Matthew Annal, managing director of Nitrome, talks about approachable, challenging games, pixel art, freemium, and the need for Apple to innovate
There’s something distinctly Nitrome-y about every Nitrome game, but it’s hard to pin down precisely what. Its iOS titles typically have an old-school pixel-art style, but resolutely modern touchscreen gameplay mechanics, centred around tilt, taps and swipes. Difficulty levels are carefully balanced, to ensure every game is approachable, yet challenging when you want to try for a high score. Which all sounds rather vague. But one thing almost every Nitrome game has in common is a kind of infectious addictive quality — they’re easy to grasp and hard to put down.
Regarding the developer’s overriding approach, managing director Matthew Annal reckons if something is to stand out, then “it needs to do something new – or do it by a degree better than what came before”. There’s no sense within the studio of “trying to outdo classic games”, but the team is keen to make new things that are familiar and compelling.
Get them hooked
The pixel-art style almost arrived by accident, through a desire to “echo the games of our youth”, but there’s nothing accidental about the manner in which Nitrome sets about creating its games. Annal explains there’s “no great secret technique,” to making great iOS titles, but some things help a game to be quickly understood and rewarding in the long term.
“The mechanic must be something you can learn in seconds,” he says, adding that with free games, people have no reason to stick around if they don’t get it right away. “We also try to make games in portrait that can be played with one hand. This enables anyone to play anywhere, increasing the chances the game will stick around.” Annal also reckons game session times should be short, so you can “complete a level in almost any amount of spare time you have available”.
Like most developers, Nitrome today finds itself caught in the maw of freemium. Although it’s dabbled with pay-once titles (8bit Doves and the splendid Gunbrick) and pay-plus-IAP (underrated swipey puzzler Icebreaker), the developer usually releases free to play fare. Mostly, IAP is used to remove ads, or buy currency to speed up progress.
We’ve yet to see a Nitrome game that’s remotely exploitative, but some are cunning in the way they play with the freemium model. Beneath The Lighthouse, for example, has a lives system and you must watch an ad to continue a game when you run out. Your alternatives: start over on the current multi-part level, or pay for the premium unlock to get rid of the lives system entirely.
“Not every game works with this kind of model, but they’re better than those that rely more heavily on IAP, timers and user acquisition,” thinks Annal. “The key element is to have the player die frequently, to get enough ads in there, but to also ensure everything is entirely natural and that all deaths are the player’s fault. People accept ads in a game as long as they don’t feel tricked.”
Abuse in the system
As for the broader iOS gaming ecosystem, Annal reckons it’s a “mixed bag”. He says although Apple controls a strong editorial that enables a market to exist for a wide range of games, the same system is open to abuse by a tiny number of companies at the top, who pay to stay there and drive competition to breaking point. “Consumers don’t need a top-grossing chart,” he complains. “It’d be better to have charts with more price points, to allow more expensive games to stand a chance.” Annal also hopes Apple will extend spotlight feature times, to avoid “a week of charting, followed by a drop into oblivion”.
Mostly, though, Annal wants Apple to further shake things up regarding hardware, which should impact favourably on games: “3D Touch was a great addition to the iPhone, and so I’d like to see more things along those lines. Perhaps we could use Touch ID on the screen or get a 3D camera, to track hands above the display. I get why Apple won’t add buttons and joysticks, but the company should continue to innovate where it can!”
Matthew Annal’s top three picks from the Nitrome catalogue:
Beneath The Lighthouse (Free or $3.99/£2.99)
“Nitrome’s most atmospheric mobile title, with a beautiful triangular art style, and unique dial controls, featuring a young boy in search of his grandpa.”
Silly Sausage in Meat Land (Free or $1.99/£1.49)
“Grow a sausage dog into a world of meat! But his body is vulnerable to meat-cutting instruments, and so don’t over stretch, or you could end up butchered!”
Magic Touch: Wizard for Hire (Free or $1.99/£1.49)
“Draw shapes to cast spells and pop balloons being utilized by aggressive hordes of intruders. Our most successful game to date!”