“Actually, we’ve known each other since we were eleven!” says Julian Frost, one half of Melbourne studio Barrel of Donkeys.
I’ve made a mistake—suggesting that he and fellow developer Sam Baird had known each other for eleven years, when in fact it’s been much longer. “We met in the school library and [Sam’s] first words were ‘I wouldn’t stand too close if you want people to think you’re cool.’ We’ve been best friends since.”
Frost and Baird have today released their first videogame under the Barrel of Donkeys name, Toybox. It’s unusual to find an iOS game as satisfying as Toybox. It’s that rare combination for an iOS game: style, polish, and depth.
It’s simple to grasp the basic concept. Here’s two games: a connect-three block dropping strategy game on the one hand, and a shoot ‘em up, aliens and spaceships game on the other. In Toybox’s case, however, the division between the hands is quite literal—you play both games simultaneously, dropping blocks into matches while avoiding incoming missiles. Baird and Frost have described the game as like rubbing your head and patting your tummy at the same time, but it’s really more like a simultaneous match of Chess boxing—your right hand is thinking strategy, while the left is trying to stop you being hit in the face.
Frost, who I spoke with earlier today, remarked that the dual-game concept make sense right from the start. “As soon as I played [Baird’s] first Toybox prototype I could see what a natural fit it was for handheld touchscreen,” said Frost. “Two thumbs, two games woven into one.”
While understanding how the game works may take only a matter of seconds, playing Toybox well can be extraordinarily difficult. The game is satisfying in its depth, too—though it might seem initially that the waves of spaceships are all equal, or that the single sized blocks present only basic strategic possibilities, on longer play more complex solutions present themselves. “We wanted to take the concept, and while respecting its simplicity, really craft it into a game with depth and it’s own character,” said Frost.
Toybox’s depth is subtle. Flashing alien ships lead to the appearance of blocks of the same colour, while arranging your blocks to create a double match will earn another life. Trying to play strategically—avoiding the wrong coloured ships, placing your blocks correctly for a move three blocks from now—while trying to survive is actually a considerable challenge.
But it’s the pair’s long history and firm working relationship that allowed such a fully-formed game to flower as their first release. “We made several games together when we were teenagers, back in Christchurch, New Zealand, where we grew up,” says Frost.
“They were DOS games, with sprites drawn in Sam’s home-made sprite editor.”
“Sam’s brain works in mysterious ways,” Frost continues. “When we were kids he used to hand out his strange Spike Milligan-esque stream-of-consciousness stories on the school bus. Then he did a degree in music composition, and now he’s a programmer. So I’ve given up trying to understand him.”
“Thankfully things have moved on a little. I’m really grateful to be able to collaborate with my best friend like this.”
Toybox is out on the App store today for 99 cents.