With its cramped quarters, unexpected delays, and lack of WiFi, one hour on the GO Train (twice daily) sounds downright nightmarish to most Canadians. But for those who live in the communities in and around Toronto, it’s the preferred alternative to driving and often the most sensible way to get to work.
Yet one would hardly consider this a fertile breeding ground for creative endeavours.
“You get 10 hours a week to do nothing, or do everything,” Darrin Henein tells me. Darrin is one of the creators of Lastronaut, an endless runner that touched down on the App Store in March 2015. I’ve met Darrin at a Starbucks not far from his day job. Since starting Lastronaut, he’s had a change in employment that doesn’t require him to ride the rails as often as he once did. “I come into the city a few times a week, and then I have a home office that I work from. During most of Lastronaut, though, I was working five days a week in the city.”
With a two hour commute from Milton — one hour on the GO Train each way — Darrin was given ten hours a week to spend any way he’d like. Most people would use that time to nap, read, or zone out to the latest podcast — and Darrin admits to doing a lot of that in the mornings — but he also used this time as an opportunity to try something he’d always dreamed of: make his own video game.
While not formally trained in the art of game-making, Darrin had the sort of related experience needed to give him a leg-up. By trade, Darrin is a UX Designer. “I’m basically responsible for anything a user does or sees in an app,” he tells me. Currently, that means leading the team of designers responsible for Firefox Mobile. It also means that he’s developed a lot of the hard skills that go into game-making, despite never having previously tried to apply them in that direction. Visuals, coding, design, user interaction — he’d dabbled in all of them to varying degrees, following the same sort of meandering career path that mirrors most.
“I studied biology in school. The plan was to become a doctor for a while. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it, y’know?” Darrin looks at me for a moment, as if searching for quiet agreement that he knew he’d already found; the admission that nobody really knows who they are at 17.
“You get 10 hours a week to do nothing, or do everything.”
In talking with Darrin, his passion for lifelong learning shows itself quickly. It’s not hard to imagine Darrin treating his daily commute not as drudgery, but as an opportunity to build a brand new skill set; an opportunity to create something wonderful.
While Darrin began work on Lastronaut as a self-learning experiment, it wasn’t long before he found a project partner in Stephan Leroux. “I built the prototype the first few months, and then a guy I was working with at the time saw one of my screenshots I had posted and said ‘Hey, I see you’re making a game! I’ve always wanted to make a game too.’”
Unlike Darrin, whose skills primarily live in the creative space, Stephen is an engineer. Knowing the code inside and out, Stephan provided a perfect complement to Darrin’s skills — as well as an expert to learn from.
“I just figured I could read his code and see what he was doing, learning through that as well.”
As this was their first games project, Darrin wanted to keep things as simple as possible. For this reason, he chose the endless runner genre. With no levels, one character, and no dialogue, things could be kept fairly basic. This allowed for his initial focus to be placed on just getting the core of the experience up and running. “I’d never built anything for the iPhone before, by myself at least. So there was that challenge. The language I ended up using, which was Objective-C mixed with some C++, were both new languages for me. So [there was] a lot of learning.”
“To be honest, neither of us were really in it to make a game we could ship.”
With his existing experience, Darrin describes his struggles as “hit my head against the wall because I can’t figure out this one dumb thing” learning rather than the “ground up” style — but there’s no question that a lot of the stress involved was relieved once Stephan was on board.
“There was a very clear separation of roles. He is a very good engineer, and admitted from the get-go that this was going to be his contribution; it’s probably not going to be on the art and music and creative side. Whereas for me, the stuff I can really nail is the creative. I’m going to help out as much as I can on the engineering, and I wrote a lot of the code for the game, but it was always nice to know that he was there to look at it and help me fix it and stuff like that. Kind of by default we knew the boundaries.”
While things began to move much more smoothly with Stephan’s involvement, Lastronaut remained a side project for both of its creators through its two year production. Real life took up the focus, with both prioritizing their day jobs and families over their hobbyist game development plans.
“There were a couple of months in there when my first kid was born, and Steph got married and stuff — there were probably three or four months there where we didn’t even touch it… [Calling Lastronaut a] side project is probably being generous.
“To be honest, from the beginning, neither of us were really in it to make a game we could ship. We both just wanted to learn how games were made. The idea to actually put it in the App Store came pretty late in the game. Most of the process was just to make it for ourselves, and like, see how it’s done. See how hard it is. See if we can do it.”
About 18 months into the process, things were taking shape. They’d gone from talking about making an endless runner to having a well-polished product that was undergoing continual tweaks and adjustments; a result of the the team’s data-driven methodology. The goal of the design, according to Darrin, was to make the game challenging enough that players could survive for 30 to 60 seconds. This way the average player could squeeze in a few different tries in a single session, even if they were just killing a few minutes in line at the bank.
To track this information, Google Analytics was implemented fairly early in Lastronaut’s development, giving Darrin and Stephan the feedback needed to steer things in the direction they wanted. “Once we started beta testing, we saw very quickly that [if in one] week the average game length was 18 seconds, that was a good indication to us that, ok, we maybe need to ease off a little bit. And then [after adjustments] we’d see that it’s like a minute an a half, so it’s too easy now.”
Analytics also helped to ensure a fair balance between the game’s weapons. Lastronaut is, in my opinion, best described as Canabalt meets Contra. The latter half of this comparison speaks incredibly well of the game’s variety and balancing. While there are only five different weapons to choose from, each has its own heft. They handle uniquely, offering a different play experience depending on which one you’ve picked up. The laser, for example, can destroy everything on the screen — but it charges much slower than everything else. Your homing missiles can zero in on a target, but do little should you need to aim quickly.
