a review of Angry Birds
a videogame developed by Rovio
and published by Chillingo
for almost as many devices as tetris
download ZiGGURAT instead
text by tim rogers
(You can get the ZiGGURAT soundtrack here.)
My friends and I made a video game. I’m going to talk about it for a bit. Maybe you’ll decide you want to play it. It would be nice if that happened. The game is called ZiGGURAT. As of today, it’s available for iOS devices — the iPhone and iPad. It costs a dollar.
I typically use this website to engage in my curious hobbies, one of which is to be a jerk about videogames, so that I can read the negative comments, brainstorming one-liners I’ll never utter. (Yes, the previous sentence was a sort of Weird Satire.)
Today, I’m going to be totally direct. Consider this a look at my professional side.
I’ll start from the top. I had to write a press release and an App Store description the other day, so I’ve obtained a level up on the skill of succinctly describing my product. I will say that it will be an honor and a privilege to, for this website, talk about my game without feeling like a marketing sleaze:
ZiGGURAT is a shooting game. You play the role of The Last Human On Earth. You’re standing at the top of a ziggurat. It looks like a mountain. Its top is in the clouds.
How did you get there? You don’t have time to think: you only have time to realize that you are holding a mammoth laser shotgun, and then notice that waves of cycloptic eyeball-headed blue crystal-skeleton Alien Freaks are jumping in your direction.
What you’re supposed to do is shoot them. You can’t move — you are at the top of the world. Maybe you are tired from the climb. Or maybe you are psychologically broken: this is The End Of The Human Race. Your mission is to either stand there and die or try to take as many of those alien jerks with you as you can, while listening to a pumping symphony of chip-tune progressive rock music.
Shoot the Alien Freaks’ big eyeballs, and they explode. As the Alien Freaks jump and land and jump again, their eyeballs grow and shrink. As you hold your finger on the screen, your bullets grow and shrink. The biggest explosion requires the biggest bullet against the biggest eyeball.
Big explosions envelop multiple enemies. They popcorn-pop in a chain reaction.
To aim, slide your finger along the bottom edge of the screen. I like this: the game does not require you to tap your fingers all over the screen. If you’re tempted to tap your fingers all over the screen while playing: realize that you don’t have to. Our controls track horizontal movement only.
Touch all the way on the left side to aim down and to the left. Touch in the middle to aim upward. Touch all the way on the right to aim down and to the right. Slide your finger to change your aiming direction.
Hold to charge. Release to fire. Shoot to kill. Play to survive.
Tiny bullets plop out of your gun and roll down the mountainside like grenades.
Giant bullets fly fast, in a straight line.
Of course, what goes up must come down: even the fastest bullets, fired directly upward, will come back to earth eventually.
I personally can’t think of a way to redesign this game for a controller with buttons in such a way that makes it feel better.
Blue Freaks jump up and down. Yellow Freaks crawl up the mountainside with stealth. Red Freaks will appear in a corner, wait a moment, and then fly directly at you. Fearsome Orange Freaks have forcefields — and will be responsible for hopefully as many virtual deaths worldwide as the birds in Ninja Gaiden on NES.
Then there are The Big Freaks. You’ll have to shoot them a bunch — and they aren’t affected by the other guys’ chain reactions.
And then there are Purple Freaks. Most of our testers can’t even survive, most of the time, long enough to see a Purple Freak. What do they do? I’ll leave that for you to discover.
Blue Freaks, while jumping, occasionally shoot projectiles. A level one or level two charged bullet will destroy a Blue Freak’s bullet — and itself, in the process.
A level three bullet can cut through multiple Blue Freak bullets, and still land a hit on an enemy. Big explosions might envelop bullets, canceling them out. They can also, of course, cause chain reactions, blowing up numerous enemies in sequence.
As you play, the sun in the background sets, and the universe ends. There might even be some surprises: ZiGGURAT is “endless, with an ending”. Once that ending comes and goes, you’re alone with the mechanics, free to grind your high score ever higher.
That is — until The Archenemy shows up.
We have a leaderboard for the player who has killed The Archenemy the most times. The game was released last Friday. The champion currently has . . . zero Archenemies killed. The Archenemy might be The Hardest Enemy Ever In An Action Video Game. Should the first player to kill him submit proof to me, that player will earn free Action Button Entertainment video games for life.
I feel like we weren’t sleazy, weird, or boring at all about implementing achievements or leaderboards. I feel like all of our achievements are about as humble as these things can get: defeat a hundred enemies in one game, defeat a thousand enemies in multiple games, et cetera. One achievement asks you to kill one Purple Freak. Another achievement asks you to kill fifty Purple Freaks in multiple games. I wonder how many people are going to be able to do that? Three days on from release, only one person has achieved that. His total play-time is in excess of eighteen hours. He must like the game a lot! I’m glad to have been a part of something that someone likes that much.
In programming our game to track all of these achievements, we happened upon the idea to give players a “stats” screen. This is neat: the game just literally tracks everything. It’ll tell you how many games you played, how many shots you’ve fired — all that stuff. If you like numbers going up, then this could be your favorite feature. There’s even an achievement for “Fire 100,000 bullets in multiple games”. And it doesn’t stop there — you can always go back to that statistics screen between games and see how your numbers are doing.
At the end of a match, you can Twitter-tweet or Facebook-post your score:
“Before dying, I managed to kill one hundred and eight of the alien freaks who killed everybody else.”
