Super Mail Quest: An Interview With Designer and Developer Aaron Simmonds
Super Mail Quest is a project by proud email geek Aaron Simmonds. Launching soon, it’s an interactive email project that allows you to pick your own destiny, eventually leading to defeating the Warlock of Outlook Mountain. We thought it’d be fun to catch up with Aaron ahead of the project launch and learn about what inspired this idea and some of the challenges involved in creating such an ambitious interactive email project.
Sign up for Super Mail Quest here to make sure you get to see this project when it launches.
Q) Firstly, could you explain to our readers who haven’t heard of it what SuperMailQuest is?
Sure, Super Mail Quest (SMQ) is an interactive email project I started back in February this year. SMQ is an interactive story game that allows you to choose your own path through a series of choices. The aim is to navigate your way through the story with the aim of defeating the “Warlock of Outlook mountain”.
Q) What can users expect by signing up?
A lot of fun! The landing page is there as a bit of a timesaver, allowing me to send SMQ straight to your inbox. Once finished, the email will get sent out to the email address/es you sign up with (nothing more). Plus it’s a good way of generating a bit interest! (P.S. if you haven’t tried it already go to www.supermailquest.co.uk and have a play with the arrow keys and the ‘b’ key for a little extra fun!).
Q) Any chance of an extra cheeky sneak-peek?
Sure, but I don’t want to give too much away! Here are a few snapshots to whet the appetite and give you an idea of what to expect.
Q) So, let’s talk about you; How did you get into Email?
Wow, Ok… how long do you have? Like most people in email, my path wasn’t straightforward at all. I started off doing 3D animation at Uni, followed by a Masters in digital practices. Once I’d finished my education I moved down to Bournemouth and got a job working at CHS as a Junior Artworker. My role was to produce print ready work, but that evolved to include catalogue production and the odd bit of creative work.
Then about 5 years ago our digital team expanded and there was an opportunity to move across so I took the leap. My introduction to digital was to create display banners in Flash and build emails in HTML. This was at the time responsive emails were starting to become more mainstream. So, when Flash finally got phased out I became a full-on email developer! It was a great time to get into it and it’s kept me very busy since.
Q) Who, or what, are your inspirations for SuperMailQuest?
SMQ actually draws inspiration from quite a few different places. I guess the first thing that made me want to do an interactive email was Kristian Robinson’s Sonic email concept. It was his emails that gave me the inspiration for doing an email game. From there I had to come up with the main idea and that came from 2 different sources.
The first was retro gaming. I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s with SEGA and Nintendo so I already had a passion for old-school gaming. I felt that 8-bit graphics would lend itself really well to email as it would allow me to keep image sizes down.
The second bit of inspiration was from a series of novels by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Fighting Fantasy is a series of books that mixed dice based roleplaying with a choose your own story. You picked your hero, then worked your way through the book, jumping from page ‘X’ to page ‘Y’. Along the way, you’d fight monsters and solve puzzles. It was this concept that gave me the idea for the mechanic of the email.
Q) During this process what has your biggest challenge been?
I don’t think there’s been only one challenge, there’s been quite a few!
The first challenge was to find out if what I wanted to achieve was actually possible. At a base level, I needed to create a way of jumping from one scene to another. With a bit of trial and error (and some advice from Mark Robbins) I used radio buttons to achieve this effect. After that everything started falling into place.
Next, I had to plan a rough story, the scenes and the journey from start to finish (and everything in between). I was very conscious of file size so I didn’t want it to be too long but still challenging. Needless to say, this kept evolving throughout the whole project.
The next phase involved designing and animating each scene. This involved using several techniques from GIFs through to CSS sprites and animation. CSS animation has been a big learning curve for me as I didn’t have a lot of experience with it before now. Knowing its limitations and stringing those animations together was really tricky.
The final hurdle was mobile rendering. With each scene having so many different elements and animation, scaling was a real issue. After some further suggestions from Mark, I overcame this by using em’s and VW units. This worked amazingly well and is a really powerful way of scaling content on mobile.
Q) What advice do you have for email designers who are interested in trying out interactive email?
Jump on in. If you have an idea for an interactive email then you should just go for it.
Interactive email definitely has a place in today’s market. And the beauty of it is that once you get the basics it can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. You can do anything from a simple hover state to a full-on interactive story game (It seems I threw myself in at the deep end!). The only consideration with interactive email is that the more complex you make it, the longer it will take. But on the flip side, the more complex it is the more you will gain from it.
For me, actually coding from scratch has been the absolute best way to learn. SMQ has evolved so many times from start to finish. By working through each stage of the project I got to understand the limitations of what it is I was trying to do. Only then could I find ways to move past them and push my knowledge and creativity. Plus, if you do get stuck then there’s an amazing community out there to help.
My main goal of this project was to learn and improve my skills and I can definitely say that I’ve done that! Going through this process has taught me so many new things, new tricks, new hacks. It’s given me so many ideas for further emails that I’ll be spoilt for choice on what pet project to work on next.
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Author: Alex Ilhan
Hailing all the way from England, Alex brings his email development expertise along with an endless stream of cups of tea and British cynicism. Follow him on Twitter: @omgitsonlyalex.