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Games We Like: The Pickford Brothers discuss the joy of self-publishing

Ste examines games without gatekeepers
Games We Like: The Pickford Brothers discuss the joy of self-publishing
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Ste Pickford and John Pickford are veteran game designers who've worked on games such as Wetris, Naked War, and iOS hitMagnetic Billiards.

Through their publishing company Zee-3, the pair has launched an indie cross-promotion campaign called Games We Like.

To read previous instalments from the Games We Like column series, simply click through to part one, two or three.

In this month's Games We Like column, instead of focusing on play control, we're going to take a look at a genre that has benefited massively from the freedom to self-publish offered by mobile platforms.

The two games we'll examine are both very different takes on the sport of soccer, and both games have already been very successful on the App Store.

But what's most interesting to us as game designers is that neither of these games would have been allowed to exist in the console world, where concept approval and marketing departments decide what can and cannot be published based on previous hit games.

PES dispenser

The soccer game market was long perceived to have been sewn up by FIFA and Pro Evolution Soccer-style live match simulators, and Football Manager-style spreadsheet games.

If you weren't copying either of these successful templates (and if you didn't have expensive team or player licenses) then your game wouldn't get greenlit and wouldn't see release.

As a consequence, soccer games were stuck in a bit of a rut for years. Not through a lack of ideas, but because the gatekeepers wouldn't allow anything different to reach the market.

That's all changed now thanks to the App Store, and the success of these two games proves that audiences were open to a fresh approach to the genre all along.

My shining star

New Star Soccer takes the novel approach of simulating the career of a single player, including his life off the pitch. The game is a kind of simple RPG crossed with a business simulator closer to a football manager game than a realtime football simulator, but one that still requires some playing skill as well as resource management between games.

Gameplay consists of a constant stream of small but meaningful choices, as well as a number of excellent 'micro games' covering everything from taking shots at goal to playing dice in a casino.

Actual matches take just a couple of minutes to play perfect 'bite-size' chunks of gameplay for phone users and the witty match commentary is punctuated by a nicely designed micro-game whenever your player gains possession. Each of these is deceptively simple but with plenty of scope for applying skill.

NSS has been something of an overnight success on the App Store (certainly in the UK), but developer Simon Read has actually been quietly successful with NSS for several years on PC. (The PC version was previously rejected by Steam, a typical 'gatekeeper' decision, although it's since been approved after its massive iOS success.)

This version is actually the fifth in the series, and shows that an apparently simple game is often the result of years of design. Clearly the jump to smash-hit status shows the game has found its natural home on mobile.

Grey area

Fluid Football, published by AppyNation, is another refreshingly different take on the soccer game. Designed from the ground up for touch screens (particularly iPad), there's not an awkward virtual stick or porting hangover to be found in Fluid Football.

The game takes a level-based approach, presenting 'goal attempts' rather than whole matches, and tasks you with directing your field-full of players towards goal. It makes excellent use of touch screen controls to draw paths for the players and set up passes, and the quasi-realtime gameplay keeps the pressure up.

Furthermore, the dynamic simulation means that the outcome of each goal attempt is almost infinitely variable (and repayable), and each level has a number of optional challenges to keep you coming back.

The commentary by Andy Grey and Richard Keys may not be seen as plus point by everyone, but is probably a smart addition that hopefully wasn't too expensive!

Eat my goal

Not only are these two games very different from each other, they're both very different from any other soccer games out there, proving that there is no shortage of new ideas once the gatekeepers stop blocking original games from being released.

Both games capture the spirit of the sport, although neither requires you to be an expert or even a fan. They are great examples of excellent game design on a modest budget. There's good, solid strategic challenge in both titles, and more depth than you'd expect at the low prices.

What's more, the success of these games is very encouraging to an indie developer. Neither is backed by a massive marketing campaign and both have risen to the top of the App Store charts through sheer excellence.

It's good to know this can still happen on mobile platforms, at least.

You can find out more about Zee-3, including some of the Games It Likes, on the company's website.

You can also follow Ste Pickford, John Pickford, and The Pickford Bros on Twitter.