Games We Like: The Pickford Brothers on whether mobile devs should adopt the Minecraft model

Launch sooner, finish later

Games We Like: The Pickford Brothers on whether mobile devs should adopt the Minecraft model
Ste Pickford and John Pickford are veteran game designers who've worked on games such as Wetris, Naked War, and iOS hit Magnetic Billiards. Through their publishing company Zee-3, the pair has launched an indie cross-promotion campaign called Games We Like. To read previous instalments from the PocketGamer.biz Games We Like column series, simply click through to part one, two, three or four.

In our monthly Games We Like column we usually pick two games with something in common and compare their differing approaches. This month we thought we'd talk about just one game – Topia for iOS – but look at it from a couple of different angles.

Topia is a terraforming 'god game', not unlike Ubisoft's From Dust – a downloadable title released in 2011.

Topia's developer, Glenn Corpes, was actually one of the main developers of the original god game, Populous, back in 1989, so this game instantly becomes interesting as a sort of unofficial sequel or descendant of that title.

From Dust was, of course, heavily influenced by Populous, so the inspiration here has come full circle.

Topia is based around a visually stunning 3D planetary landscape engine that really demonstrates the power of current iOS devices. Similar terraforming games exist on other formats, but the touch-screen controls remove a barrier that previously existed between the player and the game world.

Now the landscape can be sculpted directly by the player's fingers. The on-screen interface is kept very minimal, with landscaping tools hidden behind a one-touch menu accessed by tapping the 'paws' icon in the top right corner.

Creation myths

Creating your own landscape in Topia is almost like working a lump of clay.

Land is raised, lowered and smoothed under your finger depending on your selected tool. The camera is controlled with a simple two-finger drag, pinch and rotate system. Once you've navigated the three short tutorials you are free to do whatever you like with your world.

And this is where the other interesting aspect of Topia arises. Topa isn't a game – yet.

Version 1.0 of Topia is billed as a 'sandbox' version. The game – or perhaps we should say product – is little more than the core engine and user interface. There are no goals or objectives or missions beyond the initial tutorial.

This approach will not please everyone, and there are sure to be complaints that this is an unfinished product. Perhaps anticipating this, Glenn argues on his blog that there's easily 99c worth of entertainment in the current version, and he's right.

The bare minimum?

Releasing a MVP (minimum viable product) has become an established concept in digital game development over recent years.

Typically this entails releasing a small but complete game with the intention of developing it further over time by adding more features and content if the game is successful, or not bothering if the initial release is a flop.

The ability to update digitally distributed games post-release has made this approach possible, and by and large it hasn't met with much criticism.

There are very good reasons for developers to try the MVP approach:

  • Developers can see revenue sooner. Games – even little indie games – take a long time to make, and can be expensive. It's often a struggle for indies to stay solvent for long enough to bring a game out with the level of polish increasingly demanded.
  • Players can participate in development, offering feedback on early releases and influencing the direction the game is developed in. Community is a big part of indie development and bringing the players into the process at an early stage can really strengthen that.
  • Smaller developers can ultimately produce more ambitious products, albeit in stages, by cleverly making the early versions a polished and satisfying product, albeit without planned content and features.
  • Bad games don't need to be developed to completion!

Topia's initial release is arguably less than MVP, in that the initial offering isn't yet a game, although it is intended to be eventually. But, considering the low price and obvious quality, we think it's still very much a viable product as it stands, and a lot of fun!

As the quality bar for mobile games rises ever higher, with big players like Rovio, EA, Activision and Ubisoft producing expensive, polished mobile games, the MVP approach – by developing and releasing games in stages – may be the only way that small indies without big budgets can produce games that can compete.

So long as customers aren't being fooled into buying what they think is a full game experience, only to find that they've paid for only a small slice of a game's potential, then this approach is a win / win for gamers and developers alike.

You can find out more about Zee-3, including some of the Games It Likes, on the company's website. You can also follow Ste Pickford, John Pickford, and The Pickford Bros on Twitter.