Zap: On the Precipice of Greatness / 4th of October 2014
Zapcoder may not be a name that many of us are familiar with, yet we at High Rez Gaming are unreservedly sure that in the months and years to come, it will soon be the first word on the lips of many as our preconceptions of what the mobile phone is capable of become redefined by this company who are determined to open up the full potential of these devices, and put the power of creativity into the hands of the many. The ambitious and commendable goal that the company has set out upon is to make programming accessible to all, and whilst there may be some who might feel that this will in some way diminish the value of coding, there can be no doubts about the fact that should Zapcoder’s Zap application reach the audience that it so richly deserves, we may not just be looking at an evolution of what a mobile application can offer, but this might truly be a revolution that could potentially change everything.
The company was founded by Roger Dubar, a man with a relentless and contagious passion for technology, who is rightfully passionate about the work that he is doing, and tremendously excited about seeing what it is truly capable of. “The people in the know look to bend the rules”, he told us, “for with the right tools, users can find content that the creators didn’t even know was there”. The tools, as he explains, are but the beginning, and the real excitement for their creators comes from being able to put them in the hands of the public, and ultimately, from seeing exactly what they manage to do with them. The app is shaping up to be something truly special, sleek and elegant in its design, yet an incredibly powerful tool for the creative minds across Scotland, the UK and beyond. However, before proceeding any further, it is perhaps pertinent to have a very brief look back at how it all came about.
Roger spent a great deal of time as a tech lawyer within the suburban sprawls of Glasgow, Edinburgh and London, where he was involved in the organising of television companies, and even helped to establish a digital media agency that promoted his concept that “in creative terms, something usually comes from nothing”. Despite his background in law, Roger is a man whose passion has been, and always will be in technology, from such humble beginnings at Strathclyde University where he spent his time tinkering with VAXMUD, a variation on the original, massively popular, Roy Trubshaw created MUD1, to where he is today. With Zapcoder, he has been assembling a talented team of young Scottish artists, programmers and designers to create works that highlight the company’s founding intentions for the app, game design. “Scotland,” Roger tells us, “is a great place to start a business. It might lack the buzz of somewhere like London, but it is a much more relaxed environment within which to set up a company”. Regardless though, the pressure is now on as Zap has entered into its Alpha stage, and the company have secured their first major corporate partner, but they are still on the lookout for additional collaborators, from businesses both small and large alike, to artists and musicians. The more diverse the range of creative working with the app, the more varied its output will be, and the better the team will understand just what it is that they have created.
So, what’s Zap? Well, fundamentally, Zap bears some strong similarities to Scratch, a visual programming tool developed at MIT for students and educators to quickly and effectively learn how to create their own simple animations and even rudimentary games. “The initial idea for Zap was for it to be like Scratch on the phone, but whereas Scratch uses Flash, we use HTML 5. A benefit to this is that it is constantly being revised and, seeing as how we were without much in the way of funding, this was deemed as the best for the platform”. So, ultimately, Zap, to put it simply, is a creative tool designed allow rudimentary video game creation on the most common super computer available to everybody, their mobile phone. Of course, designing the product for such a device also creates its own set of problems.
"It was identified early on that the program would need to have a touch based UI, and through research that we conducted, we found that the app had to be as simple as possible to attract a sufficient user base. The regular barrier to creativity is simply being unable to overcome the obstacles blocking the way towards it. The first step in that process with Zap, is providing templates that will help users discover their creativity quickly, allowing them to modify an existing piece to suit their needs.”
And it is that simplicity that is the real beauty of Zap, it is undoubtedly the primary aspect of the software that will enable it to reach an audience of such incredible scale, and given that more than one billion smartphones were apparently shipped last year alone, it is easy to understand exactly why Zapcoder are trying to make use of the mobile device. Yet they aren’t doing it for the allure of potential advertising revenues or potential sales, the app will be entirely free, and it will not be cluttered with the typical array of off-putting advertising that blights the majority of free games and apps that are available across the stores of Android, iOS and Windows phones. Roger and his team are looking at the bigger picture, the future, and it is here where he hopes that Zap can have the biggest impact of all.
“We have a Game Jam event for a group of kids only one week away, it’s going to be really exciting to put the app in their hands and see exactly what they can come up with. Our business is financially secure as we head towards launch, and we’re hoping that both public and private bodies will also get an opportunity to use it, we need as many people as possible to get their hands on the product. Zap really is unlike anything else on the market today, we’re putting the power of creativity in people’s hands, and it is going to be huge.”
