Go Buy Monument Valley. Now.

Chances are you’ve probably already heard all about the stunning new game from developer ustwo – Monument Valley that was released today. If the game is new to you, then let’s just clear the air right now – go buy it on the app store for your iOS device. Now. This is one of those instances where a piece of software is so stunningly beautiful, and provides such an incredibly rich experience, you’re really missing something if you take a pass. Here are just some of the things you’ll see in this amazing casual puzzler:

There’s a great deal to love in Monument Valley. From it’s rich, varied color palettes that change from level to level, to the extremely clever, M.C. Escher-like design of its levels, to the gorgeous soundtrack and audio effects, Monument Valley delivers at every turn. From the moment you start to play, it’s obvious how much love and attention the folks at ustwo have put into their creation. They’ve managed to design a complete gaming experience and bring it to you via the App Store for a minimal price. Too often games these days are filled with in-app purchases that prey on instant gratification to keep players interested. Monument Valley eschews all that in favor of creating a compelling, finite and beautiful environment for you to get lost in for a few hours of your life. The last few levels in particular are wildly inventive and especially challenging.

If you’ve read the reviews, then you probably know that Monument Valley’s play time is short. It took me a total of about 3 hours (off and on) from start to finish to complete all of the levels, and for some, that length may be a deal breaker. If you feel that way I have news for you – many awesome things in life are short but that doesn’t make them any less worthy of your time or money. You’ll probably spend more on your next meal out than you would on Monument Valley but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy both while they last. The game creators have said they focused on making a concise title that can be completed in a short amount of time on purpose. While this may be true, it doesn’t really matter to me because I know if the game is a success (which I certainly hope it is) then we’ll probably be seeing a great deal more of the mystical world of Monument Valley. Show your support of their efforts to bring you something wonderful and head over to the App Store and buy it, gift it and help spread the word by leaving a review today.

The Rise of Mobile Games

The rise of mobile gaming is of interest to many people, both technology lovers and historians. In the last 20 years mobile gaming has really taken off, especially gaming on tablets. Whether it be Angry Birds or poker, the majority of us have played on a mobile device. This info-graphic from www.jackpotcity.co.uk details the rise in mobile gaming in geeky fashion. It’s impossible to say for certain what the future of mobile gaming holds, but from the looks of it, it’s going to be exciting. Click the image to see the entire info graphic.

Lost Cities Tips & Tricks

Lost Cities is a new game for iPhone from TheCodingMonkeys, publishers of the hugely popular Carcassonne. Based on the award winning card game by Reiner Knizia, Lost Cities takes elements of solitaire and combines them with vibes of Uno and Go Fish into a compelling game for two people or a single player vs any one of four AI opponents.

The game is easy to learn (I won’t go into the full rules here) thanks to the wonderful spoken in-game tutorials, but the basic object is to score points by playing cards of increasing value in any one of five, colored channels. Whichever player has the most points when all the cards from the draw pile have been played, wins. Since the Iconfactory did much of the graphical work for Lost Cities, I was generously given early access to the pre-release and have been playing a great deal this past week. I’ve learned a lot in that time and I wanted to share some of the insights I’ve had with would-be challengers.

Practice Against the AI

It may seem straight forward but playing the various computer opponents is a great way to get a feel for Lost Cities. Playing the AI means the game proceeds quickly since you don’t have to wait for a human friend to move. Getting into a rhythm in LC really helps you to understand how points are scored, cards are held or discarded and what to watch for.

Watch the Draw Pile

The game continues only as long as there are cards to draw so keep a close eye on the number of cards left in the pile in the lower right of the interface. When that number reaches zero, the game is over so it’s important to know how many turns are left. Don’t wait until the last few turns to play your big cards if you can help it. Also, remember that the number of turns is just about one half of the number of cards left in the deck. It’s easy to look at 18 on the deck and think you have that many turns left, but you really don’t, you have approximately 9!

Ditch the 2′s and 3′s

Unless you’re trying to make a run and score 8+ cards in a channel, you might want to start a channel with a 4 or even a 5. Low cards don’t yield many points anyway and probably won’t make a huge difference in the final outcome. This isn’t always the case of course, but games can easily be won by just playing the higher number cards alone.

Remember to Look Up

It’s easy to get so focused on what cards you have in your own hand that you forget to pay attention to what your opponent is doing. You’re not the only one at the table who has a strategy! Don’t forget to pay attention to what cards she is pulling from the discard piles or what color channels they seem to be favoring. You may be holding some great cards, but always remember Lost Cities isn’t just about scoring your own points, but also trying to block your opponent’s as well.

The Nitty Gritty

Don’t forget that you can re-draw from the discard pile if a card you previously got rid of is now needed. This can come in quite handy when cards of certain colors start to present themselves. Also, listen for the audio cues in the game like the little “tink” sound that lets you know a channel has just crossed the boundary from negative to positive point totals. Lastly, when playing the AI, don’t forget you can pause at any time and take a break. Maybe a refreshing drink or walk around the block will clear your head and help you crush Ms. Lindenbrock.

I love games like Carcassonne and Lost Cities because they combine elements of skill and luck in fun and engaging ways. They are also played at your own pace which is wonderful, especially in the age of first-person shooters and nerve-wracking puzzlers. TheCodingMonkeys have gone above and beyond to make Lost Cities both addictive and fun to play. It takes all of the best elements of Reiner Knizia’s original card game and adds wonderful features like automatic score keeping, tough AI opponents, beautifully rich graphics and and soundtrack that feels like it belongs in the cinema instead of a game. If you enjoy turn-based strategy or card games, I urge you to check out Lost Cities for the iPhone today. Enjoy!

All-Aboard for Tricky Tracks

Tricky Tracks is a stunningly beautiful and deceptively simple web-based game by Maxomedia Design Agency. If you’ve ever played with toy train sets, love building things out of LEGO bricks, or just appreciate beautiful game design, Tricky Tracks is for you. Sponsored by the SBB Swiss Federal Railway, the game’s 15 levels are broken up into groups or “boxes” of tracks, each set on gorgeous, 3D wedges of the Swiss countryside.

The object of the game is simple – Get your passenger train from station A to station B. You do this by simply pulling a pinball-style plunger in the upper-right corner of the browser window. Pull with too little force and your train won’t reach the other station. Pull too hard and your train along with all its passengers will fly right off the tracks in a spectacular wreck (yes, I’ve done this intentionally just to see what would happen). Points are awarded based on how many attempts it takes to complete a level, total time spent and special bonuses in the form of achievements that you rack up along the way.

As you progress through the beautifully rendered levels, you’ll encounter ever more difficult challenges such as railroad switches, car crossings, tunnels and steep inclines. Both the timing and power of your shot has to be perfect if your tiny train is to make it safely from one side of the level to the other. The game play is highly addictive, but for my money, the best part of Tricky Tracks are the visuals. From the moment the game loads, you know you are in for a special experience. The user interface is classic Swiss design – simple and elegant. The camera controls are easy to master and give you a soaring view of the tiny hills, valleys and towns that you’ll be visiting while you play.

