Phase for iPod screen shot

Developer Harmonix has specialized in interactive musical game creations, most recently the hit games Guitar Hero and (forthcoming) Rock Band. But developing for console platforms is one thing. What about an iPod?

In a small miracle, a team at Harmonix has managed to successfully create a surprisingly rich game experience for iPod owners. Called Phase, the new game manages to recreate the signature “falling gems” music game design on Apple’s micro-platform. It manages to somehow cram slick visuals and gameplay onto the music player, and by working with your music, it could change how you listen to music — playing with it instead of just playing it.

And, hey, even if you’re not into that idea, it still looks insanely cool and costs only slightly more than a pumpkin latte.

You can buy Phase now for US$4.99 from the iTunes Music Store, with a playlist of music included. You need specific iPods to play it, since iPod generations tend to be incompatible with one another. 5th-generation iPods, the cute new Nano, and iPod Classic all work; earlier iPods and the touchscreen iPhone and iPod Touch don’t. But for those who love iPods with tactile control, you’re in luck.

Phase Game Product Page

Visual Tour

The game is the work of a team at Harmonix, under the creative direction of our friend Josh Randall. Strangely, every time I see noted Boston VJ RobotKid, the visualist companion of dj rndm, Josh mysteriously disappears, a la Clark Kent and Superman. I’ll let you figure that out.

Art is by Aaron Stewart, who has also created the cutest dog and cat pillows in the universe.

Here’s a look at the game’s lovely visual style:

Phase for iPod screen shot

Phase for iPod screen shot

Phase for iPod screen shot

Phase for iPod screen shot

Phase iPod game from Harmonix logo

Interactive iPod

What’s remarkable about Phase is first, that it works at all — sharp art direction and creative leadership has made what must be the first iPod game stylish enough to make you want to play it. But second, while Phase comes with an included library of songs — making it part album, part game — it also works with music from your library. Any MP3’s, M4A’s, and M4P’s will work. (No audiobooks, in case you were planning on jamming with Stephen Colbert.) That makes Phase not simply a game, but a way of cleverly transforming the iPod from passive playback device to interactive music device. Now, whether you really want to interact with music in this way is another question; my favorite form of interaction usually involves the technologies of “singing” and “tapping a steering wheel.”

But it does open a door a lot of people have been talking about for some time, when we rethink what playing an album really is. The Harmonix team are fond of talking about musical “platforms” and not just “games.” The developer, now with added industry clout as a part of MTV/Viacom, has even gone so far as forming a Rock Band Music Advisory Board with the likes of Steven Van Zandt providing input. They’ve expressed seriousness about making the game a serious way of getting non-musicians interactively playing music — and the game isn’t even out yet. At the very least, we’ve seen readers here on CDM making music on the go and even performing with mobile game systems and PDAs, so I suspect Phase could continue to inspire mobile music inventions.

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  • üav
  • John

    Though not quite as slick, I've been playing Asteroids, Sudoku, "Bubbles" and Sokoban, all while listening to Black Moth Super Rainbow, Max Richter and Morton Subotnick, on my Sansa for a few months now, with Rockbox. And I think someone is working on some sort of sequencer/synth thing with it. I wish more developers would work on Rockbox because I can definitely see untapped potential. Unfortunately, I don't have the time nor programming skills to do anything about it myself.

  • Morton Subotnick would be really happy if you could get Sokoban and his music going simultaneously, I think. 😉

    Rockbox programming is HARD. Official iPod programming looks just as nasty. It'll be interesting to see if it's easier to do this stuff with iPod Touch / iPhone and its SDK. I think in general, you won't see this area progress until there are better development tools.

    At the same time, while we've been *saying* this would happen for a long time, new mobile devices really are getting more like desktops, especially with beefed-up OSes like the embedded Linux stuff showing up. So I could see the line between "phone", "music player", and "mobile computer" continuing to blur. That will also help make interactive musical gaming easier to do.

    uav, thanks for that link! I had forgotten about that one.

    But, of course, interactive music games go WAY back — the folks at Harmonix had quite a series of games long before Guitar Hero was even a glint in their eye. What I find interesting is integrating them with the music player in this way.

