Herd The Birds: Herder, Birder, Faster, Stronger

Hatching a Huge Update

The original version of Herd The Birds, released on Apple TV last November 2020, was relatively barebones. While there were different levels, there was no real progression; maps and bird combinations were served randomly. The main draw was really the challenge (and cacophony) of trying to collect wandering birds, whether alone or with a teammate.

Nonetheless, I found that my daughters kept coming back to play the game, weeks and months after release. More than just playing it to win, they were using it as a toy: a sandbox for role-playing and passing time idly in an interactive setting. The girls would pretend to take care of the birds by feeding them or making elaborate houses with different rooms. The game had no time pressures or failure states, so it was a peaceful, non-threatening, and rich environment for free play.

So, without any conscious decision to make a v1.1 release, we slowly iterated on the game, tweaking the maps and graphics here and there. Then, the big decision to port it to the iPad was made, to make it easier to share with friends, most of whom did not have Apple TVs. This proved to be a pivotal decision since it opened the gates for more people to try out and contribute to the game.

Playtester hard at work

As we sent out test copies to a few friends and contacts, feedback from their children started coming in. Early on, a request came in for female farmers — a feature so face-palmingly obvious that I feel embarrassed to not have included from the get-go — and cuter graphics all around.

Beyond that, there were requests for more birds. In the original, we only had chickens, ducks, and the occasional turkey. I find that when I’m both the playtester and the developer, an internal conflict exists where the developer in me rationalizes against features that are easy to think of but painstaking to implement (“It would be great to have more birds here, but the entire process from drawing to programming the behaviors is time-consuming; besides, would it even matter to players?”). But when the feedback comes from other people, I am able to evaluate things more objectively and push myself over the wall of my internal laziness.

Penguins, Ostriches, and Kiwis, Oh My

We wanted to add variety, wackiness, and cuteness to the bird portfolio. We found that New Zealand (at least as far as quick internet research goes) seems to be home to quite a few of these interesting creatures, so we added fan-favorites such as penguins and ostriches to the mix, with the art, of course, by my girls. In the course of the work, I also learned about the intriguing kakapo, or the owl-parrot — a huge, flightless, nocturnal parrot that makes an incredible low “bloop” booming sound — and couldn’t resist adding it as well. All told, the roster of birds now tops out at nine.

Stella’s original ostrich drawing
The new in-game Field Guide showing all the birds

From the Farm, to the Lake, to the Coast

My daughters’ engagement with the virtual environment also encouraged me to create more variety in the scenes, so we started creating maps that featured picnics and mooing cows. We found that little things, such as ambient noise and the swaying of plants as farmers and birds passed, also contributed immensely to the overall immersiveness and richness. (And the tall cornstalks add extra challenge — try separating kiwi birds from chickens when they’re all hidden from view!) Later on, when the new birds were added, the “Kiwiland” levels were created, as a nod to their real-life inspiration, Stewart Island.

A Wild Kalimba Music Appears!

We had reached out to Barbie Almalbis, a Filipina singer-songwriter, to ask if she would be interested in contributing music to the game. It was a long shot considering that she was also working on the release of her new album (highly recommended!), so it was a delightful surprise when she said that she would be happy to put something together. (As an added bonus, her daughter became an avid playtester too — the request to include a female farmer option was hers.) Soon, she, working with her husband Martin, sent us the final track: not your standard 4-on-the-floor electronic beat, but a beautiful lilting waltz based around the kalimba. I have to admit that I like it so much that I sometimes just play it on loop on the living room speakers.

From Our Homes To Yours

All told, Herd The Birds is a passion project, borne out of the intersection of interests across different families who found themselves coming together during difficult pandemic times. We hope you and your children enjoy it, and, through it, we get to express and share the joy we experience on the continuing journey of its design and development.

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