I’m told that many of the locations used in the game are based on actual places in Switzerland, which after playing, just makes me want to ride the Swiss Railway even more. The scenes are gorgeous and the extremely narrow depth of focus is reminiscent of tilt-shift photography which enhances the illusion of playing with toy trains. Some levels like Genhimmelen (seen left) seem impossibly difficult, but with enough persistence and a little luck, you’ll be pulling into stations perched high atop mountain cliffs and braving pesky downtown traffic jams like a real pro.

Tricky Tracks makes use of the Unity 3D Web Player plug-in so you’ll need to download and install it for your favorite web browser before you can play. I’m not sure of the minimum system requirements, but I ran Tricky Tracks on my Core i7 iMac with 8Gb of RAM and the game played fine, at least until the last few levels. The complexity of the maps in the 3rd box of levels seemed to make camera rotation a bit jerky, but it was still very playable.

Perhaps the very best part of this wonderful effort is that Tricky Tracks is absolutely free to play. All of the initial 15 levels are included on the game’s website with the promise of a new box of 5 more “coming soon”. It took me about 2 hours to play through every level but it could probably be done in less time. Admittedly, I spent a much of my time enraptured with the look of each level. From the bright, overwhelming city lights of Knetikon (seen right) to the miniature majesty of Chateau Obersbach and the picturesque sea-side town of Sunnikon, the visual wonders in Tricky Tracks delight the eye and bring out the kid in all of us. I can’t wait to see what other challenges the game’s designers have in store, but in the meantime steam on over and give Tricky Tracks a go today. You won’t be disappointed.

Ski Safari: 007 Edition

Lately I’ve been playing a great deal of Ski Safari, a wonderful casual game from Defiant Development for iOS. The game is a high score climber similar to the awesome Tiny Wings, in which you play play Sven, a skier trying to stay ahead of an ever-approaching avalanche. The object of the game is to simply get as far as possible, picking up coins, speed boosts and various forms of animals like penguins and even Yeti’s in a high-paced race to stay alive. Developers Brendan Watts & Shawn Eustace have done a marvelous job of making Ski Safari fun, addictive and immensely satisfying to play. I have a bit of a competition going on with a few of my friends as we play a high-stakes game of one-upmanship on the snowy slopes of the high Alps.

The game is pretty awesome as it’s designed, but I recently discovered I could make amp up the coolness by a factor of 10 or so simply by turning off the default music in the game and substituting my own action-packed soundtrack. And what soundtracks are best suited for racing down snow-covered mountains at breakneck speeds? Why none other than the ultimate spy, James Bond, of course! If you own any of theme tracks from the James Bond films, simply start them playing on loop and then turn off the in-game music to give yourself the ultimate action sequence experience. I’ve found that “Runaway” from Roger Moore’s For Your Eyes Only and “Bond 77” from The Spy Who Loved Me, are the perfect Ski Safari tracks, but your death-defying milage may vary.

Maybe the developers of Ski Safari will eventually see fit to make a James Bond-esque version of their game complete with bad guys on black snowmobiles, machine guns and deadly helicopters chasing you, but until they do, this is the next next best thing. Have fun and do try and come back in one piece, 007!

Ramp Champ’s Ticket to Ride

Back when Ramp Champ was released for the iPhone in August of 2009, it was one of only a handful of boardwalk style games in the App Store. Although it had taken much longer to produce than we had initially thought, all of us at the Iconfactory and DS Media Labs were proud of the effort. From its pixel-perfect artwork, and the fantastic original soundtrack to the design of Ramp Champ’s in-app purchases, every part was crafted with love. I wrote back then that the game was a huge risk for us as developers, but no matter what happened, I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. All of us had tons of fun creating the game and the effort was hugely rewarding. Fans loved the rich graphics and cleverly designed puzzles that brought back memories of arcades and boardwalks long gone.

Shortly after Ramp Champ’s release, Skee-Ball by Freeverse hit the App Store and quickly stole Ramp Champ’s momentum. Skee-Ball was limited in its game play and far less graphically rich than Ramp Champ, but thanks to its straight-forward approach and realistic 3D physics, it became a huge hit. With Skee-Ball’s success, dreams of hitting the top 25 of the App Store quickly faded and although the game held its own, it never rose to the level that we had hoped it would. We produced several new add-on ramp packs for the game, but both the Iconfactory’s and DS’s resources were limited and we each turned our attention to other projects.

With the advent of the iPhone 4′s retina display 4 in June of 2010, Ramp Champ fans clamored for an updated version of the game with new high-resoultion graphics. The problem was that most of the content for the game was produced using raster (bit-mapped) graphics, not scaleable vectors and re-creating the entire game for retina proved cost prohibitive. For a while there was talk of a sequel that would be designed around all new vector graphics, and an internal prototype was even built, but it just wasn’t in the cards. Sometimes it’s difficult for small companies to devote time and money to a project when success is far from assured and such was the case with Ramp Champ. Its future seemed bleak indeed.

Then near the end of 2011, Ben Stahlhood and I started talking about DS Media Labs taking the reins of our favorite gaming son. DS had gone through some restructuring and was hiring fresh new talent to position themselves well for 2012. It’s always tough handing one of your most treasured creations to another to foster, but with Ramp Champ the move made sense. DS had been a fantastic partner in the game’s creation and we knew that if anyone was going to give Ramp Champ a bright future it would be them. With our development efforts focused on xScope, Twitterrific and the upcoming Astronut for iPad, we finalized the arrangement and I’m pleased with the result. I don’t know what’s in store for Ramp Champ any more than you do, but DS’s recent press release promises at least updated retina graphics, and I’m confident there will be much more to come after that.

All of us at the Iconfactory wish Ben and the gang at DS Media Labs all the best in their success. We look forward to rolling balls, knocking down those damn ducks and collecting tickets for even bigger and better prizes when Ramp Champ ultimately gets the update it so badly deserves. Good luck gang!

Charadium II, I Love You!

There are only a handful of games on my iDevices that have withstood the test of time and clung to my home screen. Some of these games include Carcassonne, Plants vs. Zombies, Orba, Tiny Wings and now Charadium II. Charadium is a classic Pictionary type game where players take turns drawing a word and guessing each other’s creations for points. There are a bunch of games of this genre in the App Store, but Charadium is far and away the best of breed I’ve played, and much of that is due to the attention to detail developer On5 has put into the app.

There are two main modes of play, Classic and Ping Pong. Classic lets you join a room with other random players or friends and compete in a round-robin, timed competition to guess words. The play is fast and furious and tons of fun. Drawings don’t have to be pretty they just need to communicate quickly. The faster someone guesses your word, the more points you will score. The other mode, Ping Pong, is my favorite when playing Charadium. Here you play with a friend and take turns drawing words from a list of three choices (easy, medium and hard). The harder the concept to draw, the more points you’ll net, but you also risk your opponent not guessing correctly at all. Incorrect guesses hurt your overall point total and can push your opponent to victory. I love Ping Pong games because they are not timed, you can play multiple games at once (like Carcassonne), and you get to choose the difficulty of the word to draw. Also, you’re not usually playing against random strangers so cheating (drawing words) is not an issue.

