Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Story Behind “The Rainstorm”

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 28, 2011

Today’s guest post comes from fellow Utah indie J. Alan Atherton. I’m fond of this particular story as it involves one indie’s crusade to actually ship a title. And he did. Plus, this post comes with a new game you can play! What’s not to like? So here’s Alan:

The story behind how a game comes to be is often more interesting than the game itself, at least to some people. And so I will tell you the possibly interesting tale behind the only mildly interesting game I wrote called “The Rainstorm.

It all started when I was 13 years old, and I saw some books on game programming. Wait. That’s a little too far back. Uhhh, (shuffling papers) ok here we go. It all started when a friend of mine pointed out a promotion by Blackberry to win a free tablet device (called the Playbook, it’s like an iPad) for submitting an app to their app store. At first I wasn’t too interested, but then I realized that it wasn’t for the best app, or the first app, it was any app (except the usual flashlight apps or hi-fi flatulence simulators). And then I noticed that they supported flash. Now things were getting interesting, because I had been making a feature-creep-infested flash game over the past year and a half, so I was familiar with the territory.

As a hobbyist game developer, of course my first thought was to make a game. Something I could manage in a couple months of scarce work, and something that would work really well on a tablet device. For some reason, I thought back to a special effect I put in a game I made 12 years ago. The effect was a rather nice looking water ripple thing, as if it was raining on some virtual water. And it ran pretty fast, so that’s good for flash, and for a mobile device. Then I tried to think of what kind of game was possible with rippling water. I went through lots of little ideas over the course of a couple days, and settled on pushing a little paper boat around with the little waves that you make with your fingers on the touch-screen tablet. I still didn’t know for sure what the actual gameplay was going to be, since making waves and pushing a boat around is a cool toy, but not a game.

Coding started, and the first attempt ended up in something way too slow to be playable. Then I found some genius who did the water ripple effect in a clever way in flash, and I was up and running again. I had to modify the genius’s code to allow for pushing a boat around, but then I had a working prototype. And it was magical. Well, as magical as things can be clicking a mouse on a computer screen to make ripples on a pretend pond. But wow, you’d drag the mouse to make a little wave, and that boat would surf on that wave for as long as the wave was going. I was pretty stoked. My little idea was working!

Then I decided it was about time to make sure it would work in Blackberry’s environment. Making apps for a totally new device before the device is finished is quite an adventure. It’s probably something like living on the frontier in the old west, or building an airplane while it’s flying. See, there aren’t any “hold my hand” tutorials to make games in such situations. You basically have to know how to make games beforehand, and adapt what you know to the weird rules that any device has. It’s getting a lot better over time, but any pre-release experience is going to be a little rocky. So after a few days of messing around with the Blackberry SDK and workflow, I actually got it working in their simulator. Hooray!

The time was the middle of February. That’s important because the deadline to submit was March 15, but I had to go to an academic research conference March 5-11. I didn’t want to cut things too close, lest I miss out on the free tablet action. So I decided a good deadline would be March 1. But like all good deadlines, it was hard to beat, and things weren’t done by then.

I had to spend time preparing for the conference, and my family’s important too, so I made very little progress up until the research conference. I had at least decided on a theme for the game or atmosphere of sorts. It would be raining. Deadly leaves (to your little paper boat) would float by. Lighting would flash, and thunder would sound. For whatever reason, coins would appear under the water for you to collect by moving your boat over them. With all of that decided, there really wasn’t a whole lot left to do, so I still had high hopes.

At the research conference, I presented my work the first day, and then I could basically turn into a vegetable. I did listen to a lot of the other presentations, but evenings were open, so I went back to the hotel and worked on my game. In addition, as a sort of mixed blessing, my roommate had somehow developed a remarkable skill of snoring so loud, you couldn’t even hear yourself think with earplugs in, and any dreams that might have come about would be of lumberjacks or dirtbikes. Since sleeping seemed like a bad thing to even attempt, I stayed up extra late and got lots of work on my game done. In the end, I’d say about half the game was developed in the US, and half was developed in Switzerland, all by the same person.

