Game makers up to challenges of creating iPod games

Game developers tasked with creating the first full-fledged games for the iPod faced the challenges of developing for a new platform while dealing with Apple’s desire to keep every detail closely under wraps. But it’s a challenge the game makers were unable to resist, given the popularity of Apple’s handheld music player.

“We think iPod gaming is a big opportunity,” said Dave Roberts, CEO of PopCap Games, whose Bejeweled and Zuma are among the nine iPod games available for sale at the iTunes Store. Other iPod games announced by Apple CEO Steve Jobs during his September 12 presentation to the press include Tetris, mahjong, and mingolf games from Electronic Arts; Fresh Games’s cube-based puzzle game Cubis 2; the arcade classic Pac-Man from Namco Networks; and a Texas Hold’em poker game and brickbashing title called Vortex developed internally at Apple. All nine games sell for $4.99 each at the iTunes Store.

PopCap’s Bejeweled and Zuma have appeared on many other platforms, including OS X. So why bring them to the iPod?

“For us, that’s the point. We want to make it possible for people to play our games wherever they want, on whatever device they want,” Roberts said.

Behind the curtain

According to Roberts, PopCap has been working with Apple for more than a year to bring its games to the Macintosh in a project that, in typical Apple fashion, demanded absolute secrecy. “We coordinated with Apple engineering,” he said. “The first time I was able to play the game on the iPod was at the Apple event.”

Fresh Games President Steve Smith relays a similar story. “There were certain limitations on what we were allowed to have or see,” said Smith, referring to the development tools needed to complete the game.

Smith said that originally, Fresh Games approached Apple about iPod game development; the iPod maker eventually contacted Fresh Games to follow up on the proposal.

Development challenges

Reaching an agreement with Apple was only the first obstacle toward iPod game development. Dennis Ryan, PopCap’s executive vice president of business development, explained that creating iPod versions of Bejeweled and Zuma required some finessing, but nothing beyond the skill level of PopCap’s engineering team. PopCap also worked with Astraware, a popular developer of games for Palm OS-based PDAs and other handheld devices.

“It was different in terms of using the click wheel as an input device rather than a dialpad,” said Ryan. “In terms of technical challenges, it’s things we’ve dealt with before, like a small screen size and different memory requirements. It’s a different platform, but it’s what we do.”

For Fresh Games’ Smith, iPod game development came quite naturally.

“We thought immediately that Cubis 2 was just perfectly designed for the iPod. You’re swinging from left to right. All game mechanics don’t work this way, but for Cubis 2, it’s great,” Smith said.

At Namco Networks, the priority was on making sure that an iPod version of the arcade classic Pac-Man played as close to the original as possible, said Scott Rubin, vice president of sales and marketing for the game maker. And Namco’s work on Pac-Man offers a prime example of how each developer used different approaches to getting the iPod’s click wheel to work as a gaming input device. Some games depend on the click wheel’s rotating function, but Pac-Man instead uses it as a virtual joystick of sorts—quick taps on the click wheel’s cardinal points make Pac-Man move in that direction.

Future gaming plans

None of the companies interviewed for this article could say unequivocally that they have deals for future iPod games, though some are sanguine about the possibility.

“We’re working on a new game that will be released soon,” said Fresh Games’ Smith. “And we’ve seen some interest in it for the iPod, so we’ll see.”

PopCap’s Roberts is also keeping his cards close to his vest. “We will certainly do other games for the iPod, but when and what all depend on the normal confluence of events,” he said. “But I think it’s pretty evident from Apple’s presentation that this is going to be an important factor for the iPod going forward.”

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