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Games We Like: The Pickford Brothers dissect the line-drawing genre

Ste Pickford draws a line in the sand
Games We Like: The Pickford Brothers dissect the line-drawing genre
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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 hit Magnetic Billiards.

Through their publishing company Zee-3, the pair recently 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 or part two.

Last month I talked about designing games for touch-screens, and how even very simple control schemes can feed into game design, resulting in games that would never have been designed for a controller-based system.

This month I want to expand on that idea and examine how a control scheme that's unique to touch-screen has led to games that aren't really possible with a traditional controller.

After the most basic touch-screen control of 'tap' (discussed last month), next comes 'drag'  moving your finger or stylus around while staying in contact with the screen.

This is sometimes used for swipes or gestures, disconnected from the position of the movement on the screen. But when you actually track the whereabouts of the finger or stylus as it's being dragged over the screen you get the concept of drawing a line.

Can you tell what it is yet?

Although it is technically possible to draw lines with a joystick, it is not an enjoyable experience. I used to draw graphics for a living on the Commodore 64, before the age of the mouse, and I can assure you that drawing with a joystick is not fun.

It's also possible to draw lines with a mouse or even a console motion controller, but without the direct physical contact between hand (or stylus) and screen, it's difficult for most people to draw lines naturally without a lot of practice.

Essentially, then, it's just not practical to make a game based on drawing lines without a touch-screen device.

Come fly with me

One of the most celebrated games for iOS and rightly so is Firemint's brilliant Flight Control.

If you're not already familiar with the game, it's a 'keep the plates spinning' kind of affair in which planes fly onto the screen at random. Your task is to manage these busy skies, drawing lines that lead each plane to its landing zone and taking care to avoid mid-air collisions.

It's a beautifully simple concept and very well executed.

Flight Control was one of the first iOS games I ever played and I was immediately knocked out by how original it was. The game was perfectly suited to the platform, and was doing something that wouldn't have been possible on a console or with a regular controller.

I foolishly assumed that all iOS games were going to be as inventive as this, and that iOS was going to be like the early days of coin-op games, where almost every new game was packed with fresh ideas.

The clone wars

Sadly, rather than applying the same level of creativity and imagination as Firemint's designers, many iOS developers are content with shamelessly cloning the work of others, re-skinning the exact same game with a slightly different theme or settings.

The glut of iOS Flight Control clones that have you directing boats, cars or animals instead of planes is testament to this trend.

In my book, it's a-okay for Firemint to take its existing formula and set it in space for Flight Control Rocket, but other developers doing this just doesn't seem right.

Apple itself even encourages these unscrupulous strategies by setting up categories and collections on the App Store when enough clones of a hit game have been developed, which is dangerously close to the 'commoditise your complements' business theory.

Drawing lines on the screen is a strong enough idea to support a whole genre, but that doesn't mean every game has to be a variation of Flight Control.

I won't even mention the most obvious use of line drawing Draw Something (oops, I just did) but instead I'd like to point you towards another game from our Games We Like list, Sand Slides.

The same but different

In Sand Slides the player draws lines on the screen which are used as makeshift 'buckets' to catch grains of sand falling from three coloured jars.

The player must cleverly draw their buckets in such a way as to pour the different coloured grains into their matching funnels at the bottom of the screen, with the aim being to avoid losing grains or mixing up the colours.

It's a great combination of line drawing and particle physics, and despite an almost identical control system, it's a completely different game to Flight Control. Both, though, are completely fresh and perfectly suited to the platform they're on.

I'm sure that there are many other iOS games out there that I haven't stumbled across that use line drawing in new and inventive ways, and I'm certain that this control method has untapped potential that hasn't been invented yet.

I just hope more developers put their thinking caps on and try to invent the next Flight Control or Sand Slides, rather than just making clones of them.

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.