Mutant Blobs Attack! dev on finding the right balance with Vita

Ryan MacLean is the CEO of Toronto-based DrinkBox Studios, which is composed of developers who know how to make games for a console launch. Working at Pseudo Interactive, MacLean's team released Cel Damage in time for the original Xbox launch, and Full Auto 2: Battlelines within a month of the PlayStation 3's debut. When Pseudo Interactive shuttered in mid-2008, a number employees established DrinkBox Studios, which has since completed contract work for nearly every system on the market.

At a recent Los Angeles event for DrinkBox's latest title, Tales from Space: Mutant Blobs Attack!, MacLean told me that of all the systems he's worked on for launch, the PlayStation Vita was the "easiest" to develop for. DrinkBox was first introduced to the Vita in October 2010 (before it was officially announced to the public), and the studio wanted its first game on the system, Mutant Blobs Attack!, to "take advantage of the Vita's input capabilities." But just like any developer taking on a new set of hardware, they had to focus on controls that worked.

MacLean agrees that the Vita's new inputs made it "a challenge to figure out how to use it well." The Vita offers a number of ways to interact with its games, including a touchscreen on the front and back, along with two analog sticks, front and back cameras, and an internal gyroscope and accelerometer. MacLean's team "experimented with a lot of things" using these inputs, and found some ideas that worked, and many which didn't.

The front touchscreen is probably the most used new input in Mutant Blobs Attack!. As the player's blob character traverses the game's various stages, mostly using the dual analog sticks and buttons, they'll occasionally run into sections where glowing green sparks indicate objects in the game's environment that can be moved around in a 2D physics system. A speed pad can be rotated to point in a different direction, for example, or a cart of objects can be swiped upward, firing its contents across the screen.

This touch interaction only happens occasionally throughout the game's stages, however. DrinkBox wanted to use this mechanic somewhat sparingly, the CEO revealed, as sort of a breather between the more traditional platforming challenges.

The back touchscreen is used even less -- at one point in the game, the player's blob is allowed to float in zero gravity, using the X button to boost around the level. The back touchscreen is then used as a toggle, and hitting both X and the back touchscreen will move the blob faster.

In practice, the mechanic does work. But the game also provides the same function via the trigger buttons, which is an easier option than manipulating the rear panel. MacLean revealed the team had debated about the viability of the rear touch pad. "The biggest challenge is making sure people aren't touching it accidentally," he said, "because people grip it in all kinds of different ways."

DrinkBox makes use of the accelerometer in a series of optional bonus levels complete with retro-style Game Boy graphics. That level has the blob rolling around and picking up extra mass Katamari Damacy-style. For the top-down task given, the accelerometer works well. Like any good input system, the player is able to forget about the mechanics of controlling the on-screen action, and just act as needed.

Originally the team thought about using the front touchscreen to navigate in zero gravity, MacLean said. "We tried experimenting with making it a touch controlled power," sort of like the iPhone game Osmos, he added. "The first iteration was where you would tap the screen and the blob would fly away from the tapped location. And we tried also incorporating multitouch into that, so you could have two jets of propulsion coming out at the same time."

But DrinkBox eventually decided not to use the main touchscreen for those controls. "We found that trying to use the touch, whether back touch or front touch for that, changed the gameplay quite a bit, because it doesn't quite have the same precision as you have with the stick and propulsion," MacLean said. The touch controls didn't allow for the same level of granularity as the joysticks. "So not everything for these new types of inputs is going to work out."

Mutant Blobs Attack! doesn't use the Vita's cameras at all, for example. Some use of the cameras was considered -- perhaps in terms of motion controls, or augmented reality -- but it never fit into what the developers wanted the game to be.

While console makers may trumpet new and different built-in ways to interact, it always has to come back to what's right for the gameplay, as dictated by developers, MacLean added.

In putting this launch title together for Sony's new system, DrinkBox is trying to make something good, rather than adhere to a checklist of Vita's features. "We weren't trying to make a game that takes advantage of every single input that the Vita offers," MacLean said. The team wanted to focus on features "that we felt worked for it."

This article was originally published on Joystiq.