Marathon®: iPad

Posted by urk at 6/23/2011 11:00 AM PDT []

Daniel Blezek is a pretty amazing character. You should get to know him. Not only has he devoted some of his precious personal cycles to bringing the Marathon experience to the iPad, it turns out - like most players of Bungie games - he's quite an interesting dude.

To learn more about the newly appointed Marathon Man, and to set the stage for the recently released Marathon for iPad, scan the terminal text below and conceive of the rebirth of a world.

Q. Who are you and what do you do?

A. Multiple answers to that question, so in no particular order... I am what was once called a "good family man." My beautiful wife and I are coming up on 16 years, and we have five beautiful children (from 12 to 3 months), and an affectionate dog named Quin. The gaggle of us love the outdoors, especially hiking and canoeing. We're going to Yellowstone for a family vacation this summer, and the older two boys and I are canoeing in Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area in the fall. During the day, my wife homeschools the kids and takes them on various adventures, while I put my time into developing GPU-based image analysis/processing algorithms for a large medical center. That keeps us all very busy. Nights and weekends turn me into an indie iOS game developer.

Q. Why did you decide to port Marathon to iOS?

A. I ask myself that all the time! I got started doing iOS development in my day job. I've always been intrigued with game development, and have written several different games for a variety of platforms, so naturally, I tried my hand on the iOS, porting a game with a friend. That lead to poking around with other projects. When the iPad was announced, I was between night-time projects, and had been playing through the Marathon trilogy. Playing with the iPad got me thinking about playing Marathon on the platform, and so the project was born.

Q. How long have you been working on this project?

A. "Forever" according to my wife. The project started not long after the iPad was released in 2010. Schedule slip has been the hallmark. Originally, release was scheduled for fall 2010... Since I tend to be a good starter, but poor finisher, I've been making myself stick with it. The carrot at the end is a shopping spree on the App Store!

Editor's Note: Uh, you're not expecting us to foot the bill, are you? ;) - Urk

Q. What were the biggest challenges you ran into during development?

A. The Marathon source code was released to the open source community in 1999 and has had 12 years of open source development. Digging into this code base to make the port happen and follow the iOS conventions was a huge effort. On top of that, the code depended on a wide range of libraries that also needed to be ported to the iOS. It was months before the code even built without errors.

Once the code compiled, it had to start looking like a proper iOS application. Many of the menus harkened back to the original Mac OS 9 and had been augmented or replaced over time, and had to be replaced again using iOS constructs. I'm fairly happy with the results. One example is the main menu. The beta testers didn't like the small hotzones around buttons. These ended up being replaced with large buttons, and allowed me to limit functionality (the iOS has no concept of "quit").

Performance and iPad device constraints reared their ugly head early on. I made a mistake in not running the app on the device from the beginning, because it's much faster to develop in the simulator. Going from 30 FPS to 3 is disheartening to say the least. And, unlike modern games that use 3D models, Marathon is all sprite based, requiring all the sprites to be pre-loaded which ate up all available memory and crashed the app mid way through the first level. Not fun. I ended up being quite intimate with Instruments. After extensive tweaking, the games run at a consistent 30 FPS.

Q. How did you move traditional keyboard and mouse controls to iOS?

A. This is a tough problem. Like Doom, Marathon was originally intended to be played with keyboard only controls. So you had to do these amazing finger gymnastics to strafe, look and shoot at the same time. Of course, with experience you could happily frag your buddies (sorry Kirby!). Using the mouse helped a lot. Now game console controllers offer so many buttons it's a bit overwhelming. Because most iOS games are played with two thumbs, the iPad is a bit of a throw back. When you need controls to move, shoot, change weapons, switch to automap, etc... two thumbs quickly reach their limits. With a lot of feedback from the beta testers (thanks guys!) and time spent watching people play, the controls finally have a reasonable setup. Lack of tactile feedback on buttons and joysticks makes for frustration when the Pfhor nail you because your finger hit the wrong spot.

There are still a lot of controls. For now, there is a left thumb virtual joystick for moving, the "action" button is tucked under. On the right thumb, you have primary and secondary fire buttons; the weapon switch buttons are at the bottom. There are a few hidden buttons as well. Touching the HUD motion sensor brings up the auto map. The left and right sides of the ammo display switch weapons and the center toggles between the ammo and inventory displays. The original Marathon didn't have an aiming reticule, and by default the iOS version sticks to that, but it can be enabled in the options. There is also an option to tap-to-shoot, but two finger tap for secondary fire didn't make it into the final build. Sorry to the lefties out there, a future release will have adjustable controls!

Q. Any advice for other developers out there looking to get started?

A. Go for it! Apple has blown the doors off the mobile space, there is so much room for opportunity. But being a cautious guy, I wouldn't recommend quitting the day job (I haven't). Marathon has a special place in my heart, so it's not hard to keep working at it, but on a long, solo project like this, the shine does wear off. Stick with it even when the shine is gone. Sam Walton quipped that overnight success takes about twenty years... Hopefully Marathon succeeds before that! I've been building games since the Apple II was new, none of which were worth much, but it was great experience. My father never understood video games and gave me a hard time about dropping so much money on them, but he's been pleased that it led to a solid career. For me, game development has not paid the bills but it's a great hobby!

Q. Anything you'd like to say to players who might pick up and play this bad boy?

A. Never leave a single BoB alive, and watch the back-blast from the SPNKR! Marathon's story and gameplay are outstanding; Durandal's descent into rampancy, his quirky humor and the hidden messages make excellent additions to the old school style. For many, Marathon will invoke a wave of nostalgia; for others, this will be the first experience with the seminal Mac FPS. I hope all players appreciate Bungie's commitment to their fans. It's not every company who would support bringing a 16 year old game back to life!

Oh, perhaps we should have told Daniel about our fees. We get an 80 percent slice of all sales. Anyone know what 0 multiplied by 80 is? While we work on the math, and you wait for Marathon to go live in the App Store (we'll let you know as soon as it drops), you can click on any of the images below to browse all the other content we have on tap for our 20th Anniversary festivities.