We liked this part so much that we threw in another number: from the options menu, you can tweet or Facebook-post how many games you’ve played and alien freaks you’ve killed in total:
“In 123 deaths, I killed 4,567 of the alien freaks who killed everybody else.”
I like that. That’s about as “social game” as I want to get. (Trust me.)
Now that I’ve introduced the game . . .
Now that I’ve introduced the game — and provided a convenient link for you to buy it — I will go ahead and type a whole bunch about the development process. Maybe you’ll find it interesting. Maybe you’d rather play a game (like ZiGGURAT!) on your iPhone! You can do that, too. I’d rather you play the game than read the following Great Wall of Text. If you like the game a whole lot and then decide, “Hey, I want to know a bunch about how this little game was made,” then please go ahead and read the following, and when you’re done, let’s all be friends forever (maybe hug each other sometimes in person, etc).
THE HAMBURGER MOMENT
Lately a few services have popped up with generally the same idea: give game players real-world things for fake-world achievements. “Physical rewards” is what they call it — that’s a term they didn’t have context for back in the age of cereal box toys. I did a little bit of number-crunching work for a start-up that was waving this particular flag with vigor. When I talk in broad terms about being “a game developer”, that’s usually what I’m talking about. I’m not trying to boast: I’m just trying to not be too boring: my day job is crunching numbers (not to be confused with munching numbers. (I’m good at that, too.))
The idea is that you “get stuff” when you play games. Usually the “stuff” is coupons to save money. Score fifty headshots in a particular level of a particular first-person shooter, and you might get free fries with the purchase of a hamburger at McDonalds. Maybe another achievement gives you a second hamburger if you buy a first hamburger.
I’ve never heard anyone aside from myself use this term, though maybe people will in the future: this is the couponization of games.
Of course, my Game Developer Friends and I joked about this relentlessly. We joked about devising a game wherein a particular achievement would net you a free can of Mountain Dew. However, since all gamers (stereotypically) drink Mountain Dew constantly, it’s sayable that gamers can’t play a game without Mountain Dew. This achievement would require 1.2 cans of Mountain Dew to unlock, so Mountain Dew wins, in the long run. We laughed at this and other ridiculous hypothetical scenarios.
Then I had a couple of serious thinks: maybe we want to actually do this. Is there anything in our game that’s worth giving the player a free hamburger if he can accomplish it?
Throughout the process of developing ZiGGURAT, I kept The Hamburger Moment in mind. For the purposes of my thinking, I presumed — without actually reading too many fine details about the various services available for mobile game developers — that the player could repeat the achievement repeatedly, to earn more hamburgers.
The first serious think lasted maybe twelve seconds, and the answer was: no, our game lacks a Hamburger Moment.
So I gave it more thought. I tweaked a couple of my ideas. We added an enemy type or two. We added a couple of Easter eggs. I assessed the ease of a couple of weirder elements of the game design.
This forced me to really focus in and approach our game as though it were a pinball table: all the elements are right here in front of the player, and specific actions will unlock access to other areas, lights, or targets. In today’s tiny-screens-a-plenty game design universe, pinball is a profound thing to revisit.
This was a fascinating way to look at it: you could have a hamburger-shaped target tucked up in the corner of a pinball table. It could be in the hardest place to get at. You could usability-test the table, and see how many times that target gets hit per ball, on average. You could then round that number up to the nearest five or ten, creating a “goal” in the player’s mind. If the player knows he’ll get a “Free Hamburger” ticket if he hits the hamburger target ten times, he’ll consciously try to do just that — even if he only likes hamburgers a little bit.
Now you test again: you see how many times the players hit the hamburger target. The average is probably higher. You increase the number of hits required for the achievement again, and there you have it: you have just tuned a hamburger.
Of course, not everyone likes hamburgers. However, this isn’t the point.
Fast food joints have “buy one, get one free” sales and coupons all the time. It’s a gimmick. So we can’t really say that “one free hamburger” equals a “dollar”, or however much a hamburger goes for. It’s a risk the business is taking. Maybe we shouldn’t say “hamburger” so much — the “hamburger” is primarily in the mind. This is about risks in general, not hamburgers specifically.
Supermarkets put milk and bread on opposite ends of the store, for example. Everything is marketing; supermarkets are real estate; real estate is geometry. Games have plenty of geometry.
Games are seldom vehicles for tangible real-world growth and achievement, even of the hamburger variety. However, here we are, thinking of bold new possibilities.
Here’s what we could say about the player who’d go for The Hamburger Achievement:
1. He likes hamburgers
2. He likes the game that could win him the hamburger
Which of these is true, most of the time? Either one of them is true most of the time. The ideal audience for a “social” or mobile game is someone for whom these two apply in equal measure.
Somewhere, I determined that the ideal player of our game was more #2 than #1. Our ideal player is playing this game because something about it brought him here, and the hamburger is a surprise.
(Aside: I shudder to think of the player who would suffer a game he hated simply for a chance of saving a dollar on hamburgers. (It’s possible, however, that the game such a person would dislike could be highly interesting.))
Ultimately, we come back to the hamburger being primarily in the mind.
Think number four, today, yields that every single element of our game — every enemy type, every moving target, everything we’d otherwise call an Xbox Achievement, and every little twist and nuance — has a hamburger moment dangling off of it. I could say I’m not sure how that happened, and then say, “Enjoy!” Or I could do what I’m going to do, and try to perform a quick little autopsy of how I designed our game.
