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Fun Bits explains Escape Plan controls and the vocabulary of Vita

Justin McElroy

You might think it's a privilege to be among the first to develop for a new platform, and you'd be right. You're getting to play with a new toy, plus there's plenty of extra publicity being a launch title. You get to play pioneer for a couple of years!

But, as Escape Plan developer Fun Bits will attest, being the first on a new console also means pressure. Sure, there was the usual "How do we exploit this tech to get the best graphics?" but, on the PlayStation Vita, there's was a whole new challenge: "What are we supposed to do with all these inputs?"

Gallery: Escape Plan (Gamescom 2011) | 9 Photos

When Joystiq first went hands-on with the game at Gamescom, we were a little ... disappointed with Fun Bits' answer to the question, which included a camera that seemed lazy and characters that felt unresponsive. These pioneers had, however briefly, contracted digital dysentery.

But as Fun Bits CEO Chris Millar explained, the current issues aren't produced by bad controls so much as they are too many controls.

"There's a lot of stuff that's in progress right now and that's sort of the elephant in the room of, I'll be blunt, why some of the controls are sort of overlapping right now," he told me in the developer's Seattle offices.

Take the camera, for instance. Sure, you can use two fingers to zoom in and out (just like on an iDevice) but you can also use the back touch pad in cases where you don't want to block your view. Oh, and you can also use the thumbstick.

"It's all under investigation, but we're really starting to like the feeling of the analogs, because that's where your hand rests, and it feels really natural," Millar said.

To hear Millar tell of focus groups where half the players started on thumbsticks and never went back, and the other half of the room did the same with the touchscreen, you start to appreciate the situation he and his team are faced with. Fun Bits isn't just trying to make the most enjoyable adventure it can, it's attempting to create a whole new vocabulary for how to interact with that adventure.

"As an early Vita title, we have to teach and be comfortable with players learning how to use the back pad," said creative director John Mundy. "So we are a little forgiving in that so it's not exactly only where you touch on the back, we have to be a bit looser with it."

Perhaps the best example is squeezing. Occasionally, the thinner of the game's leads (Lil) can fill up on a gas that lets him float above obstacles. To expel that gas, players must simultaneously tap Lil on both the front and back pads, thereby "squeezing" the gas out. Its something that's never been done in a video game, so Fun Bits (much like the scientists of Jurassic Park) needs to be equally concerned with whether the feature "could" be implemented and if it "should."

Escape Plan has to make players do something they've never attempted and make them feel like they've been doing it their whole lives.

After my brief time with Escape Plan, I'd say "yes" to both counts. With a little explanation and practice, I was able to pretty confidently manipulate Lil and Laarg and help lead them to safety. More importantly, I learned which systems were final (very few) and which will be overhauled or removed all together.

Individual movements, like swiping to start Lil or Laarg walking, worked well in a vacuum. But having to do those movements in concert with others (especially some of the more unfamiliar moves like squeezing) got a little cumbersome. But I got the sense that the biggest problem was my own brain not yet making the hand-eye connections required. (Remember the first time you tried to get your pinky to hit the orange button in Guitar Hero? Like that.)

But, much like our man in Cologne, most gamers won't have the benefit of the developer looking over their shoulder and explaining this new language of play. Luckily, Fun Bits still has a few months to figure out how it's going to bridge that gap.

As it stands, the tiny team is faced with creating a control system that takes advantage of the new features of a new handheld device that feels instantly relatable. To put it another way, Escape Plan has to make players do something they've never attempted and make them feel like they've been doing it their whole lives.

Game critics often get accused of being backseat developers, but this is one instance in which I'm perfectly happy remaining on my side of the fence.

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