I’ve Been Busy

It’s been a terribly long time without updates or launches, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy! Mainly, my time has been occupied by my day job which involves a lot of numbers (financial, statistical, etc.) and some really interesting math. (At some point I may write about how I tackled a difficult work problem that involves collapsing noisy statistical data into flat estimates by using game/simulation approaches.) But the fun stuff continues on the weekends. Here are a few of the things that I (and my 6- and 8-year old design contributors) have been fiddling around with.

This has been an idea since the first Covid-19 lockdowns hit, and I missed the experience of visiting museums and galleries. Online, when you talk about “discovery” it’s all about algorithms and analytics – but in the real world it simply means walking from where you are standing in the direction of something that looks cool and seeing what’s what. Of course with all the talk of the metaverse this year, people are getting excited about Ready Player One-style experiences, and when you mention “digital art” all anyone wants to talk about is NFTs, but I think there is an opportunity for something much simpler. Who knows…

Steampunk Flying Game

As kids my brother and I played a lot of Red Baron (my brother’s favorite move was dropping a bomb straight upwards and then letting it fall onto the poor dogfighter chasing him in circles). Unfortunately, as we grew up, planes got faster and missiles got smarter, so eventually combat flight sims turned into “point the reticle at that dot and then launch your fire-and-forget missile.” So I explored the idea of using a steampunk setting where slow planes wouldn’t be out of place to keep things exciting. I then spent dozens of hours getting the plane’s model, control surfaces, and flight instruments looking, working, and feeling right, and then lost interest. Mainly, the work to fully realize the game will involve a lot of things that are not aligned with my strengths and capacity, so it seems a poor fit.

Space Combat + Gravity Sim

Another game my brother and I played a lot was a paper-and-pencil game we called “Shooting Stars.” (Apparently it is a real thing, too.) I’m toying with the idea of implementing it on the iPad, but adding the dynamic of having asteroids that create gravitational fields, and which can also accurately fracture if shot at or collided with. The math involved in the last points is very interesting and I think I could get it to work, but another iPad-only title isn’t something I am going for at this time.

Movable Maze + Pet Care

This started as an exercise for me to test an art style, and the “proper” way to implement gameplay from the classic game “Beast” with class inheritance, but upon the prodding of my daughters I added “babies” to the player characters and soon enough there was a game mechanic involving finding food for your children (we watch a lot of nature documentaries). They’re still bugging me to continue this game, and I might, if I can think of a few more things to lock in a really fun core game loop.

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.

Some Articles Featuring Funny Cow Games

Just a quick update to note that we have been fortunate enough to have been picked up by some blogs and news outlets recently:

We are honored to have been featured by these publications and sites, and look forward to sharing more updates in the near future!

ForesTree: Closing the loop on Dad’s 30-year old idea

Funny Cow Games has recently released our first educational game, ForesTree, on both iOS and Android. Made in partnership with artist Cynthia Bauzon-Arre and Forest Foundation Philippines, it adopts the card-matching, memory-training game format as a tool to teach children and adults alike about trees that are native to the Philippines. Featuring Bauzon-Arre’s beautiful, hand-drawn illustrations, players learn to match pictures of each tree as well as its leaves, fruits, and flowers.

More than just my first mobile game made with a team, however, this project is in fact also quite personal in nature, as it closes the loop on a 30-year old request from my Dad.

My Dad was very supportive of my early interest in programming. I have clear memories of him looking over my shoulder as I messed around on the Apple computer he used for work when I was around the second grade. After showing him a game I made that mimicked Lode Runner, a game I dearly loved, he began taking my hobby more seriously. When finding a teacher or mentor didn’t work out, he began buying me manuals and technical books, and soon was actively participating in the hobby, offering ideas and insights for games we could make.

One idea that he planted early, and which I suspect he never truly let go of, was a game that promoted environmental awareness and activism. He had always been in love with nature, having grown up in the boondocks and fishponds of Davao; the foyer of our house had an enormous painting of a Philippine Eagle staring at you straight on. (He also tacked a large, white “Save Our Eagle” sticker on the literal rear bumper of his otherwise premium-looking dark green car…)

He called his game “Save the Forest,” pretty cheesy if I am being honest. In the first level, you play the human protector of a forest, running around with your machete and hacking down illegal loggers in gory animated detail. For level two, you, as a monkey, run around planting seeds on the ground in the midst of a torrential rain; the objective is to grow enough trees (they were remarkably fast-growing trees) to counteract the rapidly rising flood before it was too late. We never got around to working on the third level, but, looking back, that game was probably never destined to reach publication and distribution.

ForesTree is probably less dramatic than the environmental game Dad envisioned. But with the educational aspect, classic game format, and the all-age appeal, I hope that the game will be much more impactful, while being ever more relevant now than it was in the 80s. And it does feel like closure for me; I’d always felt like I failed him on one of the few serious requests he made of me while he was alive. So this one’s for you, Dad.