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The Sea Monkey app that never was

a sea monkey

As a kid I loved Sea Monkeys. As a college student I loved Sea Monkeys. And as an adult, I still have a fondness for the little brine shrimp brought to life from a powdery packet. They are a part of pop culture, appearing in South Park and even having a Saturday morning cartoon ages ago.

When the App Store opened up, I had the idea to bring Sea Monkeys to the iPhone. I contacted the owner of the Sea Monkey intellectual property and pitched him on the idea of an app that was both fun and educational, just like Sea Monkeys were supposed to be. I teamed up with a great couple of guys who lived overseas and made Zombie Nombie, a really cool app that was a relatively early entrant to the store.

Unfortunately, the app never launched. Now I can finally tell what it would have been like and what happened.

Fun and Educational

The inventor of Sea Monkeys, Harold van Braunhut, was a bit of a kook. As you can read in this story on The Awl, he also had some odd connections. But as a kid, my Sea Monkey manual merely mentioned him as a man who wanted people to have fun with Sea Monkeys, and maybe instill some curiosity about the natural world. It worked on me, as I became fascinated with nature like never before. Well, nature and suspended animation.

sea monkey tank

The ubiquitous Sea Monkey tank

Sea Monkeys are still sold around the world today, and are often put in the "educational toy" section of toy shops big and small. While Braunhut died in 2003, his legacy lives on primarily in the form of a warehouse that sends out various Sea Monkey branded products to stores and city aquariums. There doesn't seem to be any more "research" as Braunhut once conducted, and the "small, instant mammalian pet" I was promised in one edition of the Sea Monkey handbook never appeared. (Perhaps this is the origin story of Twitter phenom @darth?)

Sea Monkeys are fun, if you are the patient sort and if you like aquariums that are largely no-fuss affairs. Once upon a time there were accessories like a Sea Monkey race track (which I had, now lost to the ages), based on the principle that the shrimp would swim against a current. The track had a pump, and you could place a Sea Monkey at one end, start pumping a light current, and the little buggers would race off to the end of the track. Unfortunately capturing, transporting, racing then replacing the critters was a pain, which is maybe why they don't sell this any more.

Speaking of selling, the Sea Monkey site is hilariously out of date. You have to print an order form and send cash, check or money order. I guess you could call it "retro" but it's largely unchanged from 2009, when I tried to get a Sea Monkey app going.

King Sea Monkey

I tracked down the guy who apparently "owned" the rights to Sea Monkeys, and pitched him on the app. In-app purchases came out during our talks, and that was an easy sell to him as a revenue driver and a way to teach kids about all the extra stuff you could buy for your real Sea Monkeys. He seemed lukewarm on the whole idea of an app, but was OK with it, and I was given a green light to find developers to bring the app to market.

Unfortunately, after we had prepared a lovely proposal (detailed below), the owner spoke to his lawyer, and talks shut down immediately. I was cut off from communications and the entire app was dropped, much to my dismay. That's why there's no Sea Monkey app today.

The Sea Monkey app that could have been

Alex from Smudgy games responded to my email quickly. I was impressed with Zombie Nombie, the first of several apps from Smudgy, as it had the "life" and personality I was looking for -- except it was a zombie. What I wanted was twofold: An app that would bring to life the imaginary Sea Monkeys, the anthropromorphized version you see on packaging, and the scientific version, complete with growth cycle and dietary needs.

sea monkey demo

Alex and his partner at Smudgy were more excited than the guy who actually ran Transcience (the company that owns Sea Monkeys). They put together a proposal that added the idea of breeding and generations, to add more gameplay to what was, in fact, kind of boring. My original concept was like a dry interpretation of Neopets, but more scientifically accurate to Sea Monkey life cycles. The Smudgy guys made it sing, however.

And those cartoon Sea Monkeys you see dancing around on the package? That was an unlockable. Once you successfully created a generation of critters, and let them live for a while, you could summon an interactive, bipedal Sea Monkey as seen on the box. It would have had a personality, like if you shook the iPhone it would get dizzy. If you did it again and again, it would get mad, tap on the glass and shake its webbed finger at you.

The Proposal

Below is my original text proposal in our "press release" button.

Show full PR text
SEA MONKEY SIM

1. Scientifically accurate simulation of hatching, keeping and breeding Sea Monkeys. Down to the "packets" you can buy over time by keeping your Monkeys alive.
000---links to iPhone-optimized Sea Monkey Museum

2. Once you have "lived" for 2 generations, you open up the Store, where you can upgrade your tank, buy more food, desserts, vitamins and baby-making stuff!

3. 3rd Gen opens up TOYS for your pets (crystals) AND the Humanoid Sea Monkey!!! He swims around smiling and waving, sometimes closing his eyes and just moving to his own beat... (30 second animation loop)
--When you shake his glass, he bangs around (vibe) and shakes his head... on 2nd time, he shrugs, on the 3rd he peers through the glass, on the 4th it might loop around to #1 OR (randomly) he'll bang on the glass and wave his finger. if shaken 12 times in a row, without stopping, he'll just open a "door" in the side and swim out for a minute or so
--Sleeps during night time in the real world, mostly active in the mornings
--Feeding him like SM's creates little seaweed-salads or sushi bits

4. 4th Gen "real" monkeys open TOYS for the Humanoid.
--he "dances" to iPod music
5th gen the humanoid says various phrases (12, like a soundboard app then, using gestures to trigger 4 specific ones)

TARGET SIZE: 80MB or less!

