Equilibrium, our first in house release, is a physics-based puzzler with ARG-inspired, transmedia storytelling; available for iOS. For casual gamers it has quick-to-pick-up yet frustratingly challenging gameplay that fits nicely into morning commutes and those pre-bedtime bursts.
For players seeking more than the average puzzler, there are live characters with whom they can interact on Twitter as they battle each other in real time to determine the destiny of our galaxy. Tying the whole thing together is a rich, detailed backstory that’s discovered through audio, video and Instagram content across the game, it’s supporting websites and Twitter.
Equilibrium was born out of every digital creative’s dream: to create something according to our own brief with a scale and lifespan determined by our blood and sweat (and tears!) rather than the size of a client’s budget.
Our initial concepting was fairly non-linear; starting with a blank canvas (although we knew we wanted to make game on iOS) and iteratively developing the gameplay, campaign mechanics and story. Team-based dynamics around competition and cooperation arose early, but we also wanted players to be able to progress through the game independently from each other.
We gravitated to the notion of a two-team game with chaotic cooperation at its heart: both team’s players would play the same game; unified behind their chosen team’s cause; but with their individual efforts combined so the teams could go head-to-head. At the time of concepting, no other studio had produced a two-team game on iOS.
We loved the dynamic so much that for a some time our game design document outlined that the game would be played out across two apps (one for each team) with centralised scoring. Later we concluded that since rankings on the App Store’s are so heavily influenced by downloads, it would be commercial suicide to split the player base across two applications.
The physics-based puzzler
With the two-team dynamic in place, we began to concurrently explore the gameplay, mechanics and a context to frame the whole piece. As enthusiastic fans of astronomy and the sciences in general, many of our breakout conversations were about what Professor Brian Cox had told us the night before about how the Universe works.
We played around with different concepts from chemistry, astronomy and cosmology, trying to build gameplay that was at least loosely based on real scientific principles. These themes also seemed like a nice departure from the overly ‘cute’ angle many other developers were deplying at the time. One documentary we’d seen had been about antimatter, matter’s polar opposite, which we realised was a perfect fit for the two-team dynamic.
Team Matter and Team Antimatter were born and we had a strong steer towards a particle-based physics puzzler (quite literally). Better yet, with a little digging we discovered a scientific mystery being actively researched at CERN - the mystery of why the Earth and all of our cosmic surroundings are made up of matter when equal quantities of matter and antimatter were created by the Big Bang.
This research programme, which uses a piece of equipment called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) mounted on the International Space Station, was a perfect opportunity to incorporate ARG aspects to the game; providing a real-world setting in which our story could unfold.
Characters, narrative and campaign
The final piece of the puzzle was Equilibrium’s characters. We’re long-time admirers of games as powerful media for storytelling. Taking inspiration from games like Fallout 3 and Bioshock, both of which use amazingly detailed storytelling to shape and deepen players’ experience of the game’s narrative, we began to explore the story of Equilibrium and ways it could be told. Creating leaders for the two teams leapt out as a great way to personify the two sides’ respective causes, and with a Twitter feed for each character we could give the characters a real world presence, making them accessible to players both inside and outside the game.
Using all the details about the AMS research programme we could find, we developed the game’s characters: Dr Isla Gideon and Dr Charles Mullock; two physicists out to prove the unconventional theory that there are entire galaxies made up of antimatter. We set up their Twitter feeds right away so we could begin telling the backstory as we developed the rest of the game. The authenticity of the characters was hugely important to us and we wanted anyone who interacted them to believe they were real individuals.
To this end, we also began a blog for Dr Mullock and both characters regularly shared and discussed their ‘research’ on Twitter. So detailed was our tweeted and blogged content that at one point we had to confess all to a popular UK science journalist who took an interest in the characters!
Dr.s Gideon and Mullock were written to become the game’s archetypal goodie (the Saviour) and baddie (the Destroyer) respectively and the blog would become one of the key media for the telling the game’s back story, charting Mullock’s descent into madness and apocalyptic plans for the galaxy. Before launch, we hired a voice actor to narrate the entries to help bring Mullock’s story to life.
The character’s increasing agitation and anger on the blog is homage to the Gatekeeper in Atmosfear, the video-accompanied board game we played as kids.
When Equilibrium is first downloaded, players are faced with a fundamental decision: unite with Team Antimatter to help bring about the apocalypse or join Team Matter and fight to stop it. This choice determines whether players will create antimatter or matter with their gameplay and changes both the look and feel of the game and which side of the story players receive. On the face of it, and as a result of this coming so early in a player’s gameplay, this decision appears to be a fairly shallow choice between good and evil.
However, players who study Dr Mullock’s blog can learn the truth behind his misguided intentions: destroy this world to create a better one for everyone.
Equilibrium’s gameplay is intentionally identical for Team Matter and Team Antimatter to allow fair comparison between the two sides. Players of both teams puzzle their way through increasingly challenging levels set in a microscopic world of subatomic particles.
For those who join Team Matter to try to save our galaxy, each level presents the primary challenge of firing a number of electrons at a proton to create a stable atom of matter. As players move from level to level they discover a suite of gameplay elements that bend, deflect, hold and teleport their electron, as well as nanobots sent by the opposition to hinder their progress.
