Simblocity (the making of)

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So, this is my first blog, and this is the first blog entry in my first blog. I hope this will be a pleasant read and for some interesting or even educational. I plan to enjoy writing this blog so the style will be fairly laid back, maybe tongue in cheek, possibly irreverent. If you enjoy it I’d love to hear your thoughts, heck if you find it un-fun let me know too.  

Anyway, the topic of todays blog is the fun time I had making my first game - the unbridled creative joy at the outset, the challenge to learn enough about game making for it to be any good, my criteria for release readiness, the nerves, the pride, the desire to always improve and my feelings now its all out there. Its all here, all on this very page. Read on for a spellbinding story…

Simblocity?

Okay, Simblocity. What is it and why is it? Simblocity is a simple match 3 game with coloured blocks. It began life as the child of a frustration - frustration at another match 3 game I was making which was feeling too complicated and un-fun. I couldn’t see what was wrong and what the true game mechanic should be to make it work. Simblocity started life as a prototype to fix this problem. No graphic design, no sprites to animate or give character to, no story and hardly any distractions. It was just a match 3 grid - remember the 70s dance floors with the coloured squares? It looked exactly like that. This is why the class was called DanceFloorGrid and remained so for many months until I had a day of overly tidy refactoring and jettisoned it, naming it the far more sensible GameBoardGrid, which subsequently became SBGameBoardGrid and is now impossible to confuse with anything more fun.

The Design

I realised as I played around with it that I enjoyed it on its own. The simplicity within the grid of blocks made the game lighter and allowed me to introduce sparkle with particle effects which really stood out. It also allowed me to think about what it was that made people play games more than once. And what it is that makes me want to play a game, what it is that I need;

I keep thinking of the effects in Mario Sunshine and Waverace and the feeling of real from the not real that they conveyed. For me thats the first thing so the switching of blocks needs to be fast and smooth so I feel like they are my blocks and I am moving them. When a cascade match happens it needs to be effective so I can feel awe at the magnitude of the change I initiated, excited at the possibilities for a fresh start and subliminally aware that I just scored some serious points. 

As the game developed and I started to think about depth and longevity i realised I needed the power ups to be part of an advanced strategy. A learned one, not taught via tutorial. I want it to be discovered. Firstly, it means I don’t have to make a tutorial which is good as a bad tutorial may put someone off the game. And if you give all the information up front without discovery then players don’t own their strategy and the energy investment in the game is far less. I like to think Simblocity can be pleasant to play at times and also thrilling at times (but not to the point where it makes people shake with adrenaline - its not that type of game) . Once the optimal strategy is discovered it becomes a more engrossing game as an element of strategy is added to the already necessarily quick reflex play. It does for me anyway.

You can see the progression from initial prototype to most recent release in the three images below. Most everything you see is in place for a reason and sized and coloured with an aim in mind. I’ve tried to be as open minded as I could with my designs and have experimented with different positions for the scores and the power ups, but it just feels most natural this way. 

 

Gameboard progression

 

Is it Art?

I think its pretty to look at, if thats what art is. Not because I made it that way, more because I discovered it to work best that way. You will see the main themes - the grid and the colours within it, and the power up icons. I am not a trained designer but I love being able to put things together that make me happy when I look at them. Colours do this for me more than most anything else. The icons at the bottom are the abstract ideas for power ups - that was one of the difficulties, how to represent a power up like ‘randomise’ (its the squiggly lines in the first pic) and remove line, explode, remove one, freeze time etc. And once I had settled on a look that would convey the power up how was I to get that onto a button? Fortunately I found a free icon resource to help with this - http://icons.mysitemyway.com. They have a good search and the icons are clean and come in a variety of styles. I am to be fair delighted that I found them.

