Last week the talented folks at The Iconfactory released their third game for iPhone, called “Astronut” the gameplay is simple and straightforward and it has a smooth learning curve. Gameplay consists primarily of jumping from one rotating planet to another in order to move vertically up the screen and avoid running into enemies. I have spent some time with the first section that is included in the free download and am writing my impressions based on my early observations in the UI and gameplay design of this game.
Astronut’s control scheme is doing it right, they have only two buttons (boost and jump) and have arranged them in the bottom corners of the screen. When playing, this means the buttons are positioned perfectly for the intended two handed holding style. The placement of the buttons encourages users to keep their thumbs out of the way of the active screen area as much as possible. By using complimentary colors for the jump and boost buttons they are easily discernible from one another and it is clear that they have different purposes.
There is a fantastic parallax effect on the stars in the background which would not exist in real life due to the distance of stars from one another, but Astronut takes some liberty with physics to provide an effect which not only looks more pleasing to the player, but also provides a more accurate sense of movement. It may seem inconsequential but it’s crucial to give the user an adequate sense of space as they move through the world of a game or even the interface of a standard utility app. Consider that an observation of the iPod app included with iPhone which shows great attention is paid to making sure the user always has a very clear sense of space. The left to right hierarchy is reinforced with sliding panels and controls that move into or out of place as necessary.
The silver expanding planets seen in the gameplay video provide a platform the player can stand on only for a limited time, a fun and common gameplay element in any platform game. To convey the time limit, the developers of Astronut chose to put a time meter directly on the object. Putting the time meter directly on the object is a far better choice that placing a timer in a HUD or elsewhere on screen where it is disconnected from the object it is controlling. The player’s eyes are already on that object and even if they are landing on it for the first time and don’t know what’s going to happen, the three lights and sounds convey the importance of the passing of time very clearly.
Displaying information about an object on the object itself is always the best option for casual gameplay, a great example of this is the timed explosive in LittleBigPlanet for the Playstation 3. The timed explosive has two arrows, one mounted on a rotating clock face and one fixed in place. When the rotating arrow makes a full rotation and meets back up with the other arrow the time is up—boom!
The vertical aspect ratio of this game suits it perfectly, this gameplay wouldn’t work well as a side scroller. Because of the vertical orientation, the player’s thumbs will always be below and behind their character. Button placement is a new problem to solve with game design because until recently dedicated portable gaming consoles were the de facto standard. With the the new generation of smartphones we are seeing processors running at 1Ghz and gobs of memory in portable touchscreen devices, finally these devices are ready for demanding software like games, but it just happens that our pocket computers have evolved away from buttons.
With the sensors available on a standard touchscreen smartphone your main control options are either tilt control or touch control, both have benefits and drawbacks and are so nuanced that I could write an entire article about just them. The main challenges are that accelerometer controls lack precision and touchscreen controls put the player’s fingers in the way of what they want to control. Astronut’s placement of buttons at the bottom of the screen and at the corner puts them out of the way of where the player is going and according to Fitt’s Law the corners of the screen are the most easily accessed areas.
Astronut’s two buttons are nicely placed and expertly illustrated, but I can’t help feeling that the boost button seems unnecessary. I spent most of my time playing the game without using the boost button, and only found myself using it when the game would specifically suggest it to me. The boost button does have something to offer in that it gives the player a way to destroy enemies by ramming into them, but since the game can played without it the button begins to feel unnecessary. The boost button should either be necessary to use in order to progress in the game or it should be seriously considered for removing entirely. With Astronut, The Iconfactory has designed a beautifully detailed and wonderfully simple physics based game, it’s free to try so go check it out if you don’t believe me.