Most mobile app development companies are delighted if their app hits the Top 100 list at all; The Moron Test hit the list and stayed there for over two years. Clearly, DistinctDev has a magic recipe for success. Not so, says Berkeley, an affable guy in his late twenties. He attributes much of the game’s staying power to the priority his company puts on maintaining ties to its considerable fanbase, engaging them in conversation on Facebook and Twitter, and keeping gameplay fresh with regular updates.
Until recently, DistinctDev was just three guys with computer science backgrounds. DistinctDev started as just two people – Steven Malagon (Berkeley’s brother) and his high school friend Mike Monaco. When Berkeley joined in 2008, the trio was developing Facebook games, but switched their focus to mobile when the iOS SDK came out. There had always been a frustration associated with trying to develop apps for mobile devices but for the first time it seemed possible to really make a smartphone do something cool, so the team bought a Mac Mini and decided to give it a try.
Berkeley admits that there were lots of false starts in the beginning, but when they stumbled on marketing gold – the inherent human desire to prove to others they weren’t stupid – DistinctDev really started focusing on creating more and more content for their top-selling product. The game’s sustained success helped the company grow enough to lease a downtown Seattle office and hire it’s own employees (they’re up to six people now).
Even with their recent achievements – the three recently had to pick actual job titles, which Berkeley admits were partially the result of coin-flipping – they remain a “pretty chill group”. They don’t stick to formal roles but instead contributes according to each person’s individual skills. Berkeley usually does most of the data and “mathy” stuff, as well as handles PR; Mike is the iOS and server-side guy; Steven is the front-end web expert, as well as producer and project manager. All three of them generate ideas for new content together, often inspired by things they encounter in daily life.
I asked how the group manages to continually create original ideas. “We actually take a lot of inspiration from bad interfaces,” explained Berkeley, and went on to tell me about an experience he and Mike had while walking around a drugstore. They ran across a toy which had an arrow and instructions to “squeeze the head”. The arrow had become inverted after some handling, and was now pointing in the wrong spot. The instructions were accurate but somehow the arrow’s position took more importance, so the guys got to thinking about how arrows could be leveraged to create tricky questions for the game.
I asked Berkeley about what he does on his off time. Surprisingly, he is a major hip-hop fan; he’s also an MC and has even been known to do a little freestyle music and “battles” (yes, like 8 Mile). I asked if he had anything I could link to in this article, and he gave a self-deprecating laugh. “No, just hobbyist stuff for personal gratification.” The other two guys are into autos, and spend a lot of time working on their cars and racing them. All three of them are big music lovers and frequently go to concerts together.
It’s clear that DistinctDev has a bright future if the company continues with it’s customer-centered approach to developing fresh new content. But what about the future for mobile development in general? Berkeley doesn’t see much point in speculating on the distant future with regards to the computer industry. He compares it to the Yellow Pages telephone directory; even though he remembers using one as a young person, in thirty years kids are going to hear about them and think they were ridiculously archaic. There’s already so much technology that twenty- and thirty-somethings remember that has become obsolete, and the pace is only going to quicken. Like the other developers I’ve interviewed, he sees it progressing into an ambient technology which is ubiquitous.
In the nearer future, he’s curious as to what impact freemium games will have on the crowded mobile gaming market. He recognizes that it is difficult to create fun games that aren’t a “grind to play,” so it’s possible that the freemium label might become a stigma that customers will eventually shy away from.
As we were wrapping up the conversation, I asked Berkeley about what was on the horizon for DistinctDev and he became very excited. “We’ll be releasing lots more stuff for The Moron Test soon, more content and cool additions.” They are also working on a sequel that “borrows from the original title, gives fans more of what they want, and improves on it. It will really delight players.”
I could hear Berkeley grinning through the phone. “Yeah, we’re super, super-super-super excited about it.”
Posted September 30th, 2011 by Gianna LaPin Our Rating: :: GREAT FUN
A reasonably-priced app for satisfying the inner animation producer in all of us. Its low price point makes it suitable for anyone who really just wants to give it a go and isn’t too concerned about production quality.
Many iOS production companies have their roots extending back to the early days of game development for Apple and Freeverse is no exception; they got their start back in 1994. Moving to the mobile platform was a natural transition for them, as the iPhone felt more like a “real computer” than any other mobile phone in history.
