Video games have always fascinated me. In high school, I got Game Maker 6, a cross-platform game engine, from a computer magazine. I started tinkering with it and I was immediately hooked. Despite making a bunch of hobbyist games in my teens, none of them ever really saw the light of day. Fast-forward a decade later, during the COVID-19 lockdown, I finally took the time to realize one of my childhood dreams. I developed and released my first official video game, Birdie Falls. Well, a mobile game to be precise.

In today’s post, I’ll be talking about where Birdie Falls came from, the design of the game and my experiences while making it.

The idea behind Birdie Falls

Two years ago, my wife started taking violin lessons fairly far from home. She isn’t fond of driving far by herself, so I drove her to class and then waited outside.

During these long waits, I would turn to mobile games to help pass the time. Subway Surfers, Temple Run and Pogocat were my favourite games to play. I was inspired by the simple formula most of these games had. Simple graphics, simple core mechanics and punishing difficulty that hooked you.

During this time, I started dreaming up a game of my own that ticked all of these boxes. My idea was this: You play as a bird, asleep in its nest high up in a tree when suddenly a gust of wind blows you out of the nest and you tumble to the ground (This is where the name comes from!). The object of the game would be to climb your way back up to your nest, and upon reaching it the level would be completed.

Eventually, the idea of having hand-placed levels with a nest to reach to complete the level fell away. I added what I called “Endless Mode” as a kind of secondary game mode, but it turned out to be more fun so I decided to pivot to that as the main game instead.

The catapult mechanic was the first thing I thought of as a core mechanic to get your birdie up through the branches. After playtesting the first version of the game for a couple of weeks, I decided to add the flap mechanic to add a bit more depth to the gameplay.

The art style

I didn’t know nearly enough about 3D modelling or animation to make a 3D game. Also, a really detailed 2D art style would have been time-consuming and hard to keep consistent. As such, the pixel art style was really a no-brainer. I’ve always been interested in the 8-bit aesthetic. Birdie Falls was a great excuse for me to finally learn how to do it, but it also ensured that I could create my art assets quickly.

The only part of the game where I felt like the art style was more a hurdle than a boon was with the UI. I had limited myself to using 16×16 pixels for most assets and this made UI icons hard to design. For instance, I couldn’t use a classic cog icon for my settings button. A 16×16 pixels grid is just too small to show the necessary level of detail. Instead, I had to opt for an icon depicting three sliders instead.

The first Birdie Falls

Soon it became time for me to bring my ideas to life with code. Being a web developer with almost no game development experience at the time, my first instinct was to try and use technologies I was comfortable with. After a bit of searching, I decided to try out Phaser, an HTML game development framework.

Here’s a little video from the first version I made using Phaser:

Working with Phaser was fun, but I wasn’t entirely sold on using it for Birdie Falls. Phaser can be a nice tool to build web-based games, but I wanted to primarily target mobile devices. After I had a chat with someone from Phaser on Twitter, I decided to use Unity instead.

Not knowing Unity at all at the time, it looked like it was the end of the road for my little birdie. At least at the time.

The learning experience

A couple of years ago I started to get serious about my personal productivity. At the start of every year I set some goals for myself. This year, it was finally time to get around to learning Unity. A professional Unity developer who is a close friend of mine helped me pick out a Udemy course to get me started on my game development journey.

Here’s the course, I rated it 5 stars because it taught me everything I needed to know to make Birdie Falls. I’d highly recommend it if you want to build a 2D game too.

I followed along with the course at a fairly slow but steady pace. My goal for every day was to spend at least 20 minutes working on the course. In the end, it took me around 3 months to complete.

The lockdown

After completing the course, I finally had all the skills necessary to make my first real game. However, I still lacked one important component: Enough free time to actually do it!

In late March, South Africa went into a national COVID-19 lockdown. Suddenly, I no longer had to commute to work. I knew I had to take this opportunity to make some good out of a bad situation.

During that first couple of weeks of lockdown, I devoted just about every waking second not eating, sleeping or working my day job to Birdie Falls. I used Adobe Photoshop to draw pixel art assets. I got my wife to help out and she ended up creating a lot of the cosmetic hat sprites while I developed the game mechanics.

Initially, my goal was to release the game at the end of September. I ended up having to delay it by a month because I had underestimated how long it would take to implement in-app purchases on both Android and iOS.

The launch

At the end of October, I still didn’t feel quite ready to launch, but I had to quite making excuses. I ended up launching the game without any marketing so I could ensure everything worked first.

Narrator: It didn’t.

I ran into quite a couple of issues on launch. iPhones weren’t using the correct ID to identify devices, banner ads weren’t working, the first pop-up users saw wouldn’t close, and more!

Thankfully I could patch most of those launch issues within the first couple of days. Now I am happy to say that the game is stable and the players are slowly but surely joining and checking out the game.

It has been a huge learning experience for me and a real dream come true. I hope that Birdie Falls will be the first of many games for me. I also hope that reading this post inspires you to start too if you’ve ever considered building your own game.