UI NOTES
-- Prefs are via lowercase i in lower right corner... sea monkeys dissolve away w/water to reveal interface in bottom of "tub"... or blue ring verison--- simple controls...

-- Prefs pane in SYS PREFS on iPhone takes you to online store, enables "kid mode" which locks the game screen ON (no other UI except magnifier and food tap)
(Version 1.2)
SEA MONKEY SIM

1. Scientifically accurate simulation of hatching, keeping and breeding Sea Monkeys. Down to the "packets" you can buy over time by keeping your Monkeys alive.

2. Once you have "lived" for 2 generations, you open up the Store, where you can upgrade your tank, buy more food, desserts, vitamins and baby-making stuff

3. 3rd Gen opens up TOYS for your pets (crystals) AND the Humanoid Sea Monkey!!! He swims around smiling and waving, sometimes closing his eyes and just moving to his own beat... (120-second animation loop)
--When you shake his glass, he bangs around (vibe) and shakes his head... on 2nd time, he shrugs, on the 3rd he peers through the glass, on the 4th it might loop around to #1 OR (randomly) he'll bang on the glass and wave his finger. if shaken 12 times in a row, without stopping, he'll just open a "door" in the side and swim out for a minute or so
--Sleeps during night time in the real world, mostly active in the mornings
--Feeding him like SM's creates little seaweed-salads or sushi bits

4. 4th Gen "real" monkeys open TOYS for the Humainoid.
--he "dances" to music
5th gen the humanoid says various phrases (12, like a soundboard app then, using gestures to trigger 4 specific ones)

TARGET SIZE: <50MB

UI NOTES
-- Prefs are via lowercase i in lower right corner... sea monkeys dissolve away w/water to reveal interface in bottom of "tub"... or blue ring verison--- simple controls...

-- Prefs pane in SYS PREFS on iPhone takes you to online store, enables "kid mode" which locks the game screen ON (no other UI except magnifier and food tap)
The Smudgy guys, however, took this and some conversations and created a lovely proposal. Below is the substance of that proposal, chopped into pieces so it will fit on our pages.

What is it?

The Amazing Live Sea Monkeys is a Sea Monkey simulator for the iPhone and iPod touch. Raise a colony of Sea Monkeys, play with them, and take good care of them. The game is open ended with no explicit goals except to keep your Sea Monkeys alive and healthy.

sea monkey pitch part one

Just like in real life all you need to do to get started is to follow a few simple steps:

sea monkey beginnings

Now you that you have your baby Sea Monkeys the real fun begins...

habitat view

In this view can see the whole habitat full of Sea Monkeys as they swim and frolic. Watch as they grow, eat and reproduce.
• Rub the screen to swirl the water with your finger and watch the Sea Monkeys react.
• Shake the device to mix the water. • Tap a Sea Monkey to enter Magnify View
• Drag the bottom of the screen to pan through the habitat.
• Feed your Sea Monkeys.

magnify view screen

In this view you can interact with any one of your many Sea Monkeys in full 3D.
• Touch and tickle your Sea Monkey and it will wriggle with glee! It might just give you some Clams!
• Personalize your Sea Monkey with accessories you have purchased in the Shop.
• Feed your Sea Monkey and watch it eat.

family tree view

Every Sea Monkey is an Individual that you can name and track. In the Family Tree View you can see all of your Sea Monkeys that youʼve ever had in your colony and explore how they are related.
• Drag your finger to pan the view
• Pinch to zoom • Tap a name badge to
highlight that particular
Monkeyʼs lineage. • Highlight a name
badge to see that Sea Monkey in Magnify View

Making Progress

You begin with 10 sea monkeys that are but little babies mere millimeters in size. If you take care of them they will quickly grow larger. After a day they will be fully grown males and females and will begin to make new babies. Eventually you can have up to 100 little sea monkeys swimming around. Happy, healthy, growing Sea Monkeys will reward you with Clams, special little shells that only Sea Monkeys can find. You can use Clams to buy stuff in the Amazing Live Sea Monkeys Store.

sea monkey store

sea monkeys

Freeze dried dreams

So that's what we had planned before the crack legal team at Transcience quit talking to us. The app was proposed in 2008, we worked on it until 2009. At the time, the App Store started to see an uptick in what were basically just "marketing" apps. Stuff like a "beer simulator" that pimped a particular brand popped up. Apple eventually purged a lot of these, noting that an app had to have more utility than mere branding. I feel like our Sea Monkey app, given its pop culture exposure and fun nature, would have been a hit. But now we'll never know. The App Store has changed a bit since, and who knows if Sea Monkeys will ever enter the 21st century.



As a kid I loved Sea Monkeys. As a college student I loved Sea Monkeys. And as an adult, I still have a fondness for the little brine...