These days video games come in all shapes and sizes. Traditional home consoles like Wii U and Xbox One are still churning out titles, handheld devices such as Nintendo 3DS and Playstation Vita can be found in every school kid’s backpack, phones and tablets come with games pre-installed and browser games playable on laptops and PCs can be found all over the internet. Even classic arcade machines, such as those found at Iowa City’s very own Forbidden Planet and Cedar Rapids’ Quarter Barrel, are experiencing something of a renaissance. And at the same time, the people making those games have become more eclectic. Gone are the days when the knowledge and resources needed to make video games were available only to large companies with boatloads of capital. No doubt Nintendo and SEGA are still making games, but so is your next door neighbor.
In May 2014 the Iowa City Public Library introduced what they referred to as “an interactive touch table for its Children’s Room,” and called on game developers to “bring it to life.” They were looking for collaborative, multi-touch games targeting the 6-12 year age range. Mabel the Table, as the ICPL lovingly calls this exhibit, caught the attention of Iowa City game development team Virtually Competent, who went on to make a game specifically designed for the table called Shipshape. Much to the excitement of Eric Neuhaus, lead programmer at Virtually Competent, the ICPL later approached them with a paid offer to make a musically oriented game for their Music is the Word program.
Neuhaus and team were accustomed to the tight deadlines typically found in game jams, events where games are created in a matter of days. When the ICPL offered them a six month development cycle, they had, he said, the “ability to invest time into multiple prototypes and iterate on art/music assets to ensure all development decisions were made with care instead of haste.” As a result, Tune It Up!, released in January 2016, is Virtually Competent’s most curated game to date.
According to Reid Turner, musician for Virtually Competent, the biggest challenge was making something that would truly appeal to children. Morgan Reeves, Children’s Librarian at the ICPL, says that the response to Tune It Up! has been “very positive for both kids and staff.” The library’s computers, and Mabel the Table, are often children’s first stop, says Reeves.
Tune It Up! calls on players to create short musical compositions by dragging and dropping notes across a touch screen. As Neuhaus puts it, the game is “less focused on traditional game mechanics and more focused on allowing players to be creative at their own pace.” The game includes several different themes and a variety of random events, such as a whack-a-mole mini game. In addition to the Iowa City Public Library, the game is also playable on Windows App Store.
Iowa City may not be an indie game development mecca just yet, but there is an undeniable spark lighting the Corridor. In an effort, Neuhaus says, to “bring together the tech scene in Iowa City,” MetaCommunications has offered a space to host a game development Meetup. A co-organizer of the group Iowa City Game Dev, Neuhaus says, “We focus primarily on giving local devs time to show off their work and provide beginner-friendly tutorials.” Neuhaus believes that game development suffers from a stigma — tech savvy folks assume it’s unprofitable, and artistic folks assume it requires too much tech savvy, resulting in neither group stepping up. “My hope,” he says, speaking of the ways that the Meetup can galvanize designers, “is that, by helping amplify all the cool stuff that’s happening quietly in Iowa City, I can paint a more comprehensive picture of how those assumptions aren’t entirely true.”