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.


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.