Before that, allow me to conclude that what started out as a couple of guys sharing a good laugh about The Latest Thing Those Marketing Jerks Are Doing turned into genuine introspection about my game design. So: that’s neat. Thanks, soon-to-be-billionaires.
The Genesis of ZiGGURAT
Draw a circle. Draw two tiny dots in the top third of the circle. Draw a little straight line in the lower third of the circle. Make sure the straight line is shorter than the distance between the eyes.
You’ve just drawn an abstract artist’s take on my facial expression the first time I played Angry Birds: its brilliance had shocked me into true neutrality. Here was a video game that was unpretentiously all play mechanic and level design, and it was simultaneously, miraculously dripping with money-scented cologne.
My formal opinion was, ultimately, that Angry Birds is “the video game we deserve”.
My informal opinion was that Angry Birds is an incredible collision of game design concepts, and it works. It’s got a pinballish sort of recklessness and a Super Mario level of depth. It’s a game — like Peggle — in which you make quick decisions by way of a user-friendly one-touch tool rife with nuance. In manipulating Angry Birds’ slingshot, the player will, in less than one second, choose just one option from a pool of literally hundreds: how hard are you going to shoot that bird, and at what so very precise angle upward or downward? Players will not hesitate to make these decisions. They’ll stretch that slingshot and let it snap, again and again. I’m the guy who stares at a restaurant menu until my date calls her mom or a taxi; I’ll sit and stare at my new Skyrim characters for literally an hour before I can dare to start the game. Decisions paralyze; Angry Birds doesn’t. I fling those little birds all over.
And then there’s the core of Peggle: you’re making a decision and witnessing the consequences. It’s beautiful and delicious: these aren’t just video games, they are wind-up toys. Angry Birds is a “wind it up and watch it go video entertainment experience”.
After launching a bird, you make little secondary decisions, deepening the nuance pool. It’s incredible. Past a certain point — after they got the game to feel right (which could have taken nail-biting months) — the game probably designed itself. I say that as the highest compliment.
Every third or fourth level of Angry Birds is an Achievement Unlocked in itself. It’s glorious. I look at that game, and I think about the money, and I cry a little bit.
Way back before I started crying a little bit, way back before the game was on T-shirts at Target, there was me, on a subway train, playing the game for the first time, on the first stage. I slung a bird. It knocked some stuff over. I said, “Okay.” I knocked over some more stuff. I said, “Aha.”
One minute later, I said, “I still don’t like the characters.”
Two minutes later, I wanted a “driving range”. I wanted stuff to be falling down constantly, and I’m over here at this crazy distance, slinging birds at it. I imagined a game wherein a hero is against a wall at the end of a long tunnel. Enemies are coming at him. Maybe it looks like “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. Maybe they’re bats. Yeah, that’s good: bats. That way, they can be at the top or bottom or middle of the corridor, and flapping and flopping in irregular paths. So you use slingshot controls to fire these for-some-reason-very-slow-moving bullets at these bats. You have to sit there and watch the bullets approach the targets. You have no limit to bullets you can shoot. Depending on your firing angle, you can sacrifice speed for accuracy. Speed knocks the bats back further. You’re just — keeping a bunch of bats back. Okay — there it is. That’s a video game. I put it into the idea vault.
A year later, I was sitting next to a guy on the Bay Area Rapid Transit headed from Oakland to San Francisco. I wouldn’t have been sitting next to him if there’d been any other seats available. He stunk like Aqua Velva and Listerine.
He was playing Angry Birds. I couldn’t help staring at his phone screen as he played Angry Birds. He was playing one of the expansions. He was a seasoned pro. He played like this — maybe you’ve seen this, or played like this: he flung a bird; he let it fly for two seconds; he made a little sound in his nose; he tapped “pause”; he tapped “reset”. This process repeated a dozen times before he let that first bird land. Then he fired another, was dissatisfied with its arc, and reset again. This was a stage he had cleared already: he was trying to clear it better.
So, again, refer to the abstract cartoon you drew of my face. I remembered my Bat Game idea. And I thought, “Maybe I should make that.”
I told my friend Adam “adamatomic” Saltsman, creator of best-selling iPhone game Canabalt and Flixel, the Flash library used to make Canabalt, that I had an idea for a game and I wanted to try making it myself. I said I thought Flixel was right for me. He encouraged the decision.
I tried to make my game. An hour later, I had made no progress. It was that thing that hangs me up all the time when I’m trying to learn some aspect of programming: within the first six steps of a tutorial, the tutorial will reference a preferences menu check-box which just doesn’t exist. Or it’ll spend twenty steps explaining how to install an IDE program, and then, in step twenty-one, say, “Okay, now program your game!” Or it’ll be like “This is a tutorial for absolute beginners wishing to learn to program in Flash.” Then, in step twelve, it’s like, “Of course you’re intimately familiar with C++.”
All my previous experience making games had been in an environment surrounded by dozens of people who knew what they were doing and for some reason listened to me when I had ideas. I decided it would be in my best interest to find some of those — who also weren’t on the clock and making Big Dollars to listen to my suggestions. How did I do this? Well, it’s a Web 2.0 Miracle: I tweeted.
