Weekly iCross: The Fish Dies in the End

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I was going to try to come up with some sort of clever title for this week’s post, but how can I possibly top the name of the game itself? “The Fish Dies in the End” Rarely does a game put forth such brutal honesty right there on the title screen. The game’s developer, who goes by “bandidoquest” on the forums, recently posted that the game was finally finished and available. It was his first game, and he was looking for feedback. I am, if nothing else, chock full of feedback.

After the jump: If it’s feedback you want, then feedback you shall have!

The Fish Dies in the End has you controlling a little goldfish as it swims from left to right. Touch the screen to go up, let go to sink down. Dodge other fish and obstacles, collect pearls, and see how far you can go. Simple. It’s the kind of simple game that’s appropriate for the $0.99 price and the pick-up-and-play nature of phone gaming. But it could use some improvement. Animation is a little “stiff” and the fish’s tail could move in a more pronounced fashion. Some bubbles or a little simple 2D parallax scrolling would enhance the feeling of speeding underwater. Those are the obvious cosmetic things, but it’s hardly a shrewd look at what would make the game better. Since this is bandidoquest’s freshman effort, I’m not going to review it as I usually would. Instead, consider this a critique…what Hollywood would call “notes”:

1. There needs to be a better connection between the player’s control actions and what happens on screen. Game developers call this a “feedback loop.” Yes, it’s obvious that the fish goes up when I touch the screen, but there needs to be more to the feedback loop than this. Make the fish’s body angle upwards. Make his tail flip faster. I need to feel more connected to my little fishy.

2. The iPhone games that keep you coming back aren’t the ones that simply ask you to beat your previous best score. A little persistence can go a long way. Maybe I could earn points to customize my fish’s colors. Maybe I could eat enough of a special food over the course of a few games to upgrade my fish’s life to 4 hearts, then 5, to help me play longer.

3. Mix up the game a little. Currently, all you ask me do is dodge stuff and maybe grab a pearl (which appears non-functional). Occasionally there will be a shark attack wave, which asks me to dodge a little more carefully. How about making the pearls do something, like rocket you forward for a second or two? Along with some bubbles, a sped-up fin flapping animation, and a “rush of water” sound effect, it could add a nice dynamic element to the game. Maybe pearls aren’t used when you collect them, but rather the player taps the screen with two fingers to activate the boost. Maybe during the short boost you actually kill the, and you can get points for taking out sharks. There’s a lot that could be done without actually adding to the game’s complexity.

4. Inject a little personality. A game like Tiny Wings is great not just because it has simple touch-to-dive gameplay, but because the bird gives little chirps when you do a perfect swoop. I’ve played the game 100 times and I still smile every time I finish an island, do my big jump, and the bird lets out its joyous “Woohoooooo!” Visibly fill the fish with dread when there’s a shark attack, and make him look and sound relieved when he gets through it. Make me fear for my fish’s life a little more — put in a little pain sounds and a bit of blood in the water when he takes damage. I want to cheer for this little guy!

I think it’s going to take a lot of work to make The Fish Dies in the End a big hit, but it can be done. The core concept is proven by games like Tiny Wings, but getting all the little things just right can take a lot of tweaking and trail-and-error. Achieving that nebulous “feel” where a game simply connects with players is the culmination of dozens of tiny factors that go largely unnoticed, and it’s exactly what The Fish Dies in the End is missing. Godspeed, bandidtoquest, and I look forward to playing an updated version.

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