As part of the continuing "Road to the IGF Mobile" feature at Gamasutra sister site Games on Deck, we talk to the staff of Punch Entertainment, including founder and CEO Tobin Lent and Creative Director Steve Nix about the IGF Mobile 2008 Best Game and Innovation in Mobile Game Design finalist Ego, an online mobile virtual world.
What kind of background do you have in the game industry or in making games?
Tobin Lent: The team at Punch has been making mobile games since the beginning of the industry in North America. We created some of the very first games to go live on US carriers such as Astrosmash, Defender and several Intellivision titles.
We then went to work on several innovative and high-profile titles over the course of the last five years, numbering over 75 titles collectively. These include award-winning and top-selling titles such as Fox Sports Racing, Fox Sports Football, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, NCAA Football, Mega Man, Ghosts 'N Goblins, King Arthur, Space Invaders, NBA 3 Point Shootout, and Tron 2.0.
As Punch we've released titles such as Bam Koala: Jungle Hero, Hunting Unlimited, NBA Slam, Gunslinger and the upcoming Mobile Battles: Reign of Swords, the first in our Mobile Battles series of multiplayer battle games. We are very excited about this game as well.
What motivated you to make your game?
TL: Punch is focused on community-based gaming for mobile phones. We believe the mobile games industry is moving into its next phase of evolution. Phase I was dominated by ports from other mediums such as PC, arcade and console. We think Phase II of the industry will see highly innovative applications that are specific to mobile.
We believe that heavily viral, community-based games that take advantage of mobile's strengths (mobility and connectivity) will be the most successful. As a result, we wanted to create a community game that was fresh, easy to get into, fun to play, could be shared with other people, and was made just for mobile.
We came up with the idea for Ego by focusing on these elements through several brainstorming sessions. We had a lot of fun brainstorming ideas and came up with a lot of crazy stuff. We eventually landed on Ego, because it could leverage mobility through social connections, and we could have the Egos participate in all kinds of fun games and activities.
Where did you draw inspiration from in its design and implementation?
Steve Nix: The inspiration for creating Ego came from a desire to design a game that provided players with a fun way to meet new people and keep in touch with them. The game needed to combine modern communication methods of text messaging, blogs, and social websites into an entertaining experience where the player's avatar developed by interacting with the rest of the community. The game's avatars needed personalities that immediately revealed something about their owning player, so that they were their representative to the community even when the player was offline.
Evaluating these game design goals immediately led to the interesting question, "What determines and defines a person's personality?" The short answer to this question was, "An individual's choice of behavior and the behavior of their immediate social circle."
This answer guided the development of Ego's personality attribute and icon systems. With these game systems, player avatars (Egos) could grow and evolve their attributes by interacting with each other, but the matter of quickly expressing their personality in a snapshot was still needed.
To describe the current state of an Ego's attributes, the common personality archetypes found in psychology felt too clinical to use in a game setting. Instead, the classic archetypes of high school seemed a better fit and expressed more information about how that Ego might behave or who they might get along with.
Another bonus to using the high school model was the unique visual look that each archetype possessed, which led to the game's reward system of unlocking archetypes to gain new visual customization choices. With the archetype and visual customization systems in place, a player could now reveal in a snapshot not only their avatar's current personality but their entire personality history by mixing in the visual elements of previously earned archetypes.
The core game of Ego was complete, with the rest largely devoted to making communication between players and their Egos as fun and easy as possible.
What sort of development tools have you been using in the production of your game?
Kyle Poole (Technical Director): The great thing about programming for mobile is that most of the tools are open source and well-supported. We used the NetBeans IDE with carrier Wireless Toolkit SDKs, which allowed us to quickly test on the phone emulators during development. The complex character animations were created with a custom Ego Animator tool, which allowed the artists to visually create the animations to be imported into the game.
What do you think the most interesting element of the game is?
TL: I think the deep level of interactions Egos can have with each another is really interesting. Egos can fight with each other, make out, flirt, dance, argue, give gifts, compete, play games, chat, send messages, et cetera.
I haven't seen this deep level of interaction in too many casual avatar-based games, and definitely not in mobile. It's a lot of fun and there's really no limit to what Egos can do. We'll continue to add more activities, games and things for Egos to do. It's really limitless.
I also think the fact that Egos have their own unique abilities, stamina and emotions that can develop over time creates a lot of unique gameplay and interactive elements.
SN: The fact that a player's social circle and the Ego community at large have a huge impact on how a player's EGO evolves. While a player is offline, their Ego is still growing by interacting with other players. When the player next logs on, they get to watch replays of their Ego interacting with buddies or meeting new people. In a sense, the player is always connected to the community through their Ego.
Spencer Chi (Project Manager): The ability to socialize with another person based on some simple search criteria has a lot of potential.
How long have you been developing your game, and what has the process been like?
SN: The core design of Ego was written over a period of four months, with a part time focus along with other games in development. The design was then tweaked and improved upon over the course of a year's development time. The process was very iterative, as new technical breakthroughs were discovered that would improve the game design.
TL: Since Ego is such a new concept, we were constantly testing the game, playing the game, and then tweaking based on our own experience and feedback from other people. Ego really evolved a great deal throughout this process, and everybody at Punch contributed ideas.
If you had to rewind to the start of the project, is there anything that you'd do differently?
SN: I'm very pleased with the final design for Ego. The benefit of rewinding and starting again would certainly be in the speed of the game's development. There was a great deal of uncertainty due to the technical constraints of the mobile devices on just how much we could fit in and still provide a good experience across different handsets.
This is always an issue with mobile development, but as Ego was really trying to push the limits on what a mobile game could provide the development process was slow and extremely challenging.
What are your thoughts on the state of independent game development in the mobile industry, and are any other independent mobile games out now that you admire?
TL: There are actually some great mobile games out there by independents, but the problem is that they are difficult for the average consumer to discover due to limited promotional opportunities on carrier decks. Distribution and marketing channels for mobile are terrible right now. Critter Crunch and Nom were cool games, and I'm eager to play some of the other IGF finalist games. I really like our own Mobile Battles: Reign of Swords game as well.
SN: I'm happy to see more games being designed to take advantage of the unique advantages of mobile, rather than in spite of them. As a pure game platform, the mobile phone has overpowering competition. As a social or communication platform, the mobile phone is on top.
SC: Independent game development in mobile is difficult without industry veterans who understand how to design, execute, and distribute on mobile. Porting costs are probably several times over what people think they are. Even understanding all that, it still requires a really innovative product that can be discovered by the consumer in channels outside of the carrier decks.
The only mobile game I've ever admired is Mobile Battles: Reign of Swords. The game is very deep, but does not require a big time commitment. It's the only mobile game I've seen that can be played competitively against another player while not requiring the players to be connected live. I get excited to see responses to my challenges or new challenges awaiting--it's incredibly addictive.
You have 30 seconds left to live and you must tell the mobile game business something very important. What is it?
TL: The size of our industry is small compared to where it could be. The key to meeting our industry's potential is to develop fun games that leverage mobile's strengths and can spread among consumers effortlessly. We think community and social connection are central to this idea.
There are a lot of problems to fix in our industry. It's going to be a long, hard road. But I think the journey will be worth it in the end.