The Story of Bouncy Smash
“Crap crap crap it’s live” are the words that emblazoned the screen of my iPhone on Saturday the 17th — a full three days before Bouncy Smash was supposed to go live on the App Store. Someone had screwed up (probably us), and now we were scrambling to figure out how to take it off the app store in a way that didn’t break anything. Less than an hour later, we were fairly confident that the ‘remove from store’ radial wouldn’t bring everything crashing to the ground. If I had to describe the experience of developing our first game, it would be a perfect reflection of this story — having no idea what we’re doing.
Three Years Earlier
A small drop of water crashed into the small puddle of water that had pooled beneath one of the numerous leaks in our roof. Fighting the leaks would prove futile, so I ignored it as I opened the particleboard door that sectioned off the work room from the lounge space in our dungeon-like office. Despite the gloomy wet day outside, Zac was in high spirits as he called me over to test the newest version of Bouncy Smash. He had just finished tweaking the character movement response from the accelerometer for the twenty-sixth time and wanted somebody else to test it.
This version of the game was built on SpriteKit. It felt good. Fast. Maybe too fast? It’s hard to tell when you’ve been testing version after version for days.
No, it felt good.
Change of Plans
“I think we should build it on Cocos2D.” Zac was finding some limitations that he felt couldn’t be overcome if we continued to build the game on SpriteKit. Cocos2D was another Swift-based engine that had a bit more functionality. After some back-and-forth, it was agreed — just six months after building the game on SpriteKit, we’d rebuild Bouncy Smash on Cocos2D.
It didn’t take long to get the game fully functioning on the new platform. All the art assets were the same, so it was mostly just translating the game logic to the updated engine. It ran like a dream. This gave us a taste of what might be possible from a visible fidelity standpoint, and once Zac got a taste, we were unknowingly set down a path that would see us completely changing game engines once again.
A New Vision
In May of 2015, we moved out of the dungeon and into a large bright room on the outer edge of a co-working space called WELD. Painted white and concrete cinder block walls towered sixteen feet above us on all sides, with the east-facing wall spotted with large glass-panel windows. The massive change in our daily scenery perfectly aligned with a equally large change in our vision for the game — to rebuild the whole game in 3D.
Up until this point, every visual aspect of the game was created in 2D. The environments, the characters, the particles, everything. However, as an animation studio (did I mention IV is a commercial animation studio, not a game development studio?), we had been working in 3D more and Zac had the brilliant (translation: extremely time-consuming) idea to transition everything in the game to 3D models, existing in 3D space. Unfortunately, Swift was not the right platform for developing a 3D game, so we found ourselves changing game engines once again.
It didn’t take long for Zac to settle on Unity as our platform of choice. It’s interface and key framing features suited his commercial animation background perfectly and it contained every feature we would need for a relatively lightweight mobile arcade game, without the bloat of engines targeted at AAA game development. It was settled, we’d be changing our engine for the second time in less than a year’s time.
February 18th, 2018: Two Days to Launch
I’m sitting on a deck overlooking an ocean canal near Jensen Beach, Florida. Our rental is situated directly at the terminus of the waterway, looking down a long row of wooden decks and empty boat elevators until they reach the edge of the inlet some five-hundred yards away. Why am I in Florida two days before the launch of Bouncy Smash you ask? Great question. When you plan a vacation with your wife’s family before you set the release date for your game, you don’t get to back out of the vacation for fear of spousal homicide.
As the occasional leaping of fish from the water mixes with the sound of a light breeze and wind chimes, I find myself thinking about what a different game Bouncy Smash would be if not for those early development upsets. Starting on SpriteKit and Swift allowed us to work on the core gameplay mechanics that make the game fun. There were no frills and few graphical elements to distract the gamer from whether or not they were enjoying smashing baddies on their heads.
The Lost Years
2015 ended and 2016 came and went without too much progress being made on the game. Our company as a commercial animation studio began to grow and require more time and focus, so Bouncy Smash was relegated to any after-hours time that could be found. It’s not that we didn’t still love Bouncy Smash and desperately want to release a game, but these years saw us working on what we’d considered dream projects just a couple years before. We had the privilege of working with JJ Abrams on a teaser trailer for Castle Rock and were getting other work that made us really proud. This upward trajectory in the animation world had us asking the question—should we be wasting time shifting our focus to a game?
In early 2017, Zac and I sat in one of the various lounges around our co-working space talking about the future. It’s a conversation that, in our experience, happens naturally one day when all the emotions in both our heads need somewhere to find companionship. In this particular instance, we had just hired two new employees, an animator and an illustrator, and we needed to discuss how that would change Zac’s role in the company. Up until then, he had been very hands-on with nearly every project that walked through our doors. Now, with a larger team, the hope was to move him from a hands-on creative director role to a hands-off creative director role. This role change coincided with another unquenchable desire — to finish Bouncy Smash. From that day, it would take roughly a year for Bouncy Smash to meet the world.
There would be high points and low points, there would be planned launches and subsequently delayed launches. There would be more obstacles that we can number. However, through all the hardship that releasing a game would bring, we now knew Bouncy Smash was no longer a side project — we were going to ship a game.
