Notunfun Goes Retro with Sea Snake for the iPhone
by Deborah M. Fike · 04/17/2009 (4:37 pm) · 3 comments
Many of us who frequent GarageGames have enjoyed a long love affair with video games. It's a badge of honor in some ways, to remember our roots with classic systems like the NES. I've been playing games since I was four, and I used to make peanut butter sandwiches waiting for our family's Commodore 64 to load up M.U.L.E., my favorite game.
Notunfun Games saw an opportunity to bring back old classics with new technology. Expounding on the classic snake games of yesterdecade, Sea Snake for the iPhone delivers an enjoyably addictive, intuitively fun experience by using these tried and true game mechanics and adding modern touches including accelerometer support for tilt controls, enemies, and pickups.
You might think games like these have past their prime, but Sea Snake broke all expectations by being an April 2009 iTunes Staff Favorite for iPhone games. Dev Jana of Notunfun gives you insight into how games from our past can come alive on the iPhone in the following interview.
What makes Sea Snake unique?The old snake games are one of the most underdeveloped classic game play designs. Bringing accelerometer support and tilt controls to the table was crazy exciting and opened the genre to new types of interaction. We wanted to take it a step further. Yes, the tilt controls and ability to turn at any angle (not just 90 degrees) were at the top of the list, but we wanted to push the genre further and add time-honored game design facets like pickups, enemies, and actual level design. Adding layers to the gameplay other than "turn at right angles and eat body parts in empty space until you die" seemed antiquated and boring by today’s standards.
We first added pickups with the coins and jewels in the game, but they didn't serve a purpose other than accruing points. That may have been fine in the arcade era, but we felt the points needed a purpose. As such, one hundred points became the value at which the user was awarded an extra life. Additionally, ten points are awarded upon completion of each level. Suddenly chasing down the purple jewel was of much more interest. How do you advance levels? By growing your snake to ten segments. Now the user could have a sense of accomplishment rather than playing until he/she eats himself to death – enough Americans are doing that already!
Where did your inspiration for Sea Snake come from?I realized that I loved snake games, but didn’t really see them advancing. There was a great flash version I used to play on the Wii through the web browser. It got old quick, but it was still the best “snake” game I had come across in a long while. As soon as I realized that accelerometer support would be the best way to play a snake game, I got to work using art that Peter West, my Creative Director, had made over a year previous for another game that was never completed. This was a Friday afternoon. By Sunday I had a working demo that was already extraordinarily fun to play.
Pete didn’t even know I was working on it! I remember texting him “R u ready 2 receive the first awesome email of the year?” and sending off a late alpha build. The following weeks we were like kids with a new toy.
Notunfun saw an opportunity to revamp an arcade classic. There had been drastic development in other genres like platformers, brick breakers, and shooters...why not snake games?
What was your development team like?The development of the game was a two-man-team. I hammered out the gameplay, then sent it over to Pete for finalized art while I worked on sound and additional scripting. This is how we've done things for a while. Mike Savarese at Cat's Cradle Studios came in to play a little later as the funnel through which the project was filtered for iPhone release. He was a wizard at fixing problems around which I could not wrap my brain.
What tools did you use to create the game?I'm a big fan of GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program), an open-source alternative to Photoshop. Pete uses Photoshop more than I do, and he did the majority of the art. For recording audio I use Cool Edit Pro which I've had for over a decade. Cool Edit was bought out by Adobe and became Audition, but I'm comfortable with the older version and can record CD quality audio with it. My main development PC is a quad core beast, but I also use an older box running Ubuntu Linux for some stuff. Testing was done on a number of PCs, Macbook Pros, iPod Touches, and iPhones.
We're also big fans of the Torque engines. I've been a TGB user once it was “Torque 2D” - an early adopter. There was no visual IDE back then! I teach Torque at Collins College in Phoenix and Pete teaches Torque at Brown College in Minneapolis. Our familiarity with the engine, its capabilities, limitations, and intricacies is rather comprehensive. The game we wanted to complete was well within reach of our timeline simply because we were using a Torque engine. We knew what we could to with TGB and that we could get it to the iPhone with Mike's help.