“We tracked kills by weapon in our Google Analytics, and we saw a pretty nice split; 20/20/20/20/20 right across the five. I think the flamethrower was the one that ended up being a little too powerful, because it does need to cool down, but if you just keep tapping it that cool down doesn’t kick in, and so it just becomes this wall of flame — but it also obscures what’s going on, so I’m happy with how things turned out.”
Despite all of this tweaking and fine-tuning, Darrin and Stephan had no intentions of releasing Lastronaut to the public. This was a hobby; a learning opportunity outside of their regular commitments. In late 2014, though, there was one recurring question from friends and family that had them reconsider their plans: “this is really great, when can I get this on my phone?”
“The idea to actually put it in the App Store came pretty late in the game.”
“That was when it kind of clicked for us. ‘We’re probably not that far from having something we could actually submit to the App Store.’ We needed to wrap it up in menus and kind of do all of the product side of things, but [that was it]. It probably didn’t come until three quarters of the way through that we were actually going to put this in the App Store and share it with people.”
Even though they were close to the finish line, there were other elements to consider beyond the product stage. Promotion is always a challenge for an indie game, and when you’re fighting for attention on the App Store, doubly so. Marketing plans are often in place at the start of development, but in the case of Lastronaut, things didn’t really kick off until the last two weeks before release. “I started madly, like, going nuts on forums and just trying to share it with everyone… I wanted a bit of buzz around the launch, and I was hoping people would write about it. But we left that way too late.”
Despite the lack of a grand PR plan, Lastronaut managed to make some pre-release headway with the press. TouchArcade wrote about the game two weeks prior to launch, highlighting its completely free nature (Lastronaut launched as a free download with no advertising or in-app purchases), which no doubt helped to raise its visibility to key players — like the team at Apple responsible for choosing which games to feature on the App Store.
Why Lastronaut was free
“We launched the initial game in March 2015. It was a free game, there were no ads. That was a little bit of our marketing play; hopefully that would kind of resonate and stand out as being unique.
“But at the same time — I wrote about this on Medium — we didn’t really care. We didn’t want to make money. We just wanted to give back a little bit to the gaming community. We didn’t want there to be barriers to people enjoying this. We had fun making it, and that was really why we made it.”
Nobody really know how Apple chooses the games it features, but previews on notable websites like TouchArcade seem like a good way to get on their radar. A strong network of industry contacts could prove helpful, too. Lucky for Darrin, he had both.
“I have a couple of friends, who know a couple of friends, who know a couple of friends, so I asked ‘hey, if you know anyone who could help me out, could you show this game to them?’ I think, through them, someone at Apple must have seen it.”
Lastronaut was about to blast off into the stratosphere. On March 5th, 2015, the game launched with a high profile feature on the App Store.
The pet project that was never designed with the public in mind saw more than 1 million downloads in its first seven days.
TechCrunch called it “totally addictive.” Time Magazine called it one of the best iPhone games of the month. Darrin attributes most of this coverage to the App Store feature, but pressing him further, it seems that the love for Lastronaut he truly cherishes has little to do with major publications.
“We’ve had tons of parents and kids write us. Either they’ve spent time playing with their kid or it got them through a drive to Florida. Or it’s inspired some high school student to get into game programming. [There are] just all of these awesome non-monetary rewards that have just been so, well …rewarding.”
In late 2015, Darrin and Stephan learned that Lastronaut was selected to be a finalist for Best Indie Game in the Canadian Videogame Awards. Standing toe-to-toe with the likes of Lost Orbit, Alto’s Adventure, and RocketsRocketsRockets — games made by real studios who do this for a living — the hobbyist creators of Lastronaut were blown away. “It was just super humbling. A nice validation. We made a thing, and it was good.”
By any metric you can measure (asides from possibly monetary, which was never their goal), Lastronaut was a resounding success. People didn’t just download it; they adored it. Eventually the team released an update that added a few improvements and gave players the option to buy skins because, as Darrin tells me, so many people had asked “how can I spend money? I want to support you so you can make more games.”
“We didn’t want there to be barriers to people enjoying this.”
After seeing such success with their debut effort, you’re probably expecting this story to end with an epiphanic moment. You’re waiting for me to tell you that they’ve quit their day jobs, formed an indie studio, and are hard at work on the next games in the Lastronaut franchise.
That’s not the way this story ends.
Despite the acclaim that Lastronaut has received, Darrin and Stephan haven’t quit their day jobs — nor do they intend to. This is still a hobby for them. And while they’re puttering around with some new ideas, there’s no guarantee that we’ll ever see another game that stems from their collaborative efforts.
In 2013, Darrin Henein set out to see if he could learn the skills needed to make a video game. He succeeded. “I’d love to make more games, time permitting,” he tells me. “But if this is it, I’m more than satisfied.”
As I take the last sip of my hot chocolate, sensing that the handshake at the end of our interview is just moments away, one last question enters my mind. It’s a trivial question, but my curiosity gets the best of me. With a genre as open as an endless runner, Darrin could have chosen any subject matter for his game — so why is Lastronaut the story of the last astronaut on Earth battling an impossible robot army?
“I was thinking on the train one day, ‘what would really drive someone to be running?’ …I love science fiction, and so naturally I’m like ‘ok, maybe it’s some astronaut trying to avoid some catastrophe.’ And then it sort of turned into ‘maybe he’s the last one, and that’s why it’s really important that he makes it, and that’s why he’s against all odds.’
“I like these stories about individuals doing things on their own, and the willpower that is needed. Kind of a self-motivation.”
As I ride the GO Train back home, replaying the interview in my head, I can’t help but smile. Of course those are the stories you like, Darrin. You’re living one.