On5 makes a free and paid version of the app so you really have no excuse not to give it a try. Of course even the $2.99 iPad version is well worth the price and gives players full access to fun extras like more colors, more brushes and of course, no in-app advertising. This is a similar model we use at the Iconfactory for Twitterrific and it really is the best of both worlds. Charadium is also a great example of an app that improves measurably with each new update. In recent point releases, the game has added new brushes, new colors, the ability to play back all drawings (LOVE THIS), saving drawings to the camera roll and much more. There are still a few features I hope On5 adds like a paint bucket to quickly fill large areas with color, and a “Redo” command as well as undo, but overall the game play can’t be beat. Perhaps the App’s biggest failing, if there is one, is the need for greater stability. Ping Pong games sometimes get stuck and won’t advance, drawing previews are not always available or in-game chatting won’t dismiss. If the developers can find a way to make Charadium a bit more reliable, it would become one of my all-time favorite games for iOS.

If you love to draw, are looking for a fun, social game you can play in your spare time or like seeing how other players solve visual problems, Charadium II is for you. I enjoyed the game so much I bought a Cosmonaut Stylus from Studio Neat for my iPad just so I could draw better while playing. No matter what your level of artistic skill, there’s something for everyone to love in Charadium. Check it out!

Tiny Wings: Tips & Tricks

Tiny Wings is an iOS game for the iPhone and iPod touch by programmer and artist Andreas Illiger. When it was released in February of 2011, it immediately earned praise as one of the most fun and addictive games to ever hit the App Store. Being a developer of iOS games myself, I’m always skeptical about such claims, but after having spent some quality time with Tiny Wings over the past few weeks, I have to say I agree.

The game is not without some level of frustration which is made worse by the fact that there is but a single interaction method – Touch the screen or don’t. Given such simple controls you’d think the game would be easy to master. Not so. The player slides over hills and vales and either taps to increase their decent or lets up to slow their decent to the ground. Where they land on a slope depends on how well they slide up the next hill and back into the air once again. Tiny Wings is a “height climber” style game ala Doodle Jump where the player tries to get as far as they can in a single session. When the game ends, the player must return all the way to the beginning and start over. The great thing about Tiny Wings is that it’s so engaging and addictive you really don’t mind starting over each time.

By far the greatest challenge in Tiny Wings is mastering the art of sliding. In order to succeed in the game, you’ll need to practice and become really good at hitting just the proper point on hills in order to achieve maximum momentum. Learning this skill can be tricky and when I first started playing I was so frustrated I was minutes away from deleting the game. Trust me when I say stick with it because once you figure out how to slide properly, the entire game’s fun quotient gets amped up by a factor of x1000.

Each hill has a small landing window on the backside that you can hit which results in a perfect slide. This keeps your momentum going and if you stack three perfect slides in a row, you’ll enter fever mode where every point you earn is doubled. Mastering perfect slides is key to climbing the leader boards in Tiny Wings. The more perfect slides you make in a game, the faster you’ll go, the more likely you’ll be to touch the clouds (bonus points) and the longer you’ll be in fever mode. All of these factors add up and when combined with coin collection, result in a higher final score.

In addition to mastering perfect slides, there are a few tips and tricks I’ve learned that may help you get further and score higher in Tiny Wings. As with anything, your milage may vary but as School House Rock taught me, knowledge is power, so here you go:

Nest Up - Take time early on and knock off some of the game’s achievements in order to “Nest Up” to the next level. Every time you increase your nest level you increase your score multiplier. For the first upgrade, you will need to perform 7 Perfect Slides, gather 100 coins in total across all games, and reach the fourth island in at least one game.

Touch the Sky - Try and touch the sky as often as you can because doing so earns you 20 points times your multiplier. Each touch represents an ever-increasing award of bonus points towards your final tally.

Reset Button - If you don’t leave the first island in fever mode, start over. In fact, if I’m not in fever mode one half way through the first island I usually kill my game and begin again. Since you’re so close to the start you don’t lose a lot of time for trying this technique. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

Play on an iPad - If you own an iPad I urge you to play on it instead of the iPhone. As of this writing, the game isn’t universal but it doesn’t matter. The iPad’s large, roomy screen makes seeing the oncoming terrain much easier and gives you plenty of space to place your finger that’s out of the way.

The main thing to remember when playing Tiny Wings is to try and stay calm and remain focused. If you miss a slide and start to lose momentum don’t panic just keep at it and get back into the groove as quickly as you can. If you spot a speed coin, gobble it up to quickly get air back under your wings and get going again.

All in all, Tiny Wings is a masterful creation that is sure to give you hours of entertainment and enjoyment. I have to hand it to Illiger because there aren’t many iPhone games that hang around on my home screen for more than a few days. Tiny Wings has joined Parachute Panic, Orba, Plants vs Zombies, Hot Plates and Carcassonne as one of my all-time favorite iOS games. Have fun and fly far my tiny-winged friends!

Star Trek Online Tips & Tricks

Thanks to Erica, I’ve been playing Star Trek Online since closed beta. The game has evolved and improved since that initial release, but overall I’ve been able to get a solid understanding of what it takes to have fun and play well in the universe that Cryptic Studios has created these last two months. The game officially launches in just a few days and I thought I would take a moment to share with you some quick and dirty tips and tricks that will help any new player function effectively in STO. I wish something like this had been available when I started playing World of Warcraft back in 2004. As I learn more I’ll be updating this post with new tips and things to watch for. I hope it’s helpful.

Playing on a Mac: Although Star Trek Online doesn’t officially have a Mac version, you can certainly play it on one. You’ll need a copy of Boot Camp running either Windows XP SP2 / Windows Vista / or Windows 7 (32 bit). I don’t recommend playing STO using Parallels on a Macintosh, running in emulation mode is too slow. I don’t know how fast your Mac needs to be in order to run the game well in Boot Camp, but obviously the faster the better. I’m running on a 2.8 GHz Intel Core i7 iMac with 8 GB of RAM and the game purrs like a space kitten. TUAW has a great illustrated guide on how to install Win 7 on Boot Camp, check it out.

Before You Buy: Some special in-game equipment and abilities can only be obtained by ordering the game through a certain retailer. If you order the Deluxe Collector Edition for instance, you’ll get access to Next Generation & movie era uniforms and more. Cryptic offers a complete list of retailers and what you get when you order from each of them. Do your research before you purchase.

Take Your Time: Customize the appearance of your character at creation. Changing physical attributes, the look of your uniform, etc after your character has been created costs “money” in Star Trek Online in the form of energy credits. The same goes for crew members you recruit.

Use Your Map: Pressing the “M” key in aboard ship, in spacedock or on a planet displays various types of maps. Before shouting out “where is so-and-so” take a look at your map first, it will often display what you’re looking for. FYI, at Starfleet headquarters, Sulu is in the Admiral’s office.

Linking Items: You can easily link in-game items you pick up in chat by control-clicking on them.

Item Rarity: Energy credits can be earned by selling items in your inventory. The more uncommon an item, the more it’s worth. Items in Star Trek Online follow a similar path as those in Warcraft. White: Standard issue, Green: Uncommon, Blue: Rare, Purple: Epic. I don’t know if there are colors beyond purple or even what they’re called yet.

