Halfbot Interview: The Blocks Cometh creator drops crates of info

I admit, I have lately become just a little obsessed with The Blocks Cometh by Halfbot [$1.99]. The perfect blend of tone, presentation and addictive gameplay, The Blocks Cometh is a paradigm of modern retro game design, and represents iOS gaming at its best.

Like so many blocks from above, I recently had the opportunity to drop questions on Halfbot’s Derek Laufman.

NoDpad: To begin, could you tell us a little about your general role in Halfbot, and specifically in development of The Blocks Cometh?

Derek: I am the art half of Halfbot. I create all of the visuals and animations. We try to share game design duties when we can but generally art doesn’t take as long as code so I shoulder a bit more of the design end of things. For The Blocks Cometh in particular this was an idea I came up with when we were challenging ourselves to make a Flash game in a day. In 6 hours we went from concept to playable demo and in the end, the final Flash version took 5 days to complete.

How would you describe The Blocks Cometh to someone who has never played it?

The best way to describe the game is to imagine that your character has been trapped in a game of Tetris. Your goal is to avoid the falling blocks while trying to climb as high as you can before ultimately getting crushed. The game pushes you to beat your previous score or compete against your friends with the integration of Open Feint and Game Center. With the addition of achievements and unlockable characters, it’s quick pick up and play style lends itself to any gamer that has 5 minutes or 2 hours.

The Blocks Cometh seems a perfect fit for the iPhone, but was originally released as a browser-based Flash game. How did you find the process of porting the game to iOS? There are quite a lot of other Flash games I would love to see ported; why do you think so few Flash game developers bring their work to iOS, and what motivated your team to make that leap?

Back in October 2010 when we created the game for the Flash Market we had already been contemplating the idea of making the move to the iOS and other mobile platforms in the coming year. So when we developed the game I kept the screen ratio to that of the iPhone. We had also used the Flixel engine to create the Flash Game and when Adam Atomic released his Flixel iOS code for open source it made porting the game a lot easier. The iPhone is a harder platform to develop for then Flash. I would imagine that a lot of Flash devs are intimidated by the technical side of the platform. Luckily for us we have both been working in the games industry to over 5 years and had a lot of experience working with other platforms which made the transition for us a lot easier.

The App Store is a crowded place, over-saturated in nearly every genre of gaming, and for every ground-breaking title a slew of copycats quick on its heels. How do you feel The Blocks Cometh stands out from the crowd, both from similarly premised games like The Incident, as well as against games other action/reflex titles?

I’d like to think that we bring a good level of polish and quality to our games that allow us to stand out. We strive to make our games as good as they can be, whether that is through game play fixes or just adding more content. We will try and bring our fans that best game possible.

I think one aspect of The Blocks Cometh that keeps me coming back is the game’s nonstop action. The game is one narrow escape after another, with never a moment to catch your breath. While in some respects similar, The Incident favors a more lackadaisical pace and lacks that sense of imminent peril; I rarely find the incentive to play the game. Meanwhile, The Blocks Cometh is a game I can hardly put down. Was this notion of real and constant danger something that you actively pursued while developing the game, or is it something that evolved more as a side-effect to the game you were making?

From the start we wanted the gameplay to be fast and intense. It took a lot of adjusting to find that balance and we are really happy to hear that the players feel the same way.

The Blocks Cometh features fantastic art direction. The retro presentation and the atmosphere of science fiction in ruins calls to mind games such as Mega Man and Canabalt. Were these titles an influence on The Blocks Cometh, and what other inspirations did you draw upon when setting the game’s excellent tone?

Actually you really hit it on the head. Those two games were both in my head when I was trying to come up with the setting for the game. Canabalt is the ultimate distance game in my opinion and I’ve always loved the setting for that game. I’ve always been a huge fan of Mega Man. It was my first NES game as a kid. I had the DuckHunt/Gyromite package and since I didn’t have Super Mario Bros I bugged my parents for Mega Man immediately. So I’ve been a huge fan of that game from day one.

The Blocks Cometh is clearly not intended to be a work of great narrative force, but is there some backstory to the catastrophic destruction? Why are the blocks falling, where are they coming from, and what do our heroes hope to accomplish by climbing ever higher? Are these questions that might be explored in a future game?

We like the idea of having this ominous presence in the background. Is the world falling apart? Is someone dropping these blocks from the sky? We hint that people are trying to escape the planet and as you are playing you see ships taking off into the sky. In the trailer we imply that our “hero” has waited too long and is now trying to escape by physically climbing his way off the planet. I’m not sure if we’ll explore the narrative any further but we like the idea of letting the players draw their own conclusions.

Do you anticipate developing other titles within the same world as The Blocks Cometh, whether a direct sequel or any spin-off titles heading in new gameplay directions? I would love to see the Halfbot character appearing in a title of his own; he’s a fantastic character with loads of personality. The world itself seems like it could go in plenty of directions as well.

We’ve definitely discussed the ideas of expanding on the brand but for now there are no immediate plans to do so.

