Video games are many things to many people. Sometimes they're sombre stories about saving the world: managing a society's rise; taking on the Nazis; finding a way through situations where countless 'lives' are at stake. And sometimes games are just pure escapist fantasy; light-hearted joy that transports you away from this vale of tears, if only for half an hour.
Bubbles the Cat definitely falls in the latter category. An upcoming mobile and PC game developed by Johnny Wallbank, it's a single-button platformer about a cat who has fallen into another dimension. It has cute art, a load of different power ups, and an accessible design with that 'easy to play, tough to master' quality. Simple but a lot of fun.
"I’ve been working on Bubbles now for about… nine, ten months," Wallbank says. "It was going to be a hybrid between Lemmings and a platformer. I wanted to keep it right from the beginning as a single-button game, so I tried making it have those sort of puzzle elements – so different bubbles will give you power-ups and you’ll be able to use those elements to defeat stage elements. It’s quite finicky, so you have to be precise where you click, and it wasn’t really working out. So the process of turning that into a single-button platformer, that worked a treat.”
And Bubbles is a cat because…?
“Well, I like cats! A lot," Wallbank laughs. "That was going to feature in any game I was going to make. It’s partly a learning exercise as well. When some people take a break from work, they like to travel around the world, but I like making video games. I wanted to stretch my creative muscles out of work. I wanted to make something quite light, fun and colourful. I like those things in video games. It’s important to have art in the world that’s not too grim, especially right now with how the world is.”
Wallbank started his life as a developer at Codemasters, like many Leamington Spa-based developers. His big challenge in becoming a solo developer was that he’d been working as part of a big team, but now had to pick up the skills to do everything himself. He's working with an artist and a "sound and music chap" on Bubbles the Cat, but coding, game design, level design and anything else that crops up is entirely Wallbank's responsibility.
“Previously my remit was just games design, but all of a sudden it’s something that takes you quite by surprise - you have to do everything," Wallbank explains. It's been the promotional management side of game development that's caught him most off-guard. "Obviously that’s important for any game, but writing good press releases, making sure the website’s good, doing your own trailer – that all takes up a surprising amount of time, in addition to, oh, I need to make five levels this week!"
I asked Wallbank about how Bubbles the Cat had developed over time – had new features creeped in, or was the near-finished product shaping up as he'd intended?
"I think the amount of content has grown," he explains. "Over time I thought, oh I need to make these levels more and more difficult, as is natural for difficulty progression. But considering one hit means you have to restart the level, I started making quite long levels, and at some point I had to take a step back because people were like, 'I can’t finish this game, it’s too difficult!'. I want people to finish my games, so I started splitting the levels in two, and that seems to have worked really well. It’s resulted in a better difficulty curve and a lot more content, so everyone wins!"
I got a chance to play a decent amount of Bubbles the Cat during our meeting, and it's a charming experience. It's challenging in all the right ways, with clear signposting on how to get a better score if you repeat the level, and really creative use of power-ups. There's one power-up which causes explosions when you jump, which is great if you want to destroy a platform, but more of a challenge if you specifically need to get somewhere with that platform still intact for example.
While Bubbles the Cat is simple, it excels at what it's aiming for: a light-hearted distraction from a not-so-lighthearted world. It’s cute, it’s fun, and the perfect tonic at the end of a busy day. Bubbles the Cat will be out sometime in the next couple of months.