KICK IN THE I(PHONE)
SO, YES, THE PROTOTYPE in Multimedia Fusion 2 was very handy for testing out and refining all sorts of ideas. But when the time came to convert all that work to the iPhone, it turned out there were two tricky things to do with the seemingly simple Juggle!
- Retain as much of the essence of the PC prototype as possible.
- Make the overall experience as tight as possible.
Recreating the tactile interface was a problem; capturing the sensitivity of the prototype mouse control proved elusive. Sliding the paddle on iPhone was just too sluggish, like it is in all the other ball and paddle games, and play literally dragged.
I work with a strict “kill or cure” mentality. If I can’t see how to cure it, I kill it and move on. The player toy on iPhone did not feel good or make me feel good. FAIL.
I fiddled with all sort of variables and ideas. I tried a system akin to tapping the screen with your finger to hit the balls, but that was far too frustrating to use – too much like real juggling. I even considered a sort of snappy stretching effect akin to a diving tennis player or goalkeeper reaching for a ball but that only ever felt far too loose. I confess I was on the verge of calling it a day at this point.
Then Colin had a brainwave – obvious in hindsight, of course: amplify the finger motion so the paddle is more sensitive to your stroking. As it turned out, this was exactly the effect I was after. Aaron set up a special version so I could tinker with the numbers and, after some experimentation, the result is a paddle on just the right side of over-sensitive. It does take a little getting used to it, I grant you, but once you do, it more than meets your needs and it feels like an extension of your flesh. Any faster and it’s out of control; any slower and it’s not reactive enough.
I find it reminiscent of the Defender ship: way too fast at first, like a wild stallion to tame, but eventually pleasurable and essential for the insane later levels.
Two other necessary paddle revisions included i) moving it higher up the screen on iPhone (otherwise your finger obscured it too much) but not too high so as to adversely reduce the height of the playscape; and ii) stopping it from moving off the sides of the screen (a deliberate ‘feel choice’ in the prototype that felt misplaced on iPhone).
Making the experience as tight as possible concerned concentrating on the play and game rules and the overall flow of play. We could always just slap the concept on to the iPhone and throw it out there but that’s not how we roll. We have to play it and refine it and play it and refine it some more to make it sing.
As a result, many invisible minor rules are used to ensure play feels as good and fair as possible, but I’m not going into details because that’d spoil the overall effect.
I was expecting a very simple game structure for the 1972 version – most likely a linear endurance test with negligible breaks. I toyed with the likes of 10 balls for 10 pence and a short fixed play time and even a ‘lives’ system of sorts (lose, say, 15 balls and yer out) but they felt inappropriate.
My obsession with focussing on the purest form first meant a minimal game structure: a single, simple beginning; a repetitive middle; a single, simple end – no more, no less. The qualities of the paddle and playscape remain constant throughout the game; the ball shape and sizes are fixed throughout the game but the speed of motion changes (well, to be specific, the effect of gravity on the balls and their speed increase, otherwise the balls’d fly off screen). There’s no cap on the ball speed and the later levels are just… WOAH (especially if you continue to survive the madness).
Super Breakout’s play has some punctuation as the bricks move into play, but that’s still potentially a road to nowhere with death the only ending. Arkanoid provided a far more considered feast with neatly arranged and varied portions further peppered with spices in the form of accessories (as ‘powerups’) rounded off with Doh for desert.
The purely endless experience feels right for the period but play’s less compelling when it’s not clearly apportioned and punctuated. So I ended up bleeding into 1978 and added a very basic level structure. It’s the difference between Mr Creosote being served everything mixed up in a bucket and a civilised dinner party; live jazz and pre-recorded pop. (I did try a ’song structure’ with play focussed on a metaphorical verse, chorus and bridge but couldn’t make that work, much to my disappointment.)
Each formal portion of play represents a comparable level of difficulty; a convenient measurement of play conditions so you know that play is consistent for as long as the level lasts. Distinctive levels provide focussed performance, like chapters in a book or scenes in a play. A portion of play in Juggle! is a guarantee that balls will be introduced at a consistent rate and will move at a consistent speed. That’s it. That’s enough.
I explored many different rules to trigger ‘level up’ such as:
- the number of balls introduced into play;
- the number of balls in play at once;
- the number of ball hits;
- the number of balls missed;
- the number of balls juggled over time;
- the number of balls not juggled (ie: keep so many balls on the go to keep the level down);
- the time survived;
- player score milestones and
- other, such as the completion of specific challenges.
I waivered with misses for a while but I liked hits advancing play. It takes skill to hit balls and feels right that you use skill to advance through the levels, to take on greater challenge. The challenge increasing when you miss balls, on the other hand, encourages you to keep balls in play, but advancing through the levels due to a lack of skill didn’t feel right; there was no scope to improve because you are punished so harshly for your failure. You also score more for faster balls (and should), so your potential for scoring increases by playing worse… I couldn’t square this circle, so I left it alone.
The ball speed and gravity are increased by a small percentage every level – and linearly. Larger and non-linear percentage increases in ball speed made play feel too pressured. To maximise fairness, the ball’s speed only increases when it’s hit by the paddle.
A new ball is introduced with every fourth ball hit (that’s any ball hit not four hits of the same ball). No idea why I went with four hits – it just felt right. I tried other methods of introducing balls, like timers, but there’s less of a sense of your involvement – no plausible cause and effect and not such a natural ebb and flow. In the final game, new balls are added as a result of four, three or two hits per level, in a wave pattern to give play an underlying undulation. I very much like the way this feels.