Loot System: Loot “drops” when certain ships are destroyed, usually the last ship in a squadron. If loot is available to pick up, you’ll see a glowing, floating orange pylon in space or an orange sphere in ground missions. Unlike Warcraft, loot in Star Trek Online is only available to a specific player, so don’t be afraid to pick it up by pressing “F” when you see it.

You’re In Charge: Don’t forget about equipping your crew as you progress. Those under your command will not pick up loot and equip themselves, so it’s important that you do so for them. A low-level shield may not be useful to you, but could be just what your science officer needs to keep from being sent to sickbay every away mission. Be sure to examine everything before selling it.

Instances: As of this writing there are no “realms” in Star Trek Online. The game is played on a single, massive server for everyone. There are however, instances within this server. So you can be talking to someone in zone chat who’s at the same location you are and not see them floating in space next to you. You can change instances by clicking on the small downward pointing arrow in the upper right of your HUD.

Powers: As soon as you get your own ship and are floating above Sol Spacedock, press “P” and open the available list of powers. Drag and drop the shield power management controls into your HUD so you always have access to them during battle. Throwing power to a particular shield has saved me more times than I can count in Star Trek Online.

Emotes: Click the little Starfleet badge icon in the corner of your chat window to list all of the emotes your character can perform. I especially love the “Tug”, “Dance: Robot” and “Prosper” emotes.

What about you? Do you have tips and tricks for Star Trek Online that other players can benefit from? If so, please leave them in the comments of this post and I’ll add the best ones to the list. Thanks and feel free to add me to your list of in-game friends, I’m Kodos@Gedeon.

The Music of Ramp Champ

For designers and artists, the chance to collaborate with others who share your passion for creation is a wonderful event. Ideas feed off of each other and lead to new connections which can both surprise and delight. Such was the case while scoring Ramp Champ, the Iconfactory’s & DS Media Labs’ ode to the classic games of Skee-Ball and pinball for the iPhone. I’m pleased to report the game’s soundtrack was recently released on iTunes, something none of us at the factory could have dreamt of happening.

When we originally designed the game’s ramps, we knew we wanted the quality of the music to match the fidelity of the visual elements. Having a generic track repeat itself across multiple ramps, from outer space to under water, wasn’t going to be fun for the player. During the initial production phase of Ramp Champ, composer Noe Ruiz took the lead and created many of the tracks for the default levels such as Clown Town, Breakwater Bay and Space Swarm. Noe has a wonderful ear for rhythm and was able to incorporate these into the widely varied themes with ease. Of all the tracks he originally produced for Ramp Champ, Space Swarm (along with it’s dance and techno re-mixes) has to be my favorite of the bunch. Space Swarm is filled with old-school retro arcade sound effects that play perfectly into the look and feel of the ramp, helping to evoke the feel of a classic 80′s arcade game.

Atomicon’s David Weiner took up where Noe left off and came on board to help us produce the music for two of the game’s add-on packs. The Challenge Pack featured Molar Madness and Happy Place, both of which required a decidedly twisted approach when it came to the score. David’s work on Molar Madness is nothing short of brilliant. The samba-like piece he created for the ramp is both catchy and just the sort of thing you’d hear coming from the speakers of a dentist’s waiting room. Molar Madness is, without a doubt, one of my favorite pieces in all of Ramp Champ. Happy Place somehow managed to take the absurd notion of dolphins and unicorns floating in the sky and give them life. The track is zippy and light, but has decidedly dark undertones that foreshadows ominous events the player encounters within the level.

When it came time to write the music for our special Halloween add-on pack, David once again stepped up and gave us two wonderfully spooky tracks. When I approached him about Trick or Treat, I knew I wanted music that sounded both eerie as well as innocent. The ramp features children as they roam a neighborhood for candy on Halloween night. As we talked through our ideas, one of our inspirations was Vince Guaraldi’s classic Great Pumpkin Waltz from “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown”. David’s final piece has this jazzy feel as well as elements that remind me of the creepy TV cult hit Twin Peaks, which worked out wonderfully. The other piece in the Halloween Pack, Grave Danger, draws obvious inspiration from Disney’s classic Haunted Mansion with all kinds of over the top scary sound effects like thunder, ghosts and werewolves.

For our 3rd release, David Weiner was already busy scoring the Challenge Pack as well as our other iPhone title, Pickin’ Time, and so we turned to composer Mike Weiser. Mike has created music for many iPhone games including Stick Wars and Tower Land and I was fortunate to be able to work with him on Plunderin’ Pirates and Star Struck. Mike’s score for Plunderin’ Pirates, inspired by Disney’s famous Pirates of the Caribbean ride, is one of the funnest pieces in the game and does a great job of evoking the high seas thanks to the use of instruments like the accordion and steel drums. The sound effects I produced for the ramp added to the overall feel and makes for what many players have called their favorite level in the game.

On Star Struck, both Mike and I decided to create something that reminded the player of space exploration, like you’d hear sitting in a planetarium. The “computerish” tones that come in at the start and end of the track were originally an ode from one of my favorite films ever, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, although Mike masterfully made them his own in Star Struck. The album version of Star Struck that appears on the soundtrack is a specially composed version of the game’s track and is my favorite piece in all of Ramp Champ. You’ll be able to catch more of Mike’s work in the Iconfactory’s next software title, coming to the iPhone in the second quarter of 2010.

Collaborating with Noe, David and Mike on the music for Ramp Champ was, without a doubt, one of the most rewarding things I’ve done during my time at the Iconfactory. The talent these guys posses to take one’s creations and run with them musically is nothing short of astounding. Their work made our efforts that much better and for that, we are all grateful. With Atomicon’s help, we’re proud to finally be able to bring you the complete original soundtrack. I really encourage you to check it out and hopefully you’ll enjoy listening to it as much as we had bringing it to you.

All I ask is a tall ship…

Thanks to the generosity of a friend, I’ve been lucky enough to beta test the new MMO, Star Trek Online from Cryptic Studios. The game is set to launch in early February and at least for this Star Trek fan, it’s a winner. Playing around in Gene Roddenberry’s universe has given me a new appreciation for the art direction of designers such as Matt Jeffries and Michael Okuda. Designing anything is challenging, but designing interiors, user interfaces and uniforms of things that have yet to be must be especially difficult.

Most beloved of all the designs of Star Trek is perhaps the bridge of the Starship Enterprise itself. The bridge is the command center of the ship and is often the focus of action on both the big and small screens. Jeffries’ original utilitarian layout eventually gave way to more modern looking interiors, but the basic design (center command chair, flanking support positions) has withstood the test of time. The bridge is such an integral part of Star Trek that due to popular demand, the developers of Star Trek Online recently announced they were implementing them for individual ships within the game. Virtual captains told Cryptic they wanted their “big chair” and the game designers responded in kind.

All of this got me thinking about which starship bridge I liked the best. The answer has to be that of the Enterprise-D from Star Trek: The Next Generation. To many Trek fans this bridge seemed more like a hotel lobby than a high-tech command center, but I always admired its sleek curves, high-tech surfaces and muted colors. The original TV design was modified slightly for Star Trek Generations (seen here) to accommodate new science/tactical stations, giving the set a more cinematic feel.

