This story is part of CNET's coverage of Apple Arcade, including exclusive first looks we got at some of the service's high-profile new games.
It started, as many great ideas do, with a song. For Sam Rosenthal, designer of Where Cards Fall, a thought-provoking puzzle game from the first wave oflaunch titles, the song was Radiohead's House of Cards.
"I really was taken by the metaphor, but I took it very literally," he says from his company's small, railroad-style office space in an industrial-feeling downtown Los Angeles office building. "I started to picture all of these fragile lives inside of houses of cards, and I thought that was an image that just seemed right for exploring in a video game."
That was nine years ago when Rosenthal was just starting his studies at USC. His first explorations of a game about building card houses were purely physical, made from paper cut out and assembled into shapes. For the digital version, which will be included in Apple's $4.99 a month game service that's set to go live Thursday, his inclination was to "build something that was more like a simulation game where you would create these big card structures." In this early version, each card in the game would represent a different person or profession, and how players put the different cards together would cause interactions.
But Where Cards Fall really began to pick up steam during Rosenthal's senior year at USC, when it was accepted as a project for the school's game design program. That gave him a small team of students to work on developing the game further, starting with little more than the basic premise of a game about using cards to build pieces of people's lives. "That was basically it," he says. "I didn't really have much else figured out, but they trusted me enough to let me lead the team."
Apple'sand soon became part of the design story. "We were always focused on touch devices, and then once we figured out some interesting interactions, we realized that a puzzle game was much more well-suited for them." Rosenthal and his team zeroed in on how to simplify the process of building card structures using a touchscreen.
"We left USC with a really great set of interactions, with a really interesting tone, and some really interesting puzzles as well," he says, "but the game had a lot of growing up to do still."
Keeping the dream alive
As happens with passion projects, real life intervened, and the story of Where Cards Fall might have ended there. Rosenthal graduated and went to work in the video game industry, contributing to everything from Activision's big budget Skylanders games to critical indie darlings like What Remains of Edith Finch.
But he kept working on Where Cards Fall during nights and weekends, even when his entreaties to traditional game publishers were rebuffed. "Some of the publishers said, 'for mobile we're really only interested in free-to-play,'" which is a game category covering everything from Fortnite to Candy Crush Saga, pushing gamers towards ongoing micro-purchases of in-game items and currencies. It's fine for esports or casual morning-commute games, but not a good fit for a serious-minded narrative puzzle game. "I didn't really feel like it was a big blockbuster PlayStation game or anything either. So we were right in the middle. There was just no hope for us, but I kept believing in it."
Someone else believed in the game, too. Ryan Cash, the designer of the indie hit Alto's Adventure, played a work-in-progress version of Where Cards Fall, and offered to publish the game through his company, Snowman. Rosenthal says Cash came to him saying, "We've never published a game before, but we love this game. What if we did it?"
Rosenthal put together a small team under the name The Game Band to finish development. He says he chose the name, "because all the bands I was really infatuated by were ones that were always pushing boundaries, changing their sound and doing things that were always surprising people, but also bringing people into the fold that wouldn't necessarily look for fringe artists. Radiohead was a big one. The White Stripes are another one of my favorites, and a lot of their ethos is something that I'm feeling."
He professes similar admiration for Apple, which is bringing Where Cards Fall to the curated Apple Arcade platform. "What I admired about Apple's philosophy is that it's [built around being] very minimal and using as few pieces as possible to create something that's really beautiful and powerful."
A journey in the cards
In the game, the unnamed protagonist traverses different landscapes, from forests to cities to classrooms. Often, the ultimate goal of an area is to get from point A to point B, using card-based structures to overcome obstacles. That's where the challenge of translating the physicality of 3D cards onto a 2D plane comes in.
"We've tried all sorts of things," Rosenthal says. "It wasn't just how do we translate to a two-dimensional plane, but how do we make this feel as tactile as possible?"
Part of the inspiration came from an unusual place -- how photos were organized in older versions of iOS. "Everything was skeuomorphic back then," he says. "You would pinch out on a photo and it would expand. We're looking at that and we're like, 'hey, this could be where we start for interaction.'" Translated into Where Cards Fall, the relationship between the 2D and 3D cards means the wider you spread out the cards, the larger the structures become. "We play with that relationship in different ways throughout the game," Rosenthal says, "you start to internalize what those rules are and start to envision patterns."
These patterns all fit into a larger narrative, following a single character going back over their memories from the past decade, starting as a high school senior and moving into college and an early career. Rather than action, aliens or other video game tropes, Rosenthal says, "We're seeing throughlines of the formative ideas and memories that helped shape who they were early on, and what stuck with them." And although the world isn't threatened by zombies or dragons, the stakes are still high. "This is somebody whose life and the way that they are feeling about these different experiences is true to them. We're showing how your expectations don't always meet what the reality of the situation is."
If all that sounds high-minded, or at least high-concept, Rosenthal would probably agree. "I got into games because I was infatuated by them but frustrated by them at the same time," he says. "I got into this with very aspirational beliefs, and I continue to hold them. The reason I started The Gameband was to create a great game studio that is reflective of values that I believe we should have."
But those values often have a hard time breaking through when tens of thousands of new games can be published every year, with more than a quarter million currently on the iOS App Store. That's where Apple Arcade comes in, and why it may be the best chance a game like Where Cards Fall has of finding a substantial audience.
"It just felt like the most natural, perfect home," Rosenthal says of the. "I think it really allows for players to try things that they might not have experienced before, and that's tremendously exciting for me."
Along with this exclusive inside story of Where Cards Fall, CNET also has exclusive inside looks atand .