DEV Blog: Dog Walker – progress through iteration

Build something new. Break it. Then wipe the slate clean and try again. Eventually, your slate will bear a completed project, reinforced with all the failed iterations you washed away. And even afterwards, once the project is finished, you can reuse that knowledge. The project can be extended, or re-imagined into something new: a chance for further learning and development.

This blog post is a check-in/retrospective hybrid about the app I’m working on: Dog Walker. Dog Walker is the tentative name for a mobile app where you use real life activity to walk and race with virtual dogs. I want to talk about the ideas and projects that preceded this app, and how they’ve informed the current work on Dog Walker.

This idea has been cultivating for a while, thanks to a cyclical process of trying new things, throwing them away, and starting again. This helps me build skills and knowledge in new areas, while not tethering myself to initial mistakes within any one project.

I like to think of each iteration of the core idea as helping me learn new skills and try new mechanics, which I refined through restarting the project until it was complete. That refined knowledge allowed me to create the next idea, the next project, the next mechanic. With those came new skills, which I honed in the same iterative fashion.

When I first started working on the initial iteration of Dog Walker, it was very different. I wanted to work on my development skills without having to worry about creating art. I’m not an artist, and at the time I didn’t want to spend any money on commissions. So, I transformed my idea to walking Pokemon instead of dogs. There were two reasons for this: I love Pokemon, and there is a ton of existing Pokemon art I could use for my ideas.

It’s also really motivating to work on your projects/ideas using existing franchises you already like. The idea of hatching Pokemon eggs by walking in real life (akin to the main-line games)? Who wouldn’t want to learn how to develop that?!

And so I did. My first app, Pokemon Day Care, taught me iPhone development and used the initial mechanic of using real life steps as in-game experience. The extension of that idea into a web app taught me a lot about C# and Web development. After that, transforming the idea into two apps for the Fitbit let me dabble in JavaScript development. Finally, I moved to creating my own IP, where the above ideas are refined in a mobile app, letting me practice my Unity development skills.

Pokemon Day Care iPhone App

Various screenshots of the Pokemon Day Care iPhone app

Skills Learned

  • iOS Development
  • Model-View-Controller design pattern
  • Swift coding language
  • Debugging
  • Playtesting
  • App deployment

Game Mechanics Introduced

  • Using real life steps to hatch, level, and evolve Pokemon
  • Collect new eggs once a day by logging in
  • Collect gym badges by collecting the teams of the Johto gym leaders
  • Challenge prolific trainers for the highest step count in the leaderboard

Pokemon Day Care is an app I made for the iPhone 6S. It used your daily steps to hatch, level, and evolve Pokemon you collected from Professor Oak. It is similar to Pokemon Go’s egg collection mechanic, but there are some key differences. This app doesn’t need an internet connection to be played. You also don’t need the app to be running (or active in the background) for your steps to be used in the app. While I loved Pokemon Go (I walked 16 kilometres the day it came out), I didn’t like having to stop in my tracks to focus on the app. So, Pokemon Day Care syncs your steps once a day, using Apple’s HealthKit, to allow you to focus on your exercise without checking the app!

I worked on this project during university, while I was learning about app development. One of our assignments was to make an iPhone shopping app using the Model-View-Controller software design pattern. I saw how I could implement the same design pattern for my app, and after a few iterations I managed to complete it. I learnt a lot about iOS development and coding in swift, as well as debugging, testing, and deploying apps.

Pokemon Day Care Web App

Screenshots of the Pokemon Day Care web app

Skills Learned

  • HTML, CSS, Javascript, and jQuery
  • C#, LINQ, and SQL
  • Azure Web App Deployment
  • Fitbit API integration
  • Documentation maintained and created for version updates
  • Dedicated DEV and PROD environments for quality assurance, debugging, and testing
  • Use of the Software Development Lifecycle during the development, release, and maintenance of this project

Game Mechanics Introduced

  • Complete with other users for the most steps in leaderboards
  • Weekly and Monthly leaderboards

This iteration of Pokemon Day Care was an online web application that used a user’s Fitbit step data to hatch and level Pokemon. It’s pretty similar to the iPhone app, but the leaderboard was updated and let you see other users steps. The application was hosted by Windows Azure with information stored and maintained in an SQL database.

This project was initially very difficult. I restarted it multiple times out of frustration. Luckily, I was working as a .NET developer while developing this project. So while I was gaining knowledge at work, I was able to transfer it to my web application. I’ve come a long way since then, even becoming a Microsoft Certified Professional for Web Applications.

The Facebook page for the Pokemon Day Care web app

This was also probably the most traction any of these projects received. At it’s peak there were over 50 daily active users worldwide. Kinda bad numbers, but I didn’t advertise or promote it too heavily. However, this limited audience presented the opportunity to practice writing change-logs and dev blogs, where I described changes and updates to the site.