Designed by Andrew Probert, the bridge of the Enterprise-D was the ultimate set for the weekly TV series. The layout was big enough to allow the actors room to move around comfortably as well as give characters space for private conversations, tucked away from prying ears. The raised back level provided an elevated platform that made Worf look even more imposing while offering Geordi and Data stations where they could work out solutions to the problem of the week. The set also introduced flanking seats to those of the Captain’s something that Star Trek Voyager would also adopt.

In contrast to The Next Generation’s warm earth tones, the bridge of the U.S.S. Voyager presented TV viewers with the cool grays and electric blues so often associated with science fiction. Created by production designer Richard D. James and illustrator Rick Sternbach, the interior design of the bridge of Voyager introduced subtle under lighting techniques that contributed to the “deep space feel” of the show. This design also reduced the traditional two-man con and navigator positions to a single console, putting emphasis on Captain Janeway.

I love the look of these two sets because they put the focus on the characters and their actions rather than the technology all around them. Some production designers tend to get out of hand with their creations and let the look of the set overpower its inhabitants. Voyager’s and Next Gen’s bridges are awesome examples of futuristic interior design precisely because they don’t go overboard. Compare these simple designs to the complex bridges of the Enterprise-E or the franchise reboot and you’ll see Star Trek art direction run amuck. Overlapping lines, textures and lens flares get in the way of the action and detract from the audience’s ability to focus on the characters.

Designing anything, even a fictional universe is an art form. More so when a large part of that universe’s appeal centers around details. Through the years, those entrusted with designing the bridges of Starfleet have evolved and molded it again and again. These talented artists have put their stamp on Gene Roddenberry’s original vision of the future and given Trek fans a place they could easily call home. Star Trek Online will soon give players a chance to roam the bridges of some of the most beloved starships in Star Trek history, all from the comfort of their computers. So until we can all afford to build a bridge in our basement, a virtual one has to be the next best thing.

My Most Anticipated of 2010

With so much to look forward to in the coming year, I thought I would assemble a list of just some of the things I’m anticipating most. All of the things on my list have been in development for a very long time, and all of them are coming to a head in 2010. If you’re like me, then you know at least a one item on this list, if not then hopefully you’re in for a few pleasant surprises.

• • •

Star Trek Online

Video Games

When Star Trek Online finally beams down in February of 2010, the game will have been in development for over 6 years. This massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) has the potential of being the best online experience since Blizzard’s hugely popular effort, World of Warcraft. Players will be able to command their own starships, explore strange new worlds, and team up to defeat classic Star Trek enemies such as the Borg and Klingons.

Historically, video games based on the Star Trek franchise have not been widely successful. I have a feeling that Star Trek Online is about to change all that. How do I know? I’ve played it. That’s right I’ve sat in the Captain’s chair and I am here to say STO is a winner. I can’t divulge much due to the closed beta NDA except to say that Cryptic Studios has managed to capture this Trekkie’s heart with their incredibly fun and detailed futuristic universe. Star Trek Online enters public beta in January of 2010. Unfortunately no Mac or Linux version is planned for launch, but there is a logical alternative. If you own a fast Mac and aren’t afraid to run Windows via Boot Camp, there’s no reason you can’t go where no one has gone before. Make it so!

• • •

The Pacific

Television

From Producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, the team that brought us the Emmy Award winning miniseries, Band of Brothers, comes The Pacific. I first wrote about this HBO 10-part drama back in April of 2007 and have been waiting for it ever since. The original Band of Brothers was a tour de force showcasing the gritty realism and heroic courage of WWII in Europe. The Pacific aims to tell the story of a small group of Marines in the Pacific theater of battle and includes an almost entirely unknown cast of actors.

The Pacific is based on two memoirs of U.S. Marines: With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge and Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie. The series will tell the stories of the two authors and Marine John Basilone, as the war against the Empire of Japan rages. According to Wikipedia, the series will feature well-known battles involving the 1st Marine Division, including Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, and Okinawa, as well as Basilone’s involvement in the Battle of Iwo Jima. While Band’s battle scenes rivaled anything on the silver screen, it was always the thoughtful stories of the men who fought and died for their country that made the series so compelling. The Pacific is set to air on HBO in March of 2010.

• • •

The Return of Futurama

Television

You just can’t keep an animated robot and his hilarious best friends down. After a pre-mature cancellation by Fox in 2003, Futurama found new life in syndication thanks to Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim and Comedy Central. The show’s creators, Matt Groening and David X. Cohen teamed up and briefly brought Futurama out of deep freeze with the release of 4 straight-to-DVD movies, the last of which was released in early 2009. On June 9th, 2009, Comedy Central announced that they had picked up the show for 26 new half-hour episodes which are due to start airing in mid-2010.

I’ve been a personal fan of this deeply funny show since the first day it aired on Fox. While I have enjoyed the DVD films, the 1.5 hour format really didn’t suit Futurama and the stories lost focus. I’m confident that returning to the 1/2 hour format will make all the difference as the writers, producers and voice actors once again lift us to new heights of geek-filled fun. Plus, I’m dying for new material for my Futurama icon sets!

• • •

Super Mario Galaxy 2

Video Games

When it was released in November of 2007, Super Mario Galaxy quickly became hailed as one of the greatest video games of all time. As the flagship title for the new Nintendo Wii, Galaxy brought the beloved Mario series to a whole new level. The game challenged gamer’s preconceptions of 3D level design as Mario dashed and jumped around and across entire planets on his hunt for Power Stars. Adding to the game’s impact were the over 20 fresh and epic musical tracks scored by composer Koji Kondo. Although few sequels live up to the thrill of the original, knowing Shigeru Miyamoto as they do, Nintendo fans everywhere are anxiously awaiting Super Mario Galaxy 2′s appearance sometime in 2010. Count me among them.

• • •

Apple iPadd

Technology

Rumors of the mythical tablet computer from Apple have been swirling for the better part of a decade, but it wasn’t until the iPhone came along that the possibility of such a device seemed real. Add to that slips of the tongue from newspaper and magazine publishers, supposed patent filings and oodles of fake mock-ups and suddenly rumor becomes reality. If speculation is to be believed, then the iPadd (my pet nickname for the device ode to the ubiquitous tablet computers from Star Trek) will arrive sometime in March or April for under $1,000.

When all is said and done, the bigger question might be why is Apple making a tablet computer in the first place? The answer seems to be to do for books what the iPod did for music, that is to revolutionize it. Steve Jobs is apparently setting Apple up as the direct competitor to the hugely successful Kindle from Amazon, and that’s just fine with me. Call me crazy, but I think if you’re going to let users download and read books in bed, that device should have built-in backlighting. Oh, and color would be great too.

I could easily see my trusty iPadd coming in handy while I watch TV to tweet a snarky comment or to look up a movie reference. I could also see myself propping up the device on a nifty stand to display the recipe du jour as I cook. Oh yes, if and when the iPadd comes, I’ll probably find a way to talk myself into needing it along with millions of other consumers. Curse you Steve Jobs!

• • •

TRON Legacy

Movies

This long-awaited sequel to Disney’s original TRON has geeks everywhere spazzing out. The story follows Flynn’s son Sam as he attempts to track down his missing father. Inside the cyber world audiences first visited in 1982, the programs have become more advanced, video games more violent and cyberspace more deadly.

