The indie talent backing the PlayStation Vita is steadily increasing as the system approaches its US and EU February 22 release. Last month, Everyday Shooter
developer Jon Mak shared how
Vita's technology allows for interactive music to form the key of Sound Shapes
' platforming experience.
The Vita's array of inputs, including its front and rear touch-enabled surfaces, has also grabbed the attention of Honeyslug
developer Ricky Haggett, whose games have found their way around events such as Eurogamer's Indie Games Festival and the Indiecade Expo at E3. However, Honeyslug has put everything aside to create microgame collection Frobisher Says
Here Haggett speaks on the team's progression of Frobisher Says
from a Flash prototype to a handheld console title, on the challenge of communicating to playtesters the required actions on each microgame, and the approachability of the hardware for iOS developers.
How did you get involved with Vita development?
Earlier this year, we were asked by Sony Europe whether we wanted to submit a proposal for a Playstation Vita showcase app -- something which would highlight the unique features of the device.
We had previously attended Sony's Vita presentation to developers, and our main reaction to the device was, "Wow, this thing does a lot of different stuff!" All the controls of a dual-shock, plus front and rear touchscreens, tilt, accelerometers, front and rear cameras (with facial recognition), compass, GPS, microphone… just thinking about the possibilities was a bit bewildering.
Then Dick Hogg
, our collaborator on several other games (including Hohokum
and Poto & Cabenga
) suggested making a bewildering game which would use ALL of the inputs -- and jump between them at high speed! And so Frobisher
What kind of game is Frobisher?
is a surreal party experience in which players must obey the instructions of a strange little man called Frobisher. Frobisher is spoilt, used to getting his own way, and his orders are often quite whimsical. You might be asked to deliver his pudding on a toy train, poke an otter with a stick, or face Antarctica and curtsey.
There are over 50 different challenges, and each one uses different features of the Vita in different ways. We've also worked with over 20 different artists (from all kinds of backgrounds), so in addition to the input mechanism of the games constantly changing, so too do the way they are presented.
What games served as backgrounds for Frobisher's research/dev? I'm thinking Rhythm Heaven/Tengoku or WarioWare...
The main 'minigames game' that influenced us was Rhythm Heaven
, which Dick and I are both big fans of. That game definitely informed the flow and atmosphere of Frobisher
at the start. I consciously didn't go back and replay WarioWare
or the Raving Rabbids
games, because I didn't want to be directly influenced by them.
The games in Frobisher
are actually more inspired by Frobisher's world -- they came from us thinking about the character and what kinds of things he would demand you do, then intersecting these thoughts with the unique opportunities the Vita controls gave us.
What tools and tricks did you use to develop Frobisher?
Our starting point was the C++ engine I built for Kahoots Minis
on PSP. The process at Honeyslug is that we prototype everything in Flash first (Actionscript 3, Flex Builder 3), before moving it to its target platform.
I've built up a pretty comprehensive game framework for 2D games in Flash, which makes trying ideas out really fast - and we also have the benefit of the Flash IDE - which is wonderful for laying out screens/GUI - and the ability to publish an SWF and send it to anyone to run, which is particularly useful when you're working with so many different people, many of whom are on Mac, and live in a different country.
I then have a C++ implementation of this engine, with C++ versions of all my game framework classes, plus a layer which provides the basic functionality of Flash (Sprites, MovieClips etc).
We hired an awesome engine coder called Caspar Sawyer, who also makes his own games, under the name "Public Domain Corporation Ltd.
". Caspar has his own cross-platform engine, for which he started making a Vita implementation, while I integrated my engine on top.
It took us about a month to get to the point where we could make games in Flash, check we were happy with them, then port rapidly to Vita (each game taking somewhere between half an hour and a day to move between Flash and Vita, depending on the complexity).
Then we spent another month getting all of the inputs wired in -- first the 'traditional' controls, followed by touchscreens, then motion. After that it was audio, and more recently we've been getting PlayStation Network functionality in, clever camera features (including facial recognition), and support for some fun shaders.
Whilst this has been a lot of work in a short time, the Sony libraries have been really helpful, so we've been able to get things done quickly, which has been great.
Sony has claimed to make the Vita a much easier platform to develop on. How has your experience been?
[W]e've certainly found it to be very smooth. The SDK and dev kits are really easy to set up, and the integration with Visual Studio works great. We found the level of support we received from Sony's dev support team to as good for Vita as it was for PSP -- they reply promptly and get to the heart of the problem, which helps issues get resolved really quickly.
