My iPhone game graveyard

We’ve all started work on games only to abandon them part the way through. There can be many reasons for this but for me it’s usually because they just aren’t fun to play or were too ambitious. My iPhone game graveyard is the place where all of my abandoned games are laid to rest (or put on indefinite hold). One day I may mutter some incantations to resurrect some of them, or even pieces of them, but generally speaking they are dead and buried. I’m about to lay another game to rest so I thought now would be a good time to share my iPhone game graveyard with you, along with the various reasons for its undead residents.

Project Name: Interactive Fiction

Status: Abandoned

Pitch: This was my first ever iPhone project and was the reason I got into iPhone development in the first place. I wanted to drag text adventures, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

My plan was to utilise the iPhone’s touch interface and eradicate the need for text commands. Aside from tapping edges of the screen, to move North, South, East, and West, my game changer was a verb and noun wheel (dubbed the action wheel). I was conscious of not losing any of the charm of the traditional text adventure but at the same time I wanted to make it accessible to a new audience.

I did my research and developed the game engine to a point where it was capable of parsing an XML file. I created a custom text adventure language that formed the basis of these XML files and meant that I could easily make multiple adventures available without changing the core application.

Why was it cancelled?: Do you ever feel that you’re a little bit mad? and that you’re the only one who finds enjoyment in something relatively obscure? Thats what happened with this project. I couldn’t find a single person, gamer or otherwise, who was interested in the thought of a text adventure on the iPhone. I could have spent the necessary time completing the project (the biggest challenge remaining was writing a fresh, compelling story), but ultimately I didn’t want my first game to be something that I alone wanted to play.

Positive lessons learned: During the development of this game I learnt the basics of Xcode and the Interface builder, I created an XML parser and custom text adventure language, and I decided that developing games for the iPhone was definitely something I wanted to pursue. Writing this now, I also realise the advantage of some good market research.

Oh and for the first time ever, I’ve dug up the remains of this game, recompiled it, and recorded a video of the text adventure in action.

Project Name: Colour Mix

Status: Abandoned

Pitch: The idea behind Colour Mix (the working title) was to create a colour matching game with a steampunk theme. Three vats of liquid represent the base colours, red, green, and blue. You turn the wheels on the vats to alter the mix, flick a lever, and see how close your colour is to the colour you have to match. Time limits and power-ups were going to be added to keep things interesting and, to add complexity, you would be required to fix the machine using various tools as and when it broke down.

Why was it cancelled?: The game just didn’t have any staying power. It was interesting for a few minutes but ultimately it didn’t have anything to keep your interest long term. I think I could possibly have gone back to the drawing board and added some more depth to the game, but I’m not sure how much mileage I could have gotten from the core concept. Looking back now, I think I focussed on the art at the expense of the gameplay.

Positive lessons learned: Actually this is more like positive lessons I “should have” learned. I actually went on to make a similar mistake in the game I’ve just cancelled. The lesson is not to rush into development. Its worth spending a decent amount of time fleshing out the core concepts beforehand. I think that if I had thought through how the game might have played, I could have identified it’s weaknesses early on. I did get a decent amount of experience with vector graphics though so that was definitely a positive.

And here’s the newest resident of my game graveyard…

Project Name: Explorer

Status: On hold

Pitch: The initial pitch was for a timing based game. You moved your character around the screen, negotiating lifts and various other obstacles, with the aim of getting to the exit before the timer ran out. Pretty simple stuff.

However, this was just the initial pitch, the game actually went through several transformations to eventually become the following. A platformer in which you are an explorer. You wonder around vast, weird and wonderful levels collecting gold and searching for an artifact. Once you have the artifact, you must return to the start. However, you won’t be able to take the same route as before so must find a different way back.

In addition to this there’s a random event wheel which triggers a random event every so often – this could be a change in weather, dehydration, or unexpected gold for example. Each random event will have an effect on your ability to explore. Items to negate these effects can be purchased in a store (using gold you collect in the levels).

The game also has an in-game level editor to allow you to create your own levels and share them with your friends.

Why was it cancelled?: Quite simply, scope. The game is already 6 months into development but has gone through so many iterations that I barely recognise it anymore. Its grown into a monster and I feel like I’m fighting just to get it under control. I actually don’t think I can work through the issues and the thought of attempting to do so does not fill me with excitement. In addition to this the game feels shallow, lacks fun in its core mechanics and feels far too disjointed. I should have learnt from past experiences (see the game above) and spent longer figuring out the game design.

Positive lessons learned: Where to start. I’ve created a flexible game engine powered by data stored in an SQLite3 database. I’ve played with creating an in-game level editor. Most importantly I’ve understood the importance of spending time in the design phase, both on gameplay design and code architecture. Its tempting to rush into a project, as soon as it looks like you have a concept that will work, but if the foundation of the game isn’t simple, fun, and engaging then building layers of complexity upon this is a sure path to disaster.

