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WWDC 2010: In the Trenches with Thunder Game Works

Thunder Game Works kindly came by to meet up with us this week at WWDC, and Michael Taylor and Kris Jones of the company behind the popular Trenches iPhone game. They shared some insight about what they saw this week, offered us a chance to see concepts of the iPad version and check out a brand new title they're working on. What we saw was pretty impressive -- Trenches is a well-polished take on the castle assault genre, combining fun WWII-style troops and weapons with real-time line-drawing strategy. And Thunder is not only learning as they go, but seems very committed to taking their successful title and turning it into a full-fledged franchise on Apple's iDevices.

The main game is on sale right now for 99 cents, and there's a free version (with some "training" features) also available. Between the two versions, the company has seen over 1.5 million installs of the game. Still, when the iPad came along, they had to think hard about whether or not they wanted to bring the game over. "We were very cagey about whether or not we wanted to go to the iPad," Taylor told me.

Eventually, of course, they decided to go ahead and create Trenches HD, and while the game is still in development, I got to see some art designs and the interface, which looked very different from the iPhone version. For one thing, the UI has a lot more room to breathe, and as a result, Thunder was able to put more information across the top of the screen. They created a sort of draggable minimap to let the player not only see what was happening across the map, but quickly move the main view from one side to the other. And they also set up an "action feed" -- a list of text alerts that lets the player know when a major character has arrived or been killed.

The main game area itself is much bigger, which Taylor said allows for a little more "strategy in flanking maneuvers." A little extra space on the screen opens up the Z-axis, which means you can direct soldiers not just forward and back on the map, but actually "in" and "out" of the iPad's screen, opening up a few more "real-time tactical" options. Thunder wants the eventual iPad version to be a very "iPad-specific experience," so while fans of the iPhone game will still find the same gameplay, they hope it'll be expanded in both view and depth.

Before the iPad version comes out, however, they had another title to show off. Stenches is another game in the Trenches franchise based on a very popular level in the original Trenches game. Finishing the campaign in that game would unlock a level based on the player fighting off a zombie horde, and that gameplay has proven so popular that Thunder is putting it together as a complete game on its own. I did get to see this one in action, and while the gameplay itself was similar to Trenches (this one offers its own campaign, skirmish, and multiplayer modes as well), the enemies are what make the difference. The undead come towards your soldiers in waves, and zombie units are mixed up with the common infected, as you fight through waves and up to higher and higher distances. Fans of Trenches, especially the zombie level, will love it, and even new players might be interested in the differences of fighting undead enemies rather than opposing soldiers.

Plus, the new Stenches game will be set at US$1.99 when it arrives in early July (per App Store approval, of course). I told the guys that the polish in their games probably meant they could charge even more than that, and while they were flattered, Taylor told me that his company does "think our games are $2.99 quality," but that they'd rather lower the price just a bit and go for a bigger audience. The iPad version of Trenches will be a little different -- while they haven't landed on a price for that yet, they say they're definitely aiming higher than $2.99 -- that will hopefully be a premium experience that will come with a price to match.

I also asked Thunder what they thought of iOS 4.0 and GameCenter at the show, and while of course specifics on the new features are still under NDA for developers, Taylor told me the company was very excited about what they were seeing. While he was a bit concerned about leaving some of their players behind with the 4.0 upgrade lacking features on older phones, in general they were excited about what 4.0 would bring. "The changes and what's possible," Taylor said, "are going to significantly challenge all developers."

Thunder's also excited about GameCenter, and does plan to try and implement it in their games, but Taylor says the process would be "measured in weeks rather than days" -- while Apple's social gaming system has a lot of good things going for it, it's still very basic in functionality. But it will be nice, said Taylor, to have Apple tie their social network to users' iTunes accounts, so that every single user is a potential candidate for GameCenter functionality. "Now everybody is one spot, and that's fantastic," he told me.

Thunder's not spreading itself very thin -- most of the company's plans are focused on Trenches and its upgrades and spinoffs. But the company does seem very responsive to what customers want, and very interested in trying to take full advantage of the hardware and platform that Apple has offered up. Stenches will be a nice treat for the game's fans on the iPhone, and it'll be very interesting to eventually see the full iPad version of Trenches HD, and how they can expand that experience for Apple's bigger device. We'll let you know when the new apps hit the store.

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