Thinking I still had to submit by March 15, I even worked on it in the airport and for an hour on the airplane (until the battery died). I resolved to not have jet lag so I could finish it within a couple days. Settling in for an extreme programming sprint on March 13, I noticed while sifting through forums for documentation that the deadline was extended to March 31. I promptly got rid of the resolution to not have jet lag, and was tired.

With the extra time I thought it would be good to add some kind of simple story, including an end-game sequence. That didn’t end up happening (although I still want to), but I did make a pretty nice little title screen. And I was able to polish the game a lot more, including balancing the gameplay a little more.

So I submitted the game on March 23, and got notice that it qualified for the free Playbook on March 30. Whew! And now it should be arriving in the next couple of weeks.

Since then I uploaded the game to Kongregate, an online flash game community, where it didn’t fit their weird unwritten rules that “all games must have upgrades, achievements, simple graphics, teenage humor, and either be tower defense or a platformer, otherwise we’ll only give you 1/5 stars.” Since all my friends naturally gave it 5 stars, it balanced out to a nice 2.6/5 stars. You can play it here:


Or if you happen to have a Blackberry Playbook, you can buy it here:


I hope to eventually polish the gameplay a little more (make it more exciting), then port it to iOS and android.

I’m proud of my little game, which rocks because I SHIPPED IT!

– J. Alan Atherton

Filed Under: Game Development, Guest Posts, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 8 Comments to Read

  • dcfedor said,

    Refreshing story, and nice work! I gave the Flash app at Kongregate a try, and it was very peaceful and atmospheric. The control scheme is an interesting one, and the random raindrops affecting the boat were a nice touch too. Very accessible subject matter, as well!

    Soon after getting the hang of it, and collecting my first few coins, I wondered what happens next. Do the coins help me in some way? Will I encounter anything else in this environment? You may also want to play with the pacing a bit, as it can get slow at times (feels like waiting for the game to catch up).

    Again, good work! I think you’re on to something, and can’t wait to see where you take it!

  • sic! said,

    Nice little anecdote. Especially because it portraits a developers bias in a quite undramatic way. I do like this example because is it a nice collection of things that have worked and others that have not, it shows where a idea can get you and where an idea alone has its limits. Right now it is not a real game. It is a nicely done tech demo, it shows the idea the designer had, that he is capable of making his idea work in flash, and that it is possible to work this idea into a very basic game demo, complete with a nice looking result.

    Are the people on kongregate right by voting 1/5? It depends on what they did expect. I do see potential in this idea, but speaking through a publishers point of view i would have to ask the developer, what his final goal with this little flash app is, what his next steps in making a game out of this would be. Then speaking from a developers point of view, a 5/5 in its actual version is of course out of question. The controls still needs work, a little whacky around the boat itself (needs to be more tolerant to pixel-distortion), not intuitive enough, quite a lot of people are not able to grasp the concept at all without demonstration, it is also difficult to differentiate the bow from the stern. Mainly it needs polish in the final steps of fiddling with the core code, then a working game concept can be worked on. Also the mood of the app is unclear. Should the player just have fun and make the boat ride the waves? Or should he collect Coins in order to reach some kind of game goal? In showing off what the idea can do it is not necessary, but if i want to achive more…

    But well, this is where the next difficult part of being a developer makes its appearance. Having a good idea is part one. Ceck. Making it work part two. Check. Making a game which people want to play part three. That’s where the app is right now. I do hope also this problem will be solved succesfully, because i do like the basic idea. And of course, there is more than three parts. But reaching step three is the really important thing, because it delivers an example, which can be refered to later on.