  • busoni

    i actually have developed (but never released) a little synth/stepsequencer for ipodlinux / podzilla a while ago. however, i found that any serious sequencing requires a lot of interaction (move from step to step, switch between different parameters/channels, edit data) which becomes annoying very soon with the clickwheel. this interface is perfect for scrolling through 1-dimensional lists but not for editing the multidimensional data of even the simplest sequencer. so possible music apps would rather be either very simple or semi-automatic sound generators which provide only a couple of high-level parameters.

    btw, the whole programming environment and the plugin concept of podzilla made development very easy, i didn't find it hard at all.

    as for the phase game: i don't get what's so special about it and what separates it from the old beatmania concept (we've seen stuff like this on consoles and cellphones for almost a decade). i find it neither stylish nor innovative and it's certainly not a "miracle". i like your optimistic, yet euphoric style of writing and the will to see miracles in new products which gives a great feeling of a shiny near future. but i'm sorry, this just reads like a harmonix press release.

  • Hi busoni, interesting to hear your experience.

    I'll stand by what I'm saying.

    What's special about it — I think that they've integrated it with iPod and the iPod library. It's not that it's a new idea, it's that it's an idea that could be hitting the mainstream. I think the idea of releasing this as a quasi-album, then pulling music from your library, is really interesting. And I'm of course familiar with the history of this area. I'm actually *not* sure that leads to a shiny, new future, because personally I'm pretty happy listening to and playing music without necessarily interacting it — I find that future hard to conceive, because it's really unclear what form this might take, even with the precedents that are out there.

    Minor miracle? Yeah, I think so, just because iPod dev seems like a pain in the arse. (*Minor* miracle, I said. It's not Jesus in toast, necessarily.)

    And I personally think the visual style is really great; that's just my personal opinion.

    Harmonix didn't send a press release, either. 🙂

    But I hoped this would spark discussion, so I'm totally happy to hear what others think…

  • busoni

    I'm sorry for that almost offensive comment and I'm glad you don't mind. Again, I really like this blog and the style of writing.

    I think the iPod is still a great platform to develop for, I just see the challenge in the specialized interface rather than programming issues. Possible applications would for example be artists' installations which require generated sounds, iPods could fill the gap between a full computer and a CD-player here.

    However, with the arrival of the iPhone/touch SDK, hopefully all limitations interface- and prgramming-wise will be gone and we can look forward to a really shiny future with futuristic audio apps from independent developers.

  • No worries, busoni — and I agree completely. Having just the jog wheel is a bit like having to program a game for just one key. On the other hand, the tactile feedback on the old iPods is not to be underestimated. I briefly had the Samsung UpStage from Sprint on loan, and it used a touch-sensitive directional square. I think I could have gotten more accurate input using a broken joystick with my teeth. (That would have had tactile feedback, at least.)

    But yeah, I agree — open SDK should make things easier. I wonder if Microsoft will respond with Zune, given that they've got what appears to be the Windows Mobile platform, or one of the other manufacturers. (And if not, why not?)

  • busoni

    windows mobile is fine, the devices just lack decent design so far. it got better but manufacturers still fail to make something truely straight and simple. maybe the lg ks20 will change this a little.

    i just got a windows mobile PDA to get started with touchscreen and i think pen input is very nice for music. i'm a little surprised there are so few full music programs for PDAs and that the existing ones are usally just stripped down versions of established desktop concepts.

    i never tried an iphone and i wonder how accurate input is? you can't use a pen, right? so, just like the clickwheel, the finger-touchscreen is best suited for scrolling, selecting, viewing while excessive data input/manipulation is still a challenge. on the other side there's multitouch which may allow new forms of accuracy.

    i don't believe in the merge of phone, ipod, pda, it means too many compromises. i want to keep my phone small, robust and reliable for going out, thus i prefer to have a separate, relatively huge pda for email, browsing, writing and hopefully music production. text input via stylus/handwriting recognition can be quite convenient when you have a decent pad (a book for example) and a bigger pen (i currently use a wooden chopstick, works perfect).

    i don't know the zune (i'm in europe). i guess they'll keep it closed just like the classic ipod models.

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