…and suddenly two months fall by…

It’s incredible how quickly time can pass when you’re getting your head down to work. With a smattering of snow on the ground outside I can pretend it’s still winter, but with the advent of British Summer Time and some actual light in the evening, I’d have to engage unreasonable levels of cognitive dissonance to fool myself into thinking anything except “Time Has Passed” and “I Should Already Have Gotten More Shit Done”.

We’re approaching a quarter of a year since I was expulsed with much alacrity from the warm bosom of Lionhead and started working on my own project. A lot of it has felt like mucking about as I’ve jumped to whatever I’ve felt like working on, on any given day. Admittedly this has been driven by an overarching plan (with all good intent to lead to a game), which I’ve been hesitant to talk about because, well, there’s paranoia that someone else will steal my glorious ideas and beat me to market. This is, of course, hogwash. Whilst any reasonably competent programmer could jump in and replicate everything I’ve done, I think there’s very little chance anyone really would want to or be willing to put the time in. Besides this, even if they did do such a thing, they would either do it worse, but quite possibly do it well enough to create a market that I could step into, or they would do it better, in which case I’m only delaying the inevitable as they’d be quite capable of copying what I’ve done post-hoc and stealing whatever tiny niche I’ve carved myself out from under me. As for copyright in games, well the NimbleBit’s Tiny Tower vs Zynga’s Dream Heights debacle tells us pretty much everything we need to know. If they don’t steal your actual assets, then there is *very* little you can do about them stealing your game idea, however specific it is. As of right now there is most likely prior art for every idea out there. This protects innovation and is mostly worth the price of lack of protection for your game idea (unless you’re ripped off personally, then it’s a tragedy, but at least you’re only ripped off and not sued by countless zombie companies set up to buy copyrighted ideas like “interacting with an input device to make a thing happen”). So it’s probably best to ignore theoretical, potential, highly unlikely idea theft and focus on working hard and making the best game I can, which leads me onto what I’ve been up to and where I’m heading.

For the last few months I’ve been playing around with a prototype, which could best be described as “moving a bunch of sand around a screen”. You can do this via the touch interface, flicking the sand about, either against gravity or as if pushing spilt salt across a table. The grains have nice momentum, interact pleasantly and can be used in reasonable abundance. They can also co-exist in levels with the few mechanical contraptions that have most easily translated from ideas into code: conveyor belts, suckers, blowers, lifts, sliders etc. I’ve worked on a variety of prototypes getting rectangles, then triangles, then arbitrary shaped objects first statically displacing the streams of sand as they pour around the screen, then pushing the sand around under player or automated movement. At every stage optimising and re-optimising the new mechanics until they played as smoothly as I needed them to (nothing ever works as fast as you *want* it to…if I can have x thousand grains of sand at 60fps, then I *want* double that, at least…almost certainly more).

All of the above was for the goal of coming up with an idea that would be novel (at least ostensibly through leveraging the sand mechanic), in a game I could code by myself before dragging an artist in at a late stage to turn my coder-art horror into an aesthetic wonder. I settled on a sand version of Feed Me Oil (specifically I came up with the wholly unimaginative idea of moving sand around a screen from some start point to some end point, via player controlled mechanics and had friends point me towards games that did similar with non-sand-based commodities) and knocked up a few tutorial levels and one fully functional level with the features I had already built. I then took everything I’d done (levels, prototypes et al.) along to the monthly Guildford Indie Game Dev meet-up (mostly ex-Lionheaders to be fair, sorry other Guildford Indie folk, you are, of course, welcome) to get people to have a go and see what they liked and what they didn’t.

It turned out that mostly they liked drawing penises. In fact we came up with the metric Time-To-Penis, as the only difference between people playing with the sandpit-esque prototype levels was the amount of time it took them to draw a cock.

It wasn’t that anyone said anything against my game prototypes, but mucking about with the sand in the sandpit was certainly a moreish pursuit that everyone happily got along with. All this left me a little uncertain with how to proceed. Did I want to make a competent game that is fun but lacks that magic touch? Might decent level design take a bunch of mechanics and turn a competent game into a good one? Might art input take a good game, add visual flair and personality and make something great? Whilst considering all of this, should I instead be leveraging everyone’s desire to use sand to draw willies?

I have to confess the last three weeks have involved a lot of self-doubt about what I’ve been doing and what to do next. I thought I’d be further along by now or at least know definitively what I was heading for. In the midst of this uncertainty I’m left with this constant desire to get something out there, to get something concrete finished. This leads onto what I’m actually doing now. For sanity and experience I’m taking a brief detour to go through the process of getting an app onto the app store. The features I’ve spent the last few months creating lend themselves nicely to building what could only be described as a hugely over-engineered sand timer. You could make it any shape, with rather more sand than is in any way necessary. You could also add aspects of all the mechanics I’ve made so far, with conveyors and blowers and gravity not necessarily a constant fixture.

I’ve no delusions that such a thing is what the app store has been crying out for, but I can certainly make something that will stand out against the current sand timers you can find therein (oh, what a huge download niche that must be). At the very least this will push me to make more art contacts, finish a project to a fully polished level and get something through the certification process with analytics and everything else necessary built in. I also intend to do it by the end of the month, which is very possible if I stop procrastinating, worrying and second guessing myself.

Now all I need to find are some artists who can create beautifully designed hourglasses, persuade them they really want to and find out just what they might want in return.