Farmbound, or how I built an app in 2022

So, I made a game. It’s called Farmbound. It’s a puzzle; you get a sequence of farm things — seeds, crops, knives, water — and they combine to make better items and to give you points. Knives next to crops and fields continually harvest them for points; seeds combine to make crops which combine to make fields; water and manure grow a seed into a crop and a crop into a field. Think of it like a cross between a match-3 game and Little Alchemy. The wrinkle is that the sequence of items you get is the same for the whole day: if you play again, you’ll get the same things in the same order, so you can learn and refine your strategy. It’s rather fun: give it a try.

Farmbound, on a mobile, in light mode

It’s a web app. Works for everyone. And I thought it would be useful to explain why it is, why I think that’s the way to do things, and some of the interesting parts of building an app for everyone to play which is delivered over the web rather than via app stores and downloads.

Why’s it a web app and not a platform-specific native app?

Well, there are a bunch of practical reasons. You get completely immediate play with a web app; someone taps on a share link, and they’re playing. No installation, no platform detection, it Just Works (to coin a phrase which nobody has ever used before about apps ever in the history of technology). And for something like this, an app with platform-specific code isn’t needed: sure, if you’re talking to some hardware devices, or doing low-level device fiddling or operating system integration, you might need to build and deliver something separately to each platform. But Farmbound is not that. There is nothing that Farmbound needs that requires a native app (well, nearly nothing, and see later). So it isn’t one.

There are some benefits for me as the developer, too. Such things are less important; the people playing are the important ones. But if I can make things nicer for myself without making them worse for players, then I’m going to do it. Obviously there’s only one codebase. (For platform-specific apps that can be alleviated a little with cross-platform frameworks, some of which are OK these days.) One still needs to test across platforms, though, so that’s not a huge benefit. On the other hand, I don’t have to pay extra to distribute it (beyond it being on my website, which I’d be paying for anyway), and importantly I don’t have to keep paying in order to keep my game available for ever. There’s no annual tithe required. There’s no review process. I also get support for minority platforms by publishing on the web… and I’m not really talking about something in use by a half-dozen people here. I’m talking about desktop computers. How many people building a native app, even a relatively simple puzzle game like this, make a build for iOS and Android and Windows and Mac and Linux? Not many. The web gets me all that for minimal extra work, and if someone on FreeBSD or KaiOS wants to play, they can, as long as they’ve got a modern browser. (People saying “what about those without modern browsers”… see below.)

But from a less practical and more philosophical point of view… I shouldn’t need to build a platform-specific native app to make a game like this. We want a world where anyone can build and publish an app without having to ask permission, right? I shouldn’t need to go through a review process or be beholden to someone else deciding whether to publish my game. The web works. Would Wordle have become so popular if you had to download a Windows app or wait for review before an update happened? I doubt it. I used to say that if you’re building something complex like Photoshop then maybe go native, but in a world with Figma in it, that maybe doesn’t apply any more, and so Adobe listened to that and now Photoshop is on the web. Give people a thing which doesn’t need installation, gets them playing straight away, and works everywhere? Sounds good to me. Farmbound’s a web app.

Why’s it not got its own domain, then, if it’s on the web?

Farmbound shouldn’t need its own domain, I don’t think. If people find out about it, it’ll likely be by shared links showing off how someone else did, which means they click the link. If it’s popular then it’ll be top hit for its own name (if it isn’t, the Google people need to have a serious talk with themselves), and if it isn’t popular then it doesn’t matter. And, like native app building, I don’t really want to be on the hook forever for paying for a domain; sure, it’s not much money, but it’s still annoying that I’m paying for a couple of ideas that I had a decade ago and which nobody cares about any more. I can’t drop them, because of course cool URIs don’t change, and I didn’t want to be thinking a decade from now, do I still need to pay for this?

In slightly more ego-driven terms, it being on my website means I get the credit, too. Plus, I quite like seeing things that are part of an existing site. This is what drove the (admittedly hipster-ish) rise of “tilde sites” again a few years ago; a bit of nostalgia for a long time ago. Fortunately, I’ve also got Cloudflare in front of my site, which alleviates worries I might have had about it dying under load, although check back with me again if that happens to see if it turns out to be true or not. (Also, I’m considering alternatives to Cloudflare at the moment too.)

So what was annoying and a problem when building an app on the web?

Architecture

Firstly, I separated the front and back ends and deployed them in different places. I’m not all that confident that my hosted site can cope with being hammered, if I’m honest. This is alleviated somewhat by cloud caching, and hopefully quite a bit more by having a service worker in place which caches almost everything (although see below about that), but a lot of this decision was driven by not wanting to incur a server hit for every visitor every time, as much as possible. This drove at least some of the architectural decisions. The front end is on my site and is plain HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. The back end is not touched when starting the game; it’s only touched when you finish a game, in order to submit your score and get back the best score that day to see if you beat that. That back end is written in Deno, and is hosted on fly.io, who seem pretty cool. (I did look at Deno Deploy, but they don’t do permanent storage.)

Part of the reason the back end is a bit of extra work is that it verifies your submitted game to check you aren’t cheating and lying about your score. This required me to completely reimplement the game code in Deno. Now, you may be saying “what? the front end game code is in JavaScript and so is the back end? why don’t they share a library?” and the answer is, because I didn’t think of it. So I wrote the front end first and didn’t separate out the core game management from all the “animate this stuff with CSS” bits, because it was a fun weekend project done as a proof of concept. Once I got a bit further into it and realised that I should have done that… I didn’t wanna, because that would have sucked all the fun out of the project like a vampire and meant that I’d have never done it. So, take this as a lesson: think about whether you want a thing to be popular up front. Not that you’ll listen to this advice, because I never do either.

