Coolson’s 10th Anniversary
Ten years ago, my wife Emily and I made two games: Coolson’s Artisanal Chocolate Alphabet for iPad, and Coolson’s Pocket Pack, for iPhone (and iPad). Coolson’s Artisanal Chocolate Alphabet won a BAFTA, and was for a while featured on Apple’s iPad web page!
I recently spent some time lightly remastering both games for modern devices, and they’re now back on the App Store, and free!
Coolson’s Artisanal Chocolate Alphabet now works on iPad and Apple Silicon Macs, and Coolson’s Pocket Pack now works on iPhone, iPad and all Macs (the Mac version is a great distraction when you need some down-time at work!)
I’m not sure how many people who know Em and me actually know about our past lives as award winning(!) indie game developers - so I thought I’d write a bit about it here. I found a surprising number of pictures too!
My brief life as an indie game dev
In 2013, we were living in Edinburgh. Em had just finished her PhD. It had been four years since I released my ebook reading app Eucalyptus. I’d had a busy few years maintaining it, writing libEucalyptus, working with clients integrating that into their own ebook reading apps, and had recently concluded one contract.
With some down-time in our lives, we decided to make a game together.
We collaborated on the coding, with Em also doing all of the hand-drawn artwork and sound design. As you can see, our cat took on an important supervisory role.1
The result was Coolson’s Artisanal Chocolate Alphabet - a word game with a whimsical storyline.
It had a cast of characters!
Ice Coolson was a seemingly tyrannical, but, you find out, actually lovable hipster (2013, remember!) penguin. He was the owner of a chocolate factory.
Otto and Hannah were the existing human employees, soon to be your friends.
You, as the game’s protagonist, were a down-on-their-luck English major, just finished their degree, trying to get started in a depressed economy. You see a sign in a factory window. It’s hiring - ‘first-come, first-serve!’ You take the job, packing letter-embossed chocolates into boxes. No-one tells you to arrange the letters in the boxes to spell words - but you have your self-respect to think of!
We drew on the world around us. An Edinburgher looking closely at our factory scene might see in it the bottom of Candlemaker Row. Lovers of Edinburgh-based Chocolate Tree2 might feel drawn to our hipster chocolatiers.
We started out by playing with paper and cardboard and letters and boxes, trying to prove to ourselves that our idea could be fun. We moved on to prototyping on iPad when it seemed like we had something good enough.
Here are a few glimpses of that time I found in our git repository:
The hand-drawn art was all made with the new - and immensely popular - Paper app on iPad, with programmatic things (like the chocolate letters and boxes) rendered by custom ‘papery’ line drawing routines made with CoreGraphics.
We released the game in late 2013.
Here’s the trailer, still on YouTube!
The game was a critical hit! It garnered lots of great reviews, and a few real super-fans!
Fun memories from that time include two trips to Dundee4 on the train to exhibit Coolson’s at indie gaming events - once before release, and once after. For some reason, I still have vivid memories of searching Amazon for robust six foot long dock cables so that the iPads would not run out of battery!
Check out our event stand, complete with Ice Coolson’s fake office!
One thing we learned showing our game to the public: when you ask people how your game could be better, they inevitably tell you how to make it easier, which is not always the same thing. Although it sometimes is. How can you tell when‽
In November, we found ourselves in Glasgow at the Scottish BAFTAs, after being shortlisted for Best Game!
[Secret awards ceremony tidbit: we arrived by train and were staying in the hotel next to the venue. At the start of the night, they made us get in a black car at the back of the hotel, to be driven around to the front where the reporters and photographers were watching people getting out of cars and walking down the red carpet! After we were done, the black car circled the block to pick up the next atendees!]
Inside the venue we were seated near the back, at a table of excited and friendly makeup artists and hair stylists who made us feel very welcome. I don’t think the other gaming nominees (the polished and fun Impossible Road and Mr Shiungu’s Paper Zoo) were there.
I’m not sure what Em thought, but I expected Impossible Road to win. But we won!
I didn’t think we’d ever be able to see that moment again - but, searching now, I found that it’s apparently been on YouTube since 2013! Here’s Em accepting the award, with no speech prepared.
[Edit: Em says to tell you that her pause after the first sentence or two were when she spotted David Tennant at the front, watching her speak!]
After some behind-the-scenes interviews, when we got back to our seats, our new film and TV industry friends were super excited that our table won!
To the front and left of us were two tables from Rockstar North, who had just released - too late for consideration for the 2013 awards - Grand Theft Auto V. Don’t worry, though, they were not left out - they got a special award (seemingly just titled Special Award for 2013) a bit later in the ceremony 😃.
Other memories from the awards show include meeting David Tennant (the best Doctor) - who had a conversation with Em about (perhaps some foreshadowing here!) how to get his kids into coding, and the slightly surreal after-awards dancing that I’m pretty sure was DJed by Kristy Wark, Serious Journalist and host of BBC’s flagship news programme Newsnight, who’d earlier won an award for Outstanding Contribution to Broadcasting!