Not all everyone in the mobile app industry has an engineering background. Colin was a poetry major, for example. “There are plenty of skill-sets that are helpful in creating great apps and great games,” he says. “An eye for design, an ability to analyze the market and spot opportunities, speed of thought and action to take advantage of those opportunities, great coding skills, flexibility to work around problems or change directions when events warrant.” You don’t necessarily need all these skills and abilities yourself, but a good team has these strengths evenly balanced across the group. Sometimes the unique mix of skills in a team dictate the direction a game takes, which Colin feels creates a better project, and one that’s built with more passion.
In Freeverse’s younger days development workflow tended to be more fast and loose, but in the last year or two they’ve been focusing on doing more pre-planning and following a structure without slowing down or losing their creativity. Colin humorously calls this evolution “leveling-up”.
I suspected the gameplay reference had to do with what he did in his free time. Like many other mobile app professionals, Colin personally has an iMac, an iPad2 and a iPhone 3GS, “because I rock it old school,” he laughed. Favorite apps include Kindle, Bloomberg, and lots of games (of course). Starbase Command and Robotek are receiving the most air time right now.
When you make games for a living, what do you do when you’re stuck or need a break? “Apart from performance enhancing drugs?” Colin quipped. Walking away for an hour, a day, a few weeks –- whatever is necessary -– eventually results in a revelation that only seems sudden, because your unconscious has been working on it the whole time. Preferred time-off activities include sleeping, reading, watching TV, spending time with his 2 year old at the park, and sleeping some more.
Freeverse just continues to grow along with new advancements in the mobile industry. As a 1st Party Studio for ngmoco, the American subsidiary of DeNA, they have started making games for DeNA’s Mobage platform. Mobage is a mobile social network from Japan which already exists on the Android platform, and in mid-August DeNA released Mobage for iOS. Mobage service makes it easy for mobile users to find and share new games and it’s already generated over $1.3 billion in revenues for DeNA.
Hailing from the days when Mac shareware was commonplace, hobbyist game developers Jonathan Czeck and Matt Gravelle decided to take their shared interest to the next level when they co-founded Graveck. Things really took off when they adopted the Unity engine in 2005, and since then they’ve established themselves as leaders in the Unity3D community as well as talented game design specialists.
I had the opportunity to talk with Matt about how and why they made the transition to mobile app development. Matt explains that he and Jonathan were encouraged by rumors of small teams hitting it big with the then-young iTunes App Store. Their first game was an unbranded version of Skee-Ball called “10 Balls 7 Cups” which, as Matt put it, “was moderately successful for two guys building a quick game.” [Ed Note: It was also a fun stab at team-wars before there was an OpenFeint/GameCenter by the folks at ThePortableGamer, called Clan Wars]
I’m always curious as to what the working environment is at an app develop company and Matt generously provided lots of details. Graveck is currently a team of eight people, with occasional collaboration from other companies and individuals met though community forums or IRC channels.
They stick to smaller projects that generally don’t involve the entire company at once, so the mix of people changes regularly and colleagues get to interact with different team members. In groups that number three or more, development tends to loosely follow SCRUM methodologies.
People are assigned to projects based on their strengths and interests. When adding new people to the company, Matt likes to look for self-learners with a wide variety of skills. “The thing that keeps game development interesting is that you can apply a huge variety of skills… a lot of creativity and artistry is needed even for a programmer who in other careers wouldn’t need a creative hair in his/her body.”
Education takes a backseat to practical skills and experience – the best indicator of future success is a finished game in a developer’s portfolio – but everyone at Graveck has some post-secondary education. Matt himself has a degree in Mathematics and is licensed to teach math and physics at the high school level.
If you could look at a mobile app developer’s personal iOS device, what would you find? I asked Matt what mobile apps he used regularly and enjoyed. He claimed to be a developer’s “worst nightmare” due to his short attention span – an affliction I’ve discovered to be quite common among the developers I’ve talked to. Past favorites include Words with Friends and Angry Birds.