In terms of the hardware itself, we've really enjoyed working with the device. Apart from using all the input devices (for which the Sony APIs work great), Frobisher
is technically fairly simple -- certainly compared to AAA games like Uncharted
-- but we've been able to leverage the speed and power of the device in another way. Instead of trying to fit as many polygons as possible, the Vita's power has given us quite a free, relaxed environment to work in (not unlike working in Flash).
All the time we've saved by not having to optimize our engine to make graphics fit is time we've spent working on the fun stuff instead - timings of animations, honing the jokes, and most importantly, refining the gameplay to make something which plays and looks fantastic. It's been especially good working with professional animators -- used to working in film, where they can have as many frames as they like -- and actually having the memory available to do their work justice.
The design has benefitted hugely from this atmosphere of development going smoothly and things being technically achievable, and we've had a lot of fun coming up with games inspired by the input possibilities of the devices. I think my favorites (and the ones that playtesters seem to love most) are the ones where the mapping between the game and inputs is most transparent. Frobisher says "Scratch my Back" is a good example of this -- as is "Smile at the Ladies, Don't Smile at the Badgers"!
Speaking of playtesters, what's Frobisher and the Vita like in their hands?
From our playtests, one of the most challenging things has been communicating with players how exactly the games are to be played. For most games it's obvious, but we've had some trouble with the ones involving the touchscreens, because there are a lot of possible input mechanics when you have front and rear multi-touchscreens, and we don't want to have to break out into a tutorial, because that would ruin the quickfire flow.
We started off with animations which attempted to visualize what to do with your hands, but we found that to actually be counter-intuitive: if you show a diagram that attempts to show people what to do, they just mimic it, without actually looking at the game or thinking about the solution (especially against a time pressure).
We now have more general control hints -- showing the part of the Vita which must be used, but not the exact action. Players must then look at the games, and interpret the correct response -- which is actually part of the fun of Frobisher Says
(although hardly any of our games are deliberately obtuse!).
We also noticed a strong bias in players' first reaction to many games being to go straight for the front touchscreen, despite seeing a control hint which tells them otherwise -- which must come from constant use of smart phones! It'll be interesting to see how this phenomenon develops throughout the course of the lifespan of the Vita, and whether rear touch, or front + rear touch can develop control-memes of their own -- allowing players in the future to intuitively understand that something in a game is probably 'rear multi-touch', without having to be explicitly told.
What would you say to iOS developers considering the system?
If you've made an iOS game in C++, you shouldn't have a problem making something for Vita -- there are plenty of sample 'starter games' to refer to if you're new to the platform. You'll need to buy a Vita devkit, but if you're a PC-based developer, there's a similar level of expense investing in iOS development -- buying devices and a Mac.
We used the same Flash-like engine for Frobisher
as we did for the PSP and iOS versions of Kahoots
, so for us there was plenty of crossover. A solid understanding of the issues surrounding multi-touchscreen input for games will certainly be useful for Vita development.
And yet some people may worry about the pre-existent touch market share held elsewhere. How would you propose Sony overcome such challenges?
Vita seems well placed to do well in the hardcore experience stakes: it's super-powerful and has twin analogue sticks, so we should see plenty of console-like experiences coming out for it. It feels like it's hitting a spot that nothing else is right now -- as the announcement of that ridiculous extra stick for 3DS would seem to attest.
I'm much more interested in seeing to what extent Sony support a marketplace for games and applications which will appeal to a more casual gamer: the Vita offers so many possibilities that it would be a shame to focus too much on hardcore gaming experiences at the expense of everything else. I would hope they'd be looking at the App Store, and thinking about how successfully it appeals to a wide range of different sorts of people.
Any closing thoughts?
Overall, we're really excited about Frobisher Says
, and the Vita generally, and it'll be interesting to see what kinds of audience they attract. Initially, there will no doubt be solid uptake from Sony's core customer base, but beyond that we'll be looking at the extent to which it can attract other kinds of people, and hoping Sony can position it as a something which appeals to non-hardcore gamers, in the way that they have the PS3 (which many people - myself included - use as the main media device in the lounge).
As a consumer, a device which can perform the role of an iPad -- but also let me play twin-stick shooters -- has considerable appeal to me. And as a small indie developer, we're keen to see to what extent Sony can engage with the market for smaller, downloadable content - the early indications are positive, and the possibilities tantalizing!