Spark Plug Games president John O’Neill ’96 spent years developing games for personal computers and traditional video game consoles such as the PlayStation. But he got tired of working on the long, drawn-out projects that are common in video game development. His aim in co-founding Spark Plug: create a company that made fun games and create an environment that was fun for its developers. They began working on console games and discovered the casual market — games for people who weren’t hardcore gamers but who wanted an entertaining experience that wouldn’t take up hundreds of hours. “It kind of opened our eyes to something we always wanted to do: target as large an audience as possible [by] building mass market, fun, entertaining games,” he says.
Earlier this year, the company launched Pac-Match Party, a match game inspired by the iconic video game character Pac-Man. You can play it here or download it from the iTunes store. The company also recently helped NC State’s Distance Education and Learning Technology Applications develop WolfMatch, a match game for mobile devices. O’Neill talks here about apps, Pac-Man and video game development. And check out the Department of Computer Science’s interview with him.
What’s the difference between developing for a console like the PlayStation and developing for a mobile device like an iPhone or Android?
It’s not terribly different. The smart thing we’ve done to make our lives easy is to develop technology to take a lot of the complexities and differences between the console and iPhone and hide [them] from the creative team. You have your artists and designers and game programmers who are going to focus on building the content that makes something entertaining and enjoyable. But you don’t want them having to struggle with how to make it fit on a small screen. If you can extract a lot of the complexities of hardware and think of the iPhone as a console itself, you’re really just developing for another platform. You can focus [most] of your efforts on good game design. [W]e think of [the iPhone] as another console.
What changes do you have to make?
From a game play perspective, you’ve got a completely different set of rules you have to consider. On a console, you have a controller with a lot of buttons doing all sorts of things. On the iPhone, you’ve got no buttons. It’s all a touch interface. If you are designing a product for a console as well as an iPhone, you can think about your interface in a smart way that applies to the design. You’re a little more challenged if you create a product for the PC or gaming consoles first and then [move] it to the iPhone because you made assumptions about a control scheme that is based on a mouse or a keyboard or a joystick. And when you go to a touch interface, that changes. [Things like] the wording you [use] to tell the player how to interact with the screen. Instead of clicking or pressing a button, you have tap. The wording you use has to change.
How does developing apps affect your staff size, resources and testing?
It’s definitely on a much smaller scale. I see a lot of benefits to having a smaller team on a smaller product. Everyone tends to feel a lot more invested and have ownership in a product that they have a lot more responsibility on. Having a five person team on a product that [takes] five months [to develop] versus having a 50-person team on a product that lasts five years, you don’t run into the same burnout problems. People are proud to play the game and will play the game because they aren’t sick of it. In many ways, casual games are a nice, refreshing break from what we’ve been doing for so long.
What was it like getting involved with an iconic brand like Pac-Man?
It was the 30th anniversary this year for Pac-Man, which makes me feel really old. That for us was a huge honor and a fantastic opportunity. [Pac-Man developer] Namco has been a close publishing partner of ours for over a year. They approached us to do a quick game featuring their iconic character. The challenge, however, with a character that is so iconic and is so closely guarded is from a licensing standpoint and an approval process standpoint. Every single pixel, when it comes to this character and the brand associated with Pac-Man, is so closely guarded. Rightly so. Anything we do, deviation wise, is strictly prohibited. When we’re given source art and source sound, and if we feel we can do a few improvements, especially applicable to a small device like the iPhone, we aren’t allowed to. There are things that cannot be touched. There is a Japanese approval board responsible for Pac-Man. They meet every couple of months to review products that are using that brand. You have to be in strict compliance. We spent a good deal of time making sure we were within compliance. There was a lot of time going back and forth, waiting for approval or making a slight modification, even for a single pixel in variance. They will get very down in detail just to protect the brand.
Editor’s note: Look for a list of NC State-related apps and mobile sites in the Autumn 2010 issue of NC State magazine.