The last time Powerhead Games was up for an Independent Games Festival award, the New York City-based developer won IGF Mobile's Best Mobile Game Design category for its unique DSiWare puzzler Glow Artisan (now available on iOS/WP7).
It's up for IGF's Best Mobile Game award this year for another puzzler: Async Corp., a saccharine title featuring a catchy single-song chiptune soundtrack by FearofDark, and a simple but addictive puzzle gimmick.
As new employees of Async Corporation's packet handling facilities, players are tasked with sorting through blocks on two separate grids, swapping pieces from one side to the other to create bigger squares, or Packets.
Players earn promotions as they fulfill Packet quotas in Async Corporation's various modes, unlocking themes and receiving emails from their unseen overlords in management.
We talked with several current and former Powerhead developers -- designer Matt LoPresti, artist Chris Makris, programmer Randall Li, and CEO and creative director Jason Schreiber -- about the metagame behind Async, its musical inspiration, and how the studio is coming back this year after major layoffs in 2011.
What development tools did you use for Async?
Jason Schreiber: We used the native SDK and tools offered by Apple. Namely the UIKit framework, as well as interface builder. We used Corel Image to tint the various themes. Also Photoshop.
How long had your team been working on the game?
JS: In terms of actual iOS production, the game was completed in about four or so months, but Matt LoPresti and another programmer, Ed Pereira (Hi Ed!), had been prototyping an early version of Async on-and-off for more than a year before that, with each session lasting only a few weeks.
The overall design was something Matt had been working on for several years with other PHG'ers whenever he had the free time. Internally we spent a lot of time working on what would be the follow-up to Glow Artisan.
Screenshot from an early build of Async
How did you come up with the concept for Async's puzzle gameplay?
Matt LoPresti: The actual interaction of swapping blocks between two wells was something that had come out of the first prototype we created.
It was originally intended to be a two-player DSiWare game played in Book Mode orientation, with the opponent's grid on the left screen and the player's grid on the right screen. It was an interesting setup, but it just wasn't connecting all the right dots.
After about three weeks, we ran out of time and had to start working on other projects. With the time off, I played the game almost every day on the train ride home, trying to figure out what we could do with it. And one of the things I always do when designing a game is to listen to a specific song, one that captures the emotion I want the player to feel as he/she plays the game.
The song that basically created Async Corp. was Chemical Bros' "Star Guitar," which I had first heard in Lumines II. I wanted it to be a fast-paced yet smooth-flowing experience that you could get lost in.
One day, as I was playing the prototype and listening to the song on repeat, I got a text message from my wife on my iPhone. I was so "in the zone" from the music that I typed my message perfectly in landscape mode, which, knowing the iPhone's keyboard, is no small feat. I nailed every key, and it felt really good. But in reality, it was the music that helped me do that!
It was then that I realized I could do the exact same interaction with our prototype. I flipped the system around and played it with both fingers, and there it was, staring back at me.
What about the metagame? I really like how the corporate theme frames the experience. I was wondering if the team had looked at Nintendo/Skip's Boxlife on DSiWare at all, which has a similar approach?
ML: The meta-game of working at a corporation was a collaborative effort that started sort of late in the whole process. I'm a big fan of the WipEout series, especially its Designer Republic visual style, and I wanted to bring out that modern, commercial style, as the recent titles in the series only had that on the periphery.
One of my first suggestions was to have each mode represent a product from some Async Corporation, each with its own logo. But Chris had suggested to add a community-based goal like Noby Noby Boy, where all the players worked together to achieve some end, as the set of modes was sort of loosely defined at that point.
As well, we all sort of felt that the puzzle mechanic itself was a bit menial. So we just thought, why not have the player work for Async Corp., and playing the game is their form of work? It actually made a great fit in the end.
While the game itself is super cheery and sugary, we wanted players to come to the conclusion that Async Corp. itself designed the game to be like that, to get you to do your work, as a happy worker is a productive worker.
Async's menu screen
JS: We had been enjoying the addictive mechanics in the prototype for a while, but knew the game needed more. We pushed early for some narrative to complement the game play.
Chris Makris: We had several meetings about the theme over the first month. A few other ideas were passed around, but Matt and I tried to make a case for the corporate one, and I don't believe the influence came from any other particular video game so much as video games in general (ex. the idea of incorporating an addictive mechanic).
We already had a general direction for the visuals, so the idea to contrast bright and happy graphics against a cold and cynical theme seemed like good old fun.
ML: I had heard of Boxlife before but had no clue what it was about. Not until Async Corp. was released had I been informed of the relation between the two. And even now I still haven't played the game, which I probably should at this point.
The App Store seems to be flooded with all sorts of cheap puzzle games. I'm wondering what, besides making a concept that's fun or unique, can an indie studio do to make sure their iOS puzzle game (or any other type) is noticed?
JS: Early versions of Async Corp. featured static blocks, similar to those in Glow Artisan's gameplay. While Glow's look was received well, we wanted Async to have more personality, because sometimes a great/unique concept just isn't enough.
We went through dozens of sketches of various smiling and frowning blocks until Chris's really nice minimalistic block-faces won everyone over. The whistle-while-you-work animation is especially great.
