Greg Wohlwend didn’t own an iPad or iPhone when his Flash game Hundreds was first ported to iOS.
“Eric Johnson, who’s the programmer with Semisecret Games, ported Hundreds via the open source code to the iPad in like a weekend,” Wohlwend explains. “He emailed me and I was like, oh my God, this is amazing. It was a total surprise. It was a Monday, he had just finished, and he was like, ‘Hey, I did this. Here it is.’ I went out and bought an iPad the next day.”
It can be hard to imagine Hundreds without a touch-screen. The iOS hit, perhaps the most critically acclaimed game of 2013 so far, is built entirely around touching. You touch circles to make them grow until the numbers in their centers total 100. If those circles touch each other as they’re expanding, the level ends and you have to start over. Like most iOS or Android games, it’s completely touch sensitive (there’s no tilting to distract you), and yet it started as a free-to-play Flash game played on a computer with a mouse.
Wohlwend had worked on many games before, most notably the iOS classic Solipskier. The original Flash version of Hundreds was the first game he made entirely by himself, though. “I really wanted to make my own game completely, from the art to the programming, where it’s all mine,” he says. “That’s what Hundreds was—it was the first game I ever programmed completely by myself. I had some help with physics thing that my brain couldn’t handle, but the Flash prototype was all mine.
“That idea for Hundreds came out of that limitation, because I’m not a good programmer,” Wohlwend continues. “I put all the code in one file. I just basically hammered it out with brute force. I wasn’t very good at programming so I needed to keep the game design minimal, and as I was dreaming up ideas one of them was about circles growing and becoming volatile and ending the game when they touch each other. I thought that was an elegant and interesting game design because the method for winning and losing are the exact same, and there’s also this sort of prediction element with the physics and the bouncing circles where you have to see two or three steps ahead if you get really in tune to the physics. I’ve always been interested in making sense of a random world.”
Initially Wohlwend hoped that Hundreds would be financially backed by one of the big Flash game sites, such as Kongregate or Newgrounds. “Nobody wanted to sponsor Hundreds,” he admits. “They thought it was not good enough for whatever reason or wouldn’t have a broad enough audience. So I released it myself and open sourced the code. I made a game, learned a heck of a lot and people seemed to dig it, so I was happy with the end result, and that was that.”
Until Eric Johnson ported Hundreds to the iPad for fun over the course of a weekend. Wohlwend immediately saw the game’s potential on the new platform, and so did game designer Adam Saltsman, Johnson’s partner at Semisecret.
“Semisecret was sort of between projects when Greg open sourced Hundreds,” Saltsman says. “We didn’t have a whole lot going on and we didn’t necessarily have a whole lot of time left where we could afford to do our own independent work. We weren’t really running out of money, but the sustainability of what was coming in was not 100% matching what we needed to embark on something really big. And then Greg released the source code for the Flash version of Hundreds, and Eric ported it to the iPad in a weekend or something, just to see if it would feel cool on a touch-screen. And he was totally right.”
At that point Saltsman knew that Hundreds should become Semisecret’s next project. “Initially my involvement was more ‘hey, this is awesome, we should do this, this should be an official company project, we should bring Greg in as a full partner on it, and we should pursue this because I think we can finish this before we run out of money, ‘cuz it’s just circles bouncing around’. It seemed cool and felt cool, and Eric and Greg were enthusiastic about it, so it seemed like a really good idea.”
Saltsman, who is best known for the early iOS hit Canabalt, and who also designed Capsule and helped with the art design on Phil Fish’s Fez, initially didn’t plan on working that much on Hundreds himself. “Initially my plan was to just help keep Hundreds on track and just toss out ideas when necessary,” he explains. “I thought of it very much as Greg and Eric’s project from the get-go, but it kind of grew into a bigger, more interesting project pretty quickly.
“Within a few months I was getting very involved as a level or puzzle designer, and it became clear that it would take more than three or four months to build the game and get it to the standard of quality that we really wanted it to be. And at that point that’s when I and Greg really started working a lot on trying to figure out what the core mechanics should be and how the levels would be organized and what the difficulty curve would look like and what the overall organization of the game was going to be like.
“Our goal was to find the most interesting way to take Hundreds from flash to the iPad, and the core idea was that Greg and I would work out new game mechanics in the form of circle types,” Saltsman continues. “That was the first sit-down, ‘do we really want to do this as a commercial product’ meeting. It was predicated on the idea that there will be 100 puzzles or levels or whatever, with a number of different circle types. We didn’t know what they were going to be but that was the core two-point outline for how to put this on the iPad. I helped a lot with prototyping and vetting and designing the various circle types. I don’t have an exact count for the level design, and Greg and I both worked on each others’ levels, but probably around 3/4s of the level designs were stuff that came out of my sketchbook. I ended up basically working as a game designer but trying to do it like in the style of Greg, I guess. I don’t know if that would even make sense to Greg, but I really wanted to help him build that game and explore what was interesting about it and do it in a way that was minimalist, simple and really true to his game.”
