The iPhone's first gaming mega hit is getting a sequel, but perhaps more interesting is what the man behind Trism and now Trism 2 has been doing for the last four-and-a-half years.
Steve Demeter became an overnight media darling in 2008 when Trism, a game he created in his spare time while working as a software designer for automated teller machines, became one of the iPhone's first break-out video game hits.
Released in July with the launch of the iPhone's App Store, Trism brought in $250,000 in its first two months. Demeter was suddenly inundated with fan emails, interview requests and lots of money. And the whole thing kicked off with a surprise call from Steve Jobs, who Demeter said personally came to him and asked if he was prepared for Apple to use his game to help sell people on the App Store.
"The press was very disorienting. I was never a popular guy in high school," Demeter told me during a meeting at the Game Developers Conference last week. "I didn't know how to handle it. I retreated."
And he could afford to. While Demeter declined to say exactly how much the game earned him, he did tell me that he sold about 3 million copies. The game, which initially sold for $5, is now $3.
"I traveled for a year and a half and thought about what I should do," he said. "It felt like I had no purpose, I was just traveling."
After a lifetime of living paycheck to paycheck and then the good fortune to be able to retire for the rest of his life, Demeter came to the sudden realization that given the opportunity to do anything, what he loved to do was make games.
"I got very depressed and then I realized I wanted to make games," he said. "It's what I was meant to do."
In the spring of 2010, Demeter decided to get back into game development through the studio he created out of Trism's success: Demiforce.
Trism 2, Demiforce's next game, isn't as direct a sequel to Trism as the straight-forward name implies.
"I wanted to do something very specific," he said. "I had a chance to make a game that had triple the money but still retained an indie sensibility."
Trism 2 takes the eponymous trisms, the colorful tiles from the initial puzzle game, and anthropomorphises them. It then delivers the enlivened trism to a roguelike role-playing backdrop that is powered by battles fought using an upgraded take on the classic Trism puzzle game.
Demeter says the game was inspired by games like Candy Crush and Chrono Trigger and that it seeks a Metroidvania gameplay style, allowing players to roam the land looking for battles.
The game is broken down into three modes and packed with an impressive array of features that neatly push the premise forward using a collective of innovative social and payment approaches.
The plan is for the game to be released as free-to-play, with players either earning points to unlock power-ups that are used in the game's battles and while exploring the map. Players can also use cash to buy items in the game. Demeter is very aware of the negative connotations free-to-play has for many gamers, so he's worked in a couple of clever safeguards. Because the game will feature leaderboards, and lean heavily on them for competition, those who pay to unlock items won't be able to participate in the same leaderboard. They'll have their own.
Demeter said he also plans to include the ability to unlock the entire game for a single price, essentially instantly converting it from free-to-play, to paid, and removing the delay caused by dying in a game.
Trism 2's three gameplay modes are story, action and battle. In the story mode, players work their way around a map, while a narrative unfolds. Whenever they run into an encounter they are pushed into a Trism match. The action mode drops players into a story-free proceduraly-generated tower. Players have to try to fight their way to the top without dying to receive a reward. The final mode is battle and drops two players into a little Trism tournament. Gamers take turns playing through levels to see who can get the highest score, while avoiding being knocked out.
The core mechanics of Trism 2 battles are very similar to Trism. Players swipe the screen and tilt the phone in order to match up like-colored trisms and clear the shapes. A player dies when a hexel, a little creature that behaves a bit like the original Trism's bombs, explodes. Where Trism's bombs had a countdown timer, the hexels have a life meter.
The game also now features a power-up rack that appears at the bottom of the puzzle screen during matches. Players drag the power-up onto the board during matching to activate them and they can have both positive and negative effects. The power-ups impact on a game changes depending on the setting, which is dependent on where you entered a match. So if you trigger a battle in a forest, for example, you'll start the match on a forest board and the things power-ups do are tied to that.
The power-ups can also be combined to create new effects, Demeter said.
During our meeting, Demeter gave me a chance to try an early version of the game. It felt familiar, but instantly more robust, not just because the results of your puzzle matches have consequences, but because the gameplay becomes much more complex when you can modify the way a match behaves with power-ups and combo power-ups.
A green thumb power-up, for instance, causes holes in the board caused by cleared trism to slowly turn into a plant and flower over a number of turns. If a player can stay alive long enough, those flowers turn into bonus points. A stormfront power-up, played with a green thumb, would cause growth to speed up and also bring in rolling storms that wash away the dangerous hexels.
I had a chance to check out all three modes of Trism 2 and found the game to feel a bit like a Trism version of Puzzle Quest, but with a much bigger departure from the core puzzle mechanics.
Demeter said he wants the power-ups, which are still a work in progress, to feel balanced, sort of like the fighters in Street Fighter. He wants players to spend time devising tactics for building out their rack of power-ups before a match.
"The first game was much more about luck," he said.
The game is designed to be driven more by the matches then the story, and an inherent sense of competition.
One of the coolest things Demeter explained was the game's ability to save replays of matches and tie them both to a player's personal account, which can then be shared out socially on Facebook, for instance, and to the public leaderboard. The idea is that when leafing through the leaderboard, a player can tap on a high score and instantly watch the puzzle play-through.
"You can watch the best matches a player had, or matches on leaderboards," he said. And the more views your replays get, the more points you earn to spend in the game to unlock items.
Gamers take on the role of a trism when they start the game and that character can be customized as you play. Customization includes suits, which don't impact gameplay, and accessories which do. So a player can pay to dress up in a Steve Jobs suit (with a portion of the proceeds currently earmarked for the American Cancer Society) or as a frog or in a Reddit-inspired dapper suit. Or players can equip items like a feather, for instance, which allows you to walk over barriers on maps.
Trisms also level up. As you go through the levels you unlock new items and the ability to use different power-ups.
Demeter doesn't have a hard release date for the game yet, which is coming to the iPhone and iPad, but said he hopes it will release this summer.
Days after our interview, Demeter emailed me. During our GDC interview there was one question he couldn't answer for me: What was that one moment in his life when he decided he needed to return to game development. At the time he said it was when he hit "rock bottom."
Initially Demeter declined to talk about that low, but days after our interview, he emailed me to say that he had been thinking a lot about my question and had an answer.
"It was at a party I was invited to back in 2010," he wrote. "Everyone there was either a multimillionaire entrepreneur or a social climber. The people with money were the centerpieces of the party, having their egos stroked repeatedly. I could tell by the way the climbers were talking to me that I was being groomed for this kind of social life. The only things they wanted to talk about were Trism and my next venture. Whenever I would try to talk about anything else, like my charity work, their eyes would glass over. I had been seeking this kind of success for years, but after partying like this for a year, I found it to be incredibly empty. It was a long process to pull myself out of that, but I eventually found purpose in creating a new game, away from all the attention and hype. I might not ever again lead as glamorous a life as that, but I feel I have had quite enough popularity for one lifetime."
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