“There is a lot of chat about why we (Scotland) don’t produce enough creativity, but I think that overlooks our rather substantial output, yet I believe that Zap will the boost economy with creative concepts rather than the more traditional forms that people are perhaps expecting to see. The only drawback that we have at present, is that Zap requires an internet connection-yet connections are improving all of the time, and you can find them almost everywhere now. Of course, the majority of users don’t care about this, they just expect everything to work straight out of the box, and Zap will be no exception.”
An interesting note about the app, as Roger told us, is that it is not specifically designed for creating games, and it is this that excites him most of all, because in truth, even he is not aware of exactly what it can do in the right hands. Technically, almost any form of application can be created, from word processing programmes to guitar tuners and far, far beyond.
“I had an internal team of artists creating projects with Zap, none of them had any programming experience before, they were all artists, and they were doing things with the app within a few hours that none of us knew were even possible. It does utilise a standard HTML 5 game engine, but with HTML 5 you can just about create anything, same with Java. We managed to knock together a Flappy Birds clone within a couple of hours. Did you know that Rovio had created forty-one games before they made Angry Birds? We believe that users may even be able to create the next big thing with Zap, it’s simply about putting tools in the end user’s hands and seeing what they can come up with.”
Roger showed us a few examples of games created with the app, including a Space Invaders style shooter that borrowed heavily from the Atari classic, Breakout, with shots that rebounded back, allowing the user to send them upwards again towards a barrier of multi-coloured blocks at the top of the screen. This was a rather interesting concept, and, along with a simple piano application that we saw, it became rather evident that the potential variety of its users’ creations will be near limitless, and as if to push home that most impressive feature, he told us of another piece of software that was created whilst the app was still very much in its infancy.
“I collaborated with a friend of mine, he’s someone that I know at the Royal Conservatoire here in Glasgow, and he asked me to create a piece of software that could be used to help teach people to differentiate between tones - and therefore better understand musical composition. Creativity really is simply about taking ideas and running with them.”
The UI is about as sleek and elegant as it could possibly be, all clean lines and uncluttered menu screens. There is resemblance to popular social media sites, Tumblr and Instagram, which comes from its minimalist menu, which is comprised of snapshots of ongoing projects that are presented in a much less overwhelming fashion than David Karp’s blundering creation. And like the spirit with which Instagram was originally created, of course, Zap is about artistic expression, it’s about sharing your creativity with the world, laying it bare for all to see, except the big difference is that your friends don’t simply get to see what you have been doing, they can take those creations and tweak them to create their own spin on them, and thus encapsulate that air of collaboration that Zapcoder are aiming for.
“We could have done almost anything with the front end of the app, but it currently bears some resemblance to Instagram, and it is my hope that soon we’ll see everybody’s feed littered with their latest creations from Zap instead of the obligatory cat videos! What we will do, with that social media element in mind, is to allow everyone to search by what friends are doing, or see what’s popular and such like. There will be tons of good stuff on it, and this will be regularly picked out and highlighted by the dev team.”
“You’ll notice that each upload shows how many times it has been played, shared and remixed- everybody love stats, whilst they may not be too keen to admit it, everyone loves numbers. We think that Zap promotes collaboration by allowing others to change what you have created, and it is this that I mean when I say ‘remixing’. We will create tools to allow users to create anything that they want, mixing up recognisable elements of existing games. It’s really just about giving people what they want; you can change the graphics-enemy sprites and such like - or their behaviours - you know, speed of movement and so on.”
“We believe that the average kid will be able to make their own game in around 10 seconds. We’ll find out when we put it in the hands of a room full of children next week, of course. We’ve designed Zap so that it eases them in, but opens up further customisation options that will keep them involved, experimenting and learning as they go. If Zap does go on to become a success, it is because people are doing things that they don’t even realise that they’re doing. Their games will be able to be embedded in Tumblr threads, and that will hopefully allow them to spread like wildfire.”
Whilst the general public may be the target audience of the app, remembering that it has been created with the view of increasing interest in programming as well as boosting creativity, it will obviously be of great benefit to the professional gaming industry too due to that very same ease of use that grants it the potential to take all app stores by storm.
“Professional game designers will be able to knock up a basic build of an idea in just 10 minutes, they can use the program wherever they are, with projects that can be modified in real time. I just hope that Zapcoder are the guys to get it right, we have an amazing team of people and collaborators working on it, but what’s big today will be gone tomorrow, so we need to seize our opportunity.”