Similarly, this means that there’s less in the way of analytics, so I don’t get information about users, or real-time monitoring of popularity. This is because I did not want to add Google Analytics or similar things. No personal data about you ever leaves your device. You’ll have noticed that there’s no awful pop-up cookie consent dialogue; this is because I don’t need one, because I don’t collect any analytics data about players at all! Guess what, people who find those dialogues annoying (i.e., everyone?) You can tell companies to stop collecting data about you and then they won’t need an annoying dialogue! And when they say no… well, then you’ll have learned something about how they view you as customers, perhaps. Similarly, when scores are submitted, there’s no personal information that goes with them. I don’t even know whether two scores were submitted by the same person; there’s no unique ID per person or per device or anything. (Technically, the IP is submitted to the server, of course, but I don’t record it or use it; you’ll have to take my word for that.)

This architecture split also partially explains why the game’s JavaScript-dependent. I know, right? Me, the bloke who wrote “Everyone has JavaScript, right?“, building a thing which requires JS to run? What am I doing? Well, honestly, I don’t want to incur repeated server hits is the thing. For a real project, something which was critical, then I absolutely would do that; I have the server game simulation, and I could relatively easily have the server pass back a game state along with the HTML which was then submitted. The page is set up to work this way: the board is a <form>, the things you click on are <button>s, and so on. But I’m frightened of it getting really popular and then me getting a large bill for cloud hosting. In this particular situation and this particular project, I’d rather the thing die than do that. That’s not how I’d build something more critical, but… Farmbound’s a puzzle game. I’m OK with it not working, and if I turn out to be wrong about that, I can change that implementation relatively quickly without it being a big problem. It’s not architected in a JS-dependent way; it’s just progressively enhanced that way.

iOS browser

I had a certain amount of hassle from iOS Safari. Some of this is pretty common — how do I stop a double-tap zooming in? How do I stop the page overscrolling? — but most of the “fixes” are a combination of experimentation, cargo culting ideas off Stack Overflow, and something akin to wishing on a star. That’s all pretty irritating, although Safari is hardly alone in this. But there is a separate thing which is iOS Safari specific, which is this: I can’t sensibly present an “add this to your home screen” hint in iOS browsers other than Safari itself. In iOS Safari, I can show a little hint to help people know that they can add Farmbound to their home screen (which of course is delayed until a second game is begun and then goes away for a month if you dismiss it, because hassling your own players is a foolish thing to do). But in non Safari iOS browsers (which, lest we forget, are still Safari under the covers; see Open Web Advocacy if this is a surprise to you or if you don’t like it), I can’t sensibly present that hint. Because those non-Safari iOS browsers aren’t allowed to add web apps to your home screen at all. I can’t even give people a convenient tap to open Farmbound in iOS Safari where they can add the app to their home screen, because there’s no way of doing that. So, apologies, Chrome iOS or Firefox iOS users and others: you’ll have to open Farmbound in Safari itself if you want an easy way to come back every day. At least for now.

Service workers

And finally, and honestly most annoyingly, the service worker.

Building and debugging and testing a service worker is still so hard. Working out why this page is cached, or why it isn’t cached, or why it isn’t loading, is incredibly baffling and infuriating still, and I just don’t get it. I tried using “workbox”, but that doesn’t actually explain how to use it properly. In particular, for this use case, a completely static unchanging site, what I want is “cache this actual page and all its dependencies forever, unless there’s a change”. However, all the docs assume that I’m building an “app shell” which then uses fetch() to get data off the server repeatedly, and so won’t shut up about “network first” and “cache first, falling back” and so on rather than the “just cache it all because it’s static, and then shut up” methodology. And getting insight into why a thing loaded or didn’t is really hard! Sure, also having Cloudflare caching stuff and my browser caching stuff as well really doesn’t help here. But I am not even slightly convinced that I’ve done all this correctly, and I don’t really know how to be better. It’s too hard, still.

Conclusion

So that’s why Farmbound is the way it is. It’s been interesting to create, and I am very grateful to the Elite Farmbound Testing Team for a great deal of feedback and helping me refine the idea and the play: lots of love to popey, Roger, Simon, Martin, and Mark, as well as Handy Matt and my mum!

There are still some things I might do in the future (achievements? maybe), and I might change the design (I’m not great at visual design, as you can tell), and I really wish that I could have done all the animations with Shared Element Transitions because it would have been 312 times easier than the way I did it (a bunch of them add generated content and then web-animations-api move the ::before around, which I thought was quite neat but is also daft by comparison with SET). But I’m pleased with the implementation, and most importantly it’s actually fun to play. Getting over a thousand points is really good (although sometimes impossible, on some days), and I don’t really think the best strategies have been worked out yet. Is it better to make fields and tractors, or not go that far? Is water a boon or an annoyance? I’d be interested in your thoughts. Go play Farmbound, and share your results with me on Twitter.

I'm currently available for hire, to help you plan, architect, and build new systems, and for technical writing and articles. You can take a look at some projects I've worked on and some of my writing. If you'd like to talk about your upcoming project, do get in touch.

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