For those seeking to destroy the Earth and its cosmic surroundings, the mechanics play out with antimatter’s equivalents; positrons and anti-protons. Each level was designed to also offer a secondary challenge: collecting as many energy bursts as possible to boost the power of the particle created. In early levels, the energy bursts guide players to complete the primary challenge, but later, figuring out how to collect all the energy bursts becomes the core component of the puzzle solving.
This secondary goal was intended to encourage repeat-play, so players can go back through completed levels to try to collect any missed energy bursts to improve their score.
To create Equilibrium’s levels we developed a bespoke level design tool to work alongside the iPhone application. Using this tool, designers can quickly toggle between ‘build mode’, in which levels can be constructed by dragging and dropping the game’s various gameplay elements into the level space, and ‘play mode’, in which the constructed the level can be play tested.
In designing the scoring system for individual players, we needed a calculation that appropriately rewarded the different aspects of the gameplay and, to encourage repeat play, gave players tangible ways to improve their scores. We also wanted to ground the calculation in the game’s scientific world and tie it as closely as possible to the narrative. With a little more exploration into the domain of physics, and although its applied with some creative license, we settled on the equation for calculating power from energy and time (p = e/t).
A player’s score, therefore is the power of the particle they create when they complete the level. To achieve a high score, players must pick up as many energy bursts as they can (e) and complete levels as quickly as possible (t). Since the game plays out on a minute, subatomic realm, players’ scores are displayed in the wonderfully tiny unit of power, the zeptowatt.
As players progress through the game, their scores are aggregated into the overall score for the team they have joined. These overall scores provide the game’s key metric for the competition between teams and we designed the game’s home screen to display this metric. Every time the player opens the game they are taken to a home screen showing a percentage breakdown representing the balance of matter and antimatter in the galaxy, intended to connect each player with their team and its performance.
To further boost this sense of connection, we designed Equilibrium’s War room, which shows a detailed real time breakdown of how the two teams are performing across the world and the player’s country.
Visualising the subatomic
From the outset we knew we wanted to create a visual direction that was different to the thousands of fluffy, cutesy games on the app store. Osmos, a game we admire deeply, did a great job of depicting a dark and atmospheric subatomic world and we also wanted to differentiate our game from it.
Equilibrium’s art direction blends three main sources of inspiration: for the gameplay, bright neon colours contrasting against a dark background from arcade classics such as Pacman and Space invaders; for the team styling, the visual rhetoric of political propaganda and; more contemporarily, the infographic styling of ‘big data’ for the team statistics.
Each of Equilibrium’s levels is a view into a minute realm of atoms and energy so they needed to be visually exciting and alive. All of the game’s elements were developed with this in mind, but with its fluid movement and comet tail of particles, the electron (or positron) was the defining asset for the gameplay’s look and feel.
We prototyped many, many versions of this particle, balancing the number of particles making up the comet tail with device capabilities to achieve our desired fluidity without impacting performance too heavily. Crucially, we discovered we needed to vary this balance for older, less powerful iPhone models.
Equilibrium’s two sides have distinct team ‘brands’, the look, feel and sound of which is applied to the player’s entire application when they make their choice of team. These brands were developed to increase players’ affiliation with the team they’ve chosen and comprise different colourways, team insignia, audio tracks and even the naming of the stages of levels (these are named after selected eminent figures from the world of science).
The teams’ striking emblems were designed to encapsulate their respective agendas in single, iconic visuals: Team Matter’s bird-like logo represents hope, freedom and independence; while Team Antimatter’s fist conveys solidarity, power and destruction.
Statistics play a key role in the campaign focused areas of the application, conveying the relative performance of the two teams in their battle for the galaxy. As mentioned earlier, the homescreen and the War room, two key areas of the game’s UI, are given over to showing its campaign metrics and we wanted to develop a unique visual style for these areas.
Infographics, with their inherent mission to present complex information simply and clearly, has exploded in popularity recently and gave us much inspiration for the art direction for these statistically-oriented areas. We progressively created an art direction that uses bold, large scale typefaces and simple data visuals that could be easily branded for the two teams.
This ensured these areas, which could otherwise become a little dry give their nature, were easy to understand and navigate but above all playful and compelling.
Launch and promotion
Equilibrium was launched towards the end of April 2013 to join over 800,000 other iPhone apps on the App Store, a hugely competitive marketplace where the majority of apps and games receive only a tiny proportion of downloads from the platform. Breaking through to become an App Store hit is hugely challenging and from concepting to release we explored ways to promote the game and avoid slipping into the depths of App Store obscurity.
As much as possible we tried to bake both the game’s narrative and social media into each of our promotional techniques. We produced a set of personalised videos to be sent by the Saviour to key influencers and celebrities on Twitter. These videos (our equivalent of Princess Leia’s holographic plea for help to Obi Wan Kenobi), were a cry to for help to rally these individuals to her cause. Both leaders continue to be active on Twitter, taunting each other, interacting with followers from the game’s player base and commenting on galaxy’s balance of matter and antimatter.
Equilibrium has received exciting commentary and awards from industry press in it’s relatively short lifespan. 148 apps described it as “unique and innovative”; The Guardian featured it in their 20 best iPhone and iPad apps, it was awarded FWA’s Mobile of the Day, and was featured globally by Apple in 63 countries!
We’re now hard at work implementing a host of new features and gameplay, plus versions for iPad and Android, all coming to app stores very soon.