Describe some of your development challenges.There were a few intricacies of porting a TGB project to iPhone, but that’s where Mike came in. He handled the majority of our conversion process. One of the issues was physics. Apparently, once ported to the iPhone physics disappeared and had to be applied manually in script. While not a big issue, it took a while to figure this out.
As an audiophile, the iPhone's need to use uncompressed WAV files (as opposed to the OGG files I'm used to using in PC Torque projects) encumbered the game and bloated the size. I ended up having to scrap one of my favorite music pieces for the game because it was too long and the file was too big. I should mention that all audio files were 16 bit stereo 22050 WAV files.
Getting the input to work correctly was a bit of a hurdle. At first we tried using touch controls, but the size of the screen and the size of our fingers quickly made that seem like a bad idea. Any time you wanted to move the snake towards the top of the screen your hand covered most of your surroundings! The quick solution was to keep my finger in place and turn the phone, but then the interface was unreadable at extreme angles. Finally, we bound the controls much as you would to a joystick. This worked great with the tilt, but the vertical controls were inverted for testing. Not really a problem, but it was awkward to test like that!
Overall, it was a fun and relatively painless experience. Ultimately, it helps us plan better for our upcoming projects, so there was no wasted time.
Although Notunfun Games ran into some iPhone porting issues, there were relatively minor. Lessons learned will help them better optimize for upcoming projects.
What was it like publishing a game on the iTunes App Store?While this was our first game for iPhone, we had published a music/art app named GeoTones previously so the process was something we were used to. However, when Sea Snake was chosen as an iTunes Staff Favorite, we were excited. The following days were great watching the App Store every few hours as Sea Snake bounced around the top 100 Arcade Game Apps. As a serious comic book fan, my heart skipped a beat when we overtook LEGO Batman: Gotham City Games - I mean, to be ranked higher than Batman in ANY WAY is an honor to be reckoned with. When we passed Space Invaders my internal "geezer gamer geek" was ecstatic. Eventually, Sea Snake peaked at 70.
Initially we released Sea Snake and it was doing well, but not as well as we would have liked. Eventually we updated to ver 1.1 and simultaneously released Sea Snake Lite (a free version with 2 levels), which improved our visibility greatly.
What did you learn while creating Sea Snake?We learned (or rather reinforced our belief) that the iPhone, as a gaming platform, is truly one of a kind. There were so many hurdles usually related to input that are just out the window. Key binds, mouse, controller buttons/sticks, etc... gone. Reducing controls to tilting allowed us to just make a fun game. It was also an inspired game so it was developed quickly.
If we had to do anything again, I think we'd have benefited from testing out the control schemes before implementing them. Re-writing that was a bit of a hassle, but it wasn't nearly as time consuming as it it should have been. I think we would have also tried to drum up some publicity for the game prior to launch.
What are Notunfun's future plans?Notunfun is currently in merger negotiations with Cat’s Cradle Studios and we've got a couple projects on the table. Hockey Golf is in late alpha already and can best be described as mini-golf in a hockey rink. Mr. Twister lets the user play a tornado devouring a small town. Both should be available soon and both are being developed with Torque engines. I can honestly say that I’m looking forward to PLAYING both games, not just releasing them. Also, Sea Snake 1.5 is uploaded and awaiting approval by iTunes now. This version features more levels, more enemies, more pickups, and more music!
"As a serious comic book fan, my heart skipped a beat when we overtook LEGO Batman: Gotham City Games on the Arcade Game App List - I mean, to be ranked higher than Batman in ANY WAY is an honor to be reckoned with." - Dev Jana of Notunfun Games
Thanks for the many back and forth e-mails on this one, Dev. I hope to see you again at the Austin Game Developer Conference like last year. :)
For more stories like this, check out GarageGames' Developer Interview series.