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How a 14-Year-Old Designer Became Part of Apple's Splashy New Gaming Service

After being picked by Apple to attend the company's developer conference, he was given a chance to pitch them—and seized the moment.

by Patrick Klepek
Oct 3 2019, 12:00pm

Image courtesy of Spruce Campbell

Apple Arcade’s launch was a mixture of well-known franchises (Frogger, Rayman), new games from designers during the App Store’s creative heights (Card of Darkness, Overland), and releases from high-profile publishers (Square Enix, Capcom). The service, part of a larger shift towards monthly subscriptions, is a big deal for Apple, so it made sense to double down on attention-grabbing titles. Operator 41, also part of the launch, is hardly that, but is notable for a different reason: Operator 41 was developed by 14-year-old London designer Spruce Campbell.

Operator 41, a stealth game where players try to guide a spy to safety by keeping him in the dark and distracting nearby guards, was an idea Campbell specifically had for Apple Arcade.

“When I saw the Apple Arcade announcement in March I dropped everything and decided to build a whole new game for Arcade,” he told VICE via email. “I thought that the games that really fit Apple Arcade will probably be designed for it from the ground up, so I came up with a stealth game that would work on all the Arcade platforms.”

(Apple Arcade is available on iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV now, with Mac support soon.)

Campbell has been on Apple’s radar for a little while; he won a chance to attend the company’s annual developer conference in California after being one of 350 students selected because his app caught their eye. He programmed an app simulating a flock of starlings. You might not know what a starling is, but you’ve surely seen a video of them; in concert, the graceful and united movements of starlings are prone to unexpected beauty.

The trip was about more than sitting in an audience and clapping at glitzy announcements, but a chance to show his app to big wigs at Apple. Even Apple CEO Tim Cook stopped by.

That Campbell was highlighted in writeups about the conference in UK publications like The Independent and Evening Standard isn’t a surprise, as Campbell has been making a name locally for a few years. In 2017, he won a BAFTA awards for “young game designer,” running away with the category for kids between 10 and 14 years old. At the time, Campbell was 12 years old, and won because of a trippy platformer called CyberPNK, where players swap between realities to reveal different spots to jump on. You can download the game here.

“When I was younger, I played a ton of games,” said Campbell. “While I was playing I’d think of new levels/ideas for the characters to play. One of my parents’ friends was an iOS developer, and when I asked how to make apps he gave me a few 600-page textbooks that were way too heavy for an 8-year-old to understand. I couldn’t really shake the idea, and through the next few years I taught myself to code. Eventually, at around 12, I was good enough to make those games I dreamt up.”

12 years old is, of course, when Campbell designed the award-winning CyberPNK.

After CyberPNK, Campbell developed and self-published another platformer, CYBER:JUMP.

Cute aside: while researching this, I was looking for gameplay footage of CYBER:JUMP on YouTube, and one of the few credible pings that came back was a video with 43 views and a single comment. That single comment, of course, was Campbell thanking them for playing.

Beyond attending Apple’s conference and meeting Tim Cook, Campbell’s flight to California came with other bonuses. Notably, a chance to formally pitch Apple on a game for Apple Arcade. During the day, Campbell would attend the conference, sitting in on coding sessions and other events. But at night, he’d take what he’d learned and plug away at Operator 41.

“I had already got a lot of the game design and coding done, but nothing that I was happy with showing,” said Campbell, “so that night I sat down and started coding up a prototype level to show off the game to Apple. I spent the whole of the next day working on it.”

Near the end of the day, Campbell compiled his code and placed his laptop in a bag. The pitching session was supposed to end at 6:00 p.m, but nearly an hour before, they were already packing up because there was no one else to talk to. Campbell caught the Apple employees, who gave Campbell a few minutes to walk them through what he was building.

From start to finish, Campbell’s presentation lasted maybe 10 minutes.

“I went back to the dorms, and over the next week I was accepted onto the service,” he said. “I’d say that was the luckiest moment of production—so many stars had to align for me to be accepted onto the service and everything went so well.”

Campbell specifically wanted his next game to be on Apple Arcade, not the original App Store.

“The advantage of the App Store is that someone, like a 14-year-old, can just publish their own game, and I love having the creative control and speed I can put new content out to my players,” said Campbell. “The disadvantage is that in today’s App Store people expect games for free and so every design I make has to have monetization baked in, which kind of hobbled the diversity of ideas I could build.”

After Apple picked Campbell to become part of Apple Arcade, the company provided the contact information for some publishers who might be able to help him with resources and logistics. Between Apple and developers he’d met through the BAFTA award, Campbell sorted through options and signed with Shifty Eye, a publisher focused on Apple Arcade.

Shifty Eye’s other releases include Stranded Sails, described as “a relaxed open world farming adventure,” and EarthNight, a pretty 2D platformer with some really huge beasts.

Operator 41 doesn’t have many reviews. It didn’t get a big marketing push, and wasn’t on Apple’s big stage. Outside of tweets and forum posts, I haven’t seen all that many people talking about it. But what’s remarkable is that Operator 41 exists at all, and shows Apple having a willingness to give people a shot. Apple Arcade isn’t a place where, like the App Store, anything can get published. There is a curation element. Campbell wasn’t signed because he made a hit that Apple thinks will bring new people into Apple Arcade. In this case, Apple decided it was worth including a game by a mostly unknown 14-year-old designer.

Campbell is already sketching out updates for Operator 41, hoping to translate his rapid and ongoing experiences in the world of game development into a game that also improves over time.

“My classmates are a key part of the game process,” he said. “Some of them provide free playtesting and tend to be harsher than people who don’t know you, which is helpful (most of the best decisions in my games are made at lunch break with a few friends playing). Some of them play my games, but most of them see it as a normal hobby. I guess in that way it’s like having a secret identity except I only turn into a superhero when shouting at my laptop for giving me cryptic error messages.”

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you've got any Apple Arcade recommendations, drop an email: patrick.klepek@vice.com. He's also available privately on Signal.

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