Even though Hundreds grew out of Wohlwend’s desire to make a game by himself, he was eager to work with Semisecret on the iOS port. “When you start working with a team that you’ve never worked with before, you have to sort of feel out your roles,” Wohlwend says. “I’m no stranger to collaborating with people so it wasn’t weird in that regard, but Hundreds is this thing I conceived of and had this whole mental construct of in my head and nowhere else, and communicating that and being the arbiter of what will or won’t work was a different kind of experience. It was never bad but as time went on and we worked and worked I became more grateful to be working with Adam and Eric on this. Adam’s a brilliant designer—he’s much smarter than me—and he made basically all the levels in Hundreds. It was just a huge relief to be working with these awesome people. It was totally worth it.”
Saltsman reiterates that Hundreds was a relatively painless collaboration, and also a major stress relief. “I really liked working with Greg,” he confirms. “I’ve had some bad experiences doing group games or team games, failing really badly years and years ago. With a lot of my independent work I’ve been hands on in every aspect—with Canabalt I did the programming, I did the artwork, I did the sound effects, like, ‘this is my thing, I just want to control all of it.’ And after Canabalt that really started stressing me out, like the idea that everything’s up to me, that I have to design everything and figure out how all the pieces have to work. It’s lonely and not that fun to build games that way, and I also felt a lot of pressure. I’m in a position where I definitely have things I want to make but I really like working on other people’s stuff. I feel like, at this point—if you wanted to make a distinction between artists and craftsmen, right now I feel really good about my craftsmanship. I don’t feel really good about myself as some kind of bold, tortured artist. I like working on other people’s stuff and either bringing out the something special that’s in there that they aren’t sure how to find or else just helping them if they need more hands building things to get it done on time.”
Beyond the shift from a cursor to a touch-based interface, the two biggest changes between the original Flash version of Hundreds and the iOS remake are the additions of an endless mode and a cryptic story built around coded messages. Along with Wohlwend’s beautifully minimal graphic design and the ingenious touch-sensitive puzzles, these two elements are what elevate Hundreds above most of the app store’s other game offerings. Both of them grew out of Wohlwend’s collaboration with Semisecret.
“Adam told me about this idea about codes and things like that,” Wohlwend describes. “We had been playing around with the idea of creating a sort of fiction around the game, like a Brave New World sort of thing, with a seedy underbelly beneath it. Adam came up with this idea about ciphers, and had a few ideas about what sort of ciphers we could do, and it was immediately exciting and awesome and we just jumped on that problem. I wrote up a bunch of different story ideas and how they’d be integrated into the game.”
The ciphers were also inspired by another, more surprising source: Dash Shaw’s graphic novel Bottomless Belly Button. “Part of the reason I was really into [the word puzzles] is because when Adam proposed it I was reading Bottomless Belly Button,” Wohlwend reveals. “In the comic there are cipher letters that his dad has written to his mom when they were first courting and I was really into that. I got out a pen and paper immediately and started deciphering them and it was just so rewarding to tease out this layer that didn’t need to be investigated. It really clicked with me and made sense for Hundreds. It adds a layer of mystery that we wanted to inject into the game, because otherwise it is just so faceless.”
Endless mode unlocks after you’ve played through Hundreds’s 100 levels. It’s a self-perpetuating, randomly generated sequence of puzzles that only ends when you finally die. According to Saltsman, it’s essentially the ultimate extrapolation of the fundamental Hundreds experience.
“About six months into the project Greg and I both realized what we were trying to actually do as far as what the game should be, what nugget of awesomeness from the Flash version was still missing from the iPad,” Saltsman details. “We realized endless mode was how to get that back in this expanded form. You kind of need all the puzzles to learn enough about the game to play endless mode well, or to appreciate it. It’s the simplest, purest form of Hundreds, and Greg’s really happy with it, and that came straight out of the last two or three circle types that were added. They were interesting enough that they became interesting outside of the prescribed puzzles and could work just as well when thrown out randomly like dice.”
Hundreds traveled a long, convoluted path from its original incarnation as a free and fairly limited Flash game to an iOS experience overflowing with content. It took a small team of designers to make that possible, but that team never lost sight of Greg Wohlwend’s original vision. Anybody who’s played the iOS version of Hundreds is probably pleased by how Semisecret expanded on Wohlwend’s core design. Remakes get a bad rap in most forms of media, but it took the iPad to unlock the true potential of Hundreds.