Postmortem: How iOS Game Waking Mars Came to Life

(L-R) Randy O'Conner, Randy Smith, and David Kalina of Tiger Style Games collaborate via video chat.
Screengrab: Randy Smith

A twisting, squirmy wormlike creature sprays water from what appears to be its head, soaking a nearby plant with life-giving fluid. The plant croaks to life, rapidly sprouting large leaf-like protrusions. A horde of grunting, multi-legged animals scurries toward the newly fertilized plant, snatching away the delicious seeds that sprout from its center so they can use it to reproduce, adding to their already-considerable numbers.

The astronaut jetpacks towards a safe spot on a clay mound, and watches as his garden pulses with life.

Waking Mars, released in late February, is the second iOS game from the independent developer Tiger Style Games. The studio’s first title Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, released in 2009, cast players as an arachnid navigating a mysterious, abandoned mansion.

Spider was an early critical darling in a time when there was barely any such thing as a critically acclaimed iPhone game: It beat out nearly 170 competing titles to take home the “Best Mobile Game” award from the 2010 Independent Games Festival, due largely in part to its innovative touch controls and unique premise, and racked up over 300,000 downloads at $3 each.

Suddenly, the scrappy upstart developer was faced with a new problem: With lots of cash in the bank and all eyes upon it, how could Tiger Style avoid the sophomore slump and create another hit?

Waking Mars, described by creative director Randy Smith as an “action-gardening” simulator, is by no means a sequel to Spider, but it manages to capture and expand on the thematic elements that won acclaim for its predecessor.

Mars follows a single astronaut, a pioneer for the Chinese space program, as he explores the subterranean caverns of the red planet. There are two other characters –– a computer hacker type and a bumbling AI companion –– who fill in gaps in the game’s story through radio chatter. But largely, the game is about isolation. Even after players encounter and begin to cultivate the strange, plant-like life forms that cling to the cavern walls, it’s always clear that the astronaut is a long way from safety.

Randy Smith, 37, is a Vermont native with a rich history in the big-budget games industry. He worked on the cult classic Thief games with Looking Glass Studios before sinking a few years into the ill-fated Steven Spielberg “LMNO” project at Electronic Arts, a game described by one former team member as a “quadruple-A big-budget sci-fi action-adventure summer blockbuster.” When LMNO bit the dust, some of the team decided to go indie.

Smith’s success with Spider allowed Tiger Style Games to spend two full years without a publishing deal building Waking Mars. The luxury of time let the team experiment with multiple prototypes. “There was a period in time when the game wasn’t going to have a really involved story and characters,” says Smith. “We built entire games that you could play, and threw them out, but at one point we’d settled on this game called Descent.”

Descent, Smith says, began as little more than “Doodle Jump in reverse,” starring a simple character burrowing infinitely downward. New gameplay elements were added over time: The character got a head lamp. Enemies were added. The team tried a “rock-climbing” mode. But Smith was unhappy with the direction that the game was heading. “We built it and played it, and it was kind of fun, but then we realized that we’d basically just made Tomb Raider,” he says.

Image: Courtesy Tiger Style Games

No Office, No Problem

Although about half of the Waking Mars team live in Austin, Texas, the other half are scattered all over the U.S. With no official Tiger Style office in any city, the team worked from their homes, staying in contact via email and phone calls.

Level designer and technical artist Randy O’Conner was the only team member aside from Smith and Tiger Style co-founder David Kalina to work full-time on Waking Mars. He contributed the entirety of his part while working from his home in Berkeley, California.

“My role was to unify what Randy and David wanted,” O’Conner says. “Randy has these really grandiose ideas, so I build that and then David says ‘there’s no way we can do that.’”

Creature designer Mallika Sundaramurthy, from Quincy, Massachussets, was introduced to the Tiger Style team by one of her co-workers at Harmonix, where she worked as a concept artist and 3-D modeler on the Rock Band series. According to her, the team had a very open attitude towards feedback, making the project feel much more like a team effort.

“This is my first time working on a video game remotely, having not met half the people on my team in person,” Sundaramurthy says. “I think we all had to make more effort to communicate things… In an office, you could just go over to someone’s desk and see.”

Listen: “Into the Red,” from Waking Mars original soundtrack: http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/gamelife/2012/04/Tiger-Style-Waking-Mars-01-Into-The-Red.mp3

Even the team members who do live in Austin had the ability to set their own hours, says sound designer Bobby Arlauskas, who also worked from home. Arlauskas recalls that when he first got his hands on a playable build of Waking Mars, the first thing he noticed was the sound of the main character’s footsteps, put in as placeholder by other Tiger Style members. He couldn’t stand to listen to them — they sounded so wrong that he didn’t want to play the game.

“It’s such a typical sound designer-type thing to say that, since nobody but sound designers care about footsteps,” he says. Arlauskas strapped on his snowboarding boots and set about stomping around his yard with sound equipment in hand. “I probably looked insane to my neighbors,” he says. He dropped the new footsteps into the game immediately.

Shortcomings, and the Future

Tiger Style is largely happy with how Waking Mars turned out, although Randy Smith says it could have been better if Tiger Style had hired voice actors instead of relying solely on text.

“People are happy with the story, but it has the traditional video game problem of ‘story in one hand, gameplay in the other,’” he says. “We did everything we could to connect them, but the connective tissue is still pretty thin.”

Waking Mars was positively received by nearly every outlet that reviewed it, although each review had a small bone to pick with the game. Modojo complained about “corny dialogue;” 148Apps said that the game’s backtracking can become annoying. But in general, reviewers agreed that it was a worthy followup to Spider.

Whatever Tiger Style’s next game turns out to be, it will almost certainly launch on the App Store. Smith says that iOS players aren’t attached to pre-conceived notions of what games are “supposed” to be. They’re willing to try new things. Smith sees this as a chance to introduce so-called “casual” gamers to games with more depth than the average mobile time-waster.

“That’s our company mission,” says Smith. “To slip in some sophistication.”



http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/gamelife/2012/04/Tiger-Style-Waking-Mars-01-Into-The-Red.mp3

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