In November of 2013, the Edinburgh Hacklab, of which we were both members, ran a Make-a-game-in-a-month Month (#macgammon). IIRC, the rather informal rules stipulated that the game had to be new, but you could use code and resources you already had in making it. We decided to try to make a cut-down version of Coolson’s for play on iPhone. One you could dip in and out of any time - like in a shopping line or on the bus. A more ‘casual’ version.
The result was Coolson’s Pocket Pack. Out with crosswords. The conveyor belt is replaced with falling blocks. Sadly, out with of the whimsy too. In, though, are faster game mechanics, with levels based on speed and word length, and points for “chaining” words without “recycling” letters.
With a bit more polish, we released Pocket Pack in early 2014 (so we’re cheating a little saying this is it’s “10th anniversary,” sorry!) It gathered a few great reviews - and a some very dedicated players. In fact, anonymous App Store stats tell us it still had one regular player until early this year, despite being unavailable for six years now!
Thank you, whoever you are! Hopefully you just recently got a new phone, and will be delighted to see Pocket Pack updating and working again!
Did we make any money on this grand experiment? A little, but definitely not enough to support ourselves. Sadly the life of an indie game developer in the golden age of App Store millionaires was not a lucrative one. Perhaps if you had a string of hit titles it could be?
In April of 2014, we moved back to California, where I embarked on a second stint at Apple, this time working on the UIKit team.
Emily started volunteering at a local school teaching coding to kids, working her way through the public school system to being the Computer Science Coordinator at the California Department of Education, and now the first Professor of Computer Sciences at Reach University (I am so proud of her!)
Both Coolson’s games remained available until they were no longer supported by the App Store (IIRC, the 64-bit transition did in Artisanal Chocolate Alphabet, and Pocket Pack never supported any screen size apart from the iPhone 4 and 5). It looks like we removed them from the store in 2017.
I left Apple again in mid 2022. Being freshly unencumbered by conflicts of interest, the 10th anniversary seemed like a good time to break out the old Coolson’s code and polish it up for re-release!
This went remarkably smoothly. Just a few things to fix. A testament to Apple’s commitment to API compatibility really! That UIKit team knew what it was doing all these years I guess 😃.
All the art in Artisanal Chocolate Alphabet was wedded to the iPad’s old 4:3 screen, and I didn’t update that, so it still runs in 4:3 on iPad - but it does now also run on Apple Silicon Mac. For Pocket Pack, as well as updating it to run natively at any screen size (the only really difficult part of the process), I gave it the full Mac Catalyst treatment - it will run fully Mac native at any window size6. I am surprised how at-home it feels on Mac. A perfect ‘break time’ casual game.
We still love Coolson’s.
We’re pretty sure that Ice has now retired to Hawaii, where he runs a coffee shop or shirt factory or something. Not sure about Hannah and Otto. Our protagonist got a job more in line with their English degree - but during the pandemic started working from home and was just on video all day. It was exhausting. The hectic days at the chocolate factory looked pretty good right then. Pretty sure they’re looking for something more now. Wouldn’t a reunion be nice?
If you’re still here after all this, and don’t have the Coolson’s games, here’s Coolson’s Artisanal Chocolate Alphabet - for iPad and Apple Silicon Mac - and Coolson’s Pocket Pack - for iPhone, iPad and all Macs. They’re also easy to find at coolsons.com
In another slightly surreal outcome of producing these games, this picture of Em and Morrin made it all the way to the 2015 Guinness Book of World Records, where Em is featured alongside Lara Croft!
I remember them attending the Edinburgh Farmers' Market, where we regularly bought their wares, with a stand pulled by a bicycle (tricycle?). Try their chocolates and chocolate bars, they’re delicious! ↩︎
I was inspired by some old Apple sample code named GeekGameBoard (looks like a version of it is still on GitHub), and its interesting idea that a game that emulated a physical game didn’t need a model, because the layer hierarchy could be the model (as I found out, truthy, but not true), and perhaps also Drew McCormak’s talk about working on the early iPhone game Sumo Master (sadly no longer available - but the web page lives!) at an NSConference iPhone developers' conference (2011? 2012? 2013?).
By the end, we had a pretty robust system for making action-puzzle or board games, and animating scenes based on YAML descripitions. ↩︎
At the time - perhaps still - the city that could best claim to be the hub of Scotland’s games industry. ↩︎
I remember Universal Machine being a lot of fun - sadly it seems to no longer be available. ↩︎
Man, did that take a lot of autolayout constraint wrangling! Porting to Mac with Mac Catalyst actually made screen size support much easier; I was able to just grab the window and live-resize it after every change. ↩︎