Sound Effects

It took a long time to find the right sounds for the actions in the game - thank you freesound.org (http://www.freesound.org) and audacity (http://audacity.sourceforge.net) which have combined to give me a constant and reliable workflow through to a finished sound that I can use. The most difficult part of the sound design was working out which search term to use - for the block moves I was guessing a swish sound was what I wanted so tried that, but I ended up using a combination swish and bloop. Same goes for the block explode - I don’t want it to be harsh as I want the sound to give weight to the block - I ended up with a cross between a watermelon dropped on the floor a cardboard box smash. Playing the game with fresh imagination with the sound switched off helps with my idea of the sounds that the visual suggests. Then the rule of sound is to be congruent internally for texture, tone and volume and also to enhance the visual. 

Testing with friends and family

I found the first round of tests with friends and family to be incredibly useful and it was made possible using TestFlight which was a godsend (https://www.testflightapp.com) - my friends and family are geographically dispersed. Still there was a part of me that was so keen on people seeing the game that I released it earlier than I should. I knew it was a beta and caught a lot of feedback which was already on the todo list. This is something I have learnt from and have concentrated on automated testing using calabash (https://github.com/calabash/calabash-ios) and in person usability for recent changes. For the next games I will target a smaller group for initial prototypes and then follow up with a larger group for usability with a closer to release version.

Icons

Being a non designer the icons seemed to take an awful long time to get right - and when I was happy with one design it would only take a viewing in a different context (say a video demo for example) to change the way I felt about it. The most important step for me to getting from the left icon to the right (current) icon was to screenshot the app store games list on my iPad and just cut and past the icon in there to see how it sat. The icon i ended up with is as simple as I could get but also conveys one of the important things about the game - the bonus special block is the cornerstone of the best strategies which is why it is featured - its the round stripy one.

 

Icon progression

 

Localisation 

The last piece of the puzzle which I think has brought Simblocity to a healthily happy place is localisation - I used strings for everything and none of them were localised. Now they all are and that means button sizes have to be dynamic and font sizes as well and the words that are used need to be carefully considered. The fact they are held together in one file is a great advantage when thinking about the voice that should be used - anything which is way more casual or way more formal is really noticeable. Its one of many lessons learned that will inform future games and how they are put together. The service I used was https://e2f.com and they were great, really fast and professional with a great looking translation into French and Spanish, both of which I speak well enough to gauge the correctness and quality of the work. 

Release for everyone

I really want a lot of people to enjoy Simblocity. I try and imagine every new release on everyones phone or tablet and ask myself if its worthy of that. I continually found one thing or another which meant I answered ’no, not really’ to that question. Version 1.2.3, released May 2014, has removed a lot of overly complicated UI and is stable and fast enough that I can trust it to lots of people playing it - I play this game a lot so maybe I’m moving away from y good feel for whats fun. But its my first game and if my decisions and ideas are not good ones then maybe I’m not going to be creating many good games and this will have been a fun venture, a nice hobby. I can therefore only aim to enjoy the experience as much as I can for now. Maybe the wife will be proud and a few friends can be impressed by the technical details. And if I catch the kids playing and laughing, smiling, Frowning, sticking their tongues out (our family concentration genes have this effect) then this makes me happy. And the days when the stats show me an old player fire it up after a few weeks off and getting hooked again are better than the days when I go straight to the adMob revenue pages. The amount people play (and enjoy) might match up with the amount of money we make but I feel like a different person when I focus on the money over the people and I’m not sure I’d make the same game if thats all that concerned me. 

So, thats the story of Simblocity. From the outset I've enjoyed the experience. I have always loved making things on computers and it still gives me a thrill to look at the images on this page and think I made it and I feel incredibly proud and warm towards all involved. When I save this blog I’ll go do what I have done every day after writing which is go far a neighbourhood wander with the dog. I will be happy and I will smile and laugh and I like to think it is partly due to the fact that I have found something in life which makes me feel like I deserve to be here and am shining back some of the light of life back on my fellow world travellers. Or maybe its because its been really sunny lately. I do like the sunshine.