A brief history of "Ten"

Hello again, as ever hope you are all well. In today's blog I want to give a brief recap of the development of Number Ten so far, from the original idea through to the current state.

The Elizabeth Tower (or "Big Ben" as it is usually called) showing two minutes to the release of Number Ten (I can dream...!)

As I've mentioned previously, my interest in computers and computer games stretches all the way back to 1981, with my dad's purchase of a Sinclair ZX81. As the early home computers were so limited in their capabilities, it was possible for individual programmers to produce games every bit as good as those made by games studios - indeed, most games studios in those days were simply small groups of self-taught programmers. Arguably the greatest game of the era, "Manic Miner", was the work of one teenager the legendary - at least in gaming circles - Matthew Smith, and the football genre was kicked off pretty much single-handedly by the (equally legendary) Kevin Toms, whose Football Manager for the ZX81 was my first taste of a simulation game, and my first real computer addiction.

In the world of home micro-computing of the early 1980s, many games were also made available through the printing of the code in magazines. Along with my brothers, I would spend hours typing in lines of code from printouts listed in Sinclair Programs and other magazines. The machines themselves encouraged the learning of programming skills. The ZX81 and Spectrum came with excellent manuals which gave a gentle introduction into programming with BASIC, the dominant language of the time. Armed with these rudimentary skills, I and my brothers took a stab at creating our own games.

The results weren't spectacular, but they weren't disastrous either. Most of the games as I recall were variations of "Frogger" or "Scramble" (a side-scrolling simulation of a fighter plane over a rolling terrain), or basic management simulations which required the user to input a set of values on a regular basis and spat out a series of results depending upon the values entered.

One game I saw advertised in Sinclair User caught my eye - a politics simulation called "Great Britain Ltd". The premise of the game was simple - you took charge as UK Prime Minister, and managed the country's budget and policies through to an election, at which your electorate would pass judgement on your regime. Unfortunately, I never got to play the game... the £7.95 or whatever it cost was probably out of my pocket money's reach, and no-one else seemed to have a copy of it (legitimate or otherwise) for me to try.

Fast-forward to 2014... thumbing through the App Store for a decent game to pass the time on my commute, having grown tired of Angry Birds, Baseball Superstars and whatever other apps were dominating my screen time, my memories of Great Britain Ltd come back to me. "There must be something like that on the iPhone", I think to myself. After a long and extensive hunt, however, I can find nothing remotely similar. Then the thought comes to me. "Why don't I build it myself? I used to do stuff like that back on the ZX81... how hard can it be?"

The thought triggered an initial burst of activity. I began creating mock-ups of how the game's screens would look. As you will have seen on previous blogs, these early versions were somewhat hamstrung by the limited design tools available to me - as I learned, the best design tools were generally available for Macs only, and all I had was a Windows PC. Not just any Windows version either, but Vista, one of its most troubled incarnations.

Nevertheless, the prototypes did capture the essence of what I thought the game should involve. I showed them to a few people and the feedback I received clearly wasn't negative enough for me to give up on the idea altogether, because my next move was to splash out on a MacBook Pro, with the intention of building the first version in what I assumed would be the ideal tool for the budding app designer - Xcode, Apple's app development platform of choice. It wasn't long before I discovered that Xcode isn't quite the simple "it just works" drag-and-drop-fest I'd anticipated. Even basic apps required a knowledge of code. I was fortunate that Apple had recently launched a new coding language, Swift, designed with ease of learning in mind, and I was able to produce some basic screen flows, including tables, images, buttons ,and navigations. It gradually became obvious though that I needed some proper training if I was going to be able to build this thing myself.

And so, in 2017 I signed up for the London App Brewery's iOS Development Course, without question one of the best decisions I have made. Over the course of two weekends in August, I and a group of other budding app designers headed to the LAB offices in the City of London, where Angela and Philipp, the two co-founders on the company, gave us a thorough education in the arts not just of app development, but design, marketing, and advice in how to avoid the common pitfalls of failure that beset so many. I shared my idea and my embryonic designs, which received much-needed - and delicately put! - constructive criticism and suggestion ("is there a reason you have a different colour for each of those six buttons, Richard?"... "Er...").

Attending the LAB course has given me all of the confidence and a lot of the skills to push forward with Number Ten. In addition, the lifetime's access to the comprehensive library of video training has been invaluable. There were times when I have been so reliant upon Angela's video expositions that her voice has been heard in our household more than anyone else's outside of our family ("who's that upstairs?" "oh no-one, Richard's just watching that app lady again...").

The course also gave me an appreciation of just how out-of-touch with the world of technology in the 2010s I'd become, and how far ahead of me the next generation was. I often hear millennials being spoken of in derogatory terms, largely by those from other generations who seem incapable of appreciating the different challenges and circumstances they face. I'd advise them to spend an hour or two in the company of Angela and Philipp, that might give them some appreciation of the breadth of knowledge, skills and communication ability that some of Generation Y's best possess.

One piece of advice Philipp gave me to make my first release a smaller, more achievable deliverable, and the election mode is based upon that. It's still a big piece of work, but I've made great progress in the last few weeks, and the delivery velocity has increased as my experience with Swift and Xcode has grown. This last week has seen me conquer one of the design questions with which I've long wrestled, namely the game's screen flow. I'm thrilled to report that the app is now using the game's rules engine to determine which screen, and which event, to show next. There's still a great deal of work ahead, but it feels like I've reached the summit and have started on the journey down.

Oh - and I finally played Great Britain Ltd this month! Like so many great games from the past it can be found on various Spectrum emulator websites. I'd held off hunting for it for a long time, for fear of being too influenced by what I saw, but it's understandably somewhat different to what I'm working on. Credit to its creator Simon Hessel, the game is still pretty enjoyable nearly 40 years later - enough at least for my son to find it worth playing more than once (which says a lot). And with that, I'll crack on... hopefully it won't be another 40 years before I finally get my own game out (besides, Mrs E. wants me back earning money a lot sooner than that...)

Take care, and speak soon,


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