Alistair Aitcheson likes people to fight over his games. Literally, physically fight right over them. His first smartphone and tablet title, Greedy Bankers, had a multiplayer mode where participants could steal money from each other on screen. His second, Slamjet Stadium, was a futuristic sports sim, in which two opponents fought it out to score goals in a trap-filled arena. Both games encouraged players to interact physically, knocking each other away from the screen, intentionally controlling the other person’s onscreen avatars. He has seen full-blown wrestling matches erupt as a result.
His new game, Tap Happy Sabotage, is a continuation of that philosophy into uncharted territory. Developed for an Intel App Innovation competition it was designed to showcase the capabilities of the company’s 27-inch touchscreen monitors. Each player has to pick an icon card to represent them on the screen. The cards have nice pictures of flowers or parrots or bees on them – it looks cute, but Aitcheson is just messing with you. Next, the competitors gather around the screen and over a series of different round have to quickly tap their card when they see it displayed on screen amongst a myriad of others – the first person to hit their card wins the match. To make matters more complex however, each player card has a sort of evil twin which looks similar: tap that in the heat of the battle and you immediately lose.
Each round brings a new variation on the gameplay. Sometimes you have to tap everyone else’s cards and the one car with the least taps wins. In other rounds, you have to put your finger on your card and drag it around the screen as a bouncing bomb whizzes around: while moving yours out of the way, it’s perfectly acceptable to try and shove a player’s card into the bomb’s path. There are no rules. “I’m a big fan of players getting in each others’ way, pushing and shoving and playing dirty,” he says with no hint of apology. “I just thought, hey, you could fit a lot of people around this! I’m used to fitting two or three people around an iPad but on a touchscreen monitor you could do eight or ten. Which is why I decided to set the maximum number of players on this game as 52…”
Of course, not everyone owns a 27-inch touchscreen monitor so Aitcheson is also working on tablet versions of the game. Cleverly, you’ll be able to lie four devices together, regardless of the make, and they’ll form one large arena. “The reality is, Unity does a lot of the leg work for me,” admits, Aitcheson. “You can write a piece of network code in Unity and as long as you’re all connected to the same network it will work across all devices. It’s pretty simple, to be honest. The tougher challenge is to make sure the screens line up so that something that passes from the edge of one display, comes on to the right edge of another. You’ve also got to keep track of 100 cards on screen at once and the behaviours of those cards needs to be tracked on all for screens simultaneously. That’s where it gets challenging.”
Aitcheson describes Tap Happy Sabotage as a cross between the card game Jungle Speed and the Wii Play mini-task, ‘Find Me’ – “that is s really simple game but it’s the kind of thing you can play with anyone and it gets very competitive, very quickly. I like how that works. I wanted to make a game about visualisation: what can I see in front of me and can I react to it quickly enough, rather than how much dexterity does each player have.”
I played the game at the recent Pocket Gamer Connect conference in London, against Alistair and another couple of young developers. It’s ridiculously fast and frantic, there is showing and pushing. There is a lot of pushing – and, actually, what you’d usually describe as cheating if it wasn’t for the fact that Aitcheson has gleefully built every heinous activity possible into the design plan. Later, he entered the game into the event’s Indie Pitch contest, which saw an array of small developers showing their new wares to a selection of journalists and veteran developers. He came joint first. People just like fighting over games.