I said I wanted to make a game. A couple of people contacted me. Nobody ended up making a game with me. I ended up meeting Bob “Bob’s Game” Pelloni at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco in 2010. We started making some games together while I continued my work as a consulting game designer. At one point, while we were working on a game I’d been calling ZiGGURAT, we decided we should be auditioning artists. I tweeted into the void: if anyone wants to be the Action Button Entertainment official artist, please submit a fan art of the Japanese box art of Phantasy Star II. One gentleman answered the call in under an hour, and his submission was incredible. He was Brent “Porterhouse” Porter. It turns out he’s also a programmer, a musician, a painter, and a 3D artist. He’s now a founder of our company.
Ultimately, in the summer of 2011, we decided we wanted to make an iPhone game to distract us from our Much Bigger Project for a couple weeks. Bob was against the idea, because iPhones don’t have buttons, and he believes buttons are necessary for fun — and besides, we have “button” in the name of our company. I was certainly not against making a game with no buttons. I didn’t have much time for it, between the balancing work I was doing for mobile applications and other assorted consultation work, though I wrote up a document and we all looked at it and thought, “Oh, that’s kind of cool”. Who was going to make it? We didn’t know.
I remembered that Some Kid From The Internet had emailed me once, about a game design concept I threw out during a column on Kotaku. The basic idea was that it was sumo wrestling with the graphical presentation of Pong. This Kid From The Internet had actually mocked up the game in Unity, and it was fun. I asked if he wanted to finish it. He said he was busy in his last semester of school, so I let it drop. It had been a whole bunch of months since then — and summer was well underway. Maybe I could ask him again? I asked him again.
His name was Michael Kerwin, and he is incredibly, capably responsible for turning my tiny idea into an actual game.
About a week after he said he’d do it, we had ZiGGURAT. It didn’t have any graphics, or sound.
Soon, it had graphics. I jammed out some insane and rough music with my band, sent various scraps to my spirit brother Andrew Toups, and he somehow wove together a perfectly composed original eight-bit symphony of sound — in the original Nintendo sound format, even.
The music was breathtaking. I had it on loop in my home for several days, during which every person who walked into my living room stopped and asked, “Oh man — what game is that from?” Or “Wow, I feel like I’ve played that game before” or “I know this is not from any existing NES game, because no NES game was precisely this awesome”.
(Months later, on the eve of its release, my band members and I revisited the bucket of ZiGGURAT riffs in a live tribute to Mister Toups. here is that tribute.)
Once that music was in there, the game started to sort of feel like something.
So there was our game. It was a playable little thing. I showed it to my friend Bennett “QWOP” Foddy, who deemed it sort of interesting.
Six months disappeared, during which I went on deciding how much real-world money fake-world brick-wall segments — or the luxury of removing a purposely unsightly rock or weed from a fake-world garden — should cost a social game player. I was sick of the social games thing — I found the whole thing ugly. If any aspect of games development is better called a “racket”, it’s social games. I still had ZiGGURAT on my iPhone.
I still had hundreds of game reviews on my website, including that list of my twenty-five favorite games of all-time, with Out of this World at the top of the list and Panzer Dragoon and Cave Story and Canabalt elsewhere on that list. On my list, I established a theme: that I like games who are minimalist in their presentations, tell a “story” with their atmospheres alone, and allow the player to joyfully exhaust the depth of the mechanics because simply playing feels wonderful. (Also, ideally, a game has you punching someone in the face within five seconds of the word “go”.)
I looked at ZiGGURAT, with its depiction of a world ending and a lone hero standing atop a mountain, fighting off wave after wave of alien marauders as a genuine piece of amazing music plays, and I thought — listen to that music. It’s perfect. It’s incredible. I listened to it in earbuds. It felt amazing. Why can’t the game live up to this? We could put in more enemy types. We could map a progression. We could make something incredible happen in the background.
So, with a few emails, the band was back together, and the painful process of turning a surprisingly robust prototype into An Actual Game worthy of my own deepest, harshest critical sensibilities began.
I will not say that I am satisfied with ZiGGURAT as a game critic. I will, however, say that by seeing this process through to the end, I know how best to begin the next endeavor. And there will certainly be another endeavor (and sooner than you think): by now, we are all spirit brothers — whereas before, if you’re keeping score, it was just me and Toups who were spirit brothers — and during the making of this game a dozen fantastic ideas fell out of my head, and so we are brimming with confidence and uncontrollably exclaiming “Yay” every thirty-ish seconds.
Back to the part where I said the process of turning this iPhone application Bennett Foddy had called sort of interesting into something he today calls a great videogame was “painful”: it was, for at first, all I could suggest programmer Michael Kerwin were mathematical tweaks based on a gut instinct of the way such a volume change would feel. Then, one day, on accident, me and Bob were laughing it up about the latest achievements-monetizing start-up, saying we could make a game that requires Mountain Dew to play and nets the player free Mountain Dew for playing it well.
A minute later, I was sincerely thinking about Hamburger Moments — feats of game-playing dexterity so intricate and simultaneously achievable that you’d imagine a fast food chain gladly awarding a player a “buy one hamburger, get one hamburger free” e-coupon each time they nailed the feat.
Today I come to you with, in the palm of my hand, an electronic package full of Hamburger Moments.
It’s also a fun game. Maybe you’d like it. I’d like it if you were to play it.
“What if you could earn free hamburgers . . . by eating popcorn?”
That was the hypothetical question that occurred to me. Remember, I don’t actually like hamburgers. And I’m off the popcorn — really, carbs and butter at the same time? I might as well stick a gun in my mouth while I’m at it. I’m solely trying to evoke the stereotype of popcorn, here: it’s fluffy and crunchy, it’s delicious and salty, and it is most often consumed to enhance the enjoyment of something else — blockbuster Hollywood films, for example.
