You can't play the first game Thomas Palef designed, because he never actually finished it.
You can play the 12 games he's designed since then, however. 12 games turned out in 12 weeks. 12 games created to teach Palef about the act of creativity itself.
That first game was an action RPG in the style of Zelda. The idea came to Palef a while back when he was still at college, and he just started building it -- a big project that could have gone anywhere. "It was really difficult," he tells me. "For weeks and weeks I just coded this little character walking around. I spent hours and hours on it and then I just gave up. It was too boring. I said, 'Never again will I make a game. It's too difficult.'"
Fast forward a few years, and it suddenly didn't look too difficult anymore. Palef had graduated from his studies -- computer science, engineering and a little business -- and he was working in Paris as a project manager. He had a job helping to design apps for the web and iOS, but he was eager to work on his own.
A few months ago, he decided to try it. He quit his job and went solo, apps be damned. "It was a bit crazy," he admits, before adding that, while he had a few ideas for what he could do, Less Milk, the website that now hosts those 12 new games of his, actually began as a side project. "I really just started it for fun," he laughs, although for a man like Palef, fun always has a touch of education to it -- a little business, if you will. "I thought: I really want to learn how to make games, I have some free time right now, so let's do it! Let's make one new game every week to learn how to make games."
It sounds easy, the way Palef explains it. He spent his first few weeks deciding which technologies to work with, before landing on HTML5 and the Phaser framework. From there, he practically made his first game without realizing it. That first game's called Run! and it's a pleasantly simple affair. Palef started by working on sprite animations and getting characters to move about on screen, and before long he had a very basic arcade avoid-em'-up coming together. Walk your little guy around the little playing area and try not to get hit by any of the other little guys. You get a point for each second you survive.
First game: done. "[The whole process] was actually quite difficult initially," says Palef. "For those first weeks to see just one game made or two games. They weren't really good. But slowly you start to see those games on my website growing, and I think, 'Oh yeah! I did this!' I kept going and I kept getting better feedback."
Run! was quickly followed by Pixel War, a sort of endlessly scrolling Space Invaders. Then came abstract hurdling game Box Jump, Vlambeer-influenced Man vs Penguins and all the rest. Few of these early games were particularly original -- some, like Princess Quest, are essentially copies of other titles -- but they all show incremental improvements -- in pacing, in complexity, in their ability to hold the attention of the player. Stick around until you get to Crazy Snake, the 12th and final game, and you're in for a real treat -- a spin on the classic Blockade design in which the variables keep changing around you. It's playful and imaginative and wonderfully infuriating. Palef's come a long way since Run! -- and it's only taken him three months. It's not hard to imagine the intoxicating creative environment he must have been operating within by the point he made Crazy Snake. I envy him.
Palef suggests there have ultimately been two keys to the project's success: a desire to learn in the first place, and the restrictions that then forced him to learn effectively. "When I want to learn something I always try to do it. Not just read tutorials online, but make something myself," he says. "Making just one game isn't enough to learn though. I realized I needed to make a lot of games. Then the time constraint was a really great idea. It was a random constraint but it helped me iterate."
The restrictions may have been the most important aspect of the project, in fact. "I wrote a blog post a few days ago about how to create new games," says Palef. "How to find new ideas and be creative. One of the points there was that constraints are a huge help with this. For me the constraints are: doing everything in one week, doing only pixel art that I can do myself, doing everything by myself except the music because I don't know how to make music, and always sticking to a theme. So I say, 'Okay, this week, I'm going to do a platformer.' Just one week to make a platformer -- just do it. You can't think, Oh, maybe I want to do a Zelda-alike, or maybe something else. No, just do it: you don't have a choice."
Palef remembers week 5 as the point at which things really took off. That was the week of Fill the Holes, a block-pushing puzzler enlivened by the increasing demands it puts on the players to move blocks around in the correct order. "I posted it on Reddit for fun. It was on a Sub-Reddit called programming, I think, and it just blew up. Everybody liked it. That was the week where I realised I was onto something and that I needed to continue to focus on this project."
It's been games like that -- simple but characterful -- that have really helped him to learn his craft, too. "I already knew how to code before. I didn't know how to code games, but it's not really a new skill," he says. "The big difference is game design. It's a broad term that doesn't mean anything, but it's how to make the game interesting, how to make the progression interesting, how to teach players how to play the game, how to keep them interested.
"If you look at my games at the beginning they're really boring. You play the game for 30 seconds and you understand it. There's no surprise in it. But then I read a few books, I looked at lots of YouTube videos and took a lot of feedback and I really tried to put some dips in my games, some meaning, to make them interesting. And that's really difficult to do: it's just a random sprite moving left and right and that's the game. But you have to make it interesting -- having power-ups, having great difficulty, all of these little things that make a game great. Everything around game design I learned in the last few months."
The final wrinkle is that -- through online articles and a free eBook available from his site -- Palef's trying to teach all of this to others even as he's busy learning it. Teaching is helping him to learn, in fact. "I've never had a blog before and I've never had the opportunity to speak to people like I do now," he says. "But still, throughout my studies, I've always tried to help friends and anyone around me. Whether it was maths or computer science. Teaching is a great way to learn. When I wrote my first HTML5 tutorial, about how to make Flappy Bird, I actually learned so much. Oh yeah, I could have done it this way or this way! I'm stupid! I could have saved time! This is not the right way to do it! So with that I just kept going, and it's a great way to keep learning and to give back to the community -- and to attract new people to my website."
What's next? "I don't know what exactly I'm going to do now," says Palef. "I want to write more tutorials, maybe a book on how to make more games with Phaser. I've stopped this 12 week challenge, but I may have another. I just want to keep making games and learning."
He laughs. "And I still have a lot of ideas."