October 18, 2012 by Xiaoxin
Where the Whale Stuck on the Trail
Whale Trail was not supposed to be an expensive gamble in the first place for London-based digital design studio Ustwo. The studio was expecting this big-eyed whale named Willow to turn into a delighting and relaxing mobile game that would be maniacally loved by its players. Who would say no to this precious creature that flies along a rainbow trail, swallows colorful bubbles and smashes grumpy clouds? However, as the devotion of money and energy to the game increased to an unprecedented level yet, to the team’s dismay, it still failed to amaze the market for long enough, Ustwo sought to force upgrade the game without recognizing the real problem of the game. Even though natural control and pleasant graphic granted the game an impressive blast when first published, the simultaneous lack of game narration, variability and identification with the character made the burning hit unsustainable.
Early in an interview featuring one of the studio founders Matt Mills on Develop Online, Mills introduced the game as a product “with attitude” and “without pressure.” Whale Trail is the final product of Ustwo’s project “Content with Attitude,” a playful “self-indulgent vanity” (Freeman) project that enjoys an enviable budget. It was initiated without the emergent need to make a fat profit for the company. It was also the first game that the studio attempted to develop with full passion, and was more for fun and experience for the staffs than for profit. If it had succeeded, Ustwo would be benefited from an expansive exposure on digital medias, a larger client market, and a sustainable income in the long run. If unfortunately the reverse happened, the company could still easily survive on its primary operation of building digital application user interface for its commercial clients.
With that being said, this self-pleasing project eventually drew 150-thousand-pound, around 242-thousand-dollar, worth of manpower to develop. To the team’s greatest proud, a game with intuitive control, straightforward gameplay design and refreshing graphics in high resolution Technicolor was developed. One finger is enough to master the game: tap and hold for the whale to swoop upward, and release the tap for it to dive down. The goal of the game is also incredibly simple: collect every colorful thing and avoid anything in black and grey. It takes the player only a few try-outs for the game mechanic to become a player’s intuition. For another, the graphics of the game was very deliberately designed. The color selection must have been a tedious process in order to construct a full-screen detailed rainbow world of three layers using only colors and abstract patterns: the colors were not even repetitive, discordant, or too dazzling. Not withstanding its visual richness, Whale Trail is a solo game that requires a lot of player attention for the gameplay to last. Players are generally too occupied with the first layer of graphics, on which the gameplay happens, to notice the marvelous variation in the bottom two layers. Whale Trail’s graphic splendor is impressive, but since its scrutinized details do not enhance the gameplay experience exponentially, the splendor is not enough to grasp attention from the game market for a considerably long period of time.
James Newman argued in his essay “The Myth of Ergotic Gameplay” that the pleasures of videogame play come rather from kinaesthetic than visual(Newman.) If this is the case, players then are not getting too much pleasure from Whale Trail. Despite its complexity in color, simplicity prevails in Whale Trail’s algorithm almost to an extent that is too much. The game does not support any mechanic tricks other than swooping up, diving down or smashing clothes. Different levels of the game are essentially the same gameplay placed in different color-themed worlds. The freedom the developing team of Whale Trail enjoyed failed to boost the team’s creativity to come up with a ground-breaking algorithm. Furthermore, it is not easy for players to identify with the character Willow and to build further emotion attachment to the character. A flying whale is not a simulation of actual event in real life, and carries no further ideology meaning that a player could possibility relate with. Players thus have to first struggle to find a connection to the game in order to come up with what Jesper Juul describes as a goal that the player “conceivably want to work for.” For “not dying” is too common a goal that does not at all distinguish Whale Trail from any other games. Last but not least, the narrative of the gameplay does not contain an objective that could possibly lead to an ending. Not to mention the game’s narrative mainly lies in the lyrics of its wonderful theme song, which is totally muted from the melody and thus unheard during the gameplay. Players, rather than Whale Trail itself, have to take a bigger share of initiative in actively hunting for a sustainable pleasure from the game.
In fact, Whale Trail hit 188 thousand in sales before the release of its update in early May, a number that is already satisfying to a lot of independent game developers. Nevertheless, Mills was expecting the game to stick on the App Store’s billboard just as Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja did. Ustwo’s attitude has gradually drifted from a modest, playful position to an eager and frustrated one. More money was bumped into the project afterwards to update the game. However, adding an in-game currency or increasing the difficulty in the game does not give strong enough a hand to push Whale Trail back to the top of the best games list: it simply does not solve the weakness of the game. It may be time for Whale Trail to admit that it is not the perfect game, then leave it and set sail from there.
Newman, James. “The Myth of the Ergotic Videogame: Some thoughts on player-character relationships.” Game Studies 2.1 (July 2002) : n. pag. October 2012.
Juul, Jesper. “Games Telling stories? – A brief note on games and narratives.” Game Studies 1.1 (July 2001) : n. pag. October 2012.
Freeman, Will. “Whale Trail: The Inside Story.” Develop Online. Develop, December 20. 2011. October 2012.