Games used to want to be the blockbuster Hollywood films. Some of them still do, even: triple-A titles like Skyrim or God of War don’t just involve you or immerse you: they absolutely require your unflinching attention for an unbroken period of several hours.
However, people don’t just play games at home anymore. We’ve got YouTube and Twitter and Facebook. We’re all now, each of us, the stars in something infinitely more interesting than reality television: we’re each of us a glittering chunk in this mammoth social media amoeba. Few among the smart-phone-owning people of the world can eat a new burrito and not succumb to the temptation of reviewing the place on Yelp . . . or at least checking in on FourSquare. Our lives are too fast and too interesting for us to care so much about films or books, and if we stopped in place to literally eat popcorn while watching ourselves live our own lives, we’d not be able to do anything else, and also we’d get fat and our skin would get greasy and we’d look awful in our Facebook photos.
So this is where I start to think of mobile games as electronic popcorn — psychological electronic popcorn — little pockets of amusing, pleasant friction to consume at any time we please. In tiny doses, mobile games — as “psychological popcorn” or “electronic toys” — can jog our brains just a little bit, like a sip of energy drink for the soul. The best mobile games can make our lives fascinating the way popcorn can make “Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon” slightly less of a reason to commit involuntary suicide.
So I thought: let’s make such a mobile game: let’s take this thing we already have, and hone it into a little polished experience. Let’s make an electronic popcorn, let’s populate it with little secrets, and let’s make it feel instantly good every time you start playing it.
(Sorry: I might have brushed shoulders with a marketing executive on the train today.)
If nothing else, it’d be a fantastic challenge for myself — to actually finish something simultaneously incredibly brief, terse, and deep.
I decided I didn’t want it to have a narrative. I didn’t want it to have “level design” or “progression”, because once I’d get started on either of those things, it’d have to be perfect or I would never let myself release it to the world (you should see how many finished sci-fi detective stories I have in my Google Docs).
For the same reason, it couldn’t be a puzzle game.
Maybe this was me proofing myself against the eventual inferiority complexes I’d feel when booting up games like “Where’s My Water?” or Drop7 or Triple Town and just groaning so hard I want to cry because . . . why the heck can’t I think of a game like this?
So what I had emotionally whittled myself down to was: I need to make an iPhone game which adheres to Fumito Ueda’s loose game design dogma, only without the puzzles, and guns instead of puzzles (guns are cool), and the guns would have to feel like a Treasure game (Treasure = [heart symbol]), and every little explosion or friction or screen shake would have to feel as visceral as pinball, and the secrets all linearly require the player to survive longer. And the graphics would have to look like a Super Nintendo game, because I like Super Nintendo games. And the music would have to sound like a Nintendo game, because I like Nintendo games’ music and I don’t care if it isn’t a hundred percent fitting for a game that looks like a Super Nintendo game.
Eventually, I thought, “Really, the only way to do this is to have one gun.”
I felt dishonest trying to put in other guns. Here’s me psychoanalyzing myself, a bit: if you put a bunch of guns in your game, it’s hard to tune all of them equally. It’s like having a bunch of children: you can tell yourself you love them all equally, though really, how can you? We can’t measure emotions — and with something to which we are not instinctually linked (like: a gun in a little shooting game), we’re clearly going to end up liking one gun more than another. Part of me finds it a tiny bit disingenuous for a game to have multiple weapons or play styles, and the other part understands it perfectly: you’re giving the player choices. Some players might love the flamethrower in Contra III: The Alien Wars. Others might hate it. You never know. Maybe I’m a weirdo for liking the standard machine gun in Gunstar Heroes more than all the other weapons (I can beat the game on hard with just that gun). For whatever reason, I felt like it was my duty to myself and this game to have just one gun that is so satisfying you wouldn’t ever want another one.
For example: what if Halo only had the pistol? The pistol is fantastic. However, the level design (and skill level of online multiplayer opponents) often obscures its glory. What would the game be like if it were designed to support only the pistol?
Answer: it would probably be different.
So I was back to Fumito Ueda and Eric Chahi again: Chahi’s Out of this World has just one gun, and it does just fine. You charge it up to fire bigger shots. Charge it up twice as long to make a shield. It’s a brilliant gun. It’s a shame it’s not implemented in a game which is strictly action-centric. It’s also a shame that the aiming controls for the bow and arrow in Shadow of the Colossus don’t feel as good as the sniper rifles in Call of Duty. Here’s where you tell me I’m comparing apples and oranges, and I won’t disagree. I am, however, obliged to point out that you’re welcome to (silently) compare apples and oranges when someone hands you an apple and you were sort of more in the mood for an orange.
So this is what was going on in my head during a self-doubting period of several minutes following a phone call from some Stanford Guys who wanted help pitching a social-mobile game to “Some Top Investors”. I agreed to help them pitch their game, and take their money for it. I hung up the phone and said to myself, “Okay, you jerk: now pitch Something Real to Yourself.”
This is what I came up with: “Rather than try to make ‘social’ mobile game interfaces that involve the player in something of a self-contained reality television program about a pet shop or a zoo, let’s make the video game equivalent of a music video.”
Then I said, “Well, here’s ZiGGURAT. That already has fantastic music. Let’s make it work. Let’s make it worth a whole bunch of people’s one-dollar bills.”
