Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Indie Innovation Spotlight – Orbz

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 22, 2012

This week’s spotlight is on another indie game that is a personal favorite of mine, an older title that I encountered early in my own discoveries of the whole “indie scene” (that term still cracks me up).

I discovered this game while knee-deep in the development of  Void War. I’d made the mistake of not taking a serious look at what the newly-dubbed “indie games” (the term “shareware” was still popular then) community had to offer.

My first forays into indie games didn’t impress me. I encountered a lot of amateurish, half-finished junk out there (still a problem with indie games). But then I found some truly excellent titles that made me excited about the indies. These games were professional, polished, and a lot of fun to play. Orbz was one of them, and quickly became a favorite. It also showed me that innovation doesn’t necessarily come from adding new ideas, but sometimes from stripping a well-known concept down into it’s most basic parts and going wild with unencumbered simplicity. I think it deserves a lot of the credit for turning me into an “indie evangelist.”

Orbz – by 21-6 productions

What Is It?
“Be the ball!” was the advertising slogan for Orbz when it was released circa 2002. It took the basic premise of most ball games – throwing or launching a ball and hitting a target – and made that the core of the game. Rather than playing  someone doing the hitting, throwing, or kicking a ball around, Orbz abstracts that aspect out to a simple 3D game where the ball itself is the player character.

You launch yourself into the air, hitting targets, ricocheting off of barriers and targets, and hitting power-ups to change your behavior. You can only control your ball only when it is at rest on the ground (or, sometimes, under water). Much like golf, you must play yourself “where you lay.” Good play requires not only accurate shots against high-value targets, but also making sure you that you bounce off and land in a reasonable spot to make another shot, so you can  maximize the bonus for consecutive hits and avoid wasting a shot (and time) to reposition yourself.

You also compete against other balls. These may be AI-controlled, or can be against human players on a server. Your task is to score the most points possible within a given time, though other balls may be consuming targets and forcing changes in your plans and pattern. Each level is themed, providing some variety to the world. And there’s a nice array of canned taunts to send your human opponents.

This isn’t a game you’ll play in hours-long marathons, but it’s a great “casual” game for just playing a quick 5-minute level or three for a break in the day.

What Makes It Stand Out?
Orbz focuses on the purity of launching a projectile. And that is a lot of fun. Gravity and environmental conditions are a factor. It’s kinda like a game of miniature golf mixed with HORSE (a basketball practice game, for those who don’t know) with a time limit and power-ups. While at rest, you simply focus on aiming and the force of your shot. While it doesn’t sound like much, it’s actually a lot of fun.

What really works for me is the stripping down of gameplay into it’s simplest form, and then really maximizing the fun factor of these simplest elements. In this case, it’s aiming and shooting with appropriate force in a race against the clock. All the other game elements go back to serve this basic mechanic.

Aiming and launching yourself with appropriate force to hit near and medium-range targets is actually a pretty easy skill to master, even at speed. But planning your targets so that you can have a continuous, high-scoring run, angling yourself just right so you’ll bounce and roll to a useful location after the hit, sometimes working out a double-scoring hit or extreme long-range shots, taking best advantage of the power-ups, and competing with the other human or virtual players is where things get tricky. But all these things are simply advanced uses of the same, straightforward skill.

The game is a good lesson in indie game design, IMO. With a simple scope, it was reasonable for a small team to develop and polish in a short period of time. As I understand, it did pretty well commercially as well. I’d probably do a lot better as an indie if I remembered its example.

Other Notes

I probably owe this game a lot. In addition to being one of the games that got me excited about the potential of the indie games scene, it may also be a significant reason why – good or bad – my most recent game, Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon, was created with the Torque Game Engine. Not that my game has any similarity to Orbz from a gameplay perspective, but it made me take a serious look at the engine.

Unfortunately, Orbz seems to be one of the victims of my oft-predicted DRM doom of games. I’m sad that it had to happen to an indie game. My installation code no longer seems to work for some reason, and contacting the publisher (GarageGames) about the problem yielded no response. So if you’d like to try it, you’ll be limited to the 60-minute demo – unless somehow new purchase codes work while the old ones do not.  But it’ll be a fun sixty minutes!

Filed Under: Indie Innovation Spotlight - Comments: 12 Comments to Read

  • Dave Myers said,

    Hey, I made that! 😉

    You really did nail what we were trying to do on Orbz – KISS. And really, any game you can play with just the mouse is good – it means you can drink your favorite beverage with the other hand.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Hi Dave! I was wondering if you’d see this.

    Your comment reminds me of what we called the “three button interface” at SingleTrac for some more mass-markety (before there was “casual”) games we did. Our focus was on making the entire game playable with only three buttons. My boss called it the “three beer interface” – you should still be able to play it effectively after three beers.

    Anyway, you already knew this, but I loved your game. Russell Carroll (formerly of GameTunnel, and I guess now still of Reflexive Entertainment – we haven’t chatted lately) spoke highly of it as well when we were talking about the indie games that inspired us.