As a bonus, here are some ideas that never made it past the idea stage. Games burnt at the stake and robbed of their youth.

Project Name: SpinIt (aka how to scratch the back of your iPhone)

Pitch: You put your iPhone flat on a surface and spin it as fast as you can. The screen counts the number of full revolutions, incrementing them as the phone spins. Online leaderboards would create an element of competition.

Why didn’t it go into development?: As if I need to tell you. Spinning your iPhone on a table tends to scratch the back of the device. Also is it really that fun to watch your phone spinning around – I think not.

Project Name: Personalities

Pitch: Interaction with the iPhone to elicit emotional responses. Whispering, touching, etc results in a happy response. Shaking, shouting etc results in anger. To enhance this, I was also looking into how this mechanic could be used to interact with rooms containing various puzzles.

Why didn’t it go into development?: Some very light market research highlighted that people feel like idiots whispering into their iPhone :-). Honestly, I may come back to this project.

Project Name: Weird Puppet Box thing

Pitch: You control a puppet by manipulating wheels to move along the x and y-axis. You’re given an item to create and must do so by moving your puppet to boxes (on the wall behind you) and selecting the correct combinations of materials. This is essentially a memory game. For the graphics, imagine old bookshops, wooden toys, and mysterious odds and ends.

Why didn’t it go into development?: Its just not a very compelling idea. It would rely heavily on the visuals to sell it and that’s rarely a good idea.

So there you have it, my iPhone game graveyard. It’s been interesting looking over my old game ideas and cancelled projects. Writing this post has given me the opportunity to do a mini postmortem of each of my games. I encourage you to do the same and take stock of the lessons learnt, even if you don’t share them. Cancelling a game is a tough decision but, if you learn from your mistakes, your future games will be both more enjoyable to create and more enjoyable for your players.

Any developers reading this have a game graveyard they’d like to share?

This post is part of iDevBlogADay, a group of indie iPhone development blogs featuring two posts per day. You can keep up with iDevBlogADay through the website, RSS feed, or Twitter.

11 Comments

  1. Matt Rix says:

    Interesting stuff, I feel like you could almost release the colour wheel thing as a free game. I think I saw another game like that once, but yours has a nice look to it.

    I have a few graveyard games of my own, including a couple that are complete but I don’t like them enough to release them. I should post them up if I ever get around to making a blog.

  2. Nice post, I think we all have a game graveyard of some kind. I really like the graphics of Explorer :-)

  3. Tom Ortega says:

    We haven’t even released anything yet and we already have one idea half in the graveyard. We’re seriously just postponing it, not killing it. :)

    I’m hoping not to have too many of them though. I’ll tell you why.

    Philip Glass was asked, since he was so successful, if he was the best in his class. His response was rather telling. (I’m paraphrasing here.) “No, actually there were a few people whom I’d say were better than me. However, I noticed one thing. They’d start projects but never finish them. I, on the other hand, finished every project I started.”

    I think there’s a sense of accomplishment and maybe even needed ego that comes with finishing projects. With each finished project, we come to believe in ourselves and in our abilities more. Perhaps this belief then becomes the ability to take on those truly great projects that become our blockbuster hits.

  4. Chris says:

    @Matt – Yeh I’m quite happy with the way the colour mixing game looks, but it requires a decent amount of work to get it to a point where it could be submitted (even for free).

    You should definitely create a blog – I’d love to see those games that you haven’t yet released.

    @Nicolas – Thanks. Explorer has potential – I just can’t find it.

    @Tom – Postponing is a good idea but even these cancelled games can be picked up again.

    I’m totally behind the concept of finishing projects. I think its important to see projects through to completion (keeping the scope in check is important in order to do this).

    In practice though – all of these games require a good amount of time to complete them (As developers, we all know that polishing the game to release it is what takes the longest). Its difficult to commit to that time and produce a sub standard game when you know you could better spend that time elsewhere.

    I think that its fine to make mistakes whilst you are learning and I see all of the cancelled games as good experiences. My biggest takeaway is to spend more time in the game design phase.

  5. These are great games Chris! Maybe you need a partner to help you with these abandoned projects and speed things up? One of my hurdles being an indie is keeping up with schedule too and I kinda solved that through outsourcing and partnerships. I realized I couldn’t last on a project that takes more than 3 months to finish so I had to distribute the load instead of abandoning it. Just my 2 cents.

  6. UseCase says:

    I’ve got notebook after notebook, Evernote, and coffee stained napkins full of this kinda stuff. I even went so far as to write a prototype for a game where you had to throw/flip your phone to score points ala Tony Hawk skateboard tricks. Glad I’m not the only one!!

  7. bob says:

    @ UseCase Me too! I also figured throwing your iPhone around might be a bit reckless but I still think there are people out there who’d play a game like that if done right…

  8. Ryan says:

    Your verb+noun action wheel immediately reminded my of Chris Crawford’s assertion that such a reverse-parser is the better evolution of IF.

    I’d love to play the game if those incantations work out for you.

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