Sitting at a desk can make a person restless, especially a person with a short attention span, so I asked Matt what he does in his free time. Home improvement projects, gardening, making furniture – anything that doesn’t involve a computer – are ideal ways to decompress. When struggling with a difficult programming or design problem he might take his Macbook Pro outside to work in the shade or heads down to a nearby coffee shop. When this doesn’t work, walking away for a day to focus on something else might do the trick, because the solution might appear unexpectedly. And very occasionally he simply needs some help: “Sometimes it’s a good idea to let somebody else who’s more qualified to handle the problem, or if nothing else just get another set of eyes on it.”
He tries to keep the office a relaxing setting as well. Every Wednesday they order lunch from a local restaurant and try to keep the selections interesting. I asked Matt what his favorite food was. “A better question would be what type of food do I not like? Mushrooms. Sauerkraut. Head cheese. Other than that I love all forms of food and do not discriminate. Oh, and I was really disappointed with the jellyfish we ordered the other day.”
Graveck has recently started developing for the Android platform; this, combined with all the recent advances in the iOS world, is enough to make Matt’s head spin. Looking forward, he sees steady, predictable advancements in the mobile computing field instead of major breakthroughs in the near future. Specifically he agrees with Apple’s move towards creating a more seamless, cohesive user experience between devices by leveraging cloud storage, and Graveck plans on adopting that same philosophy.
Speaking of the future, there are some really exciting projects on the horizon for Matt and his company. Arcade Ball is coming to Android, which should really illuminate how the Android market compares to the iOS. There’s a golf game near completion as well, which has a fun multiplayer mode. Lastly, there’s a top-secret project about halfway done which Matt is really enthusiastic about, but declined further comment. “You’ll just have to stay tuned to learn more,” he says, and I could almost hear him grinning.
A common theme that I’m noticing as I talk to these incredibly talented developers is that they are recognizing an inevitable merger between desktop and mobile computing that is happening sooner rather than later. Rob Murray agrees, and adds that this awareness is what lead him and his company, founded in 1999, to start developing programs for mobile platforms. “People will choose the mobile because it’s convenient, portable, and it’s personal.” He sees the steady, predictable advancement of computing power creating a natural progression leading up to a point where we will have all the technology we need in the palm of our hands.
“Desktops overtook mainframes, Walkmans and iPods washed away home hi-fis,” he says. The last frontier left is the “big screen” of home television viewing, but even that barrier has been smashed with the most recent update to Real Racing 2 HD. It’s designed to connect directly to your HDMI-compliant TV and display the view from the driver’s seat in 1080p resolution while simultaneously showing your track position, lap time and speed on your iPad 2. This dual-screen experience takes multiuser racing to a whole new level, and once iOS 5 comes out this fall, the whole system will be able to run wirelessly over AirPlay. As Rob puts it, “we wanted Firemint to be the defining creative powerhouse in this evolution of gaming, the next generation of digital entertainment.”
Firemint’s large team (over 60 people) works together closely over multiple projects, which helps forge good relationships and working harmony. Everyone is encouraged to participate in the creative process. “You never know where a great idea is going to come from,” says Rob.
I switched the conversation topic over to hardware – I’m always curious as to what kind of equipment developers use in their daily lives. Rob says he has an iPad and an iPhone, and uses them both, a lot. He prefers the iPad to browse the web with, but likes gaming on either device. For regular work, he uses a MacBook Pro with both Windows 7 and OS X installed. (Rob is the first iOS developer who has admitted to me that he has anything that runs Windows in his office!)
So what can we look forward to from Firemint? It looks the team is taking a break from controlling air traffic and racing cars and instead bringing us… secret agent mice? Absolutely. Rob calls Firemint’s latest project, “an epic adventure featuring the irresistibly debonair and super sneaky Agent Squeak.” The game, called SPY mouse, is set to debut this summer on iPhone and preliminary feedback has been extremely positive. Rob enthusiastically encourages everyone to try it out once it’s available.
I’m curious if any of our 148Apps.com readers have played Real Racing 2 HD, hooked up to their TV. If you have, what do you think? If the video below is any indication, it looks extremely engaging and a blast to play.
Four decades ago, programmers worked hard to program giant mainframe computers to generate spooky-sounding synthesized music. Now, due to some amazing advances in technology, we can all walk around with a virtual orchestra in our pockets.
