Today I have Reto Senn with me, from bitforge, who worked on Orbital, a truly innovative and addicting game that my girlfriend and I [and friends] just can’t stop playing. In fact, just the other day I got the 13th highest score in the world of 159 on Gravity Mode. I also find it to be an incredible game for showing off your iPhone. It’s incredibly fast to learn, but quite deep. In the two player mode, both players play opposite each other across a table which makes it ideally suitable for a mobile device instead of a computer.
I know that when I first saw Orbital, I thought of it as a knock-off of Puzzle Bobble (a.k.a. Bust-A-Move), but once I got it, I discovered that it’s much more than that. Each shot will create a ball that expands until it reaches either the edge of the screen or another ball and if you hit a ball 3 times, it explodes giving you a point. What were your inspirations for Orbital?
First of all, congrats on your score in Gravity Mode, i have yet to break the 100 points barrier. Did you know that Dane Cook is 8th with 171 Points? People are really addicted, the average playing time of all players is somewhere around 5 hours, with some people maxing out at 100 hours. That’s the amount of time people usually spend with role-playing games…
Anyway, to get to your question:
Adrian, the guy who programmed Orbital, and Andreas, who acted as Producer,
were addicted to a flash game called Gimme Friction Baby. Very simple, very basic. They just couldn’t stop playing, i gave it a shot and was addicted as well. The game felt like a raw gem. But man, was it tough. We wanted to provide something that everyone would play – so we experimented a lot, we tried many different things but in the end what really worked well were gravity and multiplayer. So we stuck to them and left out the experimental stuff.
Initially, we also wanted to have a pinball feeling… a lot of action going on. We knew we wanted to have voice-overs, but no one here speaks English without an accent – so we had to go with a text-to-speech engine. And we wanted the robot to be a bit sarcastic, like we are.
And we included online high scores and facebook so people start to challenge each other. Some experiments also went into the direction of Bust-a-Move, now that you mention it.
Graphically, we wanted to do something impressive, that really wowed people. We knew it will be something space themed, and we needed to show the gravity. That’s how the grid came into being.
Many players notice its very simple scoring mechanism. On the first game of Gravity Mode, a player’s first score is usually 5… while somewhat disheartening, it also gives the player a challenge … “I can do better than that!” and they have to play again. Were there other considerations for a more complex scoring mechanism or why did you choose this?
During the experiments we had other scoring systems – but they just didn’t add to the fun. As soon as you are in the 10,000s or millions, your score becomes a fuzzy number in your head. We like it the way it currently is – you can really compare your scores and you know how good (or bad) you are at the game. We saw tweets from people who were happy about a high score of 2. It really motivates people – they think they can do better than that. And if they take their time, they will.
Orbital is in the category of the “one button” games for the iPhone. No matter where you tap, it simply fires the ball in the direction of the turret. Was your idea that the game should be a game of timing or did you just think that would be the simplest way to interact with the game? Also, did you experiment earlier with other ways to control the play?
We were developing mobile games and there was this wave of timing based one thumb games. They really work well on classic mobile phones (as they usually have crappy input for games). The game should be playable with just one hand free so you could play it almost anytime, anywhere. Accelerometer based games for example just don’t work when you’re in a bus or train.
Also we wanted to keep game-play sessions in short bursts of about 3 minutes so you could take out the game, play a round and put it back. The simple controls also help the game feel so deceptively innocent and simple.
There was a mode where the shot would fly where you tap but it broke the game as you could play it almost infinitely. Many people were asking us for such a mode though so we are currently working on it and i think we’ve found a way to make it work so the game stays challenging and short.
What are your future plans for Orbital?
As mentioned there will be a new game mode coming, it will address most of the requests we had from the community. You will be able to control your shot and you will have progressive scoring – but even though in theory it should be easier, we’re going to mess with your mind so you will get greedy and lose.
OpenFeint is something we’re currently investigating. Achievements were in our initial list of features and maybe we’re going to add them. Anti-chievements for extra-bad gaming was also something we considered, but i don’t think people are ready for this yet Online multiplayer is also something we’re currently thinking about, but we need to think about how we want to do it.
Do you have ideas for other similarly minimalistic, yet addictive games for the iPhone?
We are currently working on an unannounced title that will not be self-published, and we’re working on publishing high-quality games from other developers. We are currently evaluating new concepts, but for now we keep on improving Orbital.
I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but I learned about your game during a presentation at 360|iDev, an independent iPhone developer conference. David Whatley, developer of GeoDefense, presented Orbital as an example of bad PR from a very fun and polished title… and recommended that we all buy it. Going on that, how did you try to spread the word about your game and what worked well and what didn’t go so well? What are your future plans to get the word out?
We knew that just putting the game on the appstore just won’t cut it (anymore). We knew we had to spread the word, so we created two videos, a gameplay preview and a launch trailer, a launch press release and wrote to all the blogs we knew. We had a person dedicated to doing this as we knew this is vital. We managed to get glowing pre- and reviews from most blogs, but we weren’t able to sink into the awareness of the masses. We were featured on the front page of the App Store, in the 3rd position. That’s some of the best advertising you can get. But as soon as the featuring was gone, sales ditched. Except for Japan. There it was always staying not on the top, but in the awareness of people. As soon as we did our recent sale, Orbital skyrocketed back to #2 in Puzzle games.
One big mistake we made though is that we didn’t have a free version available at launch. We should have done that. The free version should be out this week (it was rejected due to the use of an iPhone icon for the buy button), and there will also be an update to the game as mentioned before. In order to really spread the word on it we are working with TriplePoint, the PR Agency which David Whatley recommended. We will be able to tell in two or three weeks if this works out – we hope it does of course.
I just noticed today that you also have a flash demo of Orbital on your website. I see it’s not perfectly the same as the iPhone version, but very close. Are you using the same codebase for both versions or is the Flash version a complete port?
When we started working on the flash version we weren’t sure if it will be possible to recreate the iPhone game visually. What you see now, the gameplay and physics are the same, visuals are almost the same but there are some things missing or slighly different in the flash version.
The code is a port of the iPhone code – it’s the same code (or parts of it), just written in ActionScript instead of C++. Of course, there’s no OpenGL or OpenAL in Flash, so Sound an Graphics had to be completely rewritten. It was actually pretty easy for us to do the port, as the iPhone code is already highly portable. Since this month we’re licensed PSP and DSi developers, so stay tuned
Well, I wish you the best of luck! Thank you very much for your time and I think I’ll have to go back to trying to beat the top score now… If you want to try to beat my high score, you can get Orbital on the App Store.