The venerable side-scroller goes way back in the history of video games. (Think of the ubiquitous Super Mario Bros.) Now, the genre has found a home in mobile apps. The developers’ challenge? Breathe new life into a time-tested game category.
Tiger Style Games is having a go with Waking Mars, a platformer in which players cultivate life forms to open passages and make discoveries while traversing the Red Planet’s caverns. Randy Smith, Waking Mars’ creative director, recently shared his views on how to innovate in this category.
There’s a familiarity among users when it comes to side-scrolling games. Was that a consideration in developing Waking Mars?
Randy Smith: Definitely. Tiger Style aspires to create innovative gameplay, but we also want to reach a casual audience. We knew Waking Mars was going to challenge some expectations by being a nonviolent “action gardening” sci-fi game, so setting it on a platformer created a strong basis of familiarity and comfort to help ease players into the experience. Obviously, it also helped that Waking Mars is about exploration, discovery and interacting with alien creatures, and platformers are fantastic at handling all of those things.
Given the long history of side-scrollers, what do you view as the key factors in keeping a game in the category fresh and innovative?
R.S.: Presentation helps, but the key is remembering that you can create nearly any experience on a platformer. It’s important not to get too stuck on the cliches and expectations about platformers from what you’ve already played. We all loved Metroid and Super Mario Bros., but sometimes I worry that their design decisions -- shooting, jumping, the world built on a grid -- recur so ubiquitously throughout all platformers only because of the strength of those designs. The way to stand out is to provide an experience no one has ever had before.
What were the development challenges in creating Waking Mars?
R.S.: Most of our technology challenges were fairly straightforward. The trickiest part of developing Waking Mars was the design. In particular, we were explicitly pursuing nonviolent action gameplay. We came up with the terms “action gardening” and “ecosystem gameplay,” but they were just words at first. We needed to innovate to invent great gameplay along those lines. This took months -- if not years -- of experiments, false starts, backtracking and hand-wringing before we wound up with something we were really proud of.
This would have been a challenge starting from any basis, so it’s great that setting Waking Mars on a platformer did nothing to complicate it. In fact, if anything, I would say that platformers make for a great starting point to develop something innovative. Platformers solve many of the representation and control problems without imposing too much on the topic of the game, which leaves you plenty of breathing room to experiment and create something new. We feel like we’ve succeeded at this goal twice now -- once with Waking Mars and once with 2009’s iPhone hit Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor.
What’s your advice for beginning developers who are interested in creating side-scrollers?
R.S.: Use your imagination and question those “Metroidvania” assumptions about what platformers must be. Don’t follow the template in every regard. Most of my favorite platformer experiences since the ’80s have turned one if not many of those old chestnuts on their heads. I don’t ever need to play another platformer where all that’s going on is that I’m ducking bullets and timing my jumps over gaps to avoid swinging pendulums. Personally, I am not going to care if you design a cool-looking world with a wild story -- unless you are also giving me some new gameplay to experience.