GDC 2010: Interview with Faraway's Steph Thirion

Mike Schramm
M. Schramm|03.16.10

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GDC 2010: Interview with Faraway's Steph Thirion
Steph Thirion is a game designer who's been releasing some of the most inventive games I've seen on the iPhone. He started out with Eliss a little while back, and he recently announced Faraway, which I got to play at GDC. The night after I played the game (it was at a party called Gamma IV), I sat down with him to chat about developing for the iPhone, why Eliss wasn't bigger, and his biggest inspiration for the more casual gameplay of Faraway.

Read on for the full interview.

Eliss was your first title on the iPhone. How do you think that it did?

Well, I think it did well. I'm really happy with the result. I'm really proud of it and really happy that it got such a good reaction from all the fans.

What did you learn from your experience of releasing a game like that?

That leads to the second part of my answer, which is that I didn't playtest the game enough. Eliss is very, very hard. That's the number one complaint. I was aiming for a casual game, and I ended up making a hardcore game. I talked to a lot of people that actually appreciate that, and they've been playing for like the full year. But what I intended to do was make a game that you could beat in an hour and a half. And that's absolutely not the case because I didn't playtest it.

So you say the mistake was to not make the game you wanted rather than... some developers say that the iPhone is only a store for casual and easy games. Do you think there is a space for harder games like Eliss on the iPhone?

There is -- I think it's definitely a smaller space. I will leave Eliss the way it is, I don't want to patch it. I might release a new game related to Eliss that is more casual than Eliss was. But yeah it's definitely not a hardcore market.

As you told me last night, you're working on new games all the time. But this is the second one you've decided to bring out, called Faraway. For people who haven't seen it, which is most everybody, how would you describe this new game?

This game is about traveling in an infinite space. You're a comet, and you gravitate around stars to get where you want to go. And then you get inside of clusters, inside those clusters, you draw constellations, and the better constellations you draw, the more time you get to play and stay in the game. It's a casual, endless game, and it's a one-button game.

Right. That's interesting -- Eliss uses the touchscreen well, and it's complicated, but this is much more simple, and at the show here, you've got it running on the Mac, so it's possible to even play it on a screen that's not a touchscreen. Was that a choice you made or did it just sort of come up as you were making it?

No, it was a specific choice. A key point was playing Canabalt. And I was like wow, the iPhone works really well as a one-button device. I was really surprised, and I was like I want to try that, I want to try that simplicity, which is like the opposite of Eliss' controls. So yeah, that was one of my intentions, going realistic, going one-button.

It's interesting you brought up Canabalt -- just like that game, it's easy to pick up, and then by the time you start to get better at it, there's a little more depth that reveals itself.

Right, exactly. Like Canabalt, it's a casual endless game, so you want to get better and better and better, and I'm very happy that there's actually evidence of this -- since yesterday at the party, I've been watching people play, and they've been getting better and better, which is a good sign. I've also seen people sucking, but they go to the back of the line to play again. So it's working already.

I think for an iPhone game, that's a good sign to have. In terms of a release, I think you said you're aiming for a little while longer yet, right?

Yeah, I don't have a date yet.

Eliss you told me a while ago that you were kind of torn on pricing and how to release it and how to bring it out, do you have a better plan on Faraway?

I think again Canabalt set a very good example, where they surprised everybody by releasing at $3 and it went great. They went against the $1 market, which is like destroying the iPhone market. It won't be less then $3. It might be more than that, I don't know yet.

As with everybody else we're talking to, we have to ask you about the iPad. What do you think of the device, have you messed around with the SDK at all? Does it strike you as a gaming device?

Oh yeah, I'm so excited about the iPad, I think it's going to be really big. I haven't played with the SDK because I don't want to play with the SDK before I have the device in my hands, and I can start playing then. Because it doesn't make sense if I don't have the device in my hands. I couldn't get my hands on a device.

No one could -- we couldn't either, so you're fine there. Do you think it's the same experience, or would you build a completely different game on the two devices?

In terms of Faraway, I think it's pretty much the same experience -- it's a one-button game. In the case of Eliss, it gets very interesting. There's a whole new world of possibilities.

All right, thanks very much.
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