The sequel will feature original TRON stars Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn and Bruce Boxleitner as Tron himself. Given the advancements that have been made in computer special effects in the past 28 years, TRON Legacy promises to be a visual spectacle unlike anything movie goers have ever seen. Disney has scheduled the release date of the film as December 17th, 2010, a year and a few days from when I write this. Only time will tell if it’s worth the wait.

• • •

Orba: My New iPhone Obsession

Every once in a while you run across a piece of software that’s so elegant and well done it makes you smile from ear to ear. Orba, the new free puzzle game from Kieffer Bros. is such an application. Released for the iPhone and iPod touch in late November, Orba is a great example of casual gaming in the spirit of Bejeweled or Tetris.

I love games that can be explained in 25 words or less and Orba’s just such a game. Clear as much of the board as possible by tapping chains of three or more same-colored orbs. The bigger the chain, the more you score. The premise is simple, but after playing just a few games it quickly becomes apparent tap mashing won’t get you very far. Each game starts with only 3 colored orbs shown on the board, so creating long chains of like colors is relatively easy. As you progress, more and more colors are introduced and it becomes quite difficult to clear enough of the board to be able to continue. When no chains can be cleared, the game is over.

As is the case with much of the software that lives on my iPhone, I first discovered Orba via a tweet from a friend, Jason Snell of Macworld. Since I know all too well how important it is to get the word out about great iPhone apps, I’m only too happy to recommend Orba to all of you iPhone and iPod touch users out there.

The game’s user interface is drool worthy. Everything about the game’s design just seems right from the user interaction and the help screens to the friendly “Hello Again.” message that greets you every time you begin. The UI is minimal, but elegant and does a wonderful job of not getting in the way as you play while still looking freakin’ cool. About the only thing I probably would have done differently are some of the sounds. They too are minimal, almost to a point of being non-existent. Despite the audio nit pick, the designers at Kieffer Bros have a well-earned reputation for beautiful software and their work on Orba is no exception.

As a causal gamer, I was surprised and delighted to find that Orba was being offered on the App Store absolutely free. As a fellow developer of iPhone titles, I would have gladly paid upwards of $4.99 for this wonderful piece of art masquerading as a casual game. Since my parents always taught me never to look a gift horse in the mouth, I won’t say any more regarding the decision to give away Orba except to say “Thank you” to the folks behind the orbs. I’ve already gotten many hours of enjoyment out of the download, and that will most likely continue for some time.

I love that I can play this game for a few minutes or hours on end, pause and come back at will. Since there is no time constraint, the only pressure to achieve higher scores are the ones you impose on yourself. Orba doesn’t have online scoreboards or social network boasting, but it doesn’t have to. It is what it is. If you’re looking for a well designed, friendly and casual game for your iPhone, Orba just might be the game for you. Head on over to the App Store, download a copy and let me know when you break the million point mark.

UPDATE: Of course on the very day I decide to publish this post, Orba goes from free to 99¢. I’m actually glad they made it paid since it’s worth 4-5x what they are asking for. You can still try the first 12 levels for free by downloading Orba lite so no harm, no foul.

Rolling the Hard Six

This week marks the release of the Iconfactory’s third piece of software for the iPhone platform, and only our second game – Ramp Champ. Ramp Champ is a fun twist on some of the carnival games you’ll remember from your childhood. The game was designed with love by the gang at the Iconfactory and implemented with skill by the talented folks at DS Media Labs. It’s been in the making for the better half of a year and the time has finally come to release it into the wild.

I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t have a huge case of stomach butterflies right about now. We’ve invested a ton of time and money in Ramp Champ and its relative success or failure will be determined within the next 2 weeks. I always get nervous before software releases, but more so when it’s something completely new. Unlike some other large developers, we don’t have a huge well of funds to dip into to develop our apps which makes writing for the iPhone something akin to playing the lottery. We always do our best to design and implement applications that we think people will use and love, but until you actually get real feedback from users, you just don’t know.

When it comes to the App Store, it seems that the success of a particular application has as much to do with luck as it does with blood sweat and tears. I’ve seen apps I never thought even merited being in the store rise to the top despite poor quality or being based on a questionable premise. Meanwhile, defying all developer logic, some of the very best applications never rise above the top 25. Some are sandbagged by the perception of being “too expensive”, others get obscured by the meteoric rise of novelty “ringtoners” who inevitably take the App Store’s coveted top slots.

Talk to a bunch of iPhone developers and they’ll most likely tell you that everything being equal, success in the App Store is a crap shoot. You can push the odds in your favor by producing a high-quality piece of software, as well as offering it for next to nothing, but in the end fate feels like the final arbiter. I’m very proud of all of the guys, both at the Iconfactory and at DS Media Labs for putting together one heck of a fun game. Hopefully you will enjoy playing it just as much as we enjoyed creating it. No one would deny that producing applications for Apple’s iPhone isn’t risky, but as I’ve told myself again and again lately, without risk there can be no reward.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go chug a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.

UPDATE: Well, we’re over the release hurdle at this point and I’m feeling a lot better. Overall the reaction to Ramp Champ seems to be very positive, although we’re dealing with some memory issue that are causing crashes, particular for 1st Gen device users. The good news is we think we’ve ID’d the problem and should have a fix submitted to the App Store soon.

Thanks to everyone who’s posted or tweeted positive feedback about the game, it’s done my heart (and my stomach) a lot of good these past 2 days. If you’re interested in knowing what went into producing Ramp Champ, head on over to Louie’s blog for some insights. More to come!

You Know, for Kids!

A trip to the toy section of my local Target recently drove home the truism that “times change”. Kids toys are among the first to take advantage of new technologies but on this trip I wasn’t browsing video games, I was considering how much board games have changed since I was a kid. Oh sure you can still pick up the classics like Clue or Monopoly, but many of my favorite childhood board games are long gone. They were published when the world was less politically correct and parents didn’t sue toy companies at the drop of a hat. Here are three of the risque games I used to love to play as a kid. Strangely, all of them revolve around the ocean for some reason.

The Sinking of the Titanic (1975)

Here’s an idea: let’s take one of the worst maritime disasters in history and turn it into a child’s game where everyone except the winner drowns an icy death! Published in 1975 by Milton Bradley, The Sinking of the Titanic challenged players to escape their state rooms aboard the doomed luxury liner and make for the life boats as the ship slowly sinks into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.

After the ship sinks, the players must get enough of food and water by visiting islands and/or drawing cards to stay alive until the rescue boat appears. The first player to make it to the rescue boat wins the game. The other lifeboats and all the other passengers in them are lost, leaving only the one victor and his/her passengers who are saved.

I love how it’s not enough to simply “win” the game, but how everyone who loses “dies”. How this game ever got made in the first place is beyond me, but I did have fun tilting the Titanic slowly below the waves with each roll of the dice. At the time, I don’t think I had any real understanding of the meaning of the game, which looking back, I’m sure was a very good thing since John Jacob Astor and Captain Smith were probably spinning in their watery graves.

