They could have spent $30 on some posters for the Indie Prize Showcase; but instead they spent 30 plus hours hand-painting cardboard cutouts to replicate the game background. They could have sought funding for the game; instead, they worked late into the night to find time between work and school. They could have said “Eh, screw it!” after realizing there was no way it would pay for the hundreds of hours put into the project.
“But to be honest, none of that stuff even crossed our minds”, says Kurt Waldowski, the founder of devsAnomalous, as he shares the story of Zaboodles. “Budget, time, and a bulletproof business model are not a concern to us. Our only concern is making Zaboodles the best game it can be, and getting it into as many hands as possible. Zaboodles isn’t being created by a company. We are just two pals that met in the dorms in the beginning of the freshman year, and decided to pour our energy, love, and dedication into making the best game possible.”
A Neighbor Who Loves Games
Throughout my four years in high school, finding time to make games was easy. But during the freshman year of college, the University of Michigan seemed to steal all my time and motivation. I would often sketch characters in class, or babble to my friends about various game ideas. But at the end of the day, no real action was taken. Hell, I barely had enough time to meet my dorm room neighbor, Daniel. However, I did know one thing about him: he loved to play games.
On December 1st, 2011, I stumbled across a competition hosted by The Experimental Gameplay Project. The week-long contest called for games that would be played with five pads lying linearly across the floor. Not being able to keep my mouth shut about anything, I ran into Daniel’s room and started rambling about the contest. To my surprise, he took extreme interest. He had no real experience making games or programming, but that didn’t stop him. We grabbed a whiteboard and began sketching stuff. Due to a misinterpretation of Daniel’s ideas, we stumbled upon a solid concept: jump around dodging enemies while utilizing various power-ups to clear them and earn points. This was not only the birth of Zaboodles, but also of a long-lasting friendship.
1 Week, 1 Developer, 5 Buttons
It took an interesting opportunity and a motivated friend to help me discover what could be accomplished in the late hours of the night. Every evening at 10 o’clock sharp I would wander into Dan’s room, plop down on his couch, and start programming. Despite the competition requirements of only one developer being allowed to work on the game, Dan was essential to the process. Not only did he contribute great ideas, but his enthusiasm and interest kept me motivated. Many times we would stay up until four in the morning crunching the game out. Sometimes, I even fell asleep sitting up!
After one week, we had a submission we were both proud of. It went on to be selected as a finalist, was shipped off to Germany, and was played in an empty swimming pool on a giant projector screen. Man, do I wish I could have been there!
Zaboodles for More Players
We fell in love with Zaboodles. After the contest ended, we wanted to push the game to its highest potential and release it on the PC for everyone to enjoy, not just the people over there in Berlin! Sure, playing Zaboodles by physically jumping from space to space was awesome, but I didn’t have the technology to play it that way. To test the game, I had to jump around on five pieces of paper taped to the floor, while Dan simulated the input with an Xbox controller. So, it was time to optimize the game to be played on the computer.
After our freshmen year ended and the competition was over, we started adding more to the game. Different boss battles and updated graphics, among other things. Notice how I said “we”. Once the single-developer restriction was lifted from the contest, Daniel joined the team full force. Despite having little to no programming experience, he jumped right into the fire. He learned at phenomenal speed, dug through my spaghetti-code mess from the contest, and produced the entire achievement system with little trouble.
Throughout the summer, Zaboodles were being created everywhere. I remember working on the first boss while partying at my older brother’s house. I created various art assets during group work sessions at my friend’s house while he was producing music. I even worked outside at parks with my twin brother. Zaboodles got inspiration from tons of people, resulting in a wacky game with a unique personality. My computer and trusty card table moved with me wherever I went.
Mobile? Challenge accepted!
It was Halloween 2012, but we weren’t out partying across campus. We were putting the final touches on Zaboodles and preparing for launch. After programming the website in an overnight coding spree, we released the game. I was a zombie in class the next morning.
Despite not reaching the largest audience, Zaboodles received fantastic reviews. People really liked our quirky game! However, one thing was consistent throughout every review: this game would be amazing on a touch screen. The computer controls were clunky. We had no experience developing mobile games, so we knew we had a challenge ahead. After a long hiatus, we decided to go for it.
User Testing Shows the Potential
I had been crashing on Dan’s couch for three days a week, and we crunched out the game. The development cycle of Zaboodles was always in sprints; we would work casually on and off, and then suddenly, boom! We would work from sun up to sun down for a week non-stop. These waves of development really kept the game going.
As we were porting the game to mobile, we noticed things that needed to be tweaked or added. However, our biggest concern arose while showing the game to friends. Those who had played six or seven rounds were in love, but more often than not, after a few tries, they would set the game down. They couldn’t see the potential. User testing is essential. It opened our eyes to the fact that our game was unable to entice people fast enough. We needed a solution.
From then on, there was no shortage of user testing. The game was tested on friends, family, and even random people on the bus. After tweaking the gameplay and three iterations of tutorials, we finally were able to see users catching on. Yet there was still work to be done. The importance of user testing didn’t dawn on us until the game was on our mobile devices in our pockets. It was so easy to show to people, and testing on real players revealed the disconnection between our vision and reality. This forced us to push the game’s release back, and we are still working on it today.
Zaboodles is nearing completion and is planned for release in October 2014. So much was gained from the development process! The project inspired Dan to major in Computer Science, giving him a direction at the University. We discovered the amount of discipline it takes to see a project through from start to finish the way it was envisioned. It even inspired me to start doing freelance mobile game development.
The devsAnomalous‘ plans are still up in the air, but Kurt is sure about one thing: he will be making games. They hope to bring together a community dedicated to sharing skills, knowledge, and experience, turning independent developers into interdependent developers.