GDC 2012: Developer Simple Machine On A Pair of iPhone Hits

One of the go-to anecdotes Simple Machine founders Kurt Bieg and Ramsey Nasser have about their iPhone golf-meets-Twitter game Twirdie involves a five-year-old picking up the game for the first time. According the the duo—classmates from the Parsons School of Design who found sudden success recently with the release of their rhythm game, Circadia—the first time the junior gamer in question picked up the game, he sat with it for over two hours, typing away terms into the game's interface, using trending words on Twitter to putt the ball back and forth across the green to get it into the hole.

For Nasser and Bieg, this story, which they told me during a brief GDC 2012 interview and recounted again during the Experimental Gameplay Session, neatly sums up the appeal of the game which challenges users to flex their social awareness, regardless of their age, background, or nationality. Twirdie and Circadia represent two very different yet equally egalitarian-minded games from the studio that seem as much about getting people to try something unexpected as they are about climbing the sales charts.

Let's switch gears for a second and talk about Simple Machine's other iPhone/iPad title, Circadia, what could best be described as a rhythm puzzle game developed by Bieg that is, as of this writing, the number one music game in the iTunes store. Simple in concept but complex in its challenge, Circadia involves tapping colored dots on the screen in time so that the traveling waves of sound hit a white dot. The trick is that multiple dots may pop up on the screen with differently-timed tones, meaning you'll have to discover the best rate at which to tap the dots and complete each puzzle. Later, some of the dots will move and for someone like myself who can be tone-deaf and slow on timing in my old age, this can present an extra layer of challenge.

Bieg says that he developed the project as something to be completely relaxing and zen—something reflected by the uncomplicated visuals and the soothing tones that account for all the of the sounds in the game. Featuring 100 levels, Bieg says the idea of the game came from seeing ripples on a lake that he actually shelved for a year when he couldn't progress beyond that initial idea. But once he prototyped it in class, Bieg was surprised to find that people responded positively. He explained that the game was about creating harmony and that it was kind of a counter-Guitar Hero, where the challenge for players was to see a pattern and react to it; with Circadia, the challenge for the player was to see the goal and let them figure out the pattern.

It's part of a process that Simple Machine employs across the development of all of their titles, it seems, bringing together user familiarity with certain core game concepts and then tweaking them in visually or tonally unique ways. They describe their games as "experience-driven," about the anticipation on the part of the player with a "Try it out, you'll be surprised" attitude about most of their work that kind of avoids the hard sell.

The game that brought them to GDC this year, though, was Twirdie, another visually simple title where players type in a term into the interface and the game makes a call on trending words in Twitter. The number of people talking about a particular term translates into the number of balls your ball will fly across the green towards the hole. So, for example, if you typed in the term "Batman," and 20 people on Twitter were using the term Batman, your ball would fly 20 yards in the game. If you needed a little more distance, though, and were playing the game during one of the recent Republican Primary contests, typing in those two terms might send your ball soaring with thousands of users potentially talking about it at the time.

At two and a half years in development, the game represented what appeared to be more of a technical challenge for Bieg and Nasser, dealing with the constantly-changing Twitter API which would sometimes simply not cooperate. Twirdie started off as Bieg's thesis on live data games, or as he likes to put it, making a game about what everyone's talking about.

For the duo, the side effect of Twirdie is that for gamers, it makes social interactions online transparent: as you type in terms to find the right combination that will get you closer to the hole, you might consider the time of day you're typing or what people are eating, or a holiday, or major movie releases. You don't need to be a Twitter user, you just have to understand human behavior or start making good guesses about it (see the five-year-old in the example at the top). The game's ability to accommodate non-English languages and make calls on trends in foreign countries means that the experience can be local to gamers worldwide.

Returning to their idea of tweaking something familiar, they took a word game and a golf game and combined them after initially toying with treatments involving tennis or wizards. Now, it's a more sedate experience accompanied by steel drum music. Right now the game has same device two-player, but Bieg and Nasser are slowly rolling out asynchronous online multiplayer so you can test your trending knowledge against other users around the globe.

As for what's next, Simple Machine has a couple of other projects in development: Scoundrel which is a card game, and Wordoku which blends Sudoku and chess. They also have Please Send Fruit which they describe as Lemmings-like, and the first of their games to include a narrative. In it, you play as an adviser to a gluttonous king who needs more jam even though you've run out of fruit. The fix: mashing monsters into jam and sending them the king's way. The iPhone title involves matching monsters on platforms and pushing them down the chute to the ever-hungry king.

You can find trailers for both Twirdie and Circadia below:

Related posts:

GDC 2012: The Five Domains of Play with Jason VandenBerghe

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