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The Joystiq Indie Pitch: Powergrids


Indie developers are the starving artists of the video-game world, often brilliant and innovative, but also misunderstood, underfunded and more prone to writing free-form poetry on their LiveJournals. We at Joystiq believe no one deserves to starve, and many indie developers are entitled to a fridge full of tasty, fulfilling media coverage, right here. This week, Michael Shotter shows us the difference between a fun game and a long-lasting staple in your library with his iOS strategy puzzler, Powergrids.

What's your game called and what's it about?

Powergrids is a strategy/puzzle game. The basic goal for players is to reveal as many grids as they can as efficiently as possible by balancing the use of a resource -- power -- that is needed to both expose the grid and increase the player's score.

Why develop independently, rather than work for an established company?

I've worked for many years as a web-application developer and development-team lead for some pretty prestigious, non-gaming-related organizations and I've enjoyed that work in general, but sometimes things happen that push you in a different direction. Last year I was laid off without warning from my full-time job, which, oddly enough, gave me an opportunity to re-consider my career options.

I wanted to take some time to get up to speed on mobile development and I've always loved games and deeply respected the craft of creating them. I even ran a gaming-themed website for a number of years, so I decided to make the best of a bad situation and learn Objective-C and the iOS SDK by developing an iOS game.

I actually created Powergrids back in 2005 as a Flash-based game to help promote the aforementioned gaming site, so the basic concept was fleshed out and proven, which definitely made the whole development process a bit smoother and allowed me to focus on new features like the Enhanced mode, which is new to the iOS version of the game.

In my case, independent development was more of a circumstantial necessity than anything, but as someone who's worked in a lot of different places, I definitely appreciate the creative freedom it allows.

What inspired you to make Powergrids?

I've always loved strategy and puzzle games. I think they're some of the most pure and enduring examples of the medium due to their emphasis on mechanics. Games with quality narratives are great as well, but I tend to experience them and move on to something else. I still play Tetris and Civilization despite having sunk hundreds of hours into them over the years because their unique gameplay hooks always bring me back for more. I wanted to make a game like that.

Powergrids takes a simple concept and makes it an entire game -- how do you keep it engaging and challenging?

In my mind, there are three draws to Powergrids beyond the core gameplay. The first, most obvious one, is chasing a high score, be it a personal best, the best among your Game Center friends or the scores of the world's best players.

Then there are the distinct game modes. Playing the Classic mode, which in a lot of ways is a fairly strict re-creation of the original Flash game, is a very different experience from Enhanced mode, which encourages much higher scoring and a much greater risk/reward proposition. In Classic mode, you fight for every point and it's a real accomplishment to break through to that next tier of scoring. Enhanced mode is all about the enhanced squares and figuring out when to use them and when to avoid them.

In making this game, it was very important to me to make something that provides a lot of value to the player and I believe that it succeeds in that. I can see myself picking up Powergrids five years from now and having as much fun with it and feeling that same sense of engagement that I did back in 2005. Pretty much all of the feedback I've received from players so far mirrors that. Powergrids may not be a game that you play every day, but it's a game worth keeping around because it scratches an itch for people who are susceptible to such things.

What games does Powergrids get compared to most often, and how is it different from those titles?

I haven't heard it directly compared to much, but one thing that several people have said to me about the game that's really heartwarming is how they feel that Powergrids offers something more than pure entertainment value. They say things like "This could be a time/resource management training tool." Or "I feel smarter the more I play this." I've done some adjunct teaching over the years and I really like the idea of a game being able to help people develop analytical and/or critical thinking skills. Everything about that feels very "right" to me.

What's the coolest aspect of Powergrids?

In general, the unique gameplay is what I hope most people will find "cool" about it. It's an experience that, while simple at its core, is something not represented in any other game to my knowledge. Personally, I'm also proud of the audio work I did on the game's music and sound effects, which I think are very cool, but are ultimately just an aesthetic -- particularly on an iOS device where it's so easy and common for players to select their own soundtrack from their personal music library.

Anything you'd do differently?

One of the really nice things about iOS development is how easy it is to update an app. As a result, I find myself able to think freely in terms of what might be added to it in subsequent versions and I definitely have some ideas about how it could be improved. I also feel that Powergrids stands pretty strongly as a finished product in its current form. That was something that was very important to me as a developer. I wanted people to feel like they were getting something polished and finished. That doesn't mean that more couldn't be done, but a lot of that will depend on how well the game sells.

Do you see yourself as part of a larger indie movement?

Absolutely. I feel like iOS development in particular has opened the door to a number of people like myself who might never have had the opportunity to be published on such a major platform.

Sell Powergrids in one sentence:

Powergrids is a unique strategy/puzzle gameplay experience that will challenge players while simultaneously providing compelling and repeatable entertainment value for just $2.

What's next?

A lot will depend on how well the game does. An ideal scenario would involve it selling enough for me to build a team to take on a more ambitious development project. At the very least, I'm hopeful that Powergrids will serve as a good example of my capabilities for potential employers. No matter how things turn out, I see another iOS game in my future. This stuff is just too fun and compelling to walk away from entirely, even if I end up having to find some other way to pay the bills.

Powergrids is available now for iOS devices through the App Store, where you can find out if you have the power.

If you'd like to have your own shot at converting our readers into fans, email jess [at] joystiq [dawt] com, subject line "The Joystiq Indie Pitch." Still haven't had enough? Check out the Pitch archives.

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