The Case Of The Missing DS Drawing Games

What kind of DS games were we all promised?

Think back a few years. Think back to the moment you first heard about the Nintendo DS and gathered that it had two screens - one of them touch-sensitive -- and a plastic stylus.

kirbycanvascursebox.jpgDid you expect to do a lot of drawing on your DS?

Did you picture yourself playing a lot of games that involved illustrating things? Remember how we were at least expecting a DS version of "Mario Paint"?

I did. But that was a long time ago.

Where did all those ideas for drawing games go? I've been asking around…

In the Nintendo DS' first year Namco produced "Pac-Pix," a "Pac-Man" game that required players to draw their own Pac-Man character. Nintendo produced "Yoshi Touch & Go," which let us draw clouds that would funnel Yoshi safely to the ground as he plummeted from the sky. And "Kirby Canvas Curse," perhaps the most ambitious of these kinds of games, re-invented the side-scrolling platformer as an inky draw-your-own-chutes-and-ladders game.

Go back and play it, like I did this past December, and you too may be saying, "Oh yeah, this is what DS games were all going to be like."

Remember those days of the early DS games? They were before "Nintendogs" hit it big, using that touch screen primarily for petting, not drawing; before "Brain Age" used that touch screen more for mathematics than for drawing; before "Mario Kart DS used that touch screen for just about nothing, instead of drawing. And all of these games -- not the ones I mentioned earlier -- became the hits.

What went wrong? Or did it all actually go right? Were we robbed? I've been asking DS developers about this.

What Went Wrong

Last week I exchanged e-mails with Rob Buchanan, game director at WayForwad, a development studio behind seven DS titles, including last fall's drawing-free "Contra 4" and the drawing-filled "Duck Amuck." Well, "drawing-filled" may be overstating it, but "Duck Amuck" certainly required more drawing than, say, recent DS blockbusters like "New Super Mario Brothers" and last year's best-selling "Pokemon Diamond/Pearl" tandem. In "Duck Amuck," players have to torment Daffy Duck using the stylus and, in several mini-games, can do things like draw Daffy a new duck bill or a horse for him to ride. Buchanan is proud of the drawing activities his team incorporated in the game but added, "in retrospect, I think we could have based quite a bit more of the gameplay on it."

I wanted to know if Buchanan noticed the same drop-off in illustration-based DS games that I did. "It does seem like developers have become less experimental as specific genres have emerged in DS games," he wrote to me. "Three years ago, nobody had put down those technical foundations yet so there was certainly more creative discussion as to what could and should be done with this wild new hardware from Nintendo."

As he put it, conservatism has crept in. I acknowledged to him that a "Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass" involves some drawing (I love the one island where the players is required to draw its entire map). "Hotel Dusk" does let you use the DS as a notepad. But…, well Buchanan agreed that more recent DS games don't exactly exhibit "Canvas Curse"-caliber drawing-based gameplay. "As you pointed out," he wrote, "in many cases they are the same genres we've been playing for years with just some added stylus input, like drawing on the map or writing a name on your save file. The system has been out for over three years now so I think most developers have already evolved their tech to accommodate the types of games they're most accustomed to creating."kirbycanvascurse

I suggest that people go back and play "Kirby Canvas Curse." Do that. And then play the Kirby game that followed it on the DS, "Kirby Squeak Squad." The first game? All about drawing. The second? No illustrating required.

I reached out to Keiichi Yano, the co-founder of iNis, development studio of the creative "Ouendan"/"Elite Beat Agents" rhythm game series. Those DS games don't require drawing, but they do force the player to trace patterns to the rhythm of various American and Japanese songs. Yano told me that the missing drawing games are on his mind too. "I just recently was thinking about something very similar," he wrote to me in an e-mail. "The future of computing will head in a direction that will let us become closer to our digital lives by way of direct interaction with them through innovative new input devices. The touch capabilities of the DS as well as the multi-touch capabilities of current and future devices will definitely pave the way for interesting new ways to interact with our stuff."

"Little Big Planet" To The Rescue?

But here's the thing with Yano-san's line of thinking. The drawing-based gameplay that got him excited enough to mention it to me isn't made for the DS. The two games he would cite to me are a PC-based entrant into the Independent Games Festival and a major upcoming title on the PlayStation 3.

"We are probably only limited by our imaginations of what we can do with drawing as an interface for games." -- Keiichi Yano, iNis

He wrote: "We are probably only limited by our imaginations of what we can do with drawing as an interface for games, as there are definitely a lot of neat examples out there like "Crayon Physics" and to an extent "Little Big Planet" where drawing is the input method. It does require a certain degree of creativity by the user, so that may be a hurdle to overcome but we as game designers should definitely think about these things and try to come up with interesting and entertaining solutions. So there are definitely a lot of cool things we can do if we as game designers put our minds to the task."

To cite the promise of drawing-based gameplay Yano was citing examples on other systems. Buchanan also pointed outside the DS' traditional bounds. "A little advertised fact of the DS hardware is that the touch screen is pressure sensitive," he told me. "This means it's possible to draw on the DS the way you would if you were drawing in Photoshop with a Wacom tablet. The only thing I've seen that really takes advantage of this feature is a brilliant little homebrew app called 'Colors!' that allows you to paint with incredible detail, very much like painting with watercolors. You can then save pictures to memory and even use the DS's wi-fi capability to email them."

500 Games Getting In The Way

Not everyone agreed with me that there has been a drawing drop-off. Karthik Bala, CEO of probably the most prolific high-quality DS studio in the U.S., Vicarious Visions, told me, "I’m not sure if there is so much a decrease in games that focus on drawing mechanics, but rather a massive increase in the number of titles that have come out in the last year. By December 2007, there were 500 DS games released to date in the US. About 260 of them came out in 2007 alone."

"Most [DS] developers lack budgets and the development time necessary to be ambitious with their designs."-- Karthik Bala, Vicarious Visions

The clutter of games obscures the innovation, which is why an article like this one could be written even though last year did see the release of "Drawn To Life," a role-playing game that requires the player to draw their own character.

And money is a problem, Bala added: "Most developers lack budgets and the development time necessary to be ambitious with their designs and as a result drawing isn’t included in many games." Vicarious Visions, clearly, has had the finances and time to experiment. The studio's "Tony Hawk" DS games let players draw graffiti and upload art to the web. But it should be noted that Vicarious Visions has never gone all-out in creating a drawing-based game.

So what happened in the last couple of years? The DS stylus got used for other things. It controls characters, it flicks Frisbees to Nintendogs. It helps you do math. It's just not a paintbrush, not very often.

Said Bala: "I feel that the lack of drawing in games is a missed opportunity because early on in the lifecycle of the DS, most games did something new and different. "

I agree. I miss that era too.