A few half-distracted months lazed by, and eventually ZiGGURAT was working. I had some popcorn inside my phone. I played it at bus stops and on trains. People looked at it and made interested faces. Eventually, because of my Silicon-Valleying, I got a shorter haircut and started wearing sweatshirts and blue jeans instead of my usual Batman-villain look. People started coincidentally approaching me, asking what the game was. I told them I’d made it, and to follow me on Twitter, because it’d be out soon. I think I got three new Twitter followers that way. (Hi, guys.)
In October, in desperate need of health insurance (I have an enlarged prostate), I interviewed for several creative director jobs at medium-sized software developers located in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s sort of a full-time job to interview for a director position — it’s at least as much of a full-time job as shopping at IKEA. Much as you’d think it can’t take more than two hours, you end up in there for eight hours, have a one-on-one with everyone in the building — including the doorman — and are invited out for cinnamon buns afterward. Some of these interviews were “a good fit”, and some of them weren’t. I was able to tell with 100% accuracy when a job interview was “not a good fit”, to a point where I could have cut off the CEOs’ “We’ll be in touch” with my own, “Actually, I don’t think this is a good fit” without either of us losing any more face than the other.
One of the first job interviews, which had been an exceptionally good fit, came around to the CCO sitting back down in the room and asking me: “Just like you, a lot of these guys here have worked on triple-A games in the past. A lot of them came in here and needed some convincing. They knew what sort of funding we had and were wondering if we were going to make some triple-A products. We all needed to back away from that expectation. We’ve all come to terms with doing it this way: we’re technically ‘starting small’, though that doesn’t mean we are necessarily planning to ‘grow’ or ‘go big’.”
“Small is the new big,” I said. “I understand you perfectly.”
“Huh. Yes — yes, though what I’m saying is, I just . . . I just want to know that you really, truly understand that.”
I showed him ZiGGURAT.
Everyone who ever plays ZiGGURAT flubs the controls. This is why we’ve put a tutorial in.
This CCO didn’t flub the controls: he got fifty-eight kills in his first play. He also didn’t ask me why my iPhone is in a primary-red “Zynga” case.
The average number of kills in a first play (if we subtract this outlier) was, at that time, four.
“This is fantastic,” he said. He looked at me: “Are you selling this?”
“Do you have a monetization strategy?”
“I’m thinking . . . a dollar.”
“You mean, a premium app.”
“Yeah. For a dollar. People like it, and then tell their friends to play it.”
This CCO was the first person to not suggest that I add smart bombs for Maybe Five Cents Each.
“You should add some social features. See how it does. I bet you could make a dozen games just like this in a year. Why would you want to work for us? Who made this with you? Are they your friends? Keep working with them. Churn these things out. This thing is beautiful. Fuck Facebook games — do these.”
“I . . . I’d kind of like your dental insurance,” I said, with a chuckle.
“Start up your company, and you can have your own dental insurance six months from now.”
“I kind of want dental insurance now,” I said, extending the white lie: “I need a root canal.”
“Add some social features to this.” He gave me back my iPhone.
“Like leaderboards. We’re doing those.”
“Yeah. Just . . . track everything.”
So, now the game tracks everything. Players can view detailed stats from the options menu. There you have it: numbers going up to oblivion. Do you unlock things for increasing the numbers? Maybe you do. I won’t spoil it.
Apple Game Center lets you have up to twenty-five leaderboards. One of our leaderboards is “most shots fired in multiple games”. How hilarious is that? At some point soon there will be a “Most total shots fired” ZiGGURAT world champion. Then, of course, there’s the “best average total shots per total kills” leaderboard. I like that one: it’s got finesse about it. You have to really decide, going into the game, that that’s what you want. And what you want is: to be a bona-fide god darn champion.
“There’s no shame in making little games,” this CCO was saying, and I was thinking about how, if we could track the “best average total shots per total kills per game” quotient, and make it a leaderboard, and if we also had a “best single-game score” leaderboard, and a “best average kills” leaderboard, and a “most total kills” leaderboard — that last one could be anyone’s, regardless of their skill, if they just keep plugging away at the game . . . then we’re looking at a one-screen, one-stage, one-gun, text-free action game with a degree of mechanical depth and finesse. This is how I started thinking about electronic popcorn: people call the iPhone “a toy”. ZiGGURAT: Your iPhone just got a whole lot toyer.
Then I was playing Gears of War 3 — a thick, delicious, sweaty pizza with potato chips on top of it. “I want to make something like this,” I thought.
Then, the night we finished what I dared call the “final” build, dead tired, I laid down in my bed, installed the app, and . . . proceeded to play for a whole half an hour.
I guess I like this little game. I’ve spent so many hours — between other tiring hours of working (and working) — thinking about it, playing it, telling the guys it’s not good enough, and being generally dissatisfied about the smallest things, that I can’t say I ever really thought we’d end up with something I feel confident publishing. Though hey: here it is. It’s done. It’s a Neat Little Thing. And now I have no doubt in my mind that we can craft and polish more shiny little toys in one tenth the time each: we’re all on the same wavelength, now, and we’ll stay that way.
The Game As Music Video; The One-Hit Kill As Pop Art
ZiGGURAT is a music video.