Ge Wang, an assistant professor at Stanford University, has been making computer-generated music for over a decade. He’s trained entire orchestras of musicians, playing laptops, mobile phones and iPads, for public performances at Stanford and other venues, using the ChucK audio programming language which he created.
To say that Ge has a love of music – especially socially-created music, would be an understatement. To him, it always felt like music was a universal language that could be leveraged as a tool for widespread connection across humanity. Combined with his interest in ubiquitous computing, or ubicomp, these two passions motivated him to start generating music with personal computers, especially mobile platforms like laptops and mobile phones. “Mobile devices have become so powerful, and they’re in everyone’s pockets, it just seemed like a reasonable step,” he says.
To this end, Ge and partner Jeff Scott co-founded SMULE in 2008, to focus on iOS app development. The successful company now numbers over thirty “extremely team-oriented” people, which Ge claims is part of the fun. About six people worked on Ocarina. SMULE is scheduled to expand in 2011 to around forty employees.
SMULE has produced a number of other music-related apps, including Magic Piano and Sonic Lighter. By using iOS devices loaded with these virtual instruments, groups of people can jam together literally at a moment’s notice. People interested in learning how to play original and popular songs can access musical scores at SMULE’s website or through in-app purchases. Users of the new Magic Piano app can connect globally with other players and hear their performances.
SMULE’s iOS app Ocarina (ah-kuh-rina) is modeled after an ancient flute-like instrument of the same name. The user blows into the iPhone’s microphone, located on the bottom of the device, and holds it horizontally to play by covering virtual finger holes on the display.
Some critics have called these apps “sillyware” but Ge believes that there’s no reason that apps for iOS can’t just be fun to use. Ge has a penchant for playing a melody from The Legend of Zelda whenever he shows off the Ocarina app to onlookers.
Can anyone create an iOS app that breaks new ground like SMULE did? Absolutely, says Ge. All you need is the curiosity and desire to actually try something. He strongly recommends leveraging what you already know and are good at, because that will bring a level of uniqueness to your work that nobody else can emulate.
I asked him what his typical working style was at SMULE. He claims he’s more of the “go with the flow” kind of developer, rather then follow any pre-established methodology. “I’m a researcher, so it’s a researcher’s curiosity that leads to wanting to [build apps] in the first place,” he said. “I don’t know the answers to things, I don’t even know the questions. I’m always searching.” He adds that he strives daily to maintain a balance of order and chaos.
So how does he do that? When I asked Ge what he did in his free time, he laughed. “I don’t have much free time,” he said, but when pressed, he admitted to relaxing with a game of Starcraft. “It’s really very elegant and fun to play.” When stuck or faced with a difficult problem, Ge usually goes to work on something else, or eats. He’s especially fond of anything with bacon.
We talked about the cosmic implications of bacon for awhile, and then I asked him where he saw the mobile computing industry going in the future. He said, “I really think we’re going to drop the name ‘mobile’ from ‘mobile computing’ and it’s just going to be more entrenched.” He sees it bypassing the desktop computer and disappearing into a web of pervasive, invisible computing power that can be accessed seamlessly at any time, wherever you are. He quotes Mark Weiser, a visionary leader from the ubicomp field: “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”
Personally, I have to agree. While I was playing Ocarina and Magic Piano, I quickly forgot that I was manipulating a software program on a miniature computer and thought of it only as my instrument, focusing instead on the music that I was producing. Combine that focus with the experience of playing with others, weaving melodies and rhythms together, and you have a powerful tool for universal harmony indeed.
148Apps.com will be interviewing the design and development teams behind the App Store’s top apps over the next few months. Our first interview is with Dave Castelnuovo, lead programmer behind Pocket God. PG has become a multi-media phenomenon in the mobile app industry, spawning weekly episode updates, fan art, a Facebook game and even a line of comic books.
Pocket God was released over two years ago and continues to remain a permanent fixture on the top app charts all over the world, probably directly related to Bolt Creative’s seemingly endless supply of witty updates. Each episode expands on the beloved world populated by hapless pygmies by offering additional awards, cleverly-named challenges, and even more ways to torment the natives. With the latest release, Journey to Uranus, Pocket God takes its population to outer space, exploring the planets of our solar system. Each planet takes cues from ancient Roman mythology, so players can feed the volcano god on Earth or travel high-tech highways on Mercury. Journey to Uranus also offers a new minigame – sort of a game-within-a-game – called Quantum Entanglement.
