How Poly Bridge is constructing a viral hit

Dry Cactus on Reddit fame and what makes architecture simulation somehow so fascinating.
Screen shot from the physics-based bridge building PC game Poly Bridge
Poly Bridge © Dry Cactus
By Adam Cook

A world without bridges would mean that Wales would be the least visited place in the world, and some truly exceptional pieces of architecture would simply not exist. Getting from A to B is something we all take for granted, but the engineering genius that takes place to help us do so is far beyond the imagination of most. But it's not beyond Dry Cactus, it seems, which, let's be honest, is a terrific name for a game developer and one that came about almost completely by accident.

"It was a spur of the moment name that, incidentally, wasn't also a taken .com domain", says Patrick Corrieri, founder of the indie dev based in Wellington, New Zealand that has previously worked on mobile titles, under the Clever Hamster Games label. To give you an idea of the kind of laid back, fun loving guy he is, he tells us, "Things I love include: pizza, physics, cacti, games." And let’s face it, who doesn't love pizza and physics?

Exploding into life on the internet – courtesy of a Reddit page which now has over 1,500 subscribers already – Poly Bridge is a physics-based game all about building bridges. It's a simple concept: you have a gap that traffic needs to cross, and you have to take supplied building such as blocks and pistons, and create your own unique bridge shapes. It's currently in Early Access on Steam, which at the time of writing has 260 reviews that are "very positive". But when did Corrieri first notice something was happening surround his game?

"The first few weeks you tend to keep a close eye on traffic to the store page, where it's coming from and what you can do to build momentum at that point. I had noticed a four fold sudden increase in traffic, and shortly after got a message from a friend saying a user submitted GIF was in the front page of Reddit [a news aggregator site that sees more than seven billion page views per month]. At first it was hard to believe that our little game was getting so much attention, but in seeing the GIF it made sense, it was a crazy moment with a Monster Truck flipping out."

© Shoot Luck Gaming, YouTube

Indeed, part of the appeal of the game appears to be the resulting insanity from actually messing up your build rather than succeeding, which seems odd. But sometimes the best things in life can be happy mistakes. For example, there's the bridge that seems perfectly fine until the last vehicle suddenly collapses through, only to land on solid ground and actually prove to be an okay way to finish the level. Or there's the monster truck that bounces off a hot air balloon, falls short of the other side and somehow bounces up completing the level anyway.

Poly Bridge's master stroke is the inclusion of a GIF generator, allowing players to capture these moments for easy sharing online like a lo-fi Twitch stream, though its addition was in turn something of a fluke, not to mention an act of kindness.

"Ultimately it was another independent developer, Zach Barth from Zachotronics, who pushed me to integrate the feature. Not only that, but he also gave me the source code to his GIF encoding routine so I could hit the ground running. That's what is so awesome about the indie dev community: a willingness to share and learn from each other, as growing together is much better than competing with one another."

But why make a game about building bridges at all? It's hardly an exciting concept on paper, not compared to Rocket League. Corrieri disagrees, and vehemently.

© Sips, YouTube

"Bridges are awesome! A part from connecting the world together, physically and metaphorically, they're fun to build and allow for an incredible amount of complexity and creativity from their simple building blocks. Add in some hydraulic pistons, fast moving vehicles and some rules, and you've got yourself a physics-based game. The rest takes care of itself."

Corrieri can't recall an exact Eureka moment, a point in time when he jumped in the bath and thought that a Steam game about mechanical engineering with a built in GIF generator would be a great idea. Instead, a love of the bridge building game genre was always calling to him.

"It's fun to build things, but sometimes it's more fun to then see them fall apart," Corrieri explains, summing up the true appeal of Poly Bridge. "I had always dreamed of being able to spend a couple years working on the bridge building game of my dreams, so I just took the leap of faith and went for it. I guess the most enlightening moment was realizing that seeing replays of other people's bridge designs, whether they are huge fails or ingenious masterpieces, was half the fun of the game, so making it easy to share these moments became a main factor of the game's design."

Of course there are comparisons to be made elsewhere, too. There's a free to play game called Toribash that is entirely physics-based, and allows you to create your own moves, like a turn based Mortal Kombat with even more decapitations. You both punch in your moves ahead of time, and see who eviscerates who.