This is an idea I pitched to Goichi Suda many years ago, while I was working at Grasshopper Manufacture: let’s make little 3D action games that are, essentially, music videos. Let’s sell them on the PlayStation Network or Xbox Live Arcade for three dollars each. Let’s get Masafumi Takada to do amazing music. Just one track. Here’s an idea: the player plays the role of a man whose wrists are cuffed behind his back. His wrist-cuffs are tied by a chain to a post in the middle of the floor. Okay, at the beginning, we see the man’s face as the camera fades from black. He’s a ‘Fist Of The North Star’ sort of guy. He’s chained up to a post in the middle of the ground in a dirt pit. All around him are shutters. He wonders . . . “Where am I?’ Then the shutters fly up. Screaming crowds and monstrous people. The music begins to pump. Thugs with baseball bats come streaking toward him. Let’s call the game ‘KICKMASTER’. This guy kicks at these freakish thugs. It controls like an FPS. The music is huge and loud. The graphics are just some leftover brushed-up tweaked No More Heroes models. So you kick guys and they ragdoll into one another. You hold the trigger and then let go. Pinball kicks. Shotgun kicks. Kick with the left trigger or right trigger — left leg or right leg. Just kicking to the music. Just relentless action. The longer you survive, the crazier the freaks become. Maybe they have different weapons. Maybe you can kick a spiked baseball bat out of one guy’s hand, and if it hits another guy, he’ll go flying. Maybe if you kick a guy right in the torso, his torso explodes out of his body like a projectile, slamming into a bunch of other dudes, blowing their arms off, as the original guy’s arms fall onto the ground. And the music keeps pumping, and changing — the music is a genuine piece of pop art.”
“What are the mechanics? How does your guy die?”
“He dies if a single enemy touches him.”
Suda made a concerned facial expression.
“I don’t know if people will like that.”
“Sure they will.”
“Is that cappuccino cup in your hand full of espresso?”
“It’s a good idea — I’ve got a dozen more just like it. People would love it. We can mock it up in Unreal in two hours.”
“A dozen more, huh? . . . Write up twenty, and let me see them.”
I wrote up twenty-six.
Ultimately, teaming up with Electronic Arts to make a triple-A first-person shooter seemed like a better decision: people loved first-person shooters, and Electronic Arts has a lot of money.
Looking back, I feel like I could have pitched the one-hit kill a lot better. I could have said it was like Tetris — you’re trying to keep these guys away: closeness represents danger. I could have said the enemies throw projectiles (beer bottles? baseballs?), and the game kicks into slow motion while the player retains full control speed with which to aim a kick and fire it off.
We could have talked about the presentation of death: the music should be of such urgency that cutting it off anywhere, with an instant snap to freeze-frame and breathless snap to red, would feel thematically consistent.
So, years later, here’s ZiGGURAT. Unlike Tetris, the fear of death does not creep in. It arrives with immediacy. Suddenly, you’ll find the screen full of enemies and projectiles, and you’ll feel hopeless for an instant. Except there is no such thing as hopeless: at any point, one shot is all you need to clear the whole screen. It’s just a matter of whether you are a tough enough super-player to take that shot and make it.
It took hours of tuning to make sure that shot is always available. And so, at the end of the day, we had a game where, if we tested any one key-frame on the difficulty ramp and could survive for more than ten seconds, we had us a game that someone could absolutely survive forever. It’s just a matter of holding on. And if you die, so what? You can start over.
And then, in the final weeks, I realized that the Action Item I’d been ignoring at the bottom of my list was now at the top: “Scream sound effect”, it read.
There’s this sound I make with my guitar. In front of captive audiences (we lock the door), I can make this sound repeatedly, in the dark, for minutes on end. I love this sound. You can hear it in this video:
Notice I’m playing different notes of different lengths. These would later be combined (with some drum and other sounds) and “crushed” to give a more distorted, eight-bitty kind of digitized feeling. I felt it was necessary to make the ending break through the wall of the chiptune soundtrack by bringing in sounds of a slightly realer world.
“That sound. Holy moly, that sound,” my friend Doug Jones said, after I played a round of the game on my iPhone in his kitchen in Indiana the week before Christmas. “What on earth is that sound?”
“That’s . . . it’s a guitar.”
“Hey, I have entire record albums by eccentric Japanese musicians who make sounds like this repetitively for an hour.”
“You’re also kind of a weird guy.”
“Well, seeing as this is a game about the Last Human Alive and The End Of The Universe, and since the game only ends when the player dies, I figured it would be thematically consistent if the presentation of death was a sort of pop-art project in and of itself.”
“I guess it’ll make people not want to die!”
“. . . There’s that, too.”
Here’s where I doubted our game for the six millionth time. Is it too morose to make a game about death? Tetris is about death, in a way, though it’s at least courteous enough to only star geometric shapes and not feature any abstract human scream sounds.
Well, the aliens in ZiGGURAT have big eyeballs and are kind of cute in a murderous way. You could make little plush toys out of them.
Here’s where I doubted our game for the six-million-and-first time. Katamari Damacy is the cutest game on the planet and it still manages to provoke morose emotions in me: that last stage, where you grow to an enormous size, lolling fat and alone in the middle of the ocean. Why didn’t we make something like that? I want to make something like that. Or I at least want to make something like Noby Noby Boy, a Rubik’s Cube with no end goal — just a thing to twiddle and feel like you’re accomplishing something, until you realize that you’re just going to die someday anyway, so maybe that’s why this intelligent, thoughtful man made his game look so cute and pleasant.
