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.”