Swipe To Survive

A few months ago, a friend and I decided to build something together with no idea of what we’d build. We wanted to see what it was like to work with each other1 and what it was like to go through the exercise of starting with nothing, ideating, building, and finally releasing something to the world.2

The excitement is palpable.
The excitement is palpable.

Before I get too into how or what we actually made, just know that what we ended up with isn’t a super great thing. It’s just a silly game. In fact, I showed a coworker the game once without telling them that I built it. Their response was “That’s it? This game sucks. 3/10. Would not play again.”3 That’s the kind of App Store pull quote most game developers can only ever dream to receive.

Our original plan was simple. Build and release something every month. We’d get together one or two weekends a month to come up with ideas and prototype. Then we could work a bit more asynchronously to finish anything else or tie up any loose ends. After a bottle of wine, a lot of music, and a half dozen or so even worse ideas, we landed on a simple swiping game for iPhone.

The basic concept was that the player would have to swipe in different directions rapidly in order to not lose lives. We had a small checklist of “requirements”, but nothing solid.

  • Some sort of mechanic for regaining lives
  • Colorful feedback after a good thing to reinforce the behavior
  • Simple to play
  • Short game times (unless you’re impossibly good)
  • Fast time to play again
  • Bonus for some kind of story4

So we started sketching things. And riffing, and drawing, and drinking wine, and iterating, again and again. How does the game start? What’s the first thing you see when you open the app? What is winning? Is there even winning? What about this crazy animation when someone earns a life? How the hell would we even do that?5

At the end of the first night, we had the idea for the basic structure of the game, a prototype app that could detect directional swipes, a list of things we needed high fidelity designs for, and a deadline of one week to get it made.

Swiping prototype. Gorgeous.

We spent a good bit of the next day working on it, and ended the weekend with an honest to goodness playable game. You could start the game. You could lose the game. And you could start the game again. It certainly wasn’t fun yet, but it was something.

Only three seconds from tapping the app icon to playing.
Only three seconds from tapping the app icon to playing.

Over the next couple weeks, we picked up the work here and there. We met a couple more times, and cleaned things up. We added animations, local high score tracking, a simple guide to show on first open, and tweaked the game play until it felt just frustrating enough.

A little color and an extra life when pressing hard on a FORCE card
A little color and an extra life when pressing hard on a FORCE card
Simple local high score board and quick "one more try" turnaround time.
Simple local high score board and quick “one more try” turnaround time.

After about a month of not touching the project6, we picked it up again and just shipped it. We didn’t want it to feel like some unfinished project anymore. We wanted to see it released. Apple rejected it after the first submission (ugh), but after a couple tweaks it was accepted and in the App Store! 🙌🏼

😍

That was a month and a half ago though. And publishing something in the App Store and not telling anyone is basically the same as not publishing it. So here it is. Our game. It’s called 9 Lives. It’s dead simple and was built in just a couple of weeks with a friend over wine and whiskey. It’s not going to change the landscape of mobile games, it certainly isn’t worthy of being featured, and I’m terribly proud of it.

app_icon

9 Lives – Swipe To Survive

I pull it out and play on the subway every once in a while, and I always enjoy it. It’s honestly just fun to play something I made. This is my high score.

I’ve not yet been able to survive for an entire minute. Can you?
I’ve not yet been able to survive for an entire minute. Can you?

Oh! And Ivan and I obviously didn’t meet our goal of releasing something every month. Not even remotely. But it was fun. And we crossed the chasm of actually releasing something. And now we’re working on something else. Something better.

Something else.
Something else.
  1. It was great 🌈
  2. It was less great, but we learned a lot! It turns out building something good enough to keep to yourself very little time. Letting yourself feel comfortable enough to show it to other people takes much much longer. This post is a great example. 9 Lives has been available on the App Store for months, and I’m just now telling anyone.
  3. I love this review so so much.
  4. We sort of did this. Basically it’s “don’t lose lives; earn them instead; oh by the way you’re a cat”.
  5. We had no clue about how to design a game. But we know how to solve problems. And so we just guessed and dug and pushed until we had something that felt real. And somehow it actually worked.
  6. We kept saying “we need to release this” And “let’s finish it up and ship it,” but we just never felt like it was releasable. We weren’t working on it anymore. We just weren’t touching it. Releasing something is hard.

Starting With The Dumbest Stuff

I don’t know exactly why it is – and I absolutely can’t recommend this path to anyone – but I needed a name before I started working on this app. I needed a name and some semblance of a “style guide.” None of it had to be final – in fact it definitely isn’t – but I wanted this to feel like a real product all along the way. Without this sense of realness, I could see myself getting blocked or feeling stuck. The last thing I want to do is have the motivation to start working on a small feature and end up three hours later debating the specifics of a color or font.

So I came up with a name and I designed a simple logo and icon. Here’s how.

Name

This one for me was easy. I’ve had the name in my head since I first thought about building a TV tracking app.

Silver.

Short and simple. An app about tracking what you watch on the silver screen.

