Interview With Chelsea Howe: iPhone Game Designer
11 Dec, 2009
Tell us a little about yourself and what you do for a living for our readers. Any good geeky hobbies?
Let’s see – I graduated from Cornell in the spring with a self-made major in Interactive Media Design (read: Games) and three related minors. I started Proper Walrus, the company that produced Tipoli, immediately after in addition to my full time job at ActionXL where I do production and design on motion-based games.
Less-relevant but possibly more interesting/embarrassing tidbits: I’m obsessed with electric bagpipe music, the color orange (so underloved) and A&W chili cheese fries. I have a 6 month old Keeshond puppy named Koru that I really enjoy dressing up as a banana.
Geeky hobbies: I collect chessex dice – the 7 piece sets. My first set was “Festive Green w/ Silver” and I’ve got a dozen more since. My goal is the brushed steel set – someday. I, of course, use the dice to play copious amounts of D&D and other RPGs, both classic table top and digital (my newest one is on Google Wave). I love language, too, and had a habit of creating them as a child that led to three semesters of Sanskrit in college. Bho bhoh, dhurta! (It means: Ho there, rogue! — admittedly, Sanskrit is not the most practical of languages).
Tell us about Tipoli!
Well that’s not an open question! Okay, Tipoli is a love story. I mean, game. No, I actually mean love story. As much as every marketing type person is telling me to call it a game, because people won’t “get” the love story thing, Tipoli is, at heart (lulz), a love story.
Tipoli is about two faces, Mint and Periwinkle. Mint is sad, lackluster, disappointed; Periwinkle is cheerful, bouncy, and optimistic. They’re both trying to find love, and that’s the point of the game. They’re stuck together, one but not the same. Mint keeps Periwinkle grounded, prevents the purply sphere from spinning away into oblivion. At the same time, Periwinkle is the only reason Mint can move at all.
They only work because they’re together.
It’s not perfect, they’re not madly in love, but they do revolve around each other, and, with a little bit of player help, they do move through life. What starts as a single unrequited heart coursing from Periwinkle to Mint eventually becomes a constant stream flowing back and forth between them, carrying them to the end of their day and into dreams.
I wanted to tell a powerful, realistic story about relationships, but I wanted to do it without words, through the nuance of character behavior and graphic effect. As much as Tipoli is an exercise in minimal input, it’s an endeavor to discover how to convey feeling and evoke emotions using the one asset that sets games apart from every other classic medium: the interaction.
Buuut since that might not be legit, here’s the classic answer:
Tipoli is a game you play with one button. Just one. Tap the screen and the sticky and bouncy ball swap places. That’s it. Simple? Yes. Easy? Only for a little while. Based on timing and the objects around the pair, they can walk, jump, bounce, hop up walls or crawl under ceilings. Spinning orbs can fling them closer to their goals or they can hop on Cloud9 and soar skyward. It’s amazing what you can do with just a tap, and we’re extremely proud of how unique the movement and physics are.
Tipoli also has a hand-painted art style and symphonic soundtrack that add to the dream-like vibe – like you’re stuck in a fairy tale but it’s not all sugar and mush. We were trying to get away from the last-minute-addition sound of typical games and create a style that people could identify as uniquely Tipoli.
Can you tell us about the origins of Tipoli? What inspired it and how did it come into existence?
Tipoli came about as a result of a 48 hour game jam in Albany, at RPI, where Team Fling!Monkey (Richard Hough, Chelsea Howe, Matthew Olivo, Franklin Pride, Michael Goddard) made a game cheekily called The Illusory Persistence of LOVE. With the aforementioned theme, I decided I wanted something involving orbiting objects, things partnered and spinning. Richard suggested having one sticky and the other bouncy and from there Tipoli cascaded into life. The core mechanics didn’t change at all over the next 11 months, but we added five new background tracks, 50+ new levels, and several new physics objects to make the game more involved and interesting and see just how much we could do with 1 button.
Have you worked on any other projects similar to this?