From your blog, I understand a large content update is in the works, containing new characters, game modes and achievements. What can you tell us about the coming additions? Will the new game modes provide any significant changes to gameplay?

We are currently working on a big feature update. First and foremost we are including an ability to play the game in Landscape mode. We received a lot of player requests for this feature and although it was technically challenging to integrate we were able to pull it off. So we are excited about that feature. Also, we will include a Casual mode for the gamers who want a more relaxed style of play and on the flip side of that we will offer an Extreme mode for the really hardcore players. We will also introduce 4 new characters and a bunch of new achievements.

Do you plan any further improvements to the existing game, such as control improvements, new leaderboards — perhaps to track scores for each character separately?

We have tweaked the controls a bit more since the first update and with the addition of the Landscape mode we hope the gameplay experience will appeal to everyone. As for new leader boards we will be adding additional leader boards for each mode but with the addition of characters, having individual boards would get too out of hand.

One design choice I find interesting is the decision to give each of the game’s characters an attack. The attacks are occasionally useful, but I have found the game can just as easy be played without them. What motivated this choice, and might we see future game modes or a scoring system placing more of an emphasis on combat and/or destruction?

The attack was originally put into the Flash game to allow the player to get out from being boxed in, rather than just wait until the screen crushes you. The attack basically evolved from that. Some players utilize the attack more than others but we like that the feature is there. We have definitely discussed the use for it in additional modes and if the game ends up performing better in the market place we’d love to explore the potential in future updates.

Your fiasco with Edison Games has been well-publicized. To summarize for our readers, while you were busy developing the game for iOS, The Blocks Cometh was ripped-off by developer Edison Games — title, gameplay, art assets and all — whose only change to the game was to replace the main protagonist with a character stolen from Ravenous Games’ League of Evil. Apple approved the game and even listed the game as one of its weekly featured titles. Upon discovering the theft, Halfbot launched a campaign to defend their intellectual property, resulting in the removal of the doppleganger title from the App Store.

Am I missing anything you would like to add?

That sums it up perfectly.

As I understand, the event precipitated some changes to Apple’s approval guidelines for apps. In short, what is the intent of these changes, what are your thoughts on them, and how effective do you think they will be in preventing such incidents in the future?

I think that any improvement that Apple makes to ensure that IP’s are protected and guilty developers are punished is going to be a step in the right direction. However, I’ve yet to see this policy in action. It’s been about a month since Apple posted the announcement about guideline changes and yet Edison Games is still alive and well in the app store with no recourse. It’s really disappointing to see that no action has been taken against them.

How damaging do you believe it has been to the reception and sales of The Blocks Cometh, having had the game released out from under you by another developer?

We feel it had a huge impact on the success of our game. We had a very strong launch day and even with an Apple feature the game struggled to gain any real staying power. It’s hard to imagine that The Blocks Cometh didn’t perform better than it did with all of the press coverage and positive reviews. All we can do is speculate but we honestly feel that the copycat game affected the overall sale of our title.

Not that I want to imply good in an evil act, but is there a silver lining? Have these incidents had any positive effect on your game? For example, we speculated in our review that had this never happened, you might not have had the opportunity to come together with Ravenous Games — The League of Evil / The Blocks Cometh crossover is quite possibly the best crossover in App Store history!

Despite the poor performance of the game we were able to form a good friendship with Ravenous Games and the out pouring of support from the community and press was amazing. This incident helped put Halfbot on the map and will only help us to be successful in the future. You have to look at the positive side of every situation and this is one of those times where we feel that we still came out ahead.

Do you plan any further crossover content with Ravenous Games? Do you think your teams might work together on projects in the future?

We have definitely discussed the potential of working together again and we would be honoured to team up with them on a future title.

Do you have any plans for an iOS release of your previous Flash game, I Don’t Come In Peace?

Not at this time. I Don’t Come in Peace was our first Flash title and although we enjoyed the game we feel at this stage we can offer a much stronger platforming experience. We are definitely not short on ideas so we are really excited to see what new games we can bring to iOS.

Apart from The Blocks Cometh, what are a few of your favorite games on iOS? And Flash-based, or on other systems?

Without trying to sound biased the League of Evil is the best platformer on iOS in my opinion. I also recently became addicted to Game Dev Story for iOS, I highly recommend this game to any developer or fan of sim games. I love everything that Juicy Beast is putting out in the Flash market. Those guys are loaded with talent and I believe they have their first iOS game Gobtron coming out very soon. I’m definitely going to be checking that out.

And finally, are there any questions you wish I had asked that I didn’t?

I believe you covered it all! I just want to thank you for all the great questions and I really had a great time doing this interview!

Many thanks to Derek for contributing his time for this interview.

Halfbot is working hard to ready the big content update, and hopes to have it ready for submission in two weeks. In the meantime, for more on The Blocks Cometh check out our review and further impressions. And definitely do yourself the favor of swinging by the App Store to pick this one up. For serious: coffee money well-spent.

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