Sunday, August 7, 2011

Developing Android apps: it's really not so bad!


There's been some talk recently about how Android development can be difficult for newcomers to jump into (for one, this rant on Hacker News, claiming that you'll need "months researching Android design patterns"; the top rated response is mine.) I thought I'd elaborate and show my roughly two week journey from deciding "hey, I'd like to try building an app some time" to releasing a full blown, (IMHO) polished Android app to the market. I plan on following up with more stats in a week's time to show how I'm doing with revenues, downloads, etc.


Background

I'm no stranger to programming. I taught myself how to program in QBasic in 1995 (when I was 7) on a little computer running Windows 3.1 (although I worked solely from DOS.) I made dozens of little QBasic games. Had I been born 10-15 years earlier I could've had a great career making crappy looking, low-res games.

One game that I started and never finished back in the QBasic days was my version of Archon II: Adept. Disclaimer: I never actually played Archon II, I just saw it in an old magazine once and thought the idea of summoning creatures onto a chess-like board and having them duke it out seemed pretty cool. I'm not sure if that's really what Archon II is like, but I had no money and an active imagination.

I got my first Android device, an enTourage Pocket eDGe, on July 7th, exactly 1 month ago. (I can't recommend the device enough, but unfortunately enTourage has gone out of business.) After a few weeks, I decided to try my hand at developing my own Android app. For my first Android project, I thought it would be fun to take another shot at finishing the "Archon II" concept so I could play it on my Edge.

I'd never programmed in Java before, although I have similar experiences: I worked with C# which is almost identical to Java, and I also worked for a couple months in ColdFusion, which is an abstraction on top of Java.

Something that I really believe helped me get started smoothly was, frankly, my attitude. I don't waste time hating on Java, even though it's the cool thing to do. Java is what it is, it's very much ubiquitous right now, and it's just not productive to complain about it. Every language has shortcomings; Java is the standard language for Android development, so it's what I used. Also, when I first got started I hadn't yet read the plethora of blog posts about how terrible Android development is and how little money its developers make. I enjoyed the development process and, while it remains to be seen how my app will perform, I'm optimistic.


Getting Started

A simple Google search yielded some great tutorials that showed me how to get started with the Android SDK on Ubuntu. The whole process, downloading the SDK and Eclipse plugin and getting everything set up, took roughly 10 minutes, after which I grabbed a Hello World tutorial and was beyond excited when I got a custom text message to appear on my eDGe. It had begun.

I quickly became familiar with the Android development ecosystem: drawables, XML layouts, etc. I loved the fact that I drop an image into my drawable folder and refer to it by name or store it as an integer field in a class; with an XML drawable I could specify which image to use for a button by default and which to use when it was pressed. XML layouts were also a great alternative to programmatic layouts. Settings could easily be stored in preference files and retrieved by name, eliminating the need to create my own settings file read/write system. (At this point I really can't give enough props to Reddit user Lorc for his extremely high quality set of game images that have been made freely available. With a little coloring they look magnificent on a mobile device.)

Another great thing about Android development: for just about anything you might need to do (everything I needed to do, anyway), there's a helpful tutorial by someone who's done it before, and it's only a quick Google search away.

One hurdle I ran into: testing my app on the Android emulator. While convenient to test different display sizes, the emulator is painfully slow and took upwards of 10 minutes to boot up the first time. Not helping was the fact that I do most of my development on a netbook that's not especially powerful. I got around this problem by using my actual device for testing, using USB debugging mode when necessary. Problem solved.


Polish

I was busy full time during the day, but working only nights I was able to put together a working, playable prototype of my game within 4 evenings. (Confession: I stayed up pretty late some of those nights.) That was the easy part - I spent about a week and a half making various improvements and preparing for release.

The main difficulty at this point was the fact that I'd developed solely with the eDGe in mind, and there is a huge array of potential Android devices, each with their own resolution and capabilities. I came up with several ways to address this problem: using different layouts for different size devices, programmatically shrinking/expanding the size of the board and side bars, and including different sized boards for screens with different aspect ratios in the Settings menu.

I had some family members test the game and made some improvements based on feedback I got and new ideas I had. I made the UI more responsive by making the board extend SurfaceView instead of View, resulting in smoother animations. I simplified the controls, added trophies, and implemented a simple tutorial system that would give helpful messages the first time the user did certain things. I tried to keep things simple and intuitive to appeal to mainstream Android users.

I implemented an enemy AI that's pretty basic but still manages to beat me regularly. It looks at its potential moves, evaluates the condition of the board after making each move, and decides which is best based on things like proximity to allies/enemies and relative strengths and weaknesses.


Marketing and Release

A few days ago I committed on a Sunday evening release date, as I could keep polishing the app for years without releasing if I didn't make a firm decision. I reasoned that weekend evenings would probably see lots of users checking the market. I decided to release under the pseudonym "MonsterFace Games." "Monster face" refers to the face our cat makes when she's scolded, a kind of half-scowl that just barely shows teeth.

On Friday I started letting friends know that it was coming, posting to Facebook and Twitter. Saturday I learned how to integrate Google Analytics and AdMob into the game to serve ads on the free version and track statistics like what creatures and elements were most popular, what trophies were earned, and how often players won or lost.

One more unexpected speed bump - my release was about 3 hours later than I had hoped because I ran into problems putting up a free and paid version of the same app on the Android market - something that could've been a little more clear. But it's official, two weeks from concept to release of a full Android game with minimal dififculties. Stay tuned for updates on how Summoner performs during its first week.

Links

Summoner Lite - web, mobile
Summoner - web, mobile
Follow MonsterFace Games on Twitter: @monsterfacegame