Community Spotlight: Behind Aqua Balls

By Ozzie Mejia, Jul 18, 2012 9:00am PDT

It's not easy coming up with a concept for a game, so the best start is to keep it simple--as simple as mixing balls and water.

Aqua Balls is a new addition to the growing casual gaming section of the Google Play store. It's a game about filling up the screen with friendly Aqua Balls by expanding them as much as possible while avoiding obstacles. In this case, the obstacles mainly consist of antagonistic bubbles called Angry Balls. Spanning multiple areas, with each containing 12 levels, Aqua Balls is an ad-supported free download.

This Android mobile title represents the debut effort from Brad "bradsh" Huizenga, a Shacknews community member since 2003. He previously collaborated with his brother on various programming and web-based projects. His brother then coaxed him into Android development. Huizenga had prior experience with numerous paint programs, so he brought over his artistic talents (along with some programming talent) to what would soon become Aqua Balls. But what made Huizenga and his brother choose Android over other platforms, like iOS and XNA? It came down to simplicity and cost-effectiveness.

Aqua Balls

"My understanding is that Apple App Store apps cost a larger amount to submit to the store," Huizenga said. "Google Play is only $25 to open a developer account. Plus, you need Mac hardware to even develop for their devices. Since we don't have iPhones or Macs, it made the most sense to use the tools we already owned. I think XNA has even larger barriers to entry, but to be honest, I haven't looked into it. Android is easy to develop for, and the development tools are nice. It's very easy to dip your toes in and get a feel for the platform."

Huizenga also wanted to work with the Unity engine, but money once again became an issue. As an alternative, he and his brother chose to work with a free open source Android 2D engine called AndEngine (http://www.andengine.org/). AndEngine supports Box2D, the same 2D physics engine used for Angry Birds. While it was free to use, however, AndEngine brought its share of problems to the projects, namely the lack of instructional documentation.

After browsing AndEngine's community forums, Huizenga's development cycle for Aqua Balls was under way. Huizenga's brother constructed a playable prototype within the first month and the full game was released two months later. Huizenga credits the speedy development to Google Play's developer-friendly update guidelines. "With mobile apps, especially on Google Play, you can update as frequently as you want," he said. "We kind of pushed the first version out the door as soon as we felt it was playable and polished with no show stopping bugs. We fully intend to continue developing it into the coming months."

Among the updates planned for Aqua Balls are new worlds, new game types, Scoreloop support for leaderboards, Facebook integration, and a challenge mode. Huizenga notes that his day job will prevent him from updating the game as quickly as he would like, while his brother is currently in China. However, he says that updates will come soon.

After releasing Aqua Balls and delivering the news to the Shack community, Huizenga started to receive feedback from his fellow Shackers. "Shackers have given me a variety of ideas for new game types, ways to improve advertising, and ways to get the word out," he said. Among the Shackers that offered to lend a helping hand were dahanese, OverloadUT, chuck577, and theDrMikey. In an effort to give back to the community, Huizenga has some advice to offer fellow Shackers looking to get into game development.

"You need to develop actual skills in game creation," Huizenga said. "You can have all the ideas in the world, and if you can't actualize them yourself, you will never get anywhere. The ongoing joke is the guy who shows up to a modding community and says 'Hey guys, I've got this great idea for a game, who wants to program it, do the art, and make the music?' Well, those are all the parts of the game that are hard and actually matter. The ideas are often the easy part."

Keep it simple, he said, then build on that. "Get feedback. Make it better. Expect your first 10 tries to be terrible. I've actually worked on games in the past with programming and level design, so I've been doing this a lot. I've had a lot of failed projects in my history. One of my first mods was for Jedi Knight, called Jedi Knight Arena (if you want to take a trip 10 years into the past). It took us so long to create that almost nobody downloaded it. Sometimes that's how it goes. So my advice is to work hard, expect no success, and do it for the fun of doing it. Because sometimes that's the only payment you're going to get -- the fun of creating."

With his first game under his belt, Huizenga hopes to begin his next project soon, one that will likely veer away from the casual crowd. "I've never really liked casual games that much, and although I personally think Aqua Balls is a lot of fun, I'd like to make something a little more action or strategy oriented."

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