Despite the incredibly strong position that they hold in the market, it’s actually quite unusual for Apple to really address the videogaming potential of their phones, tablets and other devices. They might showcase them briefly on stage or feature popular games within the app store, but you get the feeling that they’re simply content to let developers get on and do what they want.
Yet, the Apple TV opens up a new frontier for developers to explore and adapt to, in a burgeoning new marketplace that, though still very much a niche product by Apple’s lofty standards, has the potential to grow over the next few years. While phone and tablet games feature touch controls that have you interacting directly with items on the screen, Apple TV has much more in common with a home console, with the device’s remote or an MFi game controller in hand. That point means that some games will have to shift in style, and that’s exactly what has happened with Lumo’s Cat.
On iOS and Android, this quirky and unusual game has the feel of a strategy game or a tower defence title, as you place Star People and then direct them to attack the mice that threaten to awaken the eponymous sleeping cat. It’s a free-to-play single player game on tablet and phone, but it’s also one that relies quite heavily on touch, which obviously needed to change in order to work on Apple TV’s remote – and currently, all games need to support play via the basic remote.
Steve Stopps, a director of the Arch Creatives in Leamington Spa a founder at Team Lumo, explained, “While Lumo’s Cat was in submission for iOS, we got lucky. Apple ran a little lottery thing to see who would get Apple TV dev kits in the first round, and I’d put our name in for that and we got a dev kit. I thought, ‘Hey! We’ve got four weeks till launch, let’s do a whole new version of the game.’ And it is a whole new version; the visuals are the same, but there’s almost nothing left of the original gameplay.
“We knew what was fun about our original game, but we wanted something that was going to be fun for the living room, so we thought co-op would be fun – in the original you controlled four characters simultaneously, but we’ve pared this down to two. With the single player, you basically have an AI as your wing person, so it works the same as multiplayer and the experience doesn’t change.”
And so Lumo’s Cat and the Co-op Collider was reborn as a multiplayer game where you control the actual Star Person and fend off the advancing mice. It features incredibly simplistic controls, which work perfectly just holding the diminutive remote in your hand, as you use the touchpad to move, before attacking by clicking the touchpad or removing your thumb for a few seconds, depending on the Star Person in your command.
The uptempo music has me in mind of Roobarb’s intro, if it were full of cat-like meowing and made for a more modern, attention deficient audience. It’s matched by the luridly vibrant colour palette; colourful, with deeply vibrant pinks and purples that, though an assault on the senses, seem to suit the gameplay down to a tee. There really is an awful lot of pink.
“It’s called Gilligan Pink, which is our team pink.” Steve said. “Nic, our artist, we rescued him from a job he had at another studio where his art director wouldn’t let him use purple or pink, because he found the colours difficult to work with. This is now his rebellion and everything we do has to have purple or pink.”
There’s a delightful nonsensical twist to everything as well, with one Star Person simply stomping on the mice, another rolling into them before blowing up, one with a tentacle in a box that lashes at them, and finally, one which sends out electricity in all directions before keeling over and exploding. You only ever control one at a time, but each time that you spawn in gets you a new Star Person picked at random. And there’s always two players on screen, whether using the separate controller app for a co-op buddy to come and join you, hooking up an MFi controller or playing for a few moments on your own.
That remote app, available separately on the store, was built specifically for this one purpose. “We wrote the remote app ourselves from scratch,” Steve explained, “just so we could get a second player. We kind of figure that most people aren’t going to be going out and buying lots of controllers, they just get playing on the TV. If they’ve got phones, it just makes sense to get people using their phones.”
That’s really where this game excels, in killing a few minutes here and there. There’s no campaign, levels are randomly generated, and they only last a handful of minutes before you win – it’s not a particularly tricky game, even when you get a Nightmare level, thanks to the cat eating too much cheese before its nap.
Yet, depending on how the game does – and bear in mind that it’s a paid for game at £2.99/$3.99 on an Apple TV – there’s more that Team Lumo can draw upon to add extra ideas and modes.
Giving a few examples, Steve said that unlike the randomise level generation on the Apple TV, “In the mobile version, you can choose what foods to feed the cat, which sets the difficulty, and then each different food brings up a different piece of paisley the cat dreams of, and then when you win the level you get a piece of paisley to put into your own paisley blanket. Nightmare levels have got things like skulls and they’re black and white or a bit darker, and all the easier levels are brightly coloured, so you can see from someone’s paisley blanket whether they’re playing on hard or on easy. […]
“We can always bring that kind of stuff into here, if people want to see that, and we’ve got a bunch of ideas and different mechanics. We want to do more than two players at some point, which would be fun, I think. We just want to play around with mechanics and see what we can do; we spent two weeks just prototyping loads of different mechanics and this is the one we liked the most, so that’s what we focussed on.”
It’s fascinating to put Lumo’s Cat alongside other early efforts and ports. Asphalt, for example, is quick to use the remote’s tilt controls, while Rayman Adventure’s and Octagon’s minimalist swipe-based controls on phone translate quite naturally to the remote’s touchpad. When you need to, you can turn the remote on its side and hold it like a classic NES game pad, but developers are restricted to just the clickable touchpad and the play/pause button for inputs. It’s certainly impressive that a twin stick shooter like Geometry Wars or a space shooter like Galaxy on Fire in the the system, but the games with only a handful of inputs or where the developers rewrite the game with a new control paradigm in mind, like Lumo’s Cat, which work best.
That fact alone could come to hamper the system and the kinds of games that developers might look to create for it – though MFi controllers can offer more buttons, the remote is the lowest common denominator – but it’s also important to remember that this is effectively a first revision of an Apple product, and they are renowned for having limited functionality to start off with, before expanding the features and possibilities through successive hardware revisions and software updates.
Steve explained that it’s a rather familiar feeling for the team, saying, “I think our team has made launch products for four different consoles, so we’ve been doing it for a while and there’s always loads of unknowns. What we know is that if you take control of it and do it yourselves, you can make stuff that you know works and you’re not relying on other people to deliver stuff in time for deadline.
“And actually, we’ve been pleasantly surprised. I know lots of people say that if you’re using a controller you shouldn’t need to use a remote, and people felt that was hamstringing it, but for me, I get it. If you’re paying your £140 for an Apple TV box, you want to be able to play all the games, so it makes sense without having to go and buy a second piece of hardware.”
Even with that in mind, it feels somewhat unimaginable that Apple won’t address some of the more common complaints about the system, but for me it feels as though gaming on the Apple TV is very much a secondary or even tertiary concern. That’s fine, though. Games on the system could potentially scale up to rival consoles in their scope, but the device needs to focus on what it can do best first, which when it’s competing with PlayStation 4’s under the screen and smartphones in you hand, is going to be TV.