"I somehow missed playing Toribash, although I'd heard lots about it at the time. I knew I wanted a light-hearted style to make it approachable and fun, and was looking for references of miniature and scale models of landscapes and trains, when I came across the whole low poly art movement and was blown away immediately, and just knew that I had found how the game needed to look."

© Rod Oracheski, YouTube

Being all about the physics, you'd assume there's some complicated code going on underneath the hood of Poly Bridge, but all those calculations were made easier thanks to the heavy lifting of others in the coding world.

"Luckily for me, much more clever and intelligent programmers and software engineers have done most of the ground work in terms of physics," says Corrieri. "Erin Catto, a man who is loved by many, has over the years written and maintained an awesome rigid-body 2D physics engine, called Box2D. The team over at Unity then implemented their own native version of Erin's engine, which is what I ultimately used to make the game."

That's not to say Corrieri did nothing at all, of course, as he explains, "Lots of extra work did go into creating custom made components and tweaking all the physics parameters, but none of it would have been possible without many other people's hard work and contributions to the open source community."

Corrieri is keeping an eye on his game, despite the sudden success. And it's selling well, too, "The exact specific of numbers can't be disclosed because of legal mumble jumble, but SteamSpy is a statistical-based web site that analyses games on Steam to draw a guess on how many copies have been activated to date, and it's surprisingly accurate. At the time of writing, one month after the Early Access release, SteamSpy tells me Poly Bridge has roughly 48,000 owners."

That's a successful indie game, so far, but what are the plans going forward, and will Poly Bridge come to other platforms, especially mobile ones? Corrieri remains tight lipped for now, but it doesn't sound like impossibility.

"Many people are suggesting different platforms, and it's definitely something we'll look into once we transition to the final release, later this year. We're still a few months away from the final release of the game, so we plan on adding at least three or four more Campaign worlds (about 48 puzzle levels), along with many more Sandbox features, and giving players the ability to mod the game, design their own vehicles and materials, create and share their own custom made Campaigns, and truly emphasize the community aspects."

And it's that community that has made Poly Bridge such a success, which Dry Cactus does seem to understand. "Well it was always our hope that players would respond positively to the community-oriented features of the game, but it greatly exceeded even our wildest fantasies. We're really busy now talking to our players, understanding what everyone would like to see and doing our best to deliver a fun and creative physics-based game that the community can truly help shape and find its direction."

Poly Bridge may not upload footage directly to YouTube or Ustream, but it clearly taps into the same voyeuristic capacity gamers have to watch others play. Despite the early access nature, watching other people make silly mistakes is still fun, and Corrieri knows this, "A lot could also be said about the general trend in creative and open games, which allow players to express their creativity in playful and ingenious ways, and I'm sure we're riding on that wave."

Despite the number of monster trucks and ferris wheels doing silly things around bridges, it's actually something else that impresses him most.

"I'm mostly blown away on a personal level by seeing some player's extremely clever solutions and use of hydraulic pistons that I would have never even dreamed of," he says. "It's awesome as a game creator to easily see how players can outsmart you and be much better at your own game. Pretty much every day I see one or more replays that use the game's mechanics in a way that I had never imagined, and I love that."

Jumping a bridge in physics-based bridge building PC game Poly Bridge
Jumping a bridge in Poly Bridge © Dry Cactus

As always, with success creates the ability to continue creating, but it can also changes lives. As a father of a one-year-old, the sleepless nights must be making things tough, and although he's hired some extra help and brought on a community manager, and a tester, Corrieri wants to remain small, "I can now live my lifelong dream of being able to sustain myself and my family while doing the things I love with unbound creativity and freedom, and that's all I could ever wish for."

It's a nice thought and we certainly hope that unlike some Poly Bridge constructions it proves to be sustainable. So what's next for Dry Cactus games?

"I have a few game ideas that have been brewing in my head for years, but who knows what the future holds," says Corrieri. "Apart from physics-based building games, I've also always really loved beat-based games, and would love to experiment with that genre and push it in a different direction."

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