In January, the Tate Modern museum released Race Against Time, an iPhone game that garnered a fair bit of buzz.
I finally had the chance to play through it, thanks to my recent conference (or more accurately, the plane trip home). I think it has a few worthwhile lessons for museums interested in a similar promotional mobile app.
Let’s start with the pros: It looks great. The game uses computer-drawn representations of pieces of art from twelve periods as its background, which is a very cool effect. The enemies in the game are also based on noteworthy pieces of art or artists, which is also a neat touch. And it incorporates information well–every time an enemy kills you, you get a tidbit about the artist, and you can revisit each of the 12 pieces of artwork at your leisure when you’ve beaten the level it’s associated with.
The concept is more than good enough: It’s a fairly basic platform game, in which the player’s character has to walk along a path, jumping over gaps and enemies, to reach an end point. This isn’t terribly original, but that doesn’t matter: most games aren’t wildly original in their mechanics. (Each new generation of Super Mario Brothers adds some bells and whistles, but it’s still basically about jumping, stomping on enemies, and collecting coins like the original from more than 25 years ago.)
The backstory is perfectly sufficient — you’re a chameleon, the bad guy has created a device to steal all the color from the world, and you have to travel through time collecting color particles. Okay, perhaps not quite Of Mice and Men, but it’s plenty good enough for a casual game.
So why is it only “tantalizingly close” to brilliance, rather than brilliant without qualifications?
Conceptually, it’s fine, but the whole package isn’t implemented well.
Most seriously, the game’s jump function doesn’t quite work right. You jump by simply tapping the screen–but the character doesn’t react very quickly. There’s a delay between the time you tap the screen and the time your character jumps. (I’m no expert, but I think it’s a coding problem: Objective-C, the language for iPhone apps, can trigger events when you tap or when you release a tap, and I think Race Against Time connected its jumping mechanism to the latter rather than the former.) This is small and pretty simple, but it’s also incredibly frustrating when you play.
The level design also leaves something to be desired: they get quite hard by about halfway through the game, and they require a lot of precision to get through successfully. In many cases, I found that I had done something wrong like missing a power-up or getting out of the proper position, which would inevitably lead to a death that wouldn’t occur for another half a level. It led to plenty of rage-quits on my part, which isn’t something a game designer ought to be going for.
That’s the rub: It was much more frustrating than it was fun. And if a game isn’t fun, no matter its other merits, then it has failed.
I think it’s worth comparing Race Against Time to a similar current blockbuster iPhone game, Temple Run. Why is that game so much more playable and replayable?
The controls are a big part of it. While occasionally your character might jump when you intend to turn, the controls for the most part work the way you expect them to. The game is randomly generated, and once in a while you’ll find yourself in situations that don’t seem possible to navigate successfully, but they’re rare. Each game is pretty quick, and there’s always the sense that you might as well try again because there’s a fair chance that you’ll do better.
Doing all of this is a tall order, and doing it all while also serving a museum’s mission is an even taller one. While I don’t think Race Against Time achieved it, it was a good effort: something for future museum game designers to build upon.