Posted on April 4, 2011 at 10:00am EDT. More.

Hello, Fingerpaintball

A touchscreen is not just a fancypants alternative to using a mouse.

To push an onscreen button with a mouse involves several layers of indirection: you move your hand to push a device to move a tiny arrow across the screen until it is over the button, then you move your finger to push a physical button.

To push the same button on a touch screen, you just reach out and tap it.

This is the reason Apple uses the word “magical” in iPad marketing material. Being able to manipulate these virtual things directly, with your hands, is a big deal.

I don’t remember how long ago I had the idea for Fingerpaintball. There were a half dozen Breakout derivatives on the App Store already, but they all required the player to swipe a finger to move a paddle to hit the ball. While it works well with a joystick or a mouse, the interaction feels needlessly artificial on a touchscreen.

In October 2010 I started work on a Breakout-type game that would take advantage of iPad’s touchscreen. Instead of moving a virtual paddle, the player would draw a line, and the ball would bounce off those lines. The project was also a good opportunity for myself to re-learn OpenGL, since I hadn’t used it in so long.

Work slowed in November, due to demands from a part-time tech support role. It all but stopped in December, due to family obligations involving a trip halfway around the world. In January and February I was busy with client work, and Fingerpaintball was firmly on the back burner.

One does not usually need to register an app with iTunes until you are ready to upload a finished binary, but certain functionality, such as Game Center and In-App Purchases, require that you register the app in order to test it. Registering your app reserves the name you choose, but it also starts a countdown: if you don’t upload a binary within 120 days, the registration will be deleted and you won’t be able to use the name any more.

So in mid-February I received a warning: if I didn’t ship by March 17, I’d lose the name Fingerpaintball. Other developers on iphonesb advised me to simply delete it myself to avoid the penalty, re-registering it later when I was ready to finish the app. Ignoring them, I decided to use the deadline as motivation to finish the damn thing. Real artists ship.

It wasn’t until March 11 that I had time to work on the game again. I originally had a sizable list of things that “needed” to be in the 1.0 release, but with only a week remaining, I quickly learned what was really essential and what was not. For example, my intention from the start was to release the game under a fremium model: free to play the first few levels, pay to play the rest. Designing all the levels and implementing In-App Purchase was therefore necessary for 1.0, until I realized it wasn’t.

The advanced levels and the purchasing could wait for a later release. Bonuses could also wait. Multiball could wait. Sound effects could wait. It turns out that, when a hard deadline is approaching, a lot of things I thought were necessary could wait.

I thought I understood the idea that You Should Be Embarrassed By Your 1.0, but I didn’t really understand until now. In the past I would write what I believed to be a minimal feature list, and as I worked, adjust the release date accordingly. Now I see I had it backwards: I should have been picking a release date, then trimming feature list as I go.

So far there are two reviews on the U.S. App Store and they both basically say the same thing: a good concept but kind of boring to play. I tend to agree. I am embarrassed by Fingerpaintball in its current form. The parts that are there work well, but it’s just not enough.

I wonder, though, if iterative development applies to games. Changing the interface of a utility doesn’t have the same implications as changing the rules of a game. If people are competing via a leaderboard, an update can create an uneven playing field. But these are not insurmountable problems: new leaderboards can be created, or people can simply deal with it. World of Warcraft has an enormously sophisticated set of rules that has changed several times over its lifetime; if Blizzard can find a way to manage, so can I.

If you have an iPad, install Fingerpaintball and tell me what you think. Then stay tuned: I don’t intend to stay embarrassed for too long.