Octopong is Ghostlit’s first independent release, and in many ways you could say it’s our rehearsal for bigger and better things. Its scope is modest, but it’s taught us a lot about the stuff that separates a simple game loop that takes an hour to code from a fleshed out, polished and published app. That said, we’re pretty passionate about games, and the decision to make this game first was not an arbitrary one. So, you might be wondering, why Octopong? Why this game about jumping and smacking a ball around? Why tackle online multiplayer in our maiden app?
Generally speaking, we want to make the games that we want to play, but can’t find anywhere already. The mobile game market has exploded over the last few years, and innovation in the medium is happening all the time, but a huge bulk of the platform’s games end up feeling very similar, and often share each other’s strengths and weaknesses. There’s so much money on the line to capture this ballooning market, and such a relatively short development cycle, that for every successful game or mechanic we see a hoard of copy cats, and only a few brave outliers are driving genuine gameplay evolution. We want to be those brave outliers! But for now, with only modest experience and resources, we have to figure out how to realize that vision pragmatically. So how do we do that?
Where most mobile games are essentially single-player with social media tie-ins, Octopong was envisaged as a competitive multiplayer, with immediate interactivity and even something of an elo ladder. Where most multiplayer games in the mobile space are turn-based, and lean heavily on random number generators (often literally board game clones), Octopong is designed to be real-time and mechanics driven, straightforward enough to ease introduction but with a high enough skill-ceiling to help ensure that the better player always wins. That probably doesn’t sound all that ambitious, but it’s such a rarity for the platform, and there are a few reasons for that.
First, mobile gaming tends to happen in the moments when we just don’t have anything else to do – while we’re taking the bus to work; while mom is driving us home from school; while we’re sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office; and of course, while we’re sitting on the john. The common qualities of these moments defines the platform’s play loop – 3 to 6 minutes, easy to pick up, play, and put down, attention-grabbing but not necessarily attention-holding. This play loop is ideal for the traditional flash game, Angry Birds style of solo play, with independent, single-screen puzzles you can solve in just a few minutes. It’s also great for turn-based multiplayer, especially as these games don’t always require your play time to be synced with your opponent’s. These games naturally rise to the surface (sometimes regardless of quality) because they meet the players’ needs. New gamers aren’t playing much outside of these moments, and more serious gamers spend the rest of their play time on consoles or computers.
Second, mobile gaming is eminently accessible, as everyone from toddlers to teens to business-types have capable devices with a pre-installed app marketplace, and so the games that succeed tend to be those that appeal to a kind of lowest common denominator of gamer, one that’s broader and more general than anything we’ve seen before. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and you could even make an argument that this is great for gaming in the long run because it’s introducing so many new people to the pastime and creating this huge shared experience for a new generation of gamers. Angry Birds and Candy Crush might be, for a huge number of people, what Sonic and Super Mario and Zelda were for us – an awakening of interest as well as a common background with our peers that helped shape a culture we could feel comfortable identifying with. Those experiences, and that feeling of belonging, are really important, especially as gaming can be a deep rabbit hole that most people get into pretty gradually. Put it this way – EVE Online was no one’s first game. Hardcore gamers and their communities grow out of casual ones, so the more people playing Candy Crush today, the more competitive, engaged, and passionate gamers down the road. For now however, that lowest common denominator favors simple mechanics, friendly themes, and indirect competition. Games that work well as a player’s first game succeed because they often are.
Third, mobile devices are designed for very different network conditions than consoles or computers, with little emphasis placed on ping optimization, and this poses a pretty big challenge for real time online multiplayer. Even 100 millisecond latency can feel unplayable in some online pc games, but between device limitations and the nascency of platform networks, mobile games can easily experience up to an entire second of latency even between players sitting right next to each other. If a game doesn’t work at that level of latency, then it doesn’t work on mobile, plain and simple.
Our challenge, then, is to adapt our vision to the unique personality of mobile gaming, which is just what Octopong is designed to do. Individual rounds last just a couple of minutes, fitting into the typical mobile playloop. Gameplay is very simple and easy to learn – tap the screen to jump; jump to hit the ball; hit the ball past your opponent to score; score 11 points before your opponent to win. Jellyfish and power-ups add some depth, along with the ‘wrapping’ mechanic of falling through the ceiling and jumping through the floor, but the basic premise is so simple your nonagenarian grandpa could figure it out. Competition also falls along a fairly generous gradation, allowing shyer players to practice first against a wide difficulty spectrum of AI opponents before challenging their friends or even online strangers. This lets us fill the fairly empty niche of competitive gaming in the mobile space in a way that works well with the mobile personality, giving players new to gaming a comfortable space to grow as well as opportunities to push their boundaries.
As for network conditions, well that probably deserves another post altogether, but suffice it to say that Octopong’s simplicity helps it here, too. With only a single, simple input and largely physics-driven gameplay, the game can maintain a reasonable level of synchronicity with a very low flow of data transfer – ideal for devices that might be on a cellular data network instead of local wifi. And because direct player interaction is limited to discrete events, we can make use of downtime (waiting between ball hits) to account for latency, essentially ‘stretching out’ time for one player to let the other catch up when it’s their turn to strike. While not always seamless or invisible, this trick makes real time and fairly fast-paced competitive gameplay possible even under absurdly poor network conditions, such as those likely to be experienced between two mobile devices.
So, why Octopong? Because Octopong lets us try to fill a void in mobile gaming by building from within the platform’s unique constraints, and at a scale that our very small, young team can manage. In the worst case, Octopong will help us grow as developers and teach us more about gaming, design, the mobile platform, and people; and in the best case, it just might pave the way for a new breed of competitive mobile games, and maybe even a new generation of competitive gamers raised on mobile devices. And we’ll be one step closer to making the Best Game in the World.
by Ben Clarke