Teamwork Makes the Dreamwork
As 2017 continued, Zac would repeatedly lock himself in a small office, working for hours on whatever coding problem might be vexing him that day. I would spend most of my days working with clients and our team to keep animation projects on track, since money still existed and we needed it to pay people and stuff. When the time called for it, I’d yank Zac out of his near-comatose state and he’d fix whatever creative problem we were having. I think what really made this work was both of our determination to make Bouncy Smash a reality. A lot of indie game developers don’t have the luxury of focusing on their game full-time. However, when you have a partner who’s making time for you and letting you know when you need to take a step back, finding focus becomes much easier.
On that note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the tremendous effort of our team to take control of their projects and create great things with minimal input from Zac. Taylor Blair, Nayt Cochran, Maxwell Anderson, Michael Cribbs, and Austin Harrison all deserve the biggest medals in the world for supporting the development of this game, both with their talents and with their incredible work on client projects so that Zac could feel comfortable focusing on the game.
Sharing Your Baby
After making a large amount of progress in the first half of the year, we were presented with the amazing opportunity to exhibit at PlayNYC in August through Playcrafting (this also allowed us to be nominated for ‘Best Mobile Game of the Year’ at the Bit Awards!!!). It was an AMAZING experience. I cannot thank Dan Butchko and the entire Playcrafting team enough for putting on such an incredible event. We created two testing stations, and for the first time, we let complete strangers play the game. The response was immensely positive.
Share your game. Share it and watch people’s faces as they play it. Seeing a smile erupt on somebody’s face just because they crushed a baddie in something you created from nothing is a hard feeling to explain — joy mixed with disbelief mixed with self-doubt. Watching eight-year-old kids be *literally* dragged away from our booth is an easier feeling to explain — it felt really great.
Failure to Launch
The months following PlayNYC were a whirlwind. We started planning for launch and decided on the first week of November to put Bouncy Smash out into the world. At some point, we decided to take one last outing for hands-on testing at TwitchCon. In the second half of October, about three weeks before our planned launch, we set foot in Long Beach California to share the game with 25,000 of our closest friends. Everything went off without a hitch and we giddily told everybody we met that we’d be available for download in just three weeks! We had even decided to offer everybody who signed up for our email list early access to the game.
Well, turns out we weren’t really ready. A planned launch for the first week of November turned into the second week of November, then the third, then the first week of December.
It was at this point that we were lucky to have some very wise people, with a lot more experience than us in mobile game releases, to advise us. Long story short: November and December are very bad months to launch an indie mobile game. There are a lot of big publishers pushing games for the holiday season and it’s almost guaranteed that you’ll have next to no chance to stand out before you even get out of the gate.
I’m not here to tell you how to launch a game, but I will share the most important thing we learned. Surround yourself with people who have done what you’re trying to do before. Whether they’re your friends or paid consultants, having people with learned knowledge of the industry around you will help you make the best decisions possible. Without our PR firm, NOVY, a paid iOS consultant, and a few great friends, we would have made countless mistakes that could have easily derailed everything we were trying to build.
All that to say, we didn’t launch in the first week of December.
Best Laid Plans
It’s amazing what you can get done in two months you didn’t think you’d have. Along with a few visual improvements, we were able to complete the “Daily Danger” mode — something we were planning to launch without. Additionally, we completely finished an Apple TV version of the game and were able to launch with support for twelve languages.
Like every other setback that happened in the development of Bouncy Smash, delaying our launch proved to be a serendipitous occurrence. Actually, this is a theme Zac and I have experienced again and again both with Bouncy Smash and with IV Animation. Like the time we were robbed (twice) and the insurance money helped us through tight financial times. We’ve learned to roll with the punches and not get caught up in the failure of our best laid plans.
Today my sister-in-law asked me if I was nervous for the launch in two days. I was happy to report that I’m not. If I had to describe the feeling within my body, it would be excitement. For the last year, Zac and I have had the motto “no expectations” when it comes to launching Bouncy Smash. Do we hope it’s a hit? Do we hope people like it? Yes, of course we do. However, that doesn’t really matter.
What really matters is that, on Tuesday, we’re sharing something with the world that makes us proud. It’s a culmination of a multi-year effort from designers, animators, programmers, friends, and family that we love. It’s like a child that was nurtured by a collective group of our favorite people, and it’s the coolest kid we could ever hope to have raised.
Until later, keep bouncing and smashing.
Oh, and if you haven’t, DOWNLOAD the game!!!
Zac Dixon most certainly deserves the lion’s share of the credit for sacrificing countless nights and weekends to the programming and other development tasks related to the game. Besides his actual baby, this is the closest thing to a baby he has birthed.
Sarah Dixon for her patience and understanding.
Breanne Gibson for being the best scientist.
Austin Harrison for endless emotional support and tireless game testing.
Ben Worley & Makeup and Vanity Set for the unbelievably catchy tunes they created.
Dallas Taylor, Samantha Schneble, Jai Berger, and Defacto Sound for their perfect sound design.
Lunar Saloon for their incredible character designs.
Maxwell Anderson for some juicy 3D models.
Taylor Blair for her expertly animated keyframes.
Michael Cribbs for sick level concept art.
Nayt Cochran for helping Zac stay focused.
Cody Fry for a trailer score than makes us want to dance.
Geoff Gross for a great backend (a nice butt too).
Luke Choice for a very fluffy 3D logo design.
Alyssa McNally for being a great sister.
Clout Marketing for social media development.
Novy PR for great advice and PR.
Akil King for being the coolest consultant ever.
Erica Gorochow for being an incredible friend.
G3 Translate for very professional translation services.
Izabella (Izzi) Dixon for being cute.