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Prototyping, Playtesting Vita Minigame Title  Frobisher Says

Prototyping, Playtesting Vita Minigame Title Frobisher Says Exclusive

October 27, 2011 | By John Polson

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 was born.

What kind of game is Frobisher‭?‬

Frobisher Says 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!‬

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