When I asked Dave where he got his inspiration from, he explained that he’s always had a love of good stories. An avid comic book reader and collector, he explained that he wanted his new line of Pocket God-inspired comic books – just released and already outselling Marvel and DC in the App Store — to be more than “just a bunch of stories all strung together”. He sees cohesive plot lines tying the series together, with unanswered questions creating a sense of mystery. He admits that the Books category in the App Store is not a big financial draw for any developer compared to the Games category, but this is more of a labor of love than a cash cow.
I asked Dave what kind of education and training he had, and he laughed. He started out studying aerospace engineering at USC but dropped out, mostly due to disinterest. He hooked up with some computer programmers while he was there, however, and they got him interested in programming games. After reading several books he knew enough to get started programming very simple games. Dave now partners almost exclusively with Allen Dye, who handles 99% of the artwork for their projects.
I just had to ask Dave what it was like to realize his team’s app had become a bestselling phenomenon. “It wasn’t expected at all,” he admits. “It was supposed to be a stepping stone to something bigger, maybe a more traditional type of game. As Pocket God was rising through the ranks, both Allen and I kept on waiting for the other shoe to drop.” They checked the ratings constantly during the game’s initial launch, and when it hit #60, they told each other, “well, at least we got up this high, next week we’ll probably sink.” But the sink never happened; even when the game hit #1 they figured it was going to last a day at most. It took awhile for the realization to really sink in – a good six months before the team accepted that this achievement was going to be for the long term.
The team looks back at their first major success with a sense of humility. Dave puts it this way: “We’re blessed and we’re lucky to be in this position; it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. We just happened to choose an idea that resonated with a lot of people.”
He speculates that if his team had had a bigger budget or more time to plan – Dave claims he and Allen developed the original Pocket God concept after only one week of dedicated effort – the game might not have been such a success. This kind of focused work helps counteract Dave’s tendency to get distracted by something else before he can complete a project. Rapid development continues to be typical for Dave and Allen, which doesn’t leave much time for testing with their target user population of ten- to sixteen-year-olds. They do, however, frequently get videos from “edgy parents,” starring their preschoolers gleefully electrocuting pygmies on their $500 iPhone. Dave and Allen think this is hilarious, and appreciate the positive feedback they get from their customers.
Pocket God fans have some exciting advancements to look forward to in the near future. Dave has some great ideas on how to leverage the power of cloud computing for syncing game states across multiple devices. There’s also talk of creating a system for fans to create their own storylines and content to share with friends.
In closing, Dave offers the following words of wisdom to people who want to break into the mobile development industry:
“Everyone has an equal chance of success. Big marketing budgets may give people an initial advantage, but at the end of the day, if people like your app, they will buy it and you will find success. Just get out there and try something. The biggest hurdle to get over is just getting it done.”
Posted May 18th, 2011 by Gianna LaPin Our Rating: :: IT'S A KEEPER
Book Crawler aims to put a virtual card catalog in your pocket -- whether it’s for books you own, books you’ve read, books you lent out, or all three – and does so with some mighty powerful tagging and sorting features.
Posted May 18th, 2011 by Gianna LaPin Our Rating: :: LO-FI BUT FUN
Dash Race is based on a paper-and-pencil racing game that has been popular with German and Scandinavian countries for decades. It’s the sort of simple, repetitive game people whiled away the time with before there were computers, much like the card game War.
iPhone App - Designed for the iPhone, compatible with the iPad
Posted May 9th, 2011 by Gianna LaPin Our Rating: :: DOES ONE THING VERY WELL
Finder Reminder corrals the photographic post-it notes scattered throughout your iOS device into one place, attaching important details like GPS location and description so you might actually remember why you took them in the first place.
iPhone App - Designed for the iPhone, compatible with the iPad
Posted May 2nd, 2011 by Gianna LaPin Our Rating: :: FINICKY BUT USEFUL
If you can settle for a highly educated guess, rather than an exact measurement down to the inch, then this app could save your bacon the next time you need to know how tall that window is or how much paint you need to cover a wall.