Eliss creator Steph Thirion on App Store authorship and his next project



Released with little fanfare, Eliss was nevertheless a cult sensation, attracting critical kudos and several awards. But as its sole designer and programmer, Thirion admits his focus was perhaps too narrow. The game’s idiosyncratic controls and aesthetic were its greatest virtues, but its stiff difficulty attracted criticism. Thirion barely play tested it at all, it transpires.

“I managed to ignore the user all my career, and based my career on designing for myself – if it works for me, then it’s good,” he says. “I realize that I could have broadened my audience a little more. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Miyamoto studied industrial design and is such a phenomenal game designer. You can get away with focusing on only yourself as a graphic designer or a musician, but as an industrial designer, you are required to be much more attentive. So I’m trying to give more attention to the perspective of the average player, without compromising the personal vision.”

Thirion says that his experiences with Eliss have led to a more open approach to the development of his new game, Faraway. It is “a one button game, quite the opposite of Eliss’ multi-touch extravaganza,” says Thirion. The player controls a shooting star in an infinite, procedurally generated world.

“It’s a skill-based game, a little puzzle-ey, a little about travel and exploration, but also with space for the player to be creative,” he says. “Like Eliss, code, design, music and sound is all tied together, but I took the audio part a step further. The song playing, and how it sounds, depends on where you are, and the sound effects are notes in harmony with what’s playing. So it feels much more like one interconnected piece, a living thing.”

Faraway will arrive on an App Store very different to the one Eliss encountered three years ago. What once discouraged Thirion from pursuing development is slowly starting to happen again. App Store studios are getting bigger, budgets are rising, and that initial flush of successful solo projects is fading a little.

The App Store will mature differently to console gaming, though. Its marketplace might be merciless, but it is broader and more accessible to those looking to follow the path that Thirion’s idols Eric Chahi and Jordan Mechner once took. Green-lighting and focus-testing can never create the same sense of authorship, of a peek into an alternate universe of one man’s creation. They might be the product of a narrow vision and personal peculiarities, but the work of the auteur ultimately offers a more human experience.