Capitalising on iOS design trends in a big way
When I wrote about Blockees a year and a half ago I stressed how such as simple game idea could become terribly addictive. Sliding puzzles have to be very basic, almost like those uninspired mini games included in AAA console titles. With these low expectations in mind, I simply couldn't guess what was coming. The same mechanics applied to a multitouch gaming device made this old puzzle type something exciting again.
Tile Drop by Daniel Wood is a new take on the sliding puzzle genre, using pretty much the same rules but now presenting everything in a refined and very current minimalist style. When the developer told me this was a re-skinned version of Blockees I could not expect this final product. Yes, Tile Drop is still the same game, but dressed in a completely different way.
Where Blockees looked very cartoony — possibly influenced by a surge in casual games at the time such as Angry Birds and Cut the Rope — Tile Drop feels more mature. There are no characters or bright colours. The emphasis now is on the stylish sans serif text, pastel tones and the occasional quirky animation.
To say that Tile Drop is trying hard to adapt to the App Store trends of late 2012 is an understatement. The game capitalises on the current iOS design trends. The icon, for instance, is extremely basic yet illustrative of the type of puzzler you're about to play. You may notice some resemblance with Zach Gage's SpellTower if they happen to be on the same iPhone screen, as it is in my case. Once you launch the app, the white backgrounds and the menu layout show a very strong influence from Loren Brichter's Letterpress. Even the animations and the sounds used are heavily inspired by it. Other than the more muted CMYK colour palette, I don't think anyone wouldn't spot the similitudes.
In the search for hints
One thing I learned from The Heist is that presentation matters a lot when you're trying to get people to play something as simple as a sliding puzzle. This is why I have started talking about the looks and not how it plays. Tile Drop removes all the unnecessary clutter, keeping the bare minimum to make the game playable. I cannot stress enough how this distraction free environment changes the game experience.
The mechanics that worked before are still there. The goal of the game is removing all the coloured tiles from the grid. These squares disappear when they touch another square with the same colour. In early levels there's plenty of room to move the tiles around although difficulty ramps up quickly. Swiping vertically or horizontally will move every coloured tile to that direction. This is like having a magnet on your finger that the different pieces follow. A limited amount of allowed moves per turn and the odd obstacles complete the challenge.
Although sounds extremely simplistic, the right mixture of frustration and ease to replay levels makes the game rather addictive. There is a hint system prominently advertised with a green button that will suggest the first move for the level. The idea is to get a head-start and experiment from there, with subsequent hints telling you the next moves in case you get stuck.
Hints are a limited currency in Tile Drop and there are several — and original — ways to obtain them. The most crude is to buy them directly as an in-app-purchase. There are free alternatives involving game cross-promotion, opening an App Store link for a featured game for instance. You tend to receive more hints just launching the app anyway.
I particularly like the option to build your own puzzles (and share them with the world) to express yourself and gain some free hints in the process. The way the game screen is laid out means the name of the creator (using Facebook) and a small avatar will appear there. I haven't been able to test the level-making system so I cannot confirm if this uses Game Center integration at all. The level pack builder section is blocked until you complete certain goals, which I thought was a good opportunity to add an unlockable in-app purchase.
For an Universal app I would have liked to use some type of game sync so I don't need to play the same levels on my iPhone and iPad. I'd also prefer to unlock some features upfront with IAP rather than grind my way around.
Tile Drop is a great iteration on the original game by Daniel Wood, Blockees. Almost everything in it has a direct influence from the word game Letterpress and I hope it captures the attention of the same audience. The end result is a very pleasing and relaxing puzzler stripped from visual clutter. For me it works in many levels and I hope the developer continues to polish it. As simple and trend-conscious, it's a winner.