Trying to understand how games work

Category Archives: Projects


Recently I got the chance to talk with Tom Elliot, Technical Director at MAGiK ArtS. They’re a fairly small company that make apps for mobile initially starting with client work, and have recently just put out their first game SquareFlip.

PixPen: What’s the company ethos then? What does MAGiK ARtS Represent?

Tom: Our take on the market is you get a lot of indie studios, especially at Teesside, coming out rough and ready, “lets do some retro games”, “lets do some hardcore games”. They have a very clear audience, that’s great. They’re some of my favourite kinds of companies, the kind of companies I play games from.

But with MAGiK ARtS we went out and thought “what’s the niche that people aren’t doing at Teesside?”, “what these new business aren’t doing that we can do?”. And we found especially in our first client apps that we could use a very clean elegant, almost minimalistic style.

That resonates well with the more middle aged, the more middle class, the Steve Jobs kind of people of the world. So we aim for clean elegant apps, which are built for functionality and for your need first, for that kind of age range.

PixPen: MAGiK ARtS is a fairly small company at this point. How many people have you got?

Tom: A grand total of two (laughs).

PixPen: What does that bring to the company then?

Tom: Well for starters we can only focus on one given project at a time. Which has its downsides and its benefits. Its downsides are we can’t produce as many projects at a time as we could. The upside is we have excellent communication speed.

So turnover time for iterations is very speedy, and the best part of it we found is that with only having two of us, it’s really easy to set up contact with a client, with testers, with those kind of people, because there are no gears, no cogs.

Some clients we’ve had, we’ve had some really huge people, we’ve talked to big companies, and I can’t say their names unfortunately as those projects are still in development.

But the amount of time it takes to establish communications with these people, because you have to go through their front-line PR, to their local director, then to their managing director, then back down again to get authorisation, and then back up again. It’s ridiculous!

We’re a two-man company and if someone comes and asks a question, a few days we can turn around and say, “okay done!”


PixPen: Your first game, SquareFlip, what is it about?

Tom: It is a memory tile matcher. Designed to help improve your memory and put you in a Zen, relax you. It’s very good for killing time on a lunch time break, that sort of thing, very background, very nice.

PixPen: Why give a relaxing element to it then?

Tom: Our model for SquareFlip was we knew that we couldn’t make the next AAA blockbuster indie title. We gave ourselves a shortened development time, and built specifically for one platform.

So we figured “right, what is within our scope?” Well that’s not really the right question to start with, “lets ask people what they want and then see if we can build something to that scope.” We went out and asked people, we found our demographic of middle aged ladies mostly, although this game applies to everyone. We found that the kind of games they play, Peggle, Bejewelled, Tetris even are all nice Zen, just relax over your break time and we thought “yeah go for it, we could make that.”

PixPen: Do you have plans for future games.

Tom: Yes we do absolutely, I can’t give the full low-down but I can tell you what our immediate plan is project wise. The next app we’re building is a utility app, a car related one, look out for that if you’re the kind of guy who drives a Ferrari. The immediate app after that, we’re hoping to build another game in a similar vein to relax and chill with.

PixPen: Is that the philosophy when you’re designing games for MAGiK ARtS?

Tom: Oh yes, I’ve already spoken about this simple elegant design system that we’re trying to go for and we’ve found the relaxed chilled Zen puzzle games really fit that ethos to a point because they’re all about just being elegant and smooth and feeling nice.


PixPen: So the platform is all iOS devices then?

Tom: We’re currently focused on iOS devices because when we asked our demographic what kind of games they play, they all play them on iPhones, now we are actually looking to port to Android if enough people call for it, but at the moment we’re focusing on iOS.

PixPen: What other considerations do you have to take when developing for that demographic?

Tom: Technical ones, interface, as in from their perspective. We are two fairly technical people. We’re effectively bringing back bedroom programming but in the new age of the apple market, so we get what we’re building.

For a lot of the time, if you’re building a more high-end indie game, a more focused experience, like a platformer or an RPG, you can assume your users understand how it all works. You can’t assume that when you’re building experiences which are supposed to gel into everyday life, because the less that they have to learn to get into your experience, the better.

One of the biggest challenges we found is just making them learn without realising they’re learning, teaching them these surprisingly technical concepts of game mechanics, while at the same time assuming they have no idea how any of these games works. The most you can have expect them to have played is bejewelled, and even that’s a stretch so definitely understand how much the user gets your mechanics, that’s the biggest challenge I’d say.

PixPen: So the game is out?

Tom: Yes it’s out for free, if you’ve got an iOS device for Xmas, if Santa feels so obliged, it’s immediately available for free on the app store.

Michael Sharp is a Teesside University student who created his own game, Rebound.

What is Rebound for those who don’t know?
Rebound is a 2D game inspired by ‘Pong’ and ‘Breakout’ games from the Atari 2600 era of games, it was created for a competition that required each game to have aspects of Random or Procedural generation in the game mechanics.

The game itself consists of a ball, a ‘player’ paddle and an enemy AI paddle, each player is trying to keep the ball from passing their side, to add to the complexity the world is scattered with crates which influence various aspects of the game, such as the player/enemies score, the speed of the ball, the distribution of crates on the playing field and the art and sounds of the playing field; the player must ‘play the field’ to win against the AI player, they do that by scoring past the AI and by hitting the right crates and avoiding the wrong ones.

Do you feel randomised elements add an interesting element to a game?
Yes, definitely. By adding random elements to games (in the case of Rebound, the distribution of crates keeps changing, the appearance of the playing field also keeps changing), the game is exciting to play again and again, it presents a new and different challenge to the gamer every time.

How did you go about making the game?
I wrote the game in the C++ programming language, using a neat little library called SFML (short for Simple Fast Media Library), I’ve been programming for about 7 years now, so it was just a matter of plotting out the game mechanics, defining each ‘zone’ in the game and writing the code to put it all together.

I also needed to exercise a little bit of initiative when it came to creating the art and sound assets, the art was hand drawn by myself using a graphics tablet and the sound effects were create in a neat little tool called SFXR.

How do you feel personally about the game? Is there anything you might do a little differently next time?
I feel that given the time I had to complete the game, I did a decent job, but if I were to expand on the game further, I would have made the crate generation system less random and more procedural, it would have been really cool to generate patterns of crates around the playing field instead of just placing them randomly.

I would also be very keen on using a different set of libraries to build the game, getting the game to work on Mac, Linux and Windows was a bit of a chore, if I used a different set of libraries in perhaps another language, I may have been able to avoid building the game for each individual platform, reducing development time.

Anything you’re able to tease? Or am I approaching on dangerous secretive ground?
Well, while I am usually rather coy about my future projects, I will say that I am looking into better ways of developing games, I’m very keen on getting my games out to as many people as possible, so I’m looking into how I can deploy my next game to mobile devices as well as the PC.

As for my actual next game, I’m still mulling that over, but I am rather partial to strategy and city-building games, so I might explore that space some time soon, maybe not for my next project, but maybe the one after that!

Michael has his own blog here, Rebound can be downloaded from here.

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