While many "hardcore" gamers continue to look down on mobile gaming, there are a number of studios who view it as a legitimate gaming platform, capable of the kind of "AAA" experiences we're used to. Phosphor Games is one of the front-runners, with the great Dark Meadow proving that it has the right stuff and can craft a memorable experience out of humble tools.
Phosphor's next iOS title, Horn, is coming to an iDevice near you soon. Before the launch of the studio's ambitious mobile project, we got to chat with director Chip Sineni about his game, the current state of mobile gaming, and whether or not those confounded touch controls really are as bad as people say.
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Horn tells the tale of a young boy (called Horn, duh) who wakes up in a devastated and barely recognizable dystopian version of his home world. Living creatures have been replaced by the Pygon -- undying mechanical constructs that view their previous fleshy mortality as a curse. Our hero carries a decapitated Pygon's head around with him, and the two share much mean-spiritied banter as Horn attempts to undo whatever happened to the world.
With the apocalyptic imagery and mono-horned protagonist, there are more than a few visual shades of ICO to the whole thing. Audiences have been quick to point this out.
"We are big fans of Team ICO’s work, and like everyone we can’t wait for The Last Guardian," confessed Chip Sineni. "The antlers in Horn’s character design actually came pretty late in development -- originally we had a envisioned a 'wolf mane style' headgear, but he looked too much like a killer of animals, and that idea involved into the antler helmet he has now, which is a traditional headgear of his village.
"All of that was independent of the gameplay design though. The inspiration for Horn's gameplay just came from our love of action adventure games -- Zelda, Uncharted, Tomb Raider, even older stuff like Soul Reaver -- there just aren’t solid games like that on mobile."
I've played some Horn already, and the named influences are very prevalent, especially Zelda. While players don't have a huge amount of 1:1 control over the hero, Horn is not on rails. Instead, players navigate the world using a point-and-click interface, while combat is focused on dodging around opponents and slashing at their weak spots.
"Something exciting about touch devices is that there is still room for innovation in controls," shared the director. "Like if you are making an FPS, there isn’t a lot you can do -- there are great standards with controllers or mouse and keyboards so you don’t really think about changing how you input.
"As much as everyone here at Phosphor is a big gamer, we all have lots of friends and loved ones that just are excluded from some of the cooler aspects of gaming. While anyone can pick up and play stuff like Angry Birds or Draw with Friends, most people simply can’t participate in AAA games. They not only don’t have the system, they don’t have the finger memory or coordination required to play, and it makes these types of games exclusive to a select group. ICO is a great example -- the story, characters, world, and relationship between the characters is this amazing, poetic thing everyone should experience, but you can’t tell somebody who isn’t a gamer to pick it up because it has some of the most hardcore platforming around -- the last levels in particular are very hard. They will never be able to experience it because of the requirements to play it. Forum posters clamor for Roger Ebert to acknowledge how great a game like ICO is, but he can’t even play it.
"With Dark Meadow we really wanted to make it easy for anyone to navigate around via just click on nodes, and Horn is a big evolution from that," he continued. "Basically you just click anywhere on the ground you want to go, and the character will go there. Swipe anywhere and you will look around. It is about as easy as we can make it and still allow for free movement. Whenever you do a context sensitive interaction, like a ledge grab or sidle, we just automatically change how you interact, similar to Uncharted or Enslaved. Once you get into combat, we do an automatic 'Z targeting' like strafe circle around enemies so your swipes can be used for swords instead of looking around. It took us a lot of prototypes to get down the system to be as seamless and intuitive as possible without a lot of button fumbling."
Personally, I've often found touch controls to be no more easy to grasp than buttons, which at least provide tactile feedback. I like touch interfaces, but they can be damn difficult to pull off in all but the simplest and most streamlined of games. Many gamers have similar concerns, and the most vocal have outright slammed the entire idea of touch input.
"I love physical controls, and I love touch controls done right," responded Chip, addressing such concerns. "You don’t have to pick one or the other, and one isn’t going to 'win' -- they both are appropriate for different experiences. Touch controls are a really great way to engage a new audience that might be uncomfortable with physical controllers, and are also really great for playing while laying down on a couch or in bed, which is where many people game. Physical controls are great for precision, manually managing a lot of different potential actions on a character, and rewarding players who are really skilled.
