For the head of indie accelerator Right Pedal Studios, John Passfield, making games succeed and punch above their weight is all in a day's work. But he didn't expect that a simple co-curricular project with his own kids would enjoy mild commercial success — or even go on to do some good in the world.
It started out when John's daughter Ella was playing with an app that would take photos, and then apply funny captions when the device was shaken. Taking a photo of the dog would be accompanied by something like "I'm always hungry", and provide a laugh. That is, until one particularly rude comment popped up. "It certainly wasn't a G rated comment," said John.
So they decided to make their own app.
That was easily done for the father/daughter duo, and after that, John's son Zac had an idea for a game called Bees Get Dead. It was about tapping flowers to shoot water at bees, who would then... Well.
"When kids come up with ideas for games, it's huge, he wanted 30 levels, it was basically World of Warcraft," John shuddered. "So I said, rather than shoot the bees, let's be the bee, and tilt the screen to move. I mocked up something quickly to show how it might feel and play, and then we got to work."
At first they tried a photo of the backyard as a background, but that didn't look too great. So Ella had the idea of drawing the fence post with a background behind it. Together, the kids spent an entire weekend drawing the art, testing it, and remaking the assets that didn't work.
With all that in place, it took John about 40 hours - spread over two months - to code the game, make the UI, and make sure everything would work on the app store. Additional polish could have been applied but the game "has a bit more character this way" according to John, and it hit the store two months ago.
Thanks to a blog post from John (which made it to Gamasutra) telling the story of the game's development, it gained a bit of traction and Beetastic has been downloaded over 25,000 times across the App Store and Google Play. After it started seeing some serious players, the family put a banner ad in the game, and a company named Vungle put a video ad in the game. This raised a few hundred dollars for Ella and Zac each.
"That was really helpful as we were about to take a family trip to Japan, so they both had a bit of spending money that was due to their own efforts. It's a good incentive to do more."
Even cooler was Vungle's reaction to the game. Thinking it was cute, the ad company ran a promotion that meant for everyone that beat its high score of 56, Vungle would donate a beehive to a community in need through the Heifer International charity.
— Red Sprite Studios (@RedSpriteStudio) November 14, 2014
Beetastic still gets regular players, and the family team recently made a Christmas update with new art such as Santa hats, and Christmas music. "They've set up a little office," said John, "with an IKEA table and a little 'Beetastic' sign. They're now working on art assets that'll be used in updates for Valentine's Day, Easter, and Halloween, way ahead of time."
While John isn't quite ready to commit them to the SCRUM schedule yet, and he's had to walk a line between "something to do" and actual work, he says he hasn't had any problems with motivation. Even though the kids are big Minecraft fans, they enjoy seeing the ideas in their head come to life, and their gaming experience has led to some great advice.
"They have pretty good heads for game design, they were telling me they wanted a flower to be worth a certain amount of points, and a rainbow flower to be worth a certain amount more. I had the wrong icon in at one point for a Pause button - it was a cog - and they pointed out that it was wrong," said John. "Even things like pointing out when there needed to be less powerups and available points."
John recommends the activity to anyone, although not everyone will have the same coding chops. Though with the rise of tools like Unity and GameMaker, it's getting to the stage where such a parent/kid project is possible even with minimal coding knowledge. "Don't think about making a massive game," he said. "It can be Pong. Trust me, they'll come up with the crazy ideas."
As for the Passfields? They're already thinking about their next game.
"Ella wants to do a game about fairies," said John. Fairies it is.