This project came to an end when I was trying to implement a race update, where you could race NPCs for the most steps. This was meant to motivate people (me) to run more. You’d be able to challenge a NPC and your Pokemon team would gain experience based on the results and your steps.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get access to intra-day step data from Fitbit (it needs to be approved on a case-by-case basis, and this case failed), so I stopped working on the website and eventually took it down.

After a while I was determined to try this new mechanic again, but on a more accommodating medium. I wanted to update my Fitbit as well, since it was over 2 years old and a little worse for wear. That’s when I noticed I was able to develop apps for my new Fitbit Versa, and it would have access to intra-day data off the bat.

Pokemon Day Care Fitbit Apps

Screenshots of the Pokemon Day Care apps for the Fitbit Versa

Skills Learned

  • Greater understanding of JavaScript, CSS, and SVGs

Game Mechanics Introduced

  • Race against NPCs to see who can gain the most number of steps in 15 minutes

These next two apps introduced the least new amount of skills, but they were a great way to reiterate over the existing skills to hone the racing mechanic on a new platform.

PDC Battle was an application that lets you race AI opponents for the most steps within a set period of time, and PDC Hatch was an application that uses your daily steps to hatch and level Pokemon.

PDC Hatch was just yet another re-imagining of my previous works, but PDC Battle was the app that introduced the failed “racing” mechanic into my work. You were able to battle the Gym Leaders of Kanto, each one rising in difficulty, until you came face to face with the Elite Four. You could keep track of your badges, wins, and losses, all in the app! I had to tweak the difficulty of the game initially, as during my play-testing I couldn’t even beat the easiest Gym Leader! But some tweaking to the difficult settings fixed that right up. The difficulty scale was tweaked to help me increase my running speed, where the most difficult trainer would be my goal pace for a 5 kilometre run. Unfortunately, my Fitbit broke before I could reach that far, and now these two projects are stored on Github (PDC Battle here and PDC Hatch here).

PDC Hatch in action!

This project was fun to work on. I was working as a JavaScript developer while completing this project. I had also used JavaScript previously to get my web application to work, and Fitbit used a lightweight JavaScript engine for apps, so there was a lot of skill overlap. The apps could only be 10MB in size at installation time, so condensing the apps down was a real challenge. In a way, it helped shape the apps more than it did constraint it. The size limit is why the apps are separate, and it stripped away the unnecessary bells and whistles I would have been distracted in implementing. Nonetheless, I battled ferociously with the Fatal Jerryscript Error: ERR_OUT_OF_MEMORY message that would taunt me through development. Finally, through tons of refactoring and minifying, my apps were small enough to be played without any issues!

Dog Walker App in Unity

Now we’ve come to my current project! The final iteration of this idea to incorporate real world fitness into a game comes in the form of my Dog Walker app. This takes inspiration from all the previous ideas, culminating in an app where you can walk dogs and race alongside them against your (in game) neighbours.

The biggest difference here is changing the theme from Pokemon to dogs. This was done for two reasons: 1. to allow myself to publish this without any copyrighting issue, and 2. to let me dip a toe in contracting artists for work.

This iteration has proved the most difficult. I made the decision to create this idea in the Unity game engine. I love game development, and am now no stranger to C#, but I’ve only developed a small few games in the engine. You would have seen some blog posts on Egg Catch and Remember This! somewhere around here. I also have a lot of other larger ideas I want to implement using the same engine, so this project serves as an important conduit between developing small web based mini-games and developing projects on a larger scale.

I have restarted this Unity project probably around 5 times. Since my initial prototyping attempts to now. Thanks to my previous attempts, my current vision for the project is at its most clearest. I’m hoping this iteration of Dog Walker will be the final one.

My most recent abandonment on this project was utilising a web API I created, which would update an SQL back-end and return results. This relied too heavily on an internet connection (straying from my first app’s vision), so I canned the project. I’ve now restructured the development to avoid the need for an internet connection wherever possible.

Meet your neighbours from the Dog Walker app!

While I don’t have much to share from this project, I can share these adorable dogs and their owners! I commissioned an Adelaide artist to help come up with concepts for these characters, and I’m really happy with how they have turned out. I worked with an artist called Krystal Davies and you can find her website here. It’s been a lot of fun collaborating with other people in Adelaide. Now it’s back to the grindstone to ensure the code in this project is as good as the art!

That’s it for today! I hope this little project retrospective was an interesting read. I find it neat that my past projects reflected skills I was using for my work positions at the time. Kind of like a symbiotic relationship where I was developing my work skills, and advancing my hobby projects at the same time.

I don’t think I’ll have another blog post for a while: I need to shift my priorities to app development. But you can always find me on twitter, where I am very bad at remembering to post!

Until next time,

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