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Michael Brough continues to carve out his own corner of the App Store with Helix Exclusive

Michael Brough continues to carve out his own corner of the App Store with  Helix
October 21, 2014 | By Mike Rose

October 21, 2014 | By Mike Rose
More: Smartphone/Tablet, Design, Exclusive

Developer Michael Brough has somehow managed to carve out his own little market in the tricky mobile space.

While most developers are looking to tick all the "what makes a best-selling mobile game" boxes, Brough continues to put out quirky, experimental experiences that stick out like sore thumbs. Really quite kick-ass sore thumbs.

"I guess there's something of a barrier to entry for mobile?" Brough ponders of the situation. "Apple demands annual tribute for the privilege of making their products more valuable, and Android is just a confusing mess I don't know what is going on."

Plus, notes the dev, it's far easier to experiment with PC games than on mobile. Developers experiment on PC because that's where games get made -- it would take a great mobile gamemaker-like tool for waves of interesting, experimental games to appear on iOS and Android.

"I don't know, I just find the games I'm making feel appropriate on an iPad," he says. "It's working for me. I'm not trying to make a statement."

With his latest, Helix, Brough has taken a relatively simple concept -- drawing rings around enemies to kill them -- and made it feel fresh and original.

"There are some earlier games with a similar concept - Quantum, Spirit," he notes. I actually wasn't aware of these when I came up with the design. But there's a fundamental difference in that those games are about enclosing regions with enemies in them (much like Qix) while Helix tracks your rotation around each enemy individually."

"Finding a secret in a game is kind of an intimate moment of connection. You know what they were thinking, they know what you saw."
"I'd been trying to make games with these kinds of topological concepts for a while," he adds. "Regions, winding numbers, knots. But what makes Helix click with players is that when I actually made it I wasn't coming at it from that direction, I was just trying to make controls that felt good. And then once I was moving around in a playful way, hey, I already had something in my toolbox that fit into that movement."

Helix has another trick up its sleeve too -- a smattering of underlying mystery. There are numerous secrets to be found in this game, and barely any signposting to discover them. Instead, players are sharing their experiences on social media, and piecing together how to uncover each of the game's obscure rewards.

It's an angle that Brough has played around with before (see Vesper.5 for example) and is becoming more prominent among more experimental devs. Anyone who has been a little too obsessed with Desert Golfing recently knows the feeling.

"The thing with putting secrets in things is that really you want them to be found," says Brough. "You want to know that's going to happen so you're not wasting your time."

"So practically I think when you're starting out, you're better off spending your time on the surface, because chances are nobody's going to play it in the first place, let alone find things hidden," he adds. "Like some of Droqen's older stuff is full of secrets that I think nobody's ever found, until he eventually hit on the right balance with Starseed Pilgrim."

Brough himself is now at the point where he feels safe burying secrets in his games, because he's fairly confident someone will dig them up eventually. But, he notes, "the parts that aren't hidden affect more people so they merit more attention."

"Finding a secret in a game is kind of an intimate moment of connection," Brough reasons. "You know what they were thinking, they know what you saw. Maybe the ideal secret is one that exactly one person ever finds? But what that means is completely different if that's one among tens or one among millions."

But Brough is also a little skeptical about some methods for hiding secrets in games -- specifically those secrets, like in the aforementioned Desert Golfing, that are all about investment of time.

"The Desert Golfing / Vesper.5 way of doing 'secrets' is not to hide them in any cunning way, but to just demand players invest time to get to them," he says. "And that's quite enough to provoke that kind of chatter, to fascinate us."

"And I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that? Games with secrets kind of act like temporary religions, demanding devotion in exchange for shallow mysteries. They're junk food for our sense of the numinous.
Not that it's wrong to eat junk food sometimes!"

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