The Bermuda Triangle (1976)

The 70′s were a big time for mysteries, myths and monsters so it’s not surprising that Milton Bradley would attempt to cash in on the biggest of them all, the Bermuda Triangle. For a kid who spent one too many Saturdays watching In Search Of… this game quickly became my all-time favorite. The rules were simple: maneuver your fleet of cargo ships safely around the parameter of the infamous Devil’s Triangle without getting gobbled up. Which ever player made it back to home port with the most valuable cargo won.

While the idea of transporting cargo was a nobel one, my friends and I often ditched that portion of the game, and simply tried to get our ships back to port in one piece. The game contained the ‘mysterious cloud’ – a plastic panel raised from the board on a central column – which moved around the board and twisted above the ships. There were magnets on the underside of the cloud and on top of the ships, so that if the cloud passed over your vessels you’d hear a “click” and your ships would be picked up and vanish from the board. Marvelous!

The Bermuda Triangle was another game that trafficked in the realm of real life tragedy. Although not as blatant as the Sinking of the Titanic, the game never-the-less played off of air and sea disasters in which people actually died. Despite this, I used to love the thrill I felt as my friends and I would spin the spinner and move “the cloud” closer and closer to our ships. While playing I’d often call out “Danger like dagger now!” Yes, I was a geek.

Jaws: The Game (1975)

As a child, I used to own toys and games based on movies I was not allowed to see. I’m not exactly sure why my parents thought it was okay for me to play with Kenner’s scary-ass Alien doll, even though I could never see the film. Likewise, my parents didn’t seem to mind when I asked for a copy of the official game based on the horror flick, Jaws, from Ideal. In the spirit of Operation!, Jaws: The Game was a brilliant and simple variant on pick-up sticks that boosted the creep factor up to 11.

Players would load up the mouth of the killer great white shark with all manner of flotsam and jetsam. The game would proceed as each player took turns fishing a single piece of junk out of the shark’s mouth until someone pulled the piece that made him snap. Who ever had the most pieces of junk at the end won. Even though I never saw the movie until years later, the toy shark still managed to give me the heebie-jeebies.

The toy would later be re-published simply as “Shark Chomp”, belying the sinister origins of the original. I remember the game having the added benefit of being completely water proof which meant it often made frequent trips to the bath tub with me. Looking back, I guess it’s a good thing I had no idea who Quint was or how he met his maker at the time. Ah, the innocence of youth!

Strange epilogue: As I was writing this post, Breaking News Online on Twitter broadcast that the last surviving member of the Titanic disaster, Milvina Dean, passed away in her sleep in Southhampton, England. I hope she’s up in heaven kicking the ass of Milton Bradley’s ghost.

For Wii, Fun Trumps Flash

Video games are supposed to be fun. Any game’s primary purpose is to engage and entertain in ways that are new, exciting and challenging. Which is why early calls from critics and fan boys alike that the Nintendo Wii console was just a passing “fad” were out of their depth. The argument went that since the Wii didn’t have the horsepower, graphics or true HD support that the XBOX 360 or Playstation 3 had, it was doomed to failure.

In September of 2007, the Nintendo Wii surpassed sales of both its rivals and has never looked back. This year the Wii weathered its second holiday season with flying colors. According to VG Chartz the Wii sold an incredible 1.7 million units the week before Christmas. By comparison, Microsoft’s XBOX 360 sold 535,806 units and SONY’s struggling PlayStation 3 sold a mere 239,576. VG states that when December is done, Nintendo will have sold more than 3 million Wii’s for the month, an astounding number especially considering the current economy.

It is certainly true that most fads enter the market in a blaze of glory and then promptly burn themselves out. However, they also rarely have direct competition from similar products. Fans never had to consider “My Pet Log” when running out to the store to own their first “Pet Rock“. Fads are unique and unpredictable and by their very nature, a flash in the pan. From the very beginning, the Nintendo Wii was designed to be the very opposite of a fad.

From the Wii’s conception, Nintendo’s game designer Shigeru Miyamoto said the console was not about graphics or frame rates, but user interaction. He wanted to make a new way for players of all ages to interface with video games, and he succeeded. Unlike the XBOX or PS3, the Wii was the first video game platform that appealed to adults in large numbers. The Wii has become hugely successful in retirement homes where seniors play endless hours of Wii Bowling and even tone their aging muscles with Wii Fit. Hard core gamers can’t stand this aspect of the Wii. PS3 and XBOX fan boys argue that any console granny plays isn’t a “real” system, and is only geared for kids and old people. Somehow they say this with a straight face while SONY & Microsoft blatantly copy the parts of the Wii that people love like motion sensors and customizable player avatars.

Will the Nintendo Wii manage to stay off the competition for yet another Christmas? If I was a betting guy, my money would definitely be on Miyamoto and not Ballmer. That being said, eventually the Wii’s unique game play will lose its novelty and the console’s sales will slow. But rest assured, Nintendo has plans for the Wii’s successor that takes all the best parts and improves the rest. Nintendo didn’t become the giant of the video game world it is today by following others, Miyamoto and company had the vision to lead. They skillfully knew what the rest of the industry is only now figuring out – frame rates and flop cycles will only get you so far, but fun lasts forever.

Market Yourself An iParadigm

John Gruber over at Daring Fireball links to an intriguing piece by Paul Kafasis on the state of the App Store. The post compares Walmart’s strategy to sell disposable, cheap goods to those of App Store “ringtone” developers which are forcing down prices. My friend and business partner, Craig Hockenberry wrote about this very topic a few weeks ago in a piece that put him in the crosshairs of quite a few people.

After Craig’s piece was published, and indeed after reading the post by Kafasis, some are under the impression that more expensive “AAA” apps are doing just fine thank you very much. The theory goes that one only has to look at the App Store top 10 list to understand it’s not price that gets you into the top 10, but quality. This, plus marketing on the part of the developer are all that’s needed to boost your software into the top 10 of the App Store. Reading through the comment thread at Inside iPhone it all seems so simple. All a developer has to do is market their app and the rest will take care of itself! Why didn’t I think of that?

The part I love the most is that the people making the “just market your app!” comment have no real idea how much effective marketing costs. Oh sure, you can go far on viral and word-of-mouth marketing, but it all pales in comparison to even a small banner graphic in the App Store. The Iconfactory could spend tens of thousands of dollars buying up targeted advertising space to promote Frenzic, but it still wouldn’t be 1/10 as effective as the front page graphics that Dropship, Marley and Texas Hold’em are enjoying (for free) as I write this. Not only that, but I have no way to track metrics for advertising pointing at Frenzic in the App Store. I can’t gauge how effective a $75 blog ad versus a $2,600 DF sponsorship is because Apple doesn’t currently give me stats of people clicking through to my software. Anyone who says “Just market it!” doesn’t have a solid grasp on how the App Store works.

Another example is Rolando. People are holding this app up as the ultimate example of a quality, non ringtone app that is enjoying success in the store. It is true that Rolando is a fantastic game worthy of the top spot it once held. It is also true that Apple promoted Rolando from DAY ONE in the App Store with major graphics both in iTunes and on Apple.com. All that exposure helped to get Rolando into the top of the store when it launched. But its $9.99 price point is like an anchor. As I write this, Rolando sits at #30 in the top 100, and #10 in games. Let me repeat that. #10. In games.

