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Pool on your iPhone is better when it’s more like a video game

Pool on your iPhone is better when it’s more like a video game


Zach Gage’s latest game reimagines a classic for touchscreens

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A screenshot of Pocket Run Pool on an iPhone.
A screenshot of Pocket Run Pool on an iPhone.
Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

For the last few years, Zach Gage has been playing a mobile pool app on his iPhone with some regularity. He’s been a fan of pool since college, but there’s just been one small problem with his mobile fixation: the app is terrible. As a straight recreation of eight ball pool, it didn’t take long before Gage was able to master the physics system, and be able to beat the computer every time he played. Regular searches of the App Store didn’t reveal any better options, so Gage decided to build his own.

Today sees the launch of Pocket-Run Pool on the iPhone, a game that aims to make a version of pool that’s adapted for the way people play games on their phones. It’s the latest in Gage’s growing line of mobile reimaginings of analog classics; so far he’s tackled chess and solitaire (twice). In both those instances, the designer was reworking games he explicitly didn’t enjoy, and tried to find ways to make them fun, even for people who disliked them. Pocket-Run Pool is different — its genesis was a bit more selfish. “I honestly just wanted a good, simple pool game to play,” says Gage.

Pocket-Run looks like typical eight ball pool at a glance. The table is the same, with the same number of pockets, and you still break by shooting the white ball at a group of all the other balls on the table. But there are a number of differences designed to make the game work on your smartphone. For one, it’s a completely single-player experience. (This is due partly to Gage’s New York subway rides, where online multiplayer experiences are impossible.) Since you’re no longer competing with another player, the game instead pits you against yourself, chasing a high score.

You still sink balls just like in regular pool, but now each one will earn you points. The number on the ball represents how many points it’s worth, and each pocket has a multiplier; so if you sink the 10 ball in a x6 pocket, you’ll get 60 points. Each time you sink a ball the pockets then rotate one spot, so the board isn’t constantly the same. On top of that, there’s a life system in place. You can lose lives by sinking the white ball or failing to earn any points in a turn, and you get three lives in total. Keeping your lives at the end of a game means more points.

“I wanted to recreate the feeling of playing pool.”

All together, these changes make for a game that looks like pool, but plays more like a puzzle game. For Gage, the goal was to create an experience that captured what he loves about the game, but reimagines it in a new context. “I wanted to recreate the feeling of playing pool and deciding whether or not you had the skill mastery to take a shot,” he explains. “That’s the whole game of pool, at least as an amateur; the interplay between the shot I know I can make, and the shot that will be the best shot.”

The structure is perfectly suited for mobile, in large part because the games are so fast and take just a few minutes to complete. Like the best arcade games, this creates a “just one more turn” mentality, where you keep playing to improve your score. It’s also a game that just feels good to play; in Pocket-Run Pool you shoot by swiping a large cue on the side of the screen, and it’s a satisfyingly tactile experience. To keep things interesting beyond a high score chase, the game also features multiple modes, including daily puzzle tournaments with different win conditions.

For Gage, the process of making pool work for mobile involved finding a very particular middle ground. “We’re in a world where people are either making perfect representations of sports games, or they’re making these wildly different e-sports computer games that look nothing like sports,” he explains. Pocket-Run Pool falls somewhere in between; it looks and feels like pool, but in reality it works quite differently. There’s the uncertainty of the break, the social challenge of leaderboards, and the risk inherent in trying different shows. “This isn’t really pool,” says Gage, “but I want it to feel like it.”