January 30, 2009

Crayon Physics Deluxe Lands on the iPhone

By Phil Glockner of Scribkin (FriendFeed/Twitter)

It seems like genuinely new video game concepts happen infrequently at best. Usually, the industry is perfectly content to watch how a certain gameplay mechanic does in the marketplace, and if it works, diligently copy and iterate on the concept until it doesn't sell any more.

It has traditionally been the domain of the independent (or Indie) game developers, usually 1 to 3 people working intensively together, to really push the 'state of the art' in the industry. They have always been willing to try something new without the expectation of having to sell a minimum number of units in order to pay their salaries and materials costs.

Crayon Physics Deluxe

Petri Purho (Twitter) is one of those indie developers. The game play mechanic he developed is deceptively simple: Take the equivalent of a child's crayon masterpiece, figure out what sort of things might actually have mass, like a boulder, add pivot points and strings, and then apply gravity and force!

He entered his idea into the 2008 Independent Games Festival and ended up winning the grand price and $20,000 for his idea. He quickly refined his prototype into a game he could sell via his Web site and licensed the rights for the game to be ported to the iPhone.

The Game

For comparison purposes, I am going to hold up the PC version of Crayon Physics Deluxe to be the 'gold standard.' That said, let's see how it holds up.

First, it's not surprising that the unique but fairly elaborate "Mario World"-style level navigation from the PC version is absent on the iPhone. The game starts off with a pretty straightforward-looking intro screen (drawn in Crayon, of course) lets you drive right in to the game.

There are 50 levels, and you can either play them in order, stopping and resuming at any time (it remembers where you left off) or you can go directly to any of the 50 levels you want to practice on from the main menu.

When playing the first level, the first thing I noticed is that the animation did not feel as smooth and effortless as on the PC version. This game definitely gives the iPhone a workout. Once the level is completely drawn in and the game can focus on only animating the puzzle parts of the level, it seems to run a bit more smoothly.

The gameplay mechanics are almost identical to the PC version, if you play in 'tablet PC mode' (with a stylus instead of a mouse), with one big difference: in order to remove something, you double-tap on it instead of right-clicking. This actually proves to be quite a bit more frustrating as the interface seems to fight your efforts to recognize what you are double-tapping on.

Another frustration comes from the relative size of the iPhone screen and a finger. On the PC version, a stylus obscures very little of the screen, and a mouse pointer even less. However, especially with me, I have relatively large fingers and the screen is tiny. This means drawing in a relatively small detail such as a pivot point that requires precise placement is harder than it should be.

Perhaps in recognition of this fact, the iPhone version lets you zoom in on portions of the play field with the familiar gesture of placing two fingers on the screen and dragging them apart (or pinching to zoom out). You can also drag the viewable area around by using two fingers instead of one. Finally, 'resetting' a level to its original position is as easy as giving your iPhone a shake.

The game comes with a level editor, where you can create your own puzzle to play later. Unfortunately, the level editor doesn't seem to have any documentation, and has a lot of shortcomings. For example, drawing a section of 'ground level' is extremely difficult.. there are some little drag-able Xs that are there to identify different geographic features, but they don't seem to work reliably. Usually, any lines that are created just fall off the level immediately once the play buttin is hit. Plus, if a level is somehow miraculously playable and you save it, you can only play it on that iPhone. There isn't any way to export or share the level with someone else.

The translation of the experience over to the small screen is surprisingly complete; I still get the same rush and feeling of satisfaction when I manage to get the ball to touch the strategically-placed star (the winning condition for each level). However, a host of problems plague the release as well. Perhaps in recognition of that fact, the game is currently listed for $4.99 on the iTunes Store.

Even at that price, I would have difficulty recommending the game until the developer manages to address some of the issues I've covered here, such as the generally laggy feeling and the useless level editor. On the other hand, the PC version at $19.95 is definitely worth it.

Read more by Phil Glockner at Scribkin.com.