The Ottumwa Courier

February 19, 2013

Family has a ball with video game project

New captivating game draws players in with Buster’s taunting antics

Courier Staff Writer

OTTUMWA — A family in Ottumwa has turned a quiet Italian lawn game into a colorful, loud and hilarious app to play on a mobile phone.

The object of BusterBall  is to get close to the target ball without hitting it. Just use a finger to yank back on your own ball, release, and it flies toward your objective.

What separates this game from the calm, “real-life” lawn game are the hundreds of insults, taunts and sarcastic remarks made by the target ball, Buster. His antics sometimes convince players to smack him with their ball — which may cause him to blow up.  

Despite the mouthy little character’s bad attitude, people seem to love him.  Though the Mooneys of Ottumwa (doing business as Full Sea Productions) are eight weeks away from releasing the app, BusterBall just passed 5,500 fans on Facebook. And the smart-mouthed yellow ball drew attention at the most recent Grass Roots Gaming Expo in Ottumwa.

“As soon as a [seat] opened up, another player [sat down] to take their place,” said Scott Mooney, who helped his children develop an idea into a plan and the plan into a project.

His son Blake, 17, said the game setting is a “3-D environment.”

A stop-motion video of the BusterBall booth at the expo showed three consoles, consistently full — sometimes with the same player.

“We had a blast,” Scott said. “We had people play it hour after hour.”

Shane Mooney, 13, had told his parents about a year ago he’d thought of an idea for a video game involving a ball being shot around a room. His brother Blake started adding rules for the game. Though the creative Mooney kids had tossed ideas around before, this one was infectious. Parents Scott and Martha Lee Mooney started contributing their own ideas on how to make such a game a reality.

With years of experience running a business, Scott and Martha Lee knew how to form a company and that they should trademark their game character.

From the thoughts of a ball knocking stuff over in a room came the idea of having the ball make snarky comments. Scott said the idea shifted to become more like a game the Mooneys discovered on vacation in Colorado, bocce ball.

They didn’t really know how to play, but the colorful balls at the hotel looked like fun to the family. When they didn’t know a rule, they made one up. And they had a really good time.

Scott said the Mooneys were asked “to keep our laughing, cheering and jeering quiet because we were disturbing people playing golf.”

That sense of wacky fun is what the family wanted to capture. They needed a combination of computer programming skill, artistic ability and business talent, a combination no single family member possessed.

But Martha Lee is a skilled bookkeeper, Scott has a talent for marketing, Shane can draw and Blake can program. And what had been making them laugh began to get serious. There are programs available to make a new video game. They wanted theirs to be of top quality, like the ones the boys play.

They took a few halting steps, making mistakes as they went. Some were a waste of money. Some, like hiring an art director in California to keep the game uniform from scene to scene (and artist to artist) were a great investment.

They found artists and programers in the U.S., Canada, eastern Europe and India, some of whom  are working full time to program moves and scenes into the game. Buster’s sarcastic, New York-style accent was actually voiced by a professional in Davis County.

After a little more than a year of nearly constant work, his boys are now talented video game programmers.

“I had to learn the business side of things,” said Blake, “like communicating with the artists. We’re learning as we go.”

When contractors putting each frame into place are overseas, communicating often means rising at 6 a.m. Home schooling for the boys starts at 8 a.m., and though it can run until about mid-afternoon, it will  sometimes run later if “work” needs attention during the school day.

Play testing can usually wait.

“We start going through what the programmers say they’ve finished,” Shane said.

He also goes through the game trying to find “bugs” they hadn’t caught earlier. And, added his brother, one bug leads to another.

Most of the play testing is going on in the “Video Game Capital of the World,” said Scott. And while being a “video game tester” sounds like a fun, easy job, that mindset lasts about two days.

It can be frustrating, but as they close in on the release, there are also rewarding times.

“I was looking for bugs ... and ended up forgetting that as I just played the game. It was a lot of fun,” Blake said.

When the family finds problems, they try to recreate them, then write a report on what’s wrong. And if the hired programmers can’t fix it, Blake will try finding an answer by thinking outside the box, checking game design or programming forums on the Internet — or getting Shane’s opinion. Problems that have stumped the pros, Mom and Dad say, can usually be solved at home between the two boys.

“If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be doing this,” said Scott.

Scott wants to see more Ottumwans create video games or cell phone apps locally. He even wants to teach a class, sharing the costly mistakes they made as they developed the game. He said anyone can learn to do this.

“If we’d have had someone to guide us, we could have saved a lot of [time and money on this] yellow, smack-talking ball,” Scott said.

BusterBall will soon be available through the Apple App Store. You can see the basics on Youtube and Facebook by searching for BusterBall.