Feb 13 2011

Throwing Paper Airplanes

This piece has nothing to do with anything I’m working on. :)

I happened to get an iPod Touch for Christmas, and I seem to be using it more as a hand-held gaming device than as an mp3 player. Of course, I still play flash games as well! I’d like to compare and contrast Paper Glider (iOS, Neonplay,2010) to Flight (Flash, Armor Games/Krin,2010) and Paper Plane (Flash,Amnesia/advergame for Microsoft Flight Simulator X,2006).

The idea of making a game out of throwing a paper airplane is not exactly unique. A Google search for ‘Paper Airplane Game’ gets 990k results. Some such as Paper Plane Madness 2 (Flash, Phil Russell, unknown date) use the ‘Cave Flier’ control schema, where pressing a button causes the player’s object to move upwards, else it sinks at a defined rate. Paper Airplane Game (Flash, LittleCity Games, 2005) uses a constant sink rate and the player moves left and right to reach air vents that provide lift. Others such as Classroom Pilot (Flash, developer and date unknown), an advergame for Mead Five-Star notebooks, use a slingshot-type launch, where the player pulls back on the airplane from a defined point and releases it- the power behind the launch being controlled by a spring function.

Paper Glider, Flight, and Paper Plane all attempt to mimic a throwing action and they do so with varying degrees of success. Although I don’t believe any of the games are solving the Navier-Stokes equations in real time, all three games make a reasonable attempt to depict the physics of unpowered flight. In each, the gliders speed up as they pitch over and descend, and slow down as they rise. The oscillating flight paths ‘feel’ right.

Paper Plane instructs the player to grab the airplane, and drag it from left to right. When the player either crosses a red line, or releases his mouse button, the plane is launched into the air and must fly through an office and through a window to the wider world outside. The speed of the drag determines the power of the throw, and the angle is set by it’s direction. The player has no control over the plane after this point.

(Paper Plane, Amnesia, 2006)

In Flight, again the player picks up the airplane by clicking on it, and performs a dragging motion which launches the airplane. Again the speed and direction of the drag sets the power and angle of the throw. After launch, if the player has upgraded his plane he can use engines to speed it up, or control the pitch through the use of his rudder [sic*].

Flight, Armor Games, 2010

Paper Glider is an iOS game, so rather than being played with a mouse it uses a finger swipe to simulate the throw. The power of the throw is set by the speed of the swipe and the angle follows the swipe’s direction. Like Paper Plane, the player must exit an office window, after which he can blow gusts of wind at the plane by tapping on the iDevice. These gusts cause the plane to pitch upward, possibly gaining altitude.

Paper Glider, Neonplay***, 2010

It’s difficult to say which control schema is most effective. Certainly the finger swipe is more intuitive than a fast mouse drag, but of 25 million tracked plays of Paper Glider, in only 25% was the player able to exit the office window. A cheat exists for Paper Plane, which ensures the ability to exit the window but otherwise the target is small enough that the game becomes frustrating rather quickly. Despite several tens of throws in both Flight and Paper Plane, I never really found the drag throw to be comfortable– in most contexts in which I drag with the mouse I tend to move slowly. When a fast drag is appropriate, accuracy normally isn’t very important.

Both Paper Plane and Paper Glider are skill games. Starting from the same initial conditions, the player is allowed to take a certain number of actions. Paper Glider increases the number of allowed actions if the player is successful at the first (throwing the plane), but the amount of wind gusts given is fixed and always occurs at the same point (on exiting the window). Consistent performance on the part of the player should yield consistent results.

Flight does not derive from the skill based games, the designer considered it a variation of the launcher-upgrade games of which Hedgehog Launch (Flash, Armor Games/jmtb02, 2008) or Learn to Fly (Flash, Lightbringer, Unknown Date) could be considered defining examples. In these games the player is not expected to do well at first, but gains points or money to purchase upgrades to their launchers or vehicles in order to continually improve, eventually reaching their goal (putting a hedgehog into space, proving penguins can fly, or completing the story in Flight). As such, they are far less punishing and make greater use of random elements- the collectible stars and paper cranes in flight are randomly generated (in fact, the generation rate can be upgraded.) A single game of flight involves many throws, whereas a single game of Paper Plane or Paper Glider involves a single throw.

Flight’s inclusion of a story** increases its longevity. There is little reason to continue to play Paper Glider after reaching the moon, or Paper Plane after exiting the window. However, all three games are fun and appear to have done well. Paper Glider reached the #1 spot on the UK free apps list in iTunes. Paper Plane claimed 200 million plays as of January 2008. Flight appears to be doing on par with other high-profile games on the Flash portal circuit.

I had originally expected the difference between Flight and Paper Glider to end up mostly owing to Flight being a Flash game, and Paper Glider being an iOS touch based game. However, when considered alongside Paper Plane, it becomes clear that genre considerations cause more significant differences to the way these games are played and perceived than platform ones.

*- Flight gives pitch control after buying the ‘Rudder Control’ upgrade. Control surfaces which affect pitch are called elevators (or when combined with ailerons, elevons).

**- Which I think is resolved poorly. [spoiler]The little girl at the beginning should get to see her mom at the end. Otherwise, what was the point?[/spoiler]

***- I’d like to extend my apologies to Neonplay for using a marketing photo rather than taking a screenshot myself. I don’t know how to screen shot from my iPod.

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