Prototypes for video game projects could be quickly assembled whenever - and wherever- the creative impulse strikes, whether it’s in an airport or on a train, Zap will allow professional game creators to better convey the intentions and direction of their ideas in more palpable terms to their studio or publisher. For smaller development teams, this could prove to be the difference between securing funding for a project or closing their doors for good; in Britain, one third of all of the videogame studios that have existed at one point within the last five years have closed down, leaving us with stagnating creative industries and out of work artists, designers, programmers, composers, writers and more. This is a trend that we must attempt to buck, and it is entirely possible that Zap will help us to exactly that.
Naturally, with users creating almost anything that they can possibly think of, there is always going to be the potential problem that a user may cause offence to others through the work that they have done on the app, yet it is creativity itself that presents unique ways to circumnavigate such a potential crisis.
“We want to build a system that balances creativity with online communication, Roger tells us. “Users will get a credit on everything that they have made, now whilst a programmer with an SDK (Software Development Kit) can create anything, and limit what another user can change, Zap allows users to change everything, yet the original creator will still be credited. Users can be blocked if they are abusive, the balance is promoting creativity and getting away from negativity. It is a big issue in games just now, sexist in particular. Our solution is that assets can be changed quickly and easily, hopefully preventing games from becoming, or remaining offensive. The games that most of our users will create, they won’t be all singing all dancing, they won’t be AAA. They won’t even be A, they’ll just be daft really anyway.”
“When Zap launches, it will still in its beta phase, but it will obviously improve and evolve over time. There’s a cult of perfection that hampers creativity, if you’re always aiming for the perfect product, you’ll never actually get around to releasing it. What we are hoping for, is that users will be able to tweet us asking that we add new content, this we should be able to generate within just a couple of hours, maintaining that engagement with interactivity. You know, there are systems that are already in place which are great, but they are designed for programmers, Zap is targeting the rest of the population. It’s quick, fun content, that’s the gap in the market, and it’s what’s missing from development studios too.”
“We have the infrastructure in place for Scratch like programming, though we have ideas about how to use voice input to create a quick, easy game there and then just using simple commands. You know, when the internet came out, it was quickly written off, but it succeeded in capturing the public’s attention, and so could we. In two years or so, Zap might even allow for full three dimensional graphics, but we won’t know this until it is the public’s hands.”
Zap is a very intriguing and exciting concept, but what exactly is the future for the app, and indeed for that of its creators? As the company has no plans to monetise the app itself, how will they generate the funding needed to remain afloat to support the app as well as its creative user base? Naturally, Rogers’ solutions to even these questions are creative in and of themselves.
“We will have corporate partners who are looking to be able to generate ideas, and Zapcoder will make money by supporting them through this process. Eventually, brands will want to be on the platform, they usually waste between £100-200k to produce a single mobile game that nobody even plays, so companies could easily provide assets to be implemented into other people’s games. Engagement from customers will be entirely optional, of course, but brand engagement is the second line of attack in promoting and generating cash flow from the platform. Users may be able to generate income from their own Zap projects. Students who are coming out of our educational institutions could release content on the platform and make money from it, once a large enough user base has been found, it could eventually prove to a lucrative venture for users.”
“The best Zap experience is on a smartphone, and it should work identically on all platforms. We will find the limits of soundboards and 3D capabilities as mobile hardware and end user creativity improves, so over time, the limitations will change. Free wi-fi is generally expected now, and widely available, so I certainly don’t foresee that as being a problem.”
“The app store model is broken”, Roger exclaims, “why do versions of products only work on specific models or platforms, and why do users have to wade through everything just to find what they want?”
It is a plea that has not fallen upon deaf ears, cross platform compatibility and collaboration would not only prove to a unique selling point for the app, it would almost guarantee its success, opening itself up to a potential market that encapsulates almost one sixth of the entire human population. Philosophically speaking, we, as humans, place far too many barriers between ourselves by nationalities, skin tone, religion and so on, so to see something that simply refuses to pigeon hole anyone, or subscribe to such notions as the subdivisions of man is a more than refreshing change. Mankind has accomplished his greatest work in collaboration with others, whether it was the construction of such mighty structures as the Great Pyramid of Giza, or the development of the Apollo space program that saw man take his first tentative steps beyond this planet, though whilst Zap will in no way rival these incredulous moments, it will still prove to be no exception to that rule. Collaboration with others from across the globe will yield unexpected and otherwise unattainable results, and it will prove Zap to be both Zapcoder’s and, potentially, the mobile platform’s finest achievement to date.
One thing that Roger said several times during our interview seemed to strike a chord with us, which was simply his statement that “we’re doing something in a way that hasn’t been done before”. And quite frankly, all of us at High Rez Gaming couldn’t agree more.
Special thanks to Roger Dubar for taking the time out to chat with us