The pains, joys and fears of squeezing Horn into iPhone and iPad [Interview]

Horn interview
Horn interview

A game unique as this is somewhat of a gamble for all parties involved. Horn, an upcoming 3D action-adventure epic for iOS, is a mobile game with a definition that's more congruent with the Xbox underneath your TV than the 4-inch mini computer in your pocket. Developer Phosphor Games looks to make a statement for this type of grandiose game on mobile gadgets with Horn, while publisher Zynga (of all companies) hopes to prove it can successfully champion such games with Horn.

No pressure, right? We recently sat down with Phosphor Games director Chip Sineni to learn about what went into tooling Horn for iOS devices, the developer's ambitions for bringing this type of game to a new audience and its interesting partnership with Facebook game giant Zynga.

What was the inspiration for Horn? How did you guys come to the idea for this, especially coming from Dark Meadow for iOS?

I think Horn was just our love letter to the kind of games we still like playing, and always were playing. Stuff like Zelda, and games like Ico-other action-adventure games like Uncharted. All those kind of games and saying, "Wow. This is the stuff we still love to play, and there's nothing like this on mobile." So, we just started prototyping and figuring out, "How would this kind of very classic game play work on this new platform that everyone has?"

How did you guys come to bringing a game like Horn to iOS in terms of controls, or even just visually speaking?

We're not so much against virtual controls as much as we want to figure out, "Is there a better way on this platform, with this audience?" And another thing we've looked into is that a lot of the really deep control stuff is lost on a lot of audiences. As cool as Skyward Sword is, it's almost harder to control than some of the classic Zelda [games] where you just have a simple direction pad and a couple of buttons. Now, you're doing so many things to try to move the player around.

It's this different platform. It's a bit of a different audience, and how do we simplify all of that stuff? It just takes a lot of prototypes. We did so many control schemes that would just fail, or we would do one thing really well, but not another thing until we finally came down to "This feels very intuitive. This feels very clean, very simple and elegant." It takes a lot of cues from recent games like Heavenly Sword, Enslaved and Uncharted, wherein we let the players do what they want to a point, and then we kind of assist them to do something else. [This] kind of makes it cinematic, makes it big and makes it so it doesn't need a ton of buttons to do some very simple things.


So, say you're about to jump off a cliff-seen in the trailer-or you leap off of a building and onto a monster. You mean that's not directly controlled?

Yes. There's a point to where the player is moving around, and then all of a sudden, now when I'm going to jump, we take over the jump part. There's still some interaction in there, you can miss the jump or you can fail something. But we do that. Even the first N64 Zelda started doing that when they removed the jump button. [Nintendo] just made it where when you came up to a cliff, you would just start to do your leap, which is their way of simplifying the platforming part. In this way, you're not jumping into things that you shouldn't be jumping into. Which, as a game, is a lot harder to support all those crazy edge cases, and plus, it can be confusing to a player.

Are there any ways that you designed Horn to fit into a mobile gamer's lifestyle?

Yes. We definitely set out with the goal to have smaller-sized-what we call like bite-sized-missions, where you have 10 or more challenges that are a bit shorter and a bit easier to get into. We talk about the person who's in line at Starbucks, taking the quick bus ride or something like that.

It was funny, though: We started with that goal, and then towards the end, things just kept getting longer and longer. We're still trying to even address where the adventure keeps getting more and more epic. So, we're still trying to fix some of that stuff, even into the game now as we're submitting it to make it so it's a little more bite-sized than all that. More and more people are coming on to mobile. Their playing big story games on their phones. Just the same as people played on their PSP.

Horn screens
Horn screens

Is there anything particularity social about Horn?

No, not yet. We're still working on it.

Who is the target audience for Horn?

We were trying to aim for the younger, inexperienced gamers. Now, we are focusing on true gamers who enjoy playing on mobile devices.

How did Phosphor come to work with Zynga?

Dark Meadow was on the action-adventure sections [of the App Store] but not on the front page. We were talking with marketing groups and publishers, but Zynga offered us the best deal in keeping our artistic vision, and they were really good to work with. I've been a publisher since 1989, and I've met a lot of people in this business. We've gained a lot of partners in the business and are still growing.

Why do you think Zynga has chosen to work with Phosphor, especially given that Horn is totally different from what the company is known for?

I think it's just a sign that they want to grow their market in the industry and go, "Okay, everything isn't just a certain type of game." They're very interested in looking at lots of different kinds of games in the future-more like a traditional publisher than just a single type of publisher. And I think we're the first [developer] that's really trying to do that with them.

Horn images
Horn images

That's certainly an interesting part of this story.

Yeah, it's funny because you just see all these, you know, all these interviews and magazine articles [claiming that Zynga needs] to change, and we're sitting here going, "That's kind of why they started working with us." They're already acknowledging these things.

Can you explain how you might be working with Zynga to make sure Horn stays in the limelight longer than it would, say, on the App Store alone?

Well, one thing is just the exposure to their huge user base. It's just incredible how many people are [in Zynga's network], and for them to know about our game is just incredible for us. Games in general have a pretty small audience, all things considered. You bring up a big game like Assassin's Creed to a non-gamer, and they haven't heard of it. To me, that's a pretty big game. To take it a step down even, being a very a core game on mobile, that's maybe even way lower than that.

I've talked to a lot of people in the industry that haven't heard of Dark Meadow, despite being in the industry and despite [having been] pretty much in every enthusiast media outlet. It's been mentioned somewhere, so when somebody hasn't heard of that, you realize how much of an imprint you're not making.

The goal is that enough people start just becoming aware of the game, so they at least know [of Horn whether] they like it or not. That it's not something that they won't know of. If they have an interest in those kinds of games, then they're going to seek it out. Like we said, we're still working on figuring out some types of social features and whatnot. But none of them would be intrusive to the game. It would more be complimentary-not too far from stuff like Infinity Blade has done and stuff like that.

Horn screen shots
Horn screen shots

I'm interested in seeing how many of Zynga's so-called non-gamers are going to stumble upon Horn, and maybe find out that it's something they're interested in.

We have no idea how it's going to go. We haven't done this before. Zynga hasn't done it before either. One of the neat things about Horn is that it's really intuitive and easy to play. When we were showing Horn early on to other types of publishers, investors or non-gamers, they would always go, "I don't play games anymore, so I don't even know. You could show me your game, but I'll never be able to figure it out."

And we'd show it to them and were like, "If you can click and touch, then you can play it." So many people have kind of left games because they just can't do all of the controller stuff. If they do play a game, they're going to pick up Angry Birds, or something that is very intuitive and easy to play. We show them Horn and they kind of get like, "Oh yeah, this isn't much harder to do than that." Granted Horn does get pretty challenging towards the end of the game, but just the basic movement does not require this crazy dexterity or controller memory that's going to bar you from playing the game.

We, as a game industry, want to show how cool our industry is, and [have people] check out what games are doing and how advanced they got. But most people just can't pick up a controller and actually play it. So, [we're trying to] open up some of this cool, high-quality gaming stuff to anybody.

Horn is due out on iPhone and iPad later this month.

Are you excited for Horn on iOS? What do you think of Zynga's involvement? Sound off in the comments. Add Comment.