After working on classic Nintendo franchises like Metroid Prime and Donkey Kong Country, Rhys Lewis made the jump from AAA to indie development earlier this year with the release of Star Drift. Combining slick shooter gameplay with intuitive one-touch controls, Star Drift quickly became a fan favorite when it debuted on iOS in February. Not long after, Lewis brought the game to Fire TV and in the process created a stellar example of how developers can adapt a touch screen game for a big-screen living room experience.
Coming Up With the Idea
With one look at Star Drift’s sci-fi visuals and imposing swarms of alien enemies, you can tell that Lewis has a fondness for arcade shooters. But it’s his work on Donkey Kong Country Returns that inspired Star Drift’s one-touch control scheme. This 2010 Wii title featured levels where players controlled a rocket barrel with a single input: press a button to thrust upward, release it to fall down. All the while the game would automatically send you scrolling from left to right.
“When I set out to create my first solo project, I wanted to kick things off with a relatively modest game that satisfied my own personal itch for a modern arcade game,” says Lewis. “I knew from my experience with the rocket barrel that touch controls would be an ideal fit for the kind of thing I had in mind and the only question remaining was how to handle the shooting mechanics.”
So Lewis borrowed the single-input thrust controls for Star Drift, but combined it with auto-firing weapons to make for an accessible combat experience.
“I think it's important to design games with the target platform’s characteristics firmly in mind,” says Lewis. “Star Drift started out as a mobile title and so the idea of focusing on one-touch controls had great appeal. I did consider various player-controlled firing schemes but found that they didn't add enough to the experience to compensate for the reduction in accessibility.”
“The nice thing about the controls is that they are really easy to pick up and play but as the game progresses, they provide enough depth to fully engage the player.”
Bringing the Game to Fire TV
When Lewis began work on the Fire TV version of Star Drift, another benefit of the game’s simple control scheme became immediately apparent. Star Drift’s one-touch input meant that it worked perfectly with the Fire TV remote. Players also have the option of using a traditional game pad, but functionally there’s no difference in gameplay—meaning anyone playing with a Fire TV remote gets the same great experience.
“The interface characteristics are a critical part in crafting an engaging user experience and the Fire TV remote really seems like it was designed to play Star Drift,” says Lewis. “If you require extra peripherals, you are introducing a barrier to people launching your game. Being able to use the same remote that you naturally use to watch TV was a bit of a no-brainer really.”
“In terms of implementation, the bulk of the work involved adding support for menu navigation,” adds Lewis. “It was really straightforward and probably only took a day or so to complete.”
The result is one of Fire TV’s customer favorites, with a four-star user average and numerous player reviews lauding the game’s blend of accessible controls and challenging shooter gameplay. And for this, Lewis can thank an age-old game developer technique that works on any platform: make a game that you yourself want to play.
“As my first independent title, Star Drift was a really enjoyable project to work on. It was always meant to be a game made purely for my own pleasure,” says Lewis. “I didn't try to tune it to appeal to anyone but myself or to design in monetization strategies or anything of that nature. It's simply just the game that I wanted to play. One unexpected downside of this approach is that I often started testing a quick change to find myself still playing the game an hour later... I suspect this might be why so many labour-of-loves take so long to complete!”
Advice for Fellow Developers
“Star Drift was a very simple and direct translation,” says Lewis. “But I would encourage others with more interesting challenges to give it some thought and where necessary consider making the investment to bring your title over in the most playable form.”
So while that may be a little more of a challenge for certain mobile developers, Lewis sees one big benefit to adapting games for Fire TV.
“Although mobile devices generally have great looking displays these days, nothing beats seeing your game on the big screen and it’s nice to be able to share the experience with others without them having to peer over your shoulder.”
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