Case Study #5: Angry Birds and Gasketball
You could play Angry Birds with a keyboard, just the same way we used to play Scorched Earth on a PC. The up and down arrow keys pitch the angle of the bird, left and right pull back the slingshot, and the space bar fires. But by being a touchscreen game, Angry Birds offers children of all ages the joy of reaching out and literally touching their game character with their finger. That slingshot-stretching sound enhances the perception that our flesh is making something happen. It's barely tactile, but it's still tactile. The world inside the touchscreen is a little cartoon still life of a pinball machine; we wind it up and watch it go.
I'm not here to talk about Angry Birds' innovations or branding or level design (which all sort of suck, to be perfectly honest): Let's just say it feels like something. It's not something that we necessarily have to be touching, though it is popular as something that we touch.
It's safe to say that Angry Birds would not be popular without either its branding or its mechanical particulars. Angry Birds is as much a house of cards as any hundred-million-dollar property. My opinion, though, is that the controls and mechanics are as sound as the characters are ugly, and that without the surrounding game design the birds would be dead on a street corner somewhere. (I mean, they don't even have wings.)
I wouldn't be surprised if one Angry Birds-esque stuff-throwing "clone" is released on the app stores of the world every six hours, but only one stuff-throwing game stands out -- and this is a perfect way to end what I'm trying to talk about in this article.
Gasketball for iPad is a game about throwing basketballs into basketball hoops. On the way to the hoop, your ball must bounce off of various objects or walls. You must sink each stage's basket challenge in one throw.
The speed of the balls' flight through the air is faster than four of the angriest birds taped together. The physics are deliciously swift. Yet the controls are not a keyboard-surrogate touch-slingshot. They put Angry Birds on Xbox 360, you know. You can play with just an analog stick. It's actually intuitive and highly playable.
Gasketball would be neither intuitive nor playable at all with an analog stick: In order to shoot the ball, you trace a swooshing pattern, putting spin or speed or power or all three behind it simply with a flicking flourish of your finger. The range of expression contained in a single 0.15-second input is astounding.
Once you've beaten one "world" of stages -- the game gives you limited balls; lose them all, and you start the set over -- you unlock the ability to play a time-attack mode, and here's where my brain lights on fire. It's like Angry Birds, only you are angrybirding for your mortal life, at reckless speeds, applying full labyrinths of brainwork to every twitch of the finger.
This is what a touchscreen game is: a single simple joyful motion pregnant with consequence, birthed into a stage where things are happening. You must time your action to fit between, around, or through obstacles.
In short, touchscreen action games require incredible feel in simple actions on the tens-of-milliseconds scale, and superlative level design. Hey -- that sounds like all other action games.
Call of Angry Birds
Gasketball is as "real" a game as Call of Duty (at the very least).
I first learned about Gasketball from Bennett "QWOP" Foddy, after showing him our tennis-like ball-and-paddle game TNNS (iOS/Android). In TNNS, aftertouch is everything; you tap the baseline to move your paddle, then slide or tap your finger along the baseline during the 0.xx-second freeze-frame impact after the ball hits the paddle to bend the ball's flight path. The bend is relative to the distance from the paddle (and ball) at which you released your finger, and the time it took to travel there. You can change the direction twice -- tap twice on opposite sides of the baseline to do freaky right-angle bends. It's fun for multiple players (and it has a single-player mode, too!).
After showing him TNNS and getting his approval ("TNNS is great." - Bennett Foddy, Oxford University), I told him we had something more fun in mind for a golf-like game. I explained it, and then Foddy said I should try Gasketball. I saw one YouTube trailer, and almost chewed a row of teeth-holes in my bottom lip. Well, great minds think alike, et cetera. It just might be that some of the Great Touchscreen Games of the Future are here already, and more are arriving as we speak.