Tak Fung proves that, if nothing else, the games industry has never lost its sense of scale. Having worked for major players like EA, Lionhead Studios and Sony, he now runs Studio FungFung, his own micro-developer, turning out stylish and colourful iPhone games.
In other words, in the space of a decade he’s seen game development from every angle, moving from big budget projects like Fable, which involve huge teams and massive timescales, to working for himself and completing three games in the space of ten months.
Earlier this week, to mark the release of his latest game, MiniSquadron Special Edition, I caught up with Fung to discuss his recent work.
Cartoonish, polished, and blessed with a Casio-classical soundtrack that calls to mind the friendliest elements of A Clockwork Orange, MiniSquadron is a beautiful side-scrolling aerial combat game. "I wanted to put out a high quality, feature-rich and fun game with serious playability," says Fung. "And I wanted that collect-em-up feeling with all the different planes available."
The result is best characterised as a blend of Micro Machines and After Burner – perhaps with a little Pokemon thrown in – as players blast a series of buzzy little craft around colorful arenas, taking on waves of enemies and occasional sprinklings of ducks, unlocking new vehicles in the process.
The on-screen controls are springy and responsive, there are plenty of power-ups to experiment with along the way, and Studio FungFung’s extensive "Tak Blitz" PR campaign, focusing on Twitter and YouTube, proved extremely effective. "I can't be more happy with MiniSquadron," admits Fung. "It was critically and commercially successful – and the game had a point to prove. It proved it is always possible to take on the competition if you actually make something good and work hard to put it in front of people."
"With Fox Vs Duck, coming off the back of MiniSquadron, I wanted to try something very different in terms of scope and gameplay," says Fung, which explains why the only thing this minimalist – and rather menacing – tilt-‘em-up shares with his previous game is its sense of refinement.
Fox Vs Duck sees you trying to roll stylized ducks to safety across a pond, avoiding attacks from foxes and carp. While the animals may be neatly abstract, the sense of horror when you mess up and have to watch your charges expire in pretty gouts of deep red blood provides one of the more haunting sights in iPhone gaming.
While it won’t make you as happy as MiniSquadron will, Fox Vs Duck is elegant and rather hypnotic. "As a graphically inclined person I wanted to express something other than typical game art styles," says Fung. "I think Fox Vs Duck was brave enough to have got its own look across, and as a micro-game it was good fun too."
BikiniButts is a product of frustration: a hacked-together white trash masterpiece borne from a spate of fleshy Apps that briefly dominated iTunes’ bestseller lists. "This came about because I wanted to find out first hand how much money you can make by distributing pictures of women in bikinis," laughs Fung when asked about his bizarre shift from clever mini-games to intentionally queasy slide-shows. "As it turns out, that’s a fair bit: it would happily have paid my food costs each month for example, although that would be mostly ramen."
Like the Electric Banana club, don’t look for BikiniButts, because it’s not there any more. "It was taken off the App Store when Apple decided that unless you are already a million dollar empire then you don't get to play in their sandpit," says Fung, adding enigmatically that, "Current attempts to censor the app using pork chops and lamb chops are ongoing."
Studio FungFung’s latest sees the developer moving to the ‘freemium’ model beloved of iPhone publishers like Ngmoco, in which a generous free download is bolstered by micro-transactions. "This is my opportunity to give something back to the fans of MiniSquadron," says Fung. "Essentially – to give them more things to shoot at. The art style was pushed again to be even more colorful and wacky, and I’ve been continuing to build the universe of crazy planes and flying hamsters."
Featuring 50 new aircraft – including helicopters – and two new power-ups, the initial download itself gives you a pair of levels to try out, while in-app purchases allow you to boost the total to eight. "The move to freemium was an easy one," says Fung. "It was simply a good way to automatically tier the pricing of an app for everyone. It is as fair as you can get with pricing, where you have a free demo and a pay-as-much-as-you-want mechanism all rolled into one place."
The shift in the payment model hasn’t damaged the game, either. MiniSquadron Special Edition, with its looser art style – background designs were created by Nils Porrmann and some character design by old Lionhead chum and now Media Molecule artist Rex Crowle on this outing – and swarms of jellyfish and vampires, remains just the kind of thing that makes slogging through the muddled App Store worthwhile.