  • Joshua Smyth said,

    That game in multiplayer = heaps of fun!

  • Albert1 said,

    In the first days of Apocalypse Cow/Frayed Knights, weren’t you using MilkShape 3D? Did you drop it in favor of Blender or you went offsourcing Frayed Knights’ graphics? A couple of skeletons reminds me some low price models I saw once on a site, but maybe I’m wrong.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I used MilkShape for Void War. I think I’d switched to Blender by the time I started making Apocalypse Cow, but it really depended upon who was doing the artwork. But for my own stuff, I used Blender. Several of the creatures in Frayed Knights were licensed content from third parties – either as-is or modified.

  • Albert1 said,

    You mentioned Game Tunnel, the old one. Those were the days! I think that back then, putting the “Game Tunnel Award” logo on your product’s homepage was a seal of quality. These days I think there’s no site that converges as much audience on indie games as GT did in 2004-2006!
    Very interesting were the articles too, especially those from McDonald!

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, that was a very interesting era — when indie was starting to gain some traction, but the ‘casual game’ phenomenon – which was largely driven by indies – was really starting to garner (or hog up) attention. Shortly thereafter, for a couple of years people thought “indie” and “casual” was synonymous – and Game Tunnel was one of the sites desperately trying to illustrate the difference.

  • Albert1 said,

    I think that, as far as innovation, indie games went the wrong way; this, in my opinion, is in no small part due to the term you find so exciting 😉 : indie.
    Let me elaborate this concept a bit.
    In the days of Orbz, indie/shareware games were usually revamped clones of old games i.e. side scrollers, space shooters, wall breakers, etc.
    This was due to the fact that the majors largerly neglected those niches, niches that still had some followers. Also, in those days an indie developer, with lot of hard work and some talent, was able to ship these little games with graphics on the level of AAA titles of 3-4 years before. I remember reading on Game Tunnel an interview to Scott Tunelius, in which he explained he did all the coding and the art of his pet project Kingdom Elemental. Around the 2006, however, the market had been saturated of arkanoid clones, etc, the social network phenomenon started to damage the entire game industry as much as MTV did in 1981, and soon after the crisis stroke badly lot of people, included ye olde lil indie companies. Game Tunnel, the most autoritative indie voice, turned off. It’s around 2007-8 that, in my opinion, the indie way showed its ill-fated nature. Lot of indie devoted sites started to appear, in many ways inferior to Game Tunnel, but one aspect was particularly bad: in their reviews fun wasn’t a key factor anymore, it was the message conveyed by the game. The message. It almost immediately reminded me all those elitist blah-blah that left-minded intellectuals make on those film d’essay, that are mostly boring, but they say it doesn’t mind, because movies aren’t made to entertain, they are made to educate, to spread social views! Indie, contrary to shareware, is a term so pretentious it didn’t take too long to attract that kind of people. And here we are: these days lot of indie games are like those abstract paintings: shit I could do by myself, but you can’t say that, because it’s not important they aren’t fun – look at those stilish drawings, so cool, so artistic. I read a review in which the reviewer suggested to buy an indie game because of its intimistic message… what?! Am I the only left who consider fun the first and most important aspect of game, indie or not?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I’m not sure I agree with you, but I’m also not sure I could disprove it either. It’s quite possible you are right. I guess the term is constantly getting hijacked. But the same would be true of ANY term (at least any term that sounds cool). It’s just human behavior.

    But I do see that as being only one side of indie – perhaps more visible for the people trying to provide it with validation and an aura of “cool” – but even the “indie darlings” are usually pretty fun games. Super Meat Boy wasn’t my thing, but even as a non-fan of these kinds of games, I still had fun playing it for a while.

    And my previous spotlight – AAaaAaAAaaaAaaAAaaAAA! – is fairly current and as far as I can tell quite successful. And it’s “fun factor” (for me) just about pegs the needle. So I don’t worry too much about certain snobby types doing too much damage to indies in general. Even the guy who did “Passage” (which was very much a “message” and “thinking” game, not really a “fun” game, though I did think it was very interesting) went on to make “Inside a Star-Filled Sky” – another innovative game I put a spotlight on, which was still a pretty fun game in it’s own right.

    So yeah, I’m a little uncomfortable with some of the ways things have changed over the last decade… but I think in some cases it’s just natural that some bad is going to come with the good.

  • Albert1 said,

    I know it’s not related with this post, but do you think there’s still place for 3D indie games using OpenGL fixed pipeline?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yes, so long as there’s a decent install base out there (I am always worried about Microsoft finally succeeding in killing OpenGL under the next version of Windows). I mean, there’s obviously still room for 2D games with 8-bit style graphics.

  • Albert1 said,

    I’m worried too about the fate of OpenGL. Sometimes I wonder whether it wouldn’t be right to bring back software rendering, at least for indie games – after all, I think that even a 5 years old CPU has enough horse power to run a simple 32 bit renderer with a bunch of cool effects. Unreal had 16 bit rendering with fog, reflections, etc before it switched to D3D, and all of this ran on 1998 high-end hardware.