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Month: January 2017

Can you put a hedgehog in an email?

Can you put a hedgehog in an email?

Taking the classic question all email geeks will be familiar with. “Can I put a video in an email?”, I decided to replace the word ‘video’ with first word that sprung to mind at that moment, ‘hedgehog’. (That is not true)

*I feel at this point I should point out that this is purely an experiment and not a real email, this is all part of personal research project, I’ll be receiving no financial recompense. It’s just for me and the #emailgeeks.*

I’ve been on a bit of a mission recently trying to explore “gaming” in email, and it ties in somewhat to some of the things I was looking at when I created the Interactive Tree. I feel that “gaming” in it’s true sense can obviously be limiting. For example what if the situation arose where we try and promote an actual game… could we do that justice with interactive email? (like Sonic The Hedgehog for example) how far could you realistically go with it? and what could be a good way to do it?

We’ve already seen some innovation in gaming emails in the past with Mike Ragan’s Transformers Pixel-art. But other than that I don’t recall seeing much worthy of remembering.

I started to think about HTML banners, CSS animations, and those interactive/animated adverts you get here and there, and how perhaps a simplistic nod to the game might work, and began to sketch out ideas. I chose Sonic largely because as a boy I was Mega Drive kid, and loved Sonic 2. I also felt that the platform simplistic nature of the early versions would work (it really could have been anything though… Mario, Dizzy, Chuckie Egg. I must again stress that in no way have SEGA or Sonic The Hedgehog been involved in this, I used the theme of Sonic purely for experimental purposes).

So first up, I made a list of key Sonic traits and these were. Running, jumping, rolling, spinning, and moving fast, collecting rings, landing on spikes, drowning, quirky 8-bit music. Awesome. I then started sketching some VERY rough ideas. Below are some of the later sketches.
Beautiful right?! (and a textbook mug of tea stain)

sketches

 

I then went on the hunt for assets. Thankfully there are loads of sprites out there for this sort of thing, so I found one suitable and easy to work with and then went on the lookout for assets to create the setting/background.

The first thing I had to do was to start setting up sprites, choosing sizes, this was all pretty easy, but creating the backgrounds for Sonics “Green Hill Zone” was one of the most time-consuming parts of all this. Sonic’s worlds are not flat, and I wanted it to be flat/level more for my own ease, and to keep things simpler, so I began slicing up sections and trying my best to merge them together to create a flat version. Here’s part of it.

green_hill

 

I went in to this knowing full-well I’d be targeting Webkit and using Absolute position in this which if something like this were sent it would give Samsung Native apps some problems, but I can target that, so didn’t hold back.. But obviously being an experiment it wasn’t a problem.

I decided to initially break what I had planned in to three parts, and build each section individually – and then try to connect them up in one html afterwards. So I made the first section. The Entrance, and this would largely create the settings for the rest as well.

diagram

 

Entrance


The Entrance

For this section I wanted Sonic to enter the frame from off-set, as you can see above I still have the initial sketch I did for planning the layout for the whole thing, (I’ve gone over the key bits for the first frame in Pen). It was all largely straight forward. The key was having the Sonic animation, and the container around Sonic. So then each element could be controlled individually. The container moves to it’s position from off-set and the background sprite plays while it happens.

The main thing to be aware of here was really with the title. From what I can tell you can’t go from “Display:none” to “block” and vice-versa in a keyframe timeline. So I got around this with the title by setting it’s height and width to zero, and then changing that in the keyframe.

Once I’d done this I was a little torn with what to do from here, as it would take me in a direction. I didn’t want to try to define controls and have him move around at the users will. I felt this although quite a cool option, this would fail in the expectations of the user. I’d considered it for a while but in the end I stuck with my initial plan.

The Entrance section didn’t change from my first version.

 

Original Run Sequence

Run

From here it was largely straight forward…. Press run, hide the ‘entrance’ stuff, show the ‘run’ stuff. Key difference is Sonic’s container no longer moves, but the background moves instead, and the new sprite plays. I then created the sign to drop down in the keyframe timeline and programmed a jump button to appear, where the “run” button was previously.

 

Jump

Jump

Again this was similar to the ‘Run’, I swapped the background to one with spikes, and the key difference is in the timeline is getting the sprite set-up correctly was a bit fiddly, I even remade the background and moved the spikes around a few times as I worked it out. And then making Sonic’s Container move up and down, along with the sprite animation to jump over the spikes. It was largely lots of back and forth.