Maybe it’s a bit dumb. Maybe it’s not quite perfect. But that was ok. I quite liked it. There are no popular apps named Silver in the App Store today, and I was able to snag a simple domain for it1. The best news is – like with all of this – I can change it at any time. I really just need to have something to refer to the project.

Typography

This is something I’d like to dig into a lot more. I am definitely not a typography expert, but I do love when you can tell that someone took the time to really think about this.

One of my favorite apps I have used, Vesper2, was a super simple note taking app that was immediately recognizable by it’s font choice: Ideal Sans.

Similarly, I have been using a font from iA, iA Writer Duospace, in the app Ulysses to write these posts. This was a tip I picked up from Federico Viticci at MacStories, and I absolutely love it.

With Vesper, the font was very carefully selected as an identifying element. With Ulysses, the developers have given the choice of font to the writer. In both cases, however, the typography in the apps helped to make the developers’ decisions feel purposeful and increased the delight I felt while using the apps.

Unfortunately, I am not ready to spend the time I’d require to deliberate over this yet. I don’t want to end up down a rabbit hole learning about the ins and outs of typography (which is exactly what I’d do) and never actually build anything. So I’m going to keep it simple. I’m sticking with the Apple’s default here. San Francisco.

Logo/Icon

This was probably the most important to me. An app’s icon is the first thing I think of when I think about most of my favorite apps. It’s a place where developers can show their personality – a place where you get to tell everyone why they should tap on your app. But it’s also incredibly structured (at least on iOS). Every app’s icon is the same size, the same shape. Every app’s icon can live in the same subset of places on the phone. I think solving within strict parameters like that is fun and can lead to some of the most creative outcomes.

I knew I wasn’t going to get this perfect. In fact, it might not even be close. But when I open my phone and see my app on my home screen – even in the earliest stages of development – I can’t just see the default under construction icon. I need to see me.

Sad under construction icon :(
Sad under construction icon 😦

The first thing I did was scribble down a few random ideas I had. I wanted to get an ’S’ into it, because a lot of people can quickly spot an app by it’s first letter. I also liked the idea of getting a recognizable piece of an old television in the icon. I tested a couple rough ideas using a channel dial and “rabbit ear” antenna 3.

Some rough sketches of app icons for Silver
Some rough sketches of app icons for Silver

I really liked the idea of using the antenna, so I thought I’d experiment with some logos that used the antenna as part of the name.

Rough early sketches of Silver logo
Rough early sketches of Silver logo

I really liked where it was going, but I thought it might need a bit more to make it clear that the ‘V’ was an antenna, so I filled out the TV a bit. And now I really thought I had something.

First draft of a possible logo for Silver
First draft of a possible logo for Silver

Wait

I was excitedly showing a friend this logo when it hit me. The silver screen is not the television. The silver screen is the movie theater. I had wasted all this time on an idea that didn’t even make sense.

I initially decided that I was just going to go with Silver and not even worry about the fact that it made no sense. A lot of company names don’t make sense.

Then it hit me. One of my favorite bits of the logo I’d drawn was the blocky static representing the screen. And the ‘V’ looked a bit like an upside down ‘A’. I was pretty sure I could salvage it. I’d call it Static.

A much more rushed logo for the newly named Static
A much more rushed logo for the newly named Static

The logo worked. The name Static checked all the boxes that Silver did (as well as the one it didn’t). And honestly I liked the name even better.

Colors

Next I needed some colors. The colors in the early drafts were just defaults in Linea, the app I used to sketch out my ideas. I liked the playfulness of those colors alongside the chunkiness of the logo, and thought something along those lines might work.

I used the app Coolors to help me pick a set of colors that worked well together, and ended up with this as my palette.

The "final" colors for Static
The “final” colors for Static

Logo/Icon (Again)

With my colors selected and a rough logo drawn, I thought I’d make it a bit more final in Sketch4. This is what I ended up with.

static logo.png
“Final” Static logo
"Final" Static app icon
“Final” Static app icon

I especially like the simplicity of the static in the app icon. And it doesn’t even look too out of place on my home screen.

That's my real home screen. It is beautiful.
That’s my real home screen. It is beautiful.

Next

Tapping that icon literally opens a white screen. This thing does nothing yet. But I’m still proud of it. Next up there’s going to be some code I guess. I’m not sure what I’ll build first, but it should be fun.

  1. This is another completely ridiculous quirk I have. I buy a domain for a project before I’ve really even started on it. At one point, I owned a domain for another app that I literally never wrote a line of code for. I owned a domain for a blog a friend of mine wanted to start with me. And I still own an alternate domain (dstn.co) that I thought I might use as a domain shortener when that was the hot thing. We’ll see if this one gets added to that graveyard too.
  2. This app is unfortunately no longer available. Improvements Apple made to their own Notes app made development of the app unprofitable for Vesper, and they decided to end development and sale of the app in 2016.
  3. I also tried one with Ag, the chemical symbol for the element silver, but that was just one too many disconnected metaphors and really did not work for me.
  4. Only a bit more final. I am so unbelievably unskilled at Sketch. Making this logo and app icon completely stretched the limits of my abilities here. I should probably work on that.

What Am I Doing?

