The Best Flappy Bird Clone that Never Was, until It Became a Sticker App
Early 2014. Me, a corporate man. Pfizer through and through. Global Headquarters, 42nd street, third floor. The morning subway commute didn’t waver: Wall Street Journal open to the tech section, reading about mobile as a dozen commuters zipped their fingers across shimmering levels of Candy Crush and tapped away on Flappy Bird. We’d rumble over the bridge and as we went back underground in Chinatown, people would pray away their final text.
Fall 2014. Meetings were long, coffee was strong. We’d had a string of releases, each punctuated with drinks on a roof. If I wasn’t coding for the man, I was coding for the people. People paid me to make social apps, their passion projects. Mizzou’s football team overachieved and we all knew it. Saturdays we’d have their game on, my wife mouse-click-clicking next to me, retouching wedding photographs. Buses beeping, their brakes hissing below our fourth-floor walkup. Pregnancy! And the interlaced plan to boomerang to our hometown, St. Louis.
I fantasized about starting my own full-blown agency there. But I’d need a project to get on the map. And what was the simplest, most fun, buzzworthy thing I could spin up? Flappy Bird, but St. Louis-y! Toasty Ravioli, a game where users would tap the screen to guide a flying cartoon fried ravioli (and its friends) between landmarks, as the city’s skylines rolled by. Coding wasn’t a challenge — Apple had lowered the bar for games with SpriteKit. But I needed art.
A friend recommended Dan Zettwoch, a fantastic local craftsman that specializes in throwback, comic-style works and meticulously details his process in a fascinating manner. I pitched him, and thankfully, he bought into the idea. When he sent me the graphics and he’d crushed it.
Dan explained that “[his] idea is to actually make these 3-color prints (brown, yellow + red on light cream paper) , re-scan them, and cut them apart to use.” He provided a few fascinating pictures of the process.
The digital artwork wowed me, but the extra effect of Dan’s process blew me away. With a boost of energy, I quickly turned backgrounds transparent, dropped the assets into Xcode, laid down SpriteKit code and started working on the game mechanics. Within days I had something. I bought toastyravioli.com and saw my name above the fold in the Post-Dispatch.
The game would have two modes — my Flappy-style version called “flythrough”, where the player would simply tap to clear obstacles, and a “daredevil” game, which rewarded players for how close they came to obstacles. I even considered a variant where players would have to “rescue” smaller ravioli. Full of ideas in those days, to a fault. An artwork menu would have a gallery of everything in the game. The jukebox would play the music — public domain ragtime, in the St. Louis style, like Scott Joplin. The game would be free, but to get the two additional “characters”, Gooey Butter Cake and Flat Pizza, you’d be charged a small fee. The high scores would have a graphic that was a wink to the art museum.
Bit by bit, the game coalesced. Sound effects for the taps, Scott Joplin piano, collision detection so that the ravioli actually hit the monuments, and particle effects so that bits of meat could be seen. But something didn’t quite feel right. See, a game can be fun, but to actually become sticky, there’s so much more required. I could code and code and code, but the mechanics of ramping up difficulty, scoring, and the like escaped me. Here’s a video of the downtown night level in its roughest form.
Late 2014. My day job was demanding, I had made it to the final rounds of interviews for a new one in St. Louis, and I had two full apps to wrap for my clients before the end of the year. Takeout became takeout from the Chinese restaurant on the first floor of our building, which then became nightly delivery of dinner. Late nights, stronger coffee in the morning, and the game code wasn’t opened.
I took conference calls on the way to ultrasound appointments, feverishly met with friends, pinballing through the city’s restaurants and bars, leaving mid-sentence. Office, agency, coffee shop, hotel lobby, bar. Five projects in a day. Weak knees every night, which is how it should be when you’re saying goodbye to all that madness.
Summer 2015. A baby named after both a programming concept and fashion statement. A warm, bright house in the St. Louis suburbs, discussions about lawncare and nap schedules over my fence, building apps at another large company, loving the breezy work and picking up the occasional side project. Toasty Ravioli, as tantalizing as it was, wasn’t needed. Who needs advertising for more work when you’re at your max capacity, nights are for mellowing out and weekends are for family? I’d eat the loss. Toastyravioli.com expired.
Summer 2016. Nobody makes money on games. The average person downloads zero apps per month. I gradually raised my hourly rates on side projects until people stopped asking, because it wasn’t worth what I’d been charging. Tripling worked. Gingerly went through a few chatbot tutorials, with promising results. I was in Billy Graham Auditorium at WWDC when Apple hyped sticker apps. Old guard devs sighed.
Here’s how sticker packs work: you download them like apps from the App Store, but they’re only accessible from your keyboard. Send them like emoji in a text, or peel them and drop them on top of messages and pictures in your current thread. Here’s how you build a sticker app: drag pictures into a project and send it to Apple. That’s it.
September 2016. People released sticker apps. People profited off sticker apps. Well, I’ve released iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Apple TV (Mars Weather!) apps, so why not release one? I’m sure I could think of artwork. Ah yes — Toasty Ravioli!
Here’s how the graphics look on the device.
So, don’t expect a game anytime soon. Ok, ever. Business apps and bots now. But if you are interested in dropping some St. Louis flavor on your friends for a very reasonable price, you can download Toasty Ravioli in the App Store now and check out Dan’s work.