How Powerhead Games went from work-for-hire to building its own titles

Aug 26, 2011
Games

After spending more than a decade creating games for PCs, consoles and other platforms, Powerhead Games in recent years has turned its attention to mobile with titles on iOS, Windows Phone 7 and (coming soon) Android platforms. Powerhead’s puzzle game Async Corp. last month was profiled as an iPhone Game of the Week. As Appolicious […]

After spending more than a decade creating games for PCs, consoles and other platforms, Powerhead Games in recent years has turned its attention to mobile with titles on iOS, Windows Phone 7 and (coming soon) Android platforms.

Powerhead’s puzzle game Async Corp. last month was profiled as an iPhone Game of the Week. As Appolicious Advisor Phil Hornshaw describes: “Async Corp. challenges your brain by requiring you to create different kinds of packets, like filling one whole grid with a single packet of one color, or clearing as many as you can as fast as possible. The variety of play styles keeps the puzzler fresh, and it feels familiar while looking like something new.”

In this edition of Game Theory, Powerhead founder Jason Schreiber discusses how the company started building its own titles (after years as a work-for-hire shop), teases us about an upcoming Android launch, and illuminates on the goal of creating the “simplest function a player can perform that still feels rewarding”.

Appolicious: Powerhead Games has two titles available for iOS devices, ASYNC Corp. and Glow Artisan. Tell us about each title and who the target user is?

Jason Schreiber: After years of making work-for-hire games for other publishers, Glow Artisan was our first original IP. We shopped the game around, in its various stages of development, for over a year, but No “big” publisher wanted to take a chance on a Glow. When Nintendo announced the DSiWare shop, we knew we had found the a home for our game. Initially, we didn’t target anyone other than us. But as we showed the game around to friends it became obvious that our “simple game” was a little more complex than we realized. So we spent some time crafting a nice tutorial and adjusting the difficulty curve to ease people into the color-combining mechanics.

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ASYNC Corp. was inspired by previous stuff we had worked on (we’ve made *a lot* of mini-games over the years…). Throughout its development, designer Matt LoPresti was the game’s internal champion.

Says Matt:

With ASYNC Corp, we wanted to explore a new and emotional puzzle experience. Glow Artisan is a strict logic puzzle game that requires a lot of thought before committing a move. In that sense, your interactions are much more tense. While I’m proud of what we accomplished with Glow, I wanted to try my hand at something softer, something that constantly rewards you without much hassle. This approach was essentially born from my appreciation for Lumines II’s Skin Edit Mode.

Due to its simplistic design and easy-going difficulty, I found myself playing the game almost instinctively without having to “think” about what I was doing. I’d play for hours, making match after match, yet at the same time thinking about other things that were going on in my life. Basically, I was being rewarded for doing almost nothing.

That’s sort of the overall idea with ASYNC Corp: what’s the simplest function a player can perform that still feels rewarding? We went through several iterations, each better than the last. The real genesis of the final design came from me listening to certain songs as I played the prototype, to see what effect they had on gameplay. What you see now is the result of that “design-by-music” approach. Certain designs were also inspired by a game renowned for its music: WipEout, more specifically its Zone Mode. ASYNC’s ‘Zoning Mode’ is a direct homage to Sony Liverpool’s innovative design.

Basically, ASYNC Corp was born from games that imbue a sense of energy and emotion from its music. If you appreciate that, you’ll enjoy ASYNC Corp.

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APPO: Your company has been making great games for console and PC platforms for more than a decade. When did you enter the mobile arena?

JS: Does DSiWare (for us, end of 2009) count? If not, then our first official mobile game was rebuilding Glow Artisan for Microsoft’s launch of Windows Phone 7 last year. Glow still has one of the highest conversion rates on WP7 — we just wish there more phones out there!

APPO: Do you have plans to develop for Android? If so, when? If not, why not?

JS: Nothing yet, but I can tease a little and say there’s a super-secret project that may have something to do with Android that I can’t really talk about… yet. Stay tuned.

APPO: What are the best practices for independent developers to generate awareness of their iOS games upon launch?

JS: Well, you are definitely asking the wrong guys. We still have a lot to learn about marketing our games. The one thing we did right was enter Glow Artisan into the IGF competition last year (Thanks again to Greg Costikyan for the suggestion). Unfortunately the great critical reaction for Glow, and now ASYNC, has not (yet?) translated into big sales. We’re looking for advice/help, so please send your suggestions to [email protected] Hopefully Apple will take notice of us at some point…

APPO: Can you tell us about future titles or updates in the works?

JS: We have some more updates (fixes and new features) planned for ASYNC Corp. No release dates have been set. Also, we’re hoping to make a big announcement on a new project soon…

APPO: What would you rate the mobile development community in New York City?

JS: Growing.

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Brad Spirrison

Brad Spirrison is the managing editor of appoLearning and Appolicious Inc. In this capacity, he has sampled and evaluated thousands of iOS and Android applications. He also holds an M.A. in Education and Media Ecology from New York University.

Spirrison worked in concert with appoLearning Expert and Instructional Technology Specialist Leslie Morris while curating and evaluating educational applications.

A longtime media and technology commentator and executive, Spirrison is also a regular contributor to ABC News, The Huffington Post, TechCrunch, Bloomberg West and The Christopher Gabriel Program.

Spirrison is married and lives with his wife and young son in Chicago. As his son was born just weeks before the debut of the iPad, Spirrison takes his work home with him and regularly samples and enjoys a variety of educational applications for young children.

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