Since I had the privilege of designing my own major, I integrated an independent game design project every semester for six semesters. One of the joys of a university or part time development gig is that you can take HUGE risks, so I always tried to do something experimental. In Tipoli, it was using the very minimal controls, embracing a pastel, soft art style that’s quite atypical of classic gamer taste, and incorporating a love story without any overt textual narrative or dialogue.
I worked on another game called Music Monsters that took player-generated MIDI data and used it to create a character or boost a character that the player could then play through a mario-esque platformer. The higher notes you play, the bigger your character’s wings, the more sixteenth notes, the faster the character moves, and so on.
I think the other big experimental move I made was in Symbiosis, which was a networked game where the players couldn’t text, chat, or video. I wanted to find a way to minimize the out of character and aggressive/immature behavior that normally happens in MMOs, so we created a super tiny language of character gestures (four, to be exact) that was the only way for the characters to communicate. They couldn’t get through the game without working together, so it was really an exercise in cooperation instead of competition and contextual communication.
From concept to launch, how long did it take to make Tipoli?
Eleven months. Tipoli was born on January 30th to the thematic cry of “As long as we’re together we’ll never run out of problems” – the official theme of the First Annual Global Game Jam, where me and four other students made TIPOL – The Illusory Persistence of LOVE. Richard Hough, Tipoli‘s programmer, and I decided to take TIPOL a step further. We worked on it as an independent study and received a publishing contract the day after graduation. From there, we brought on another artist, Michael Molinari, and 6 months down the road, Tipoli was in stores!
When you’re running low in inspiration for design, where do you go / what do you do to refresh the design batteries?
I love going for walks or hikes, and taking naps has also been surprisingly fruitful. Sometimes, at work, I’ll hide on the floor under my desk and close my eyes for a few minutes just to let myself dream.
The other thing I like to do is build constraints – hone in on a specific design aspect (orbiting physics, hidden information or flocking algorithms, for instance) and approach it from as many angles as I can. I also get a kick out of reading science fiction and fantasy short stories. Good writing is pretty lacking in the industry, so reading an engaging book or even checking out an art museum is really refreshing. No pixels!
Will you be making any more iphone games after this? If so, what type?
Definitely! I can’t not make games, and the iPhone is a very accessible platform, especially with Unity3D. My next game’s going to revolve around music and how synchrony can affect emotions in games. It was actually a topic on my thesis that I researched, and I want to put all that experiment data to good use. That’s all I can say for now!
What was the hardest part about the design and implementation process? What was the easiest?
The hardest part was definitely staying in communication with everyone. Our programmer moved to California, I was in upstate New York, and our artist was in New Jersey. On top of that, this was part time for all of us, and some of us had extremely taxing full time jobs to worry about. Keeping everyone active and up to date was a constant challenge.
The easiest part of the design process? Hmm… I really enjoyed the level design and testing out how the physics worked. It was great fun watching all the bizarre things that can happen if you just mash the button, for instance. Sometimes a crazy mistake will actually land you exactly where you wanted to be, albeit somewhat circuitously; I’ve done some fantastic tricks!
What did you want in the game that didn’t make the final cut?
I wanted more narrative told through the mechanics. One of the ideas I loved originally was to really harp on Mint and Periwinkle’s relationship. I wanted, for instance, to have a broken heart object that would “snap” their connection. I even thought about having other spheres with different properties! (Peach, Cornflower, Cream?) What would happen if Periwinkle found someone else? And how would you put Mint and Periwinkle back together again?
What games are you playing right now? If you could take one game and put it on the iphone, what would it be? If you could take an iphone game and put it on a console / PC, what would it be?
This is going to sound so bad, but I actually don’t have any games on my iPhone. My friend JUST gave me a code for Cathy’s Book, which is an interactive multimedia mystery app – pretty cool – but that’s it. Other than that, I finished Assassin’s Creed II (100% complete six days after release!) and am crushing on Ezio, tested out NSMBWii, and just brought out Mirror’s Edge to celebrate its birthday by beating hard mode. Mirror’s Edge – there’s something that would be interesting on iPho– oh wait, it’s already out and I just didn’t know about it. Clearly I’m a sucker for free-running games!