Global blockbuster for Kiwi developer

ADAM ROBERTS
Last updated 12:45 15/01/2013

It had been a difficult day for Alyssa.

She was deep under the surface of the earth, alone, with only a few oranges to eat and no idea where she was.

The three pickaxes she had brought with her, simple ones made of flint and wood, had proven too flimsy to do the amount of mining she had intended, with only small quantities of copper or tin obtained before they went blunt.

She was moving through the caves slowly - with only two torches she had to use a leapfrog strategy to make any progress, dropping on torch on the ground, going back to pick up her other torch and then moving it a little bit further through the gloom.

In the last few days - each seeming to take a little bit less time than the last - she had slept on the ground, longing for her bed.

Now she just wanted to get back to the surface, to her simple dirt house, campfire and chests full of food and other supplies.

She variously alternated between being hungry, tired, and exhausted.

As the man who created her and was guiding her progress, I couldn't help but feel like a failure for getting her into such a dire predicament.

Alyssa was a Blockhead, you see; my pixellated avatar in the vast world created by Hawke's Bay developer David Frampton. So her success or failure was on me.

I was playing The Blockheads, a new game from Frampton, whose previous iOS games Chopper and Chopper 2 were well-received in the past.

You may have heard of it, it's really doing rather well on the iOS app store.

Depending on where and when you look, the game is somewhere in the top 10 free apps available for iOS, and at various times since it was released last week it has led app stores around the world.

This week it was the second most-downloaded iPhone app, and the top iPad app, in the US appstore, and it has also cracked the top 100 for paid apps.

At times over the weekend it was being downloaded 10 times a second, according to analytics tools used by Frampton - insane numbers.

So, what's all the fuss about?

The game drops the player in a vast, procedurally generated (ie, effectively random) two dimensional world (ie, a cross section of a planet), with one Blockhead and no particular goals.

You can build structures, craft tools and weapons (there are no enemies, just wild animals to hunt), or explore the world - which includes oceans, mountains, deserts, and poles.

Later, you can bring in more Blockheads to keep your first character company.

The Blockheads is a game you can get lost in - sometimes literally.

Players in the game's forums have already reported that they have circumnavigated the world, walking in one direction until they arrive back at their home-base (the world is huge, 15,000 blocks in one direction, so it must have taken a long time), or dug down to the earth's core.

Others have noticed they can use the position of the stars or the length of the day to determine their location within the world, and sharp-eared players have enjoyed the use of tui for the game's birdcalls.

To put it short - it is a really fun, addictive, clever game, with plenty to see and do and no shortage of places to explore, items to find (or make) and surprises to uncover.

This is all without even mentioning the game's two-player mode, which includes voice chat, and is just as fun if not more so.

It's hard to describe the game without referring to the other major pixellated creation game Minecraft, and indeed the game is cited as an inspiration by Frampton.

But as he explained in a blogpost on his site, the two games differ in a number of important ways, and he first conceived of the game well before Minecraft became popular.

In an email, he said the similarities had led to some negative reactions.

"I think much of this comes in particular from the graphical similarities, given people have only really seen screenshots so far.

"But I'm confident that The Blockheads brings a new experience to the table and that once people start playing they'll quickly realise it's not a clone or a rip-off."

Minecraft players have used the simple mechanics of the game to create all sorts of virtual sculptures, so does Frampton expect that with his game?

"I expect people to do all sorts of unexpected things with the game, I'm really excited to see what everyone comes up with!"

Future development would partly depend on what players came up with, he said.

"It's so open ended that I really have no idea what players might do and where that might lead the game's development."

The game does not include a "creative" mode, like Minecraft, and Frampton said he deliberately tried to steer people towards spending their time relatively evenly across all of the content of the game, so they can experience its full potential.

"It's definitely possible to just set off in one direction and walk around the entire world, but your blockhead will get extremely sad and slow after sleeping outside in the cold for a few nights or swimming across an ocean."

"So you're better off setting up a bit of a base, crafting some clothes, a bed and a boat at least. "And then you'd might as well do some mining and perhaps bring in another blockhead to go on the exploration mission. It's more fun if you mix things up a little!"

The Blockheads

Frampton has been working on The Blockheads full time for about a year, and although it had been challenging, he had not suffered any motivation issues as he had in previous projects.

He decided very early on to use pathfinding and a tap based control scheme to make it easy to interact with, rather than clumsy virtual controls on the screen.

The experience needed to be easy to put down and pick up, as people (aside from those circumnavigating the virtual world) tended to only play for short periods.

The game is free, but Frampton has included a number of optional In-App Purchases. Players can purchase time crystals (that can speed up the completion of tasks in the game or be used to buy valuable objects or new Blockheads) or pay a one-off sum to permanently halve the time taken to complete tasks.

This was a big step for Frampton, as he had been against such a "freemium" model in the past.

"But I think the majority of people are now expecting mobile games to be free, if not extremely cheap. I set myself the goal of doing it right, and I think I've managed that.

"But the main factor is that I wanted as many people as possible to play it, and free was the way to achieve that.

"And if they're enjoying the game, hopefully they'll spend a buck or two to support future development."

Days after her caving experiences had gone so awry, Alyssa was again far away from home, West of her now more well-appointed house.

Standing on a snow-capped mountain, with baskets full of exotic fruits and a few gems, she waited for me to give her her next task.

I tapped on the icon representing her. "Alyssa is very happy," the summary said.

"Thank god for that," I muttered to myself, before telling her to push on, further into the unknown.

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