The making of Rolando: iPhone’s first 10/10 game
From Terrahawks and Big Loader to touchscreen perfection
Rolando was one of the first iPhone/iPod touch games to prove the App Store is more than a dumping ground for ports and bedroom coder fart jokes. The tilt, tap and touch controls, combined with a sharp aesthetic style and solid physical puzzles, saw the debut from UK developer HandCircus and US publisher ngmoco rightly heralded as a classic.
But how did the game come together? We hooked up with creator Simon Oliver (pictured) to find out the story behind Rolandoland.
Pocket Gamer: Rolando was your first release as HandCircus so before we get into the game details can you provide some background about what you did before HandCircus and why you decided to it set up?
Simon Oliver: I started off working in digital media, mainly doing flash work for creative agencies in London. This led to a lot of work doing flash games and really gave me the bug for game creation.
For the last couple of years before HandCircus, I was working as a consultant on a wide variety of projects including a couple of installations at the Science Museum and Natural History Museum.
In my spare time I'd spent a lot of time working on game prototypes and keeping an eye on the indie game scene - I'd long had a passion to create console games. The launch of the iPhone SDK was the real catalyst for me: the opportunity for innovation combined with a fertile platform for indie development and a totally open distribution channel provided something I just had to go for.
As Rolando progressed from early prototypes, it soon became clear that this was something I had to do properly, so it morphed from a hobby project to something more substantial, and so HandCircus was born.
Can you explain the initial inspiration behind Rolando?
Inspiration came from a couple of sources. The first was the sphere characters called Zeroids from the TV show Terrahawks. They were these little ball creatures (one of which had a bizarre British Colonel's voice) that worked together to solve problems.
I'd long been thinking about doing a 3D version with dual-stick controls, but that idea had germinated for a while and made the transition to 2D nicely.
The other inspiration was one of my favourite toys as a kid, called Big Loader, which was this set of building-site vehicles, ramps and tracks where these little balls get transported all around by lots of fun events. I loved how tactile it was and it was great fun to watch.
How immediately conscious were you of similar games - whether in terms of visual look or gameplay - and did that change the way you made Rolando?
I've been playing games since I was a kid (like almost everyone in game development), so there's no doubt that previous games have influenced the games that I work on.
I think Nintendo will always be the high-water mark for me. The astronomical level of polish and detail that gets applied to its games is astonishing and it’s set the level that I would like to aspire to.
Playing Super Mario World, Super Metroid and A Link to the Past for the first time as a kid, it just blew me away how different Nintendo games were to the competition.
There were no decisions to make Rolando like anything else, but I did build up a reference library of games that I thought might be relevant in terms of mechanics and level design. I was playing a bit of Wario Ware Twisted!, Cameltry, Mario vs Donkey Kong 2, New Super Mario Bros and many more.
The intuitive nature of the controls are one of the key elements of the game so when were you finally happy with them?
We were making small changes to the control scheme right up until almost launch! There were around 4-5 months of experimentation and prototyping from March-July , after which we had the core controls locked down. As we started getting more people to play the game, it became apparent that certain mechanics were somewhat unintuitive so there was a continuous refinement process.
You've mentioned that the Box2D engine was fundamentally important to Rolando so how did you come across that and what was it like to work with?
Box2D has been great. It's such a wonderful engine to work with and seems to be becoming the indie dev's physics engine of choice. Using real physics can really transform a game - the gameworld feels so much more coherent and tactile and it provides the opportunity for some real exploration and creativity when it comes to puzzle solving.
Were there any features or elements that didn't quite work or that you didn't have time/resources to get into the finished game?
Sure. During prototyping phase a lot of things were tried out that just plain didn't work, or were too cumbersome. These elements ended up getting cut in the refining process. That said, we've still got a ton of ideas waiting to get explored!
Presumably developing a game for iPhone/iPod was a first for you, so how did that process work?
It was pretty straightforward. I signed up for the developer program as soon as the SDK was out, and downloaded it to start playing around. I'd had a play with the unofficial SDK before that, so had some familiarity with the system. I got accepted into the beta program so was able to get Rolando up and running on the device fairly early on.
Who else was involved in the development and how did that teamwork element pan out?
Once Rolando graduated from hobby prototype to full-fledged game, I got in touch with Mikko Walamies (Rolando's illustrator) and sent him over a bunch of videos, level layouts and screenshots. He's based in Finland, and we've never met in person, but he's been amazing - we really work well together, and our ideas always seem to be in sync.
I put together a trailer video around the time of the App Store launch, and ngmoco got in touch as there seemed to be a great opportunity to work together. Its outlook on the gaming potential of the iPhone was very much in sync with my own.
I met with them in San Francisco over the summer, and have had the benefit of working with the many talented members of their team.
As well as providing valuable feedback along the production process, they've been able to provide some really great support and have taken care of a lot of areas of the production process (such as QA, localisation), which allowed me to really focus on creating the game.
At what point did you realise you had come up with something special?
It was probably soon after launching the first trailer in early July. The amount of interest it generated was incredible and certainly indicated it had a lot of potential. It wasn't until the end of the process (when we were really polishing and had added all of the music from Mr Scruff) that I could really get a solid idea of how it was going to turn out and started to get really excited.
Even still, right up until launch I was a bag of nerves. I'd never released a game before and had some paranoid fear that the internet was gonna turn on me! I was trawling twitter search all morning on launch day, and once the reviews started coming in (including Pocket Gamer's own great review) I was able to relax a little.
What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome through the development process?
Probably getting the control system right - that was certainly the subject of the most experimentation and prototyping. The iPhone is a strange and unique device.
There is a still a wild frontier at the moment, with developers exploring the numerous possibilities to try and establish a nice interaction vocabulary for this new platform.
When people see a joypad they know what to do instinctively, but when designing for the iPhone there’s a difficult balance between hand-holding the player and maintaining an engaging pace.
What part of Rolando are you most happy with?
I think the control scheme and camera control work really well, and I'm really happy with the design of many of the levels.
Were there any particular surprises you had in terms of player feedback when the game was released?
In general the feedback has been so overwhelmingly positive, more than I could have ever wished for. In terms of specifics, I was surprised with some of the sections and puzzles that people seem to get stumped on. A lot of people seem to struggle with the pulley puzzles!
Can you give a rough breakdown of the development time and any significant tools you used?
I was working on the project part-time from March until August/September and then full-time until its launch in December.
Obviously during that time, I was working in bursts with Mikko, and since August I've been working a lot with ngmoco. From a code perspective, we're using Box2D along with the iPhone SDK, and the art's all been created with the usual Adobe suite.
Finally, what's next for HandCircus and Rolando?
Good question. I can't say too much about this now, but you'll see some more activity on the Rolando front in 2009, and I've got a couple of new game ideas bubbling away at concept stage right now. I look forward to sharing them with you later on in the year!
Thanks to Simon for his time. Rolando is out now for iPhone and iPod touch, priced £3.49.
Check out our other Making of interviews such as
Space Invaders Infinity Gene
Toy Bot Diaries
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