When it comes to highly anticipated mobile games, we reckon Star Wars: The Force Unleashed – due to be available both in N-Gage and Java flavours – ranks pretty high (and not just because it was my top tip for 2008).
Still, it's proving to be quite a controversial game, not least in terms of its control method. Called CellWeaver, it combines an on-rails in-game movement system with actions triggered by symbols created by pressing the correct sequence of keys on your mobile's pad (or similarly using the thumbstick).
So, that's the focus of part one of our interview with Henri Roth (pictured), creative director at the game's Finnish developer, Universomo.
Pocket Gamer: Why did you choose the CellWeaver control method?
Henri Roth: Star Wars: The Force Unleashed is a third-person shooter on the consoles. I think most people would agree that mobile third-person shooters have a notoriously bad track record. The controls on a mobile phone are simply not well suited for the job. That is why we made our game in a sense more like a rail shooter or a Laserdisc video game.
I know those are scary words, as such an approach could easily mean that there is very little for the player to actually do. However, by introducing CellWeaver we have been able to empower the player to do complex interactions through a mobile-friendly control system.
Also, the CellWeaver patterns are rune-like symbols that have a certain 'magical' quality to them. In the case of this particular game we'd love to think that those patterns are symbolic representations of the Force, something that a Force-attuned person would see when they close their eyes and stretch out with their feelings [smiles].
Do you think it makes the game more accessible for players and how have you had to tweak it?
The casual audience has embraced the control scheme very well. The more hardcore gamer may see the system as a gimmick and start yearning for the established controls for the genre. But what established controls? The two analogue sticks on your Xbox 360? Well, they're not here. This is still your mobile phone.
Not only does CellWeaver make the game more accessible but also more fun. We at Universomo have a saying that we strongly believe in: the player's having fun as long as their thumbs are moving. When games are adapted for the mobile they are simplified. If that is done solely by reducing key presses a game can start to feel dull; that it's on autopilot. In Star Wars: The Force Unleashed your thumbs won't stop, that I guarantee!
The system has gone through multiple iterations. The original CellWeaver can still be found pretty much intact in the Java version of SW:TFU where it works very well, as the game is not a third-person shooter but a more arcadey experience.
The N-Gage version of CellWeaver has been made more compatible with the directional controller and, therefore, landscape gaming. Also, a more instinctive defence mechanism has been added to support the 'shooter' nature of the game.
When playing the demo, I found I was often looking more at the keypad than the screen and it felt like I was missing out what was going in the game. Do you think this sort of thing will improve the more you play?
This is a common first verdict of the game. This is partially due to using unfamiliar hardware. If you play the game on your own mobile where you are already fluent in typing SMSes, you probably have an advantage and the entry is smoother.
But, yes, it does improve over time. After a while you are brave enough to lift your eyes from the keypad to the indicators and, eventually, you will 'be in the zone' and be able to appreciate the vistas while torturing poor Stormtroopers at the same time. On the other hand, we as designers want to keep you busy, it's part of our set of smoke and mirrors, too.
Also, you should definitely try CellWeaver with the directional controller. By using the directional controller, or Controller Key (which is the proper Nokia lingo), there is no need to move your mitts and, therefore, no need to peek at the keypad.
You're using the keypad as a 3x3 grid, so does this limit the complexity of moves players can make?
The 3x3 grid itself is far from being limited! For example, you can draw any character of the English alphabet with CellWeaver. That's already 26 patterns. The amount of original patterns drawable on the grid is just astronomical. Therefore, we have actually had to heavily limit the possibilities within the scope of the game.
The finished game has five offensive and four defensive Force powers that can be targeted and triggered through the CellWeaver interface.
Our thanks to Henri for his time. And don't forget to check part 2 of our interview, which focuses on the more general aspects of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.