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The magic of bubbles

How Unity helped turn a fleeting vision into an amazing 2D game

Tiny Bubbles: Unity for 2D games case study

Veteran indie developer Stu Denman had a grandfather who had worked on the Manhattan Project, and afterward studied the physics of soap bubbles. Half a century later, Stu couldn’t get his grandfather’s bubble work out of his head. He was dreaming bubbles at night. But would he be able to turn the seed of an idea into a polished, fun and challenging game?

The game

Tiny Bubbles, a beautiful award-winning physics puzzler, developed by Pine Street Codeworks.

The goal

To mirror the natural physics of bubbles in a fun puzzle game

Platforms

iOS, Android, PC, Mac, Linux

Number of team members

2

Location

Seattle, Washington

As a technical director at AAA studios, Stu Denman had lead teams of 30+ game developers. At a certain point in his career, though, he got an urge to create a game on his own. The flexibility and complete toolset that comes with Unity helped him create Tiny Bubbles: a clever, mesmerizing, addicting puzzle game with over 160 levels.

The results:

  • Saved thousands of dollars on quality Asset Store plugins
  • Localization tool saved months of development time
  • Winner of multiple awards, including Google Indie Festival, Intel Buzz: Best Overall PC Game, Seattle Indie Games competition, and Mobile Games Forum Indie Showdown
Tiny Bubbles: a Unity for 2D games case study
Stu Denman , co-founder and developer at Pine Street Codeworks, explains why Unity was the perfect tool to help him realize his vision.

The spark that set fire to his imagination

When he started out on this project, Denman only had the seed of inspiration. He knew he wanted to make a game revolving around soap bubbles, but he didn’t know what that game would be like. The extensibility and modular design of the Unity Editor gave him the freedom he needed to experiment.

“In order to see what was fun and what wasn’t, I decided to make an editor inside of Unity, you know, so I could play the game and test immediately, go back, move things around, back and forth, back and forth. The flexibility of the Unity Editor really improved the game design.

“Unity frees me from having to worry about those things that I’ve invented before,” Denman says. “Instead, I can focus on more interesting technologies that I haven’t tried yet. The bubble physics is a great example of that.”

Below, you can see the custom bubble editor, which Denman added to the Unity Editor.

100X return on investment

In addition to adding his own tools, Denman also used many pre-existing tools from the Unity Asset Store, and he says that they offered an incredible ROI.

“Sometimes you don’t comprehend how much work and polish it takes to complete a project and compete in a market that’s so competitive. But when you throw your game in front of players, you realize, oh my gosh, I need to add an effect here. I need to improve the look of a feature there.

“So being able to go to the Asset Store and find a tool there–probably for 100 times less than you would spend making it yourself–is just phenomenally awesome. It saves tons of time for sure,” Denman says.

What’s more, he often experiences that the assets he initially acquires for one specific reason hold hidden benefits elsewhere. TextMesh Pro was a good example of this:

“I grabbed TextMesh Pro to add icons in my text and‒not only did it allow me to do that quickly and efficiently and for very little money‒but it had a tremendous number of other very cool features I could take advantage of that I never expected.”

Playing with bubbles: A universal right?

The result of Denman’s experimentations was an award-winning game with over 160 intriguing puzzles. The game mirrors the actual physics of bubbles in the real world with regard to pressure and surface tension, interaction, and cascading chain reactions.

“Bubbles are this elemental human thing. There’s just something fascinating about bubbles that everyone loves regardless of their age, sex, or culture. And I wanted to offer this great new way to play with clusters of bubbles to as many people as possible, including people who are color blind or rely on eye trackers. In order to that, though, I needed to be in as many different languages and platforms as possible, and that’s definitely one big reason why I chose Unity,” Denman says.

Using the I2 Localization plugin from the Asset Store, Denman was able to store all his languages on a Google Spreadsheet. He could then share the spreadsheet with translators. Once approved, the text was automatically pulled into Unity.

“I was really blown away by how ridiculously easy it was. It would have taken me probably two months or more to make that same software. I got a third of the game localized in a single day, including the integration and tutorials. And it’s going to save me hours and hours,” he says.

Real-time insight and monetization tools

Once he created the prototype, Denman was eager to see how people would respond to his experimentations and what they would actually do in the game. In order to do so, he enabled Unity Analytics and began to send it out to friends.

The Unity Analytics dashboard has enabled him to look at things like, for example, which levels take more tries to win or at which levels people stop playing the game. In order to base some potentially critical business decisions on sound data, Denman plans to continue to use Unity Analytics when the game goes to beta.

Will they pay to play?

One major decision Unity Analytics will help with is Denman’s business model regarding monetization.

“The market is challenging out there right now, so it’s important that I choose the best model for the given platform and market. All of those markets have different kinds of players, so you really need to test retention for those different types of players in order to have an idea of which one is going to make you the most money.

“Sometimes if your retention is lower, it’s better to go premium, and if your retention is higher, it’s better to go free-to-play. Unity Analytics lets you look at retention and make a decision based on data.”

In order to be ready for a free-to-play audience, Denman is prepared to complement Unity Analytics with Unity Ads and IAP. He has already integrated ads into his design in a way that will offer a good player experience to different types of players.

“I use reward-based ads for the hints and power-ups and the puzzles. If the player is struggling and they need help, they can watch an ad and get a reward like a hint. The hints help make the game accessible to a wider audience. It allows casual players to get through some of the more difficult puzzles, where a more hard-core player might prefer to labor through the solution.”

Denman has taken full advantage of what Unity offers. First, the flexible, modular design helped him follow his interest when he only had an inkling of what the final game would look like. Next, the Unity Asset Store and his own custom tools enabled him to focus on the core of the game itself. Finally, Unity IAP, Ads and Analytics are helping get the game right in a way that will enable him to get paid for all his hard work.

Tiny Bubbles Jelly Crab

“Unity’s modular design tends to keep things fairly clean. So if you have stability issues in one part, it doesn’t affect the rest of the game. And it means that overall, through the course of your development, your game tends to be a lot more stable than what I’ve experienced with other engines that I’ve used.”

— Stu Denman, Founder and Lead Programmer at Pine Street Codeworks

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