Not Jump 

So this is where I had to rethink things and go back. Throughout the process so far I’d been using  ” #foo:checked ~ * .foo{” (so when the box is checked, make this happen).
My plan for “if they don’t press jump” seemed simple enough, ” #foo:not (:checked) ~ * .foo{“. (Seems obvious now)
I didn’t pre-empt that during the entire animation that the “Jump” checkbox would not be checked, and as I started to bring all the pieces together I quickly realised this, and that things like the the sprite of  Sonic running in to the spikes would be showing throughout. I tried to find a way around it, but nothing was working well enough.

I know the obvious thing to from the start would be to have a long-timeline in which you press run, and eventually at the end of it Sonic would run in to the spikes if you didn’t press jump. This is what the final thing ended up being. But I was aware this was going to have to utilise a lot of images (the ratio and weight, goes against my better judgement). This method mean’t I’d need “a big old background” for the run section.

final_run

Rebuild the Run Section.

So the Run section was rebuilt and slotted back in, and became a long section, and the background image was much longer and bigger.
I knew this would have an affect on load up time, on the press of “run” so I added them in to the body of the email and covered them over with flat colour so they start loading up from the start. Which seemed to help, in a similar way to a pre-loader. I also lowered the quality a little and ran them through optimisation a few more times than I would have liked.

gameover

Ending signs

This is pretty simple. They are images that are the size of the frame, set inline as “a tags” with IDs, and in the embedded style for the control of them. They are both set on a timeline to drop down over the frame after a certain amount of time. In the case of ‘Game Over’, it will drop down after 11 seconds after pressing the run button, and in the case of the ‘Play Sonic on your phone’ it drops down 4 seconds after the jump button is pressed, and if jump is pressed the ‘Game Over’ doesn’t happen.

The plan would be to link “Game Over” to the online version of the email, and link “Play Sonic on your Phone” to the app store.

Conclusions and other things

There is still plenty to do with it, but as it’s just an experiment I’ll gradually pick bits up here and there as I go along.

  1. It hasn’t felt as smooth as I initially had it and I guess that is largely  down to weight, and timelines, but some of that I can’t afford the time to fixing. I partially feel like I was as happiest with it when I had it at a point where it was really simple and Sonic just kept running until you jump… The whole thing worked well and although simple, it was quite nice.
  2. Mike Ragan, pointed out to me that the ending wasn’t right and that Sonic should Jump through the big golden hoop like he does in the game at the end of a level. This idea I really like, and now it annoys me a little that it doesn’t do this, however I couldn’t really spend too much more time on this and I could probably quite happily keep working on it forever if I had the chance. So I’ve left that out. (sorry Mike)
  3. I think one of my biggest frustrations with that I haven’t really sorted out yet is the ‘Jump’ button. Again because timeline doesn’t support transition between display:none and block. It’s always there, but the opacity changes. So I want to work out a better way of setting this up when I get chance, probably utilising the same height adjustment method I used previously.
  4. The other thing is, it’s pretty tiny outside of mobile and of course it’s largely all images. But as an experiment I’m pretty pleased with it. I like the fact it’s still an advert, and promotes the game. It doesn’t distract from that end purpose. Which in my research with the Tree and this, I think it’s a different approach to a similar idea.
  5. Oh and -MOZ- doesn’t support background animation in a keyframe as far as I’m aware… Obviously the build is for webkit. however for view online I’d have to have a look at the “jump countdown”  This could easily just be a .gif or change the messaging perhaps.

Give it a go. View it here 
(Open it in  Chrome or Safari)

So that’s really it, still a few bugs to work out but that’s about it. All it needs now is fallbacks, and any surround/fallback design, hacks putting in for Samsung Native Webkit and then it’s a functioning email.

We’ll be making more fun things, that we might send out so sign up to our emails here

Thanks for reading.

Kristian

@joon82

 

sonic_die

The Interactive Christmas Tree

The Interactive Christmas Tree

Firstly, to give you some background of how this came about, in-short, I was actually thinking about an email that I could make that my daughter (Poppy) would interact with and enjoy. Poppy is almost 5 and has no real concept of what email is, or what I do do for living and I wanted to make something that she would be interested in.

I also thought if I can interest her, then perhaps it might give me some more insights in to something that I’ve also been thinking about. Something that people could share, or post socially.

Something that:

  • Wasn’t made of the usual content, sales, or messaging, or welcomes.
  • That might just engage the person who receives it to interact
    with the brand perhaps in the way the usual social media channels do.
  • To show our clients that boundaries within email can be pushed, not just in code, but  also in it’s approach.
  • I also initially wanted to create something that had no images at all.

