the “screen” in a variety of gestures and shapes, trying to imagine different ways that players would interact with the device. “I had done quite a bit of work on DS games,” he says. “I worked on Avatar: Enter the Inferno and Marvel Superhero Squad so I was fairly familiar with what works and doesn’t work on touch screens.”
It was at this point that Muscat suddenly remembered an old infomercial he’d seen for the Miracle Blade World Class Knife. In the ad, the excitable Chef Tony throws a pineapple up into the air and cuts it to show how sharp his crazy knife is. Muscat had purchased a set of knives for himself, and now he began thinking about ways to fit a fruit-slicing mechanic into a game. “The thing that was sort of exciting to me about it was that it was really kind of simple, but had this G-rated gore about it that I liked the idea of,” says Muscat. “All our first concepts were of watermelons just because they seem to have that sort of good, hardish shell and are quite soft and juicy on the inside. I really wanted it to be kinda splattery and gory yet G-rated. Very viscerally satisfying to do.”
Friday arrived, and Muscat was ready with his pitch. He tells me that the company had limited pitches to five minutes because entire days were being lost to drawn-out presentations by overly excited employees.
When it was Muscat’s turn to speak, he got up and showed a PowerPoint presentation with only five slides. On the first screen were the words “Ninjas hate fruit, slice them with your finger.” He explained the game’s three-strike mechanic and walked off stage. The whole thing took fewer than 40 seconds. A few people showed interest in the game, but the prevailing reaction from others in the company was “wait, that’s it?” Two people agreed to work with Muscat on the game, but they both left the company soon after, leaving Muscat with a game idea and nothing else. Subsequently Muscat and his team had to start looking for contracts in order to keep the company afloat, but the games industry in Australia wasn’t doing well and the team wasn’t able to find a contract worth a reasonable amount of money. “We were just kinda sitting in our little areas like, hmmm . . . this is looking dire,” laughs Muscat. “We just lost a bunch of money on Rocket Racing and there’s no contracts, so at that point we’re like, okay, what if we try some iPhone games?” Muscat and a peer named Joe Gatling drew up a plan to create two complete iPhone games in six weeks apiece. They came up with more than a dozen game ideas and began knocking out prototypes using Adobe Flash, never spending more than a single day on one prototype.
After creating a good number of these prototypes, Muscat and Gatling picked half a dozen of their favorites and emailed them out to every employee in the company. One of these prototypes was Fruit Ninja. The email asked their fellow Halfbrickers to play the games and rank them.
Fruit Ninja came out on top overwhelmingly. Muscat and two other Halfbrick employees began working on the game almost immediately, and within just six weeks the first version of Fruit Ninja was released on the App Store. After about a week the game was doing quite well in Australia (it was in the top five), thanks to aggressive advertising and timely reviews from gaming sites. The game wasn’t topping charts in other countries, but the team was stoked with the game’s performance, so they stayed late one Friday night to drink beers and celebrate. “We were scanning the charts, watching the game move up or down by one spot,” says Muscat. “It’s kinda this weird spectator sport. Like if you’d trained a horse and then watched it race.”
By 11:30 p.m. most members of the team had gone home to sleep, while the remaining few who were still in the office were “fairly well drunk.” Muscat was getting ready to walk out the door when Deo came out of his office with what Muscat describes as a stunned look on his face. “I’ve got this email sitting in my inbox, and it’s from Apple,” Deo said. “It says ‘urgent: we need some key artwork to use for Fruit Ninja for the App Store.’”
The email didn’t explicitly state that Fruit Ninja was going to be featured by Apple, but that was the message being sent. It was a scenario that the team had hoped and prepared for, but they had no idea that the call from Apple might come at such an inconvenient hour. Panicking, the still-inebriated Halfbrick employees called both Fruit Ninja’s artist and head marketing guy and got them to come back into the office to create a banner that Apple could use to promote the game. That took until 1:00 in the morning, but it was well worth the time.
The next week Apple featured Fruit Ninja, and sales exploded. The game was propelled into the top ten on almost every country’s chart and became just as much of a staple in the top ten as Angry Birds. For Halfbrick, Fruit Ninja is more than just a commercial success. It’s a game that the team’s family members can actually get into. “It’s really hard,” says Muscat. “We made this hardcore racing game [Rocket Racing], and Shainiel takes it home to his kids and they’re going to play it for all of 30 seconds before they realize that they can’t figure it out.”
Things are different for Fruit Ninja. Muscat says that he gave the game to his grandmother, who had never even seen an iPhone before. She played the game for a bit and loved it, managing a score of 45 in classic mode on her first attempt. “One of the most exciting things about Fruit Ninja is having the people that we’re close to invested and excited about the stuff we’re making,” Muscat says. “In the end, they’re the support group. They’re the people who keep us going and keep us working.”
Fruit Ninja’s effect on Halfbrick has been incredibly positive as well. The company no longer has to do work-for-hire projects; this is something that Muscat is particularly pleased with, as contract work can often be grueling and unfulfilling. “A lot of the guys here are the same guys who’d work on our early licensed titles,” he says. “And they’d get slammed in reviews, but we’d get rushed to push out a game in six months and meet ridiculous publisher expectations and change things at the last minute for them. So then you work for six-and-a-half months, and then the game comes out and it gets reviewed terribly and no one particularly likes the game, and these guys who are extremely talented are going through that. That’s tough to go through.”
Thanks to Fruit Ninja, Halfbrick has risen to superstar status in the iOS world. They’ve become A-class developers with the ability to do what they want, when they want, without reliance on publishers. With just the tiniest hint of pride in his voice, Muscat says that things have changed for the better. “Now I feel like the games we’re making are Halfbrick games, whereas before they were just games that Halfbrick worked on.”
– The infamous first trailer for Fruit Ninja was filmed on a $20 budget. The guy in the ninja costume is Stephen Last, the game’s programmer.
– The instructions written in the game’s “about” screen are actually a haiku written by Muscat. He says that a grand total of zero people have noticed.
– Fruit Ninja’s achievements include several references to quotes from The Simpsons.
• Development time to get fruit splatters working: 2.5 weeks
• Development time for Arcade mode: 3.5 months
• Times downloaded (all versions across all platforms): Over 60 million
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