"They are both awesome and lead to different kinds of game experiences. I've been playing games non-stop since the 2600, and I'm just excited there are all these options and more people than ever playing games. Games are now this huge thing that everyone gets and participates in -- it is no longer a fringe 'nerd' thing, celebrities Tweet what they are playing, etc. People no longer look at you like they don’t understand what you are talking about when you say you play games. The Wii started that, and touch devices have taken the torch with taking games to the masses."
The trouble is, however, that hardcore gamers -- the sort that appreciate storytelling in their games and tend to veer more toward the "games are art" sentiment -- seem yet to largely embrace mobile gaming, and as such I often fear that the work going into games like Dark Meadow or Horn is wasted. Dark Meadow had a fantastic antagonist who deserved to be remembered, but I have a feeling he will disappear into obscurity. Does Phosphor not feel that it's playing to an empty room at times?
"It is hard to say," Sineni admitted. "There is way more overlap in who plays games on mobile and other systems than what forum posters would lead you to believe, and that audience is already looking for deeper experiences. We had over one million downloads for Dark Meadow, so it is really cool to us that so many people got to experience our little creation. If we instead released it on XBLA or something, we'd probably have like under 250k or so downloads, so we are just happy more people have the opportunity to play it.
"But there is definitely a lot of room for mobile to be recognized as a true game platform. We submitted Dark Meadow to the AIAS for 'Character Performance' and really, we didn’t think we’d beat stuff like Portal, we just wanted to get nominated. But we instead got nominated for 'Mobile Game of the Year,' which is of course a huge honor, but shows that mobile games are still put in their own little corner. I don’t think a mobile game was nominated for anything except that category, and it might be some time still before the industry just considers them as 'proper games; like PC and console. But we aren't really worried about labels or recognition or whatever, we just want to make cool games that people enjoy playing."
For some, mobile gaming will never deserve that recognition, but Chip believes such people have their blinkers on.
"People can be a bit narrow-minded in their view of the future hardware for gaming. There is no reason to think that the eventual future console won’t be a tablet or phone that can be hooked up to your TV and has a standard controller you use. That is exactly what I would do if I was Microsoft or Sony -- make some kick-ass tablet that you can take anywhere in bed or on the road, but hook it up for that full experience.
"You can already see an 'early version' of this with Tegra or Onlive where a controller hooks up to the tablet and the device displays on a TV. I realize it would be hard to get power and battery life in a tablet for a true Next-Gen console, but they could start with it being a bit thicker and heavy and make it slim over time. Also there is no reason for future consoles to be static hardware experiences locked into 7 year cycles. Both Apple and PCs have shown consumers understand their hardware gets outdated and they can upgrade if they want. And actually if cloud gaming takes that over, it doesn’t even matter about power- you could have a crazy supercomputer render graphics no consumer PC could even render, but pipe it to your phone that then goes on your TV."
With Dark Meadow already out and Horn due in the near future, it seems Phosphor is quite happy in the mobile space. Does that mean it's abandoned the realm of console and PC? Nope. It has some stuff in the works for the bigger boys.
"We love consoles and PCs. In fact, we are making a non-core Wii U title for a large publisher right now, and PC in particular is a very exciting space," replied the director. "How many times has PC gaming been declared dead, only to rise stronger? The diversity of successful games on PC is awesome. You've got your perennial stuff from Valve and Blizzard, you've got your console AAA games on PC, and then you also have all these oddities that shouldn’t be doing well but are -- stuff like League of Legends on the free side, stuff like Minecraft in this whole other direction. We are still working on a much bigger 'core' project that we have discussed before, we still can’t talk more about it at this time, but all of this is very interesting time to us."
That "other" project is undoubtedly Awakened, a game we've extensively spoken to Phosphor about in the past. If anything, the studio's success on iOS can only help to fuel the success of titles like that in the console and PC arena, and I think that's ultimately the key to making everybody happy. In the meantime, I'm enjoying what Phosphor's putting out for phones and tablets, and I think it's pointing to very good things for future, larger projects down the road.