I don’t really feel like I achieved any of those things to any great extent, but it’s part of a larger body of work, and I learned a lot from creating it.

I think I wear my influences on my sleeve with this email, and it’s definitely a bit of a nod to them. Mark Robbins and TABLE TR TD are there for all to see. I’ve never really fully delved in to interactive email fully, I’m more of an CSS animation geek, so In fact I reached out to Mark, Camille and Miah  (Table Tr Td) to get their input on it and they were kind enough to get involved. In fact the Humbug idea came from Camille, and I think it’s my favourite function.

I also took a lot of influence from Mike Ragan‘s work on pixel-art which always resonated with me somewhat from that point of view of focussing less on that ROI/stat based email culture, and thinking about that social sharing side of things. Mike said described his pixel-art as a “labour of love” and I certainly know what he means by that after making this. But I felt the idea of the email still functioning in the same way even if the user doesn’t download the images. That would be cool.

I then just tried to combine them all with my love and hate relationship with CSS.

it went through a few stages, before ended up as what went out.

Stage 1

1

As it was coming up to christmas, and Poppy likes colouring in. I started by simply making a Christmas Tree with the simple premise of colouring it in. It was made up of 105 checkboxes and styled with a preset colour in the CSS to be activated when checked.

Poppy loved it, it was a huge success. She also made me share it with her friends so I ended up sharing a web link with a couple of her school friends parents. Which was unexpected, but nice reaction. I guess the reaction wanted despite being from a 5 year old.

Stage 2

The first version (despite it’s success with Poppy) wasn’t really going to cut it from a professional perspective and it led to the main idea which was “Decorate the Christmas Tree”.

2

So I had the tree already coloured in a create a palette of colours that you could choose to colour in baubles and then apply to the tree.

The problem with this was I wasn’t able find a reliable way to have multiple bauble colours on the tree, triggered by the menu, without heavily bloating the code. Whatever you selected in the colour palette changed all of the baubles. So because of the menu of colours it inferred that you could have numerous colours, so when using it, you were actually left disappointed. When I tested this on Poppy she just got very frustrated, and told me “IT’S RUINED!”

2a

 

Stage 3

The colour palette concept was ditched and set colour baubles to appear behind the checkboxes, by creating different colour styles for different classes and assigning them to the checkbox.

I then created a menu section which is similar to what exists now. The functionality changed to the baubles to christmas lights, and added the “Humbug” option suggested by Camille.

The lights worked well because they are change of colour animation, and when selecting each checkbox it starts from the beginning so it gives the impression of randomness.

The idea for the humbug option was initially a gif, of the tree burning down. Like when Wylie Coyote blows himself up after pressing the TNT plunger. I then changed this to a background sprite animation instead of a gif so that every time the button was pressed the animation played. (Thanks Mark for suggesting that change). Otherwise the user would have to go in and out of the email to make this function play again.

3

 

Stage 4

We then began work on the surrounding design. We wanted to keep things simple for this – so we just targeted webkit and and everything none webkit got the fallback version. Which was very much that.

Anyway we had these constant frustrations with it, and that was:

  1. The Baubles couldn’t be controlled by the user.
  2. When selecting lights the baubles would changed to lights, and the lights were much better. You couldn’t have both.
  3. If you selected your baubles and then pressed ‘lights’ they would all change and be on the same animation timeline. We didn’t have the desired affect.

So we changed it again. To how it is now.

 

Stage 5 – The Final Version

For the final version we just went with the variation of lights. This helped keep things a little simpler and work better simply because all that is now happening is that the different functions are a different CSS animation.

The only real problem I had was that in making the web version (which wasn’t just targeted to webkit and didn’t have any fallbacks etc,..), even when specific creating -moz- targeting in the animations for the mozilla, all of the animation colours for the lights were initially made up of a a skew and scale change that had varying gradients with box-shadows. However when i tested the menu functionality options Mozilla didn’t like the gradients, and wouldn’t display them, instead just displaying nothing with a box-shadow around it, and after spending a few hours trying to fix it, I decided to simplify a little. Time was pressing. So I reverted to simpler hex codes for that instead as it appeared to have problems with the linear gradient.

 

To Conclude…

It was fun experiment and will lead to more, and it was a great way to launch our newsletter. Which you can sign up to here.

And I was particularly pleased when Kevin and Jason made it the “Email of the Week” on the Litmus Email Design Podcast

Here is the code for each version. I’m sure it could have been lighter and cleaner but it was largely all born from adapting the build at each stage.
Email Build
Web Version

 

Thanks for reading.

Kristian