ML: Sadly, I don't have a business-inspired answer for you. All I can tell you is what gets me excited for a game that I wasn't initially excited for: its music.
Your game can do whatever it wants in terms of design, but the music is what's going to create a cherished memory for me. When I think of Tetris or Lumines, or any game for that matter, the memory is always accompanied by the music. But of course, the music needs to be a cohesive part of the experience, not just a "good" song.
I sort of think of it as a trick, as it has nothing to do with the game's rules. It simply brings out the emotion you should have while playing the game, and for me, that's the most important thing to have. So, if the song you use in your game does that, you've sold me. Pop it in the trailer, and I will buy your game the moment it comes out. I won't even care how it plays.
JS: And, of course, submitting your fun and unique game to the IGF helps get noticed!
JS: The life of a small developer can be awesome sometimes, other times it can really suck. In mid-2011 we went through a rough time financially and had to scale back in a big way. But, Powerhead is primed for a resurgent 2012. As I type we are working on an update for Async (hello Game Center!). And there are new project(s) that we're looking forward to announcing to the world very soon.
Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've particularly enjoyed?
Randall Li: The only IGF games that I have played is Chris' game, Fader (which nabbed an honorable mention for the Excellence in Visual Art category). It looks to be very interesting, and i look forward to playing it when it comes out.
ML: Even though it was only an honorable mention in several categories, I'm a ginormous fan of Die Gut Fabrik's Where is my Heart?, one of my favorite games from 2011. The cohesion of art, music, and its thoughtful and emotional design is something I won't soon forget.
It's one of my main sources of inspiration now, in pretty much every aspect. I've played a little of Spelunky, sadly not enough to give my impressions though. But every time someone describes the game to me, my mind explodes at the possibilities, it just sounds so amazing.
JS: I've just started playing Beat Sneak Bandit, and so far, so awesome. I'm also looking forward to playing Waking Mars -- it looks like there are some Sub-Terrania elements in there, which is appealing for two reasons: first, Sub-Terrania was my favorite Sega game of all-time; second, my unabashed love for that game got me a job once!
CM: I dig GIRP, Faraway, and Anti-Chamber. Gee, thanks Randy.
What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?
CM: It feels like a hive mind in search of fun. I think the most important things that the indie scene represents are freedom, self-reliance, and originality. It's dispelling old ideas about what consumers want from games and interactive media, and working to change what people think when they hear the term "video game."
ML: With companies like Capy, Die Gut Fabrik, and the few one-man teams out there, like Derek Yu, Zach Gage, and even PHG-alumn Ramiro Corbetta, the gaming world is primed for basically anything you could imagine.
It's also a bit scary, as anyone can do anything they want, and it's all happening so fast, with a lot of people involved. You really can't predict what's going to happen tomorrow when it's almost this chaotic, I feel.
And, while this is a bit out there, one thing that I sort of wish I saw more of was the complete exclusion of money from the creative process, even in the indie space. Just go to a game jam and see the crazy and awesome ideas that come out of it, all that are never planned to be released.
It's a fact that we need to pay the bills, so this may never happen, but it feels like a lot of the games I play now have features or designs dictated by the fact that they need to make money. Achievements, Leaderboards, multiplayer, etc. It's good to have this, but I don't know, what if a game didn't have this? What if a game didn't have a reward, or a goal?
I was a little worried that Async Corp.'s Zoning Mode wasn't going to be received well because it has no end. You can't even die in it. It simply goes on forever, and there's only a slight, almost unjustified reward in getting to the next level, especially in the later levels. But from what I've gathered, that seems to be the most-loved mode with the fans!
So what more could be done there? How close can we straddle the line between what is and isn't rewarding in a video game? Hell, you could justify making a bad game if there was something new and unique to show the video game world.
There's definitely a lot of experimentation going on right now, so I don't want to be labeled as saying it's an absolute fact, but I guess I want it to be even more evident and common, and I theorize that the necessity for money gets in the way of that.
RL: I think it is an awesome time to be making games. It has become much easier for smaller and smaller teams to publish their own ideas without a need for a full on publisher. I look forward to the ideas that get implemented and also hope to share my ideas with the world as well.
JS: And, while I have nothing to do with this, other than liking it, I just want to mention several of NYC's indies will be celebrating GDC at the Killscreen party.
As someone who's developed on both Nintendo's downloadable services and the App Store, garnering multiple IGF nominations for your portable projects, can you compare how you see the two platforms evolving for indies?
JS: The short answer is both systems/shops have improved, but they seem to be on fixed trajectories.
Nintendo is still an expensive walled garden with some major upsides, especially that new games for the eShop are almost guaranteed attention due to Nintendo's less crowded marketplace and vocal fan base of dedicated and passionate gamers. (Glow Artisan's first review, in NintendoLife, was a huge morale boost for us, and helped get the game a lot of early attention.)
But, and to be a little repetitive, Nintendo will continue to have a hard time attracting indies to bring their energy and inspiration to the eShop until they address the high barrier to entry.
The App Store is a big, wonderful mess, getting bigger, more wonderful, and messier every day. It's just so (relatively) easy, cheap, and simple to make and publish iOS games, how can you not?
That said, and to self-serve a bit, it would be nice if Apple (and Nintendo, and all the big players) took a more active and consistent role in promoting indie/innovative games.