  • J. Alan Atherton said,

    Thanks for the comments. I do agree that it can use some polish work, but I would like to defend what is called a game. Would you call Asteroids (as in _the_ Asteroids) a game? All you do is collect points, after all. And the controls are kind of unintuitive at first. (I will grant that Asteroids is more fun). I think what has happened is people have forgotten the realm of simple games.

    If this were a tech demo, I would have stopped at the point where the ship moved around with the waves, and been done. I would have left out the leaves, the coins, the sound effects, the large piles of coins, the increasing difficulty of the game, etc. Be careful what you call a tech demo, as you might convince lots of budding developers that they should wait until they have a fully AAA polished game before they release, and we’ll all miss out on a lot of cool things.

    Back to the game, I do have some ideas on how to improve it, and many of them circle back to removing the mechanic of piloting the ship with the waves. Instead, the ship could be controlled in some other way, and the waves would affect the ship, and the leaves, and other possible obstacles. Enemy ships would come and try to ram your ship, and you would use the waves to move leaves into their path or ram the ships against some other obstacle. There are lots of ideas, but I still argue that what I have now is a complete game, just a very simple one.

  • sic! said,

    Well, yes, it does qualify as a game if you use these comparisons. But are you satisfied with being compared to asteroids? It is a classic of course, and simple gaming still has its merits.

    Let’s stay at kongregate and take a look at simple gaming. Music Catch is an excellent example for a game with the only objective of catching/collecting things, polished to a point where people will come back, because it is easy to understand, one can always try to improve, it has only a moderate negative response for a players failure, graphic is simple but clearly defined (i.e. good/bad easily recognized), good choice of music. I usually encourage junior developers to study sucessful games, and try to understand what does make them sucessful. Not copying, but conceptual understanding.

    And yes, you are right in critizing my view of it as a tech demo. You see, when i do get a first look at a programm in development it usually has passed various other quality controls, graphic/coding mainly, which usually get to see a much more raw form of the ideas. These would be more true to a tech demo of course. But it is still far from being saleable then. It is a tech demo for publishing, you could say. Maybe i should call it something more like a gamma version, but even that wouldn’t hit the spot. And of course an independent developer should not wait to achive AAA status before relase. But it is important not to stop developing after the first release if feedback is worse than expected (and it mostly is). A first release, even it is only partly working, is something most ideas will never achive. It is something to be proud of.

  • J. Alan Atherton said,

    Your points are well taken, and I really do appreciate the feedback. I’m not trying to defend the rough points about my game. You’re certainly entitled to point those out, as they are certainly there. I know they exist, and I even know some things to try to smooth them out… eventually.

    In the end, this is a hobby for me. I’m tired enough of many mainstream games that I would probably hate a job as a game developer that makes such games. I just have to hope that I’ll have a job in the end that allows me some time to tinker with games. Or that by some mysterious phenomenon, everyone suddenly loves my game and I earn billions 🙂

  • Noumenon said,

    You “sold” the game, to me, at least. I tried it.

  • Enry said,

    I find your characterization of the Kongregate community to be overly defensive, antagonizing and even slightly bitter.

    I played the game and yes, it’s certainly a complete game if you happen to live in 1979 (aka the year Asteroids was released).

    I also read most of the comments on Kongregate that had a positive score, and by and large they are full of constructive criticism, with clear-cut suggestions on exactly what the player was expecting from the game and didn’t get.

    Now I’m not a game developer myself, but if it’s anything like everything else in life, it’s not often that you find people willing to give you that kind of clear and exact feedback, and maybe it would be a good idea to take it to heart, instead of taking it personally and skulking off somewhere else (i.e. here) to grouse about it.

  • “I shipped it” « Zeitalter3 – Browsergames Entwicklerblog said,

    […] Das hier ist eine nette Geschichte über die lange Entstehung eines kleinen Spiel. Wobei die eigentliche Entwicklung des endgültigen Spiels nur ein paar Tage gedauert hat. Und keine Sorge: die Geschichte hat ein Happy End: “I’m proud of my little game, which rocks because I SHIPPED IT!” […]