So what is in the App Store top 10 right now? iFart Mobile is number one which is still riding high on a wave of PR thanks to being originally barred. Crash Bandicoot, which is featured in national Apple television spots is #2. Tetris, perhaps the most well-known video game in history, is #3. Three more ringtone apps come in as 4, 5 & 6 including the months old iBeer. Touchgrind, which also enjoyed prominent Apple billing, is #7. Bejeweled 2 is number 8, PocketGuitar ($.99) is #9 and SimCity rounds out the top 10. All of these apps either enjoyed uncommon press exposure, have a nationally known brand or are priced at $.99. Quality definitely plays a role in getting to the top, but price and “Apple love” play a larger part.

Does this all mean that developers like myself will abandon making quality iPhone applications like Twitterrific and Frenzic? Of course not. I just wish that people who think they know how the App Store works would admit that they really don’t. The App Store is still in flux and much is unknown. What I do know however is that there are key factors to getting to the top of the store, chief among them being price and exposure from Apple. No amount of 3rd party marketing, done on a small developer’s budget is going to change that simple fact. What’s worse (or better, depending on your point of view) is once you are in the top 10, even if you’re app is a “limited utility” ringtone app, because you’re in front of millions of eyeballs both on the device and in iTunes, you’re bound to stay there.

I don’t know exactly how to fix the App Store, but everyone I’ve spoken with agrees that it needs fixing. If not fixing, at least a change in how it favors certain apps while hindering others. The more we talk about this stuff, the better it will be for both developers and customers alike.

Mini-Review of The Force Unleashed for the Nintendo Wii

I like it, you should go buy it. How’s that for “mini”? In all seriousness, I picked up The Force Unleashed for the Nintento Wii last weekend and it’s turned out to be a great purchase. Much has been written about the game, so I’m not going to outline the plot or bore you with technical details about frame rates. I bought the game because I wanted to discover if all the hype that has been spun around the Force Unleashed was deserved. Incredibly enough, it is.

After running through the tutorial, the game quickly earned major geek points as I was able to play as Darth Vader himself! Any game that has the balls to put you in the evil driver’s seat up front isn’t messing around. Although you soon become Vader’s apprentice “Starkiller”, the ability to manipulate the dark side of the Force and wreak havoc on those around you was just as potent as playing as the Dark Lord himself.

Pick up huge objects and hurl them toward your enemies. Toss droids and storm troopers like rag dolls. Hurl your lightsaber across a hanger bay with pin point accuracy to impale your latest victim. After playing for just a few minutes, the appeal of The Force Unleashed becomes clear. Even on the Wii, with it’s less than perfect graphical engine, game play is immersive and tactile. The Wiimote and nunchuck controllers make dueling hand to hand immensely satisfying and almost second nature. The music, story line and straight forward controls all contribute to make The Force Unleashed the first Star Wars game in years I’ve actually liked. I have had to fight with the camera on occasion, and defeating bosses seems too easy for my tastes, but overall it’s a winner.

Unfortunately IGN says the single player levels only took them a total of 6 to complete which is disappointing. I have a feeling that just when I start to really get into it, the game will be over. At least playing on the Wii, I have the Duel VS mode to look forward to which isn’t available on the PS3 or XBOX versions of the game. If you own a Wii and are a Star Wars fan, then I definitely recommend picking up a copy of Force Unleashed. It may not be as good as Nintendo’s home-grown offerings, but it is still solid fun for wannabe Jedi of all ages.

What of Frenzic?

The launch of Apple’s App Store was one of those moments that developers live for. After weeks of coding, designing, testing, tweaking and debating, Twitterrific for the iPhone and iPod touch was released to overwhelmingly positive reviews. All of us at the Iconfactory, especially the big guy in Laguna, are all gratified that users seem genuinely happy with Twitterrific for the iPhone. Apple’s handheld hardware is a wonderful new development platform that’s bound to get better with time, and we were pleased to be present at launch.

However, throughout this whirlwind day, I kept receiving emails about another of our software products and why it wasn’t included in the App Store kick-off. That application of course, was Frenzic. More than a year ago, I posted on my blog asking users to write Apple in support of bringing a native version of our addictive Mac-based game to the iPhone. You showed your support for our efforts to bring the best possible version of Frenzic to the iPhone, and now thanks in-part to users like yourself, that native version is becoming a reality.

I’m here to tell you that Frenzic is definitely coming to Apple’s handheld party. Some of Craig’s coding buddies got an early sneak peek of Frenzic at WWDC, and it’s only gotten better since then. The mobile version of Frenzic is confirming my suspicions that this is how the game was always meant to be played. Placing pieces is fast, responsive and fun as all get out. There is a tactile sense of immediacy when playing Frenzic on the iPhone or touch that simply isn’t present in the desktop version. We still have tons of work to do, but trust me when I tell you it’ll be worth the wait.

In a way, I’m glad Frenzic wasn’t ready for today’s App Store launch. There are already tons of great games available for the iPhone. Pangea’s Enigmo and SEGA’s Super Monkey Ball both come to mind. Frenzic’s day will come, and when it does, all of us at ARTIS Software and the Iconfactory hope you’ll give it a try. The Mac desktop version’s slogan has always been “Addiction never felt so right.” Thanks to the App Store and iPhone, I think players everywhere are about to get addicted all over again. For now, hang tight and hone those reflexes. You’re gonna need it!

Unlock Your Inner Spore

Unless you’ve been living under an online rock, then you probably know about Spore, the new game coming from Electronic Arts. Spore lets you play “god” and engineer living creatures and then release them into the wild, and eventually the stars. The game is due to be released in its entirety this fall, but Electronic Art recently published a small demo of the Creature Creator this past week.

There’s been tons of hype leading up to Spore’s release, and frankly I’ve become wary of getting my hopes up too high with so many people singing its praises. Mirroring my disappointing experience with “Iron Man” is not something I want to repeat, so I’ve been intentionally avoiding the Spore Kool-Aid. That is until tonight. Tonight I watched Mindy as she gave the Creature Creator demo a run through from start to finish, and if the full game is 1/4 as fun as the demo, EA has themselves a winner.

No doubt a large portion of the enjoyment of the demo comes from how easy it is to create something that feels “alive”. The demo lets you select body parts, adjust them, rotate them, scale them, and more to form your creature. You can then paint on colors and textures at will until you arrive at your final critter. The controls are intuitive, easy to manipulate and just plain fun. In many ways it reminds me of the old Kai’s Power Tools version of Bryce. KPT Bryce let you instantly get your “hands” dirty generating alien terrains, skys and oceans. It was immediate, tactile and absorbing. Spore’s Creature Creator demo is similar in many respects and for players with a flair for the creative, it has loads to offer.

Perhaps the only downside is that until the full game is released, players can’t fully judge their creatures or how they’ll fair in the virtual world. I suspect Spore’s universe will be a “dog eat dog” world, and so selecting frog hands for your varmint instead of claws might be a fatal choice come September. I’ll give EA the benefit of the doubt for the time being and hope old “Figmon” shown above, brings both his A-game and his looks. In the meantime, head on over and check out the Spore Creature Creator demo, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. After all, it isn’t every day you get to play god.