Over the last few years, I’ve had a lot of projects that I’ve wanted to pursue – some large and some small. I’ve started some but finished very few. I’ve even taken on multiple at once at times1. I decided for the purposes of these posts (and just to ensure that I work on something rather than simply juggling ideas with little to no real progress) that I needed to pick just one project to work on. One project that would keep that creative part of my mind working. One project that I could write about to work on how I express my ideas in prose. One project that I can pick up when I’m scrolling through Netflix and nothing feels good enough.

The problem was I had no idea how to choose just one.

Process of Elimination

First, I needed to narrow it down to what type of thing I even wanted to do.

I Could Make Music

I grew up playing a lot of music. While in junior high and high school, I played the euphonium in my school band and played bass guitar in my small church’s worship band. I often find that I miss making music, and have thought about picking up an instrument again.

I definitely think this could be fun, but picking up an instrument in any meaningful way is quite a slog. I still want to – and I still might – but it wouldn’t be very interesting to report back on. And I want writing about my progress to be part of what keeps me going

I Could Build A Thing

I also love the idea of making something physical. I spent a bit of time in the garage helping out with woodworking projects, and worked on a number of electronics and robotics projects while studying Electrical Engineering in college.

However, this is out because I simply don’t have the space to work on this type of project in the way I’d want to. My apartment is too small, and to get access to some of the equipment I’d need I would have to visit some sort of maker space. I’m trying to have as few hurdles as possible so I don’t have any excuse to not do something.

I Could Build An App

The final category I considered was building a software application. This one isn’t as exciting in some ways, because I currently write iPhone apps for my day job. However, I love the opportunity to “own” a smaller software project from beginning to end. I also like the idea of working with different tools, patterns, and open-source projects than those I get to use at work.

In the end, I decided that this was what I was going to do. I have all of the materials I need to work on a project like this, and there is virtually no boundary between me and actually doing this other than finding time and my own seemingly never ending laziness. I can pick it up at almost any time from almost any place.

What App?

Once I decided to build an app, I set up a few simple criteria that this project needed to meet and picked from a list of ideas that I’d been jotting down over the years2.

  1. It needs to be something that I would personally use3.
  2. It needs to have a tiny MVP (a link to explain MVP?) so I can feel like I’m making good progress early.
  3. It needs to be big enough and broad enough that I can change or adapt at any time – that I could experiment with whatever feature or technique feels right on any given day.
  4. It needs to use no backend or use an already existing API for the backend so that I can build with zero server cost.

With these in mind, I decided to build… a TV show tracking iPhone app. Not very exciting I know. In fact, almost everyone I’ve mentioned this idea to in person falls asleep halfway through me talking about it. But! It’s a type of app that I like to use. It’s a category with dozens of options already in the App Store. And most importantly, it’s a category where I don’t particularly love any of the apps I’ve used. This gives me plenty of opportunity to experiment with different ideas.

I’m planning to use Trakt.tv for the backend (they provide an API for tracking and managing episodes of TV shows a user has seen). This is a service that a number of the apps in the App Store use. This will allow me to use my real account in my app, and, perhaps most importantly, gives me a fallback with no data loss if I drop out of this project at any time.

What’s Next?

I have no idea what types of things I’ll be writing as I build this. Or how frequently. Or anything really. But hopefully I end up with something fun and learn something along the way. We’ll see. I guess I just have to start building.

  1. I sketched a custom speaker cabinet I wanted to build, but never signed up for time at a maker space. I had all the equipment to control the lights in my house with voice in my Amazon shopping cart, but decided to watch Stranger Things instead. I bought the best cookbook I could find, but never made it past the introduction. And I was totally learning to play the trombone six months ago.
  2. To be honest, none of my ideas here have been truly groundbreaking. Most of them, in fact, have already been built in some form or another. Knowing this was one of the things I often told myself that prevented me from actually working on anything. This time, I decided to ignore that voice and just go for it.
  3. I think the best app idea I ever had was a time tracking app for contractors I was going to call Time Shark. The app icon was going to be some mishmash of a clock and a shark fin. I thought I’d struck gold here, but this is just not something I’d be likely to use. And when I noticed that timeshark.com was already purchased, I completely dropped this one.

Time To Start

It’s time to start something. I’m honestly not sure where I’m going with this – or even where these words will live – but I know that I need to take a step in some direction.

I have far too often started my weekend with my next best idea ever. I’m going to start a novel. I’m going to build an app. I’m going to make some music. Read a book. Brew my own beer. Do my fucking laundry. Write. Make. Be. Build… anything!

Every time it’s faded and I eventually convince myself that that best idea ever was just one more in the line of my bad ideas (Honestly a lot of them probably were bad, but that’s beside the point). I don’t want to just keep letting it fade.

So here’s something. It’s a few meandering paragraphs. But it’s something.

I’m going to make something. It might be an iPhone or an Android app. It might be a short story that I just absolutely drag my non-writing ass through the process of developing. It might be a blog or some other place where I can leave these thoughts. But whatever it is, I’ll chronicle it. I need some accountability here – even if it’s just between me and a journal.

Time to start.