App Store Insiders: Jason Citron, Founder of OpenFeint, Hammer & Chisel
Jason Citron is, without a doubt, a visionary when it comes to the App Store. His first game, along with then business partner Danielle Cassley, Aurora Feint launched with the App Store on July 10, 2008. It was, at the time, a quite ambitious game with graphics and compelling gameplay that outclassed many of