And here was our game — a chunky soup of cute and strange, its soundtrack flopping between tweety and morose, its sound sometimes so loud you’ll claw the earbuds out of your ears, its characters weird, its colors primarily primary, and its plot focused squarely on death. What a weird little thing we’ve made. Well, hey: the gun feels good. The gun feels great. That’s what I want in a game: I want a gun that feels great.
THIS IS A GAME ABOUT CONCENTRATION
Just three days since its release, people keep asking me why there isn’t a pause button in ZiGGURAT.
The short answer is that I am a jerk and I don’t want a single non-game-world object on the screen.
The long answer is: you know how, sometimes, in a really intense game (think about Contra), you’ll pause the action, and then die immediately after you resume? ZiGGURAT is that game, put into a blender, whipped into something drinkable.
Other players complain that the first thirty seconds of ZiGGURAT are too slow-paced: this is, I assure you, only in comparison to how awfully hectic the game becomes by the end. To endure five minutes of gripping dread, die, and then have to start over from “the easy part” is not the easiest break, psychologically. The game would be a thousand times easier if it started out as intense as it ends. Trust me — also trust me that the game you may be playing may actually, in fact, be only the tip of an iceberg. What if I told you we have nine hours of scripted events hidden away in that game? We’ve given this game more than any player will ever see.
The Archenemy is only the beginning.
It goes like this: if the end-game is tuned in a way that I personally can survive for thirty seconds from a cold open into the end-game, then the nine-hour experience is balanced. Who will survive it? They say you can never underestimate the player. We’ve tried very hard not to do that.
Katamari Damacy recalls the joy of rolling a ball; Noby Noby Boy recalls the joy of stretching something flexible. It took vision tantamount to artistic vision to identify love of those frictions and then turn them into games.
The iPhone strikes many as an opportunity to make an application which is about a small friction. Remember “iBeer”? It was a simple application for the iPhone — the screen fills with virtual beer. Tilt the phone, and it empties, with a liquid pouring sound effect. Well: okay. The guys who made that made a million dollars. I remember seeing that, and thinking, “Someone will make a bubble-wrap simulator next.” Soon enough, there it was: virtual bubble wrap. I felt sad for a moment, because real bubble wrap isn’t just about result: it’s not about just the sound, and it’s definitely not about the graphics: it’s about the joy of the friction — of actually feeling that air-filled plastic under your fingernails. Bubble wrap on your iPhone is just a noise-making toy. It assumes that because we enjoy something, we must love any set of two of its elements (which excludes at least one other element) enough to pay Real Money for it. I wasn’t sad for too long: I eventually remembered that people who are happy for a moment will likely promote the idea of others being happy for a moment; we might as well keep all these happy thoughts floating around. And so five years — five years! — have passed since the appearance of the iPhone. As far as I can see, half of the people working creatively seek to make memes because memes make people happy; the other half want the fortune and glory.
I remember that Shigeru Miyamoto had only ever wanted to be a toy designer. The videogames he helped make — and I mean this in a manner most awestruck with admiration — could not be just toys, because they were busy learning to be technology first.
Well, those days are over.
Unlike every other games start-up in Northern California, I don’t want to be The Next Zynga. (Not on purpose, anyway. If a billion dollars comes knocking on my door, it’s fairly unlikely that I’ll tell it it has the wrong house.) I just want to make fun things on my own quirky terms, and by doing so earn sustainable enough income to afford a 2013 Subaru STi hatchback and a prostatectomy at some point in the near future.
I see mobile phones as an opportunity to make Genuine Little Toys which happen to be games with rules and possibly even little worlds whose stories you feel at a glance. Their being electronic is a coincidence. I intend ZiGGURAT as a casual little snow globe of an electronic toy, and simultaneously as a gosh darn air-tight hard-core video game owing much of its soul to all things Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis.
Shigeru Miyamoto also once advised players who had played all of Super Mario Bros. to try attaching made-up, whimsical restrictions on yourself: try completing the game without collecting a single coin, for example. Shigeru Miyamoto invented Hamburger Moments.
They say Shigeru Miyamoto designs games based on his hobbies. I want Action Button Entertainment to base our games on our hobbies: our hobbies are identifying great things about great video games.
Shigeru Miyamoto talked about gardening; years later, we had Pikmin. Anyone who could have heard Shigeru Miyamoto was enjoying gardening and then designed Pikmin ahead of Miyamoto could just as well predict lottery numbers. Now Nintendo forbids Miyamoto from talking about his hobbies in public.
I’m going to tell you what I like, and then I’ll tell you why: I like Ibara Black Label. I also like Rubik’s Cubes. There’s a right way to solve them. No Rubik’s Cube is ever more than nineteen moves from solution. Many people don’t know how to solve a Rubik’s Cube. They do, however, love the feel of its plastic and know by heart the iconic quality of its shape and colors. I want to make games which are the holy offspring of Ibara: Black Label and a Rubik’s Cube. I think ZiGGURAT is one such game. We’ve got another one coming shortly afterward — and then another, and then another.
It looks like we’re ready to keep making games — slightly bigger and slightly better, one at a time. Polished bags of electronic popcorn. And I promise — I promise — we’ll never make anything with a zombie in it.
And then, one fine day–we’ll have the funding we need for me to finally make that triple-A open-world action-adventure beginning on a street basketball court in Chicago of 1994 . . . and ending with the NBA Finals.
you can view ZiGGURAT’s official website here.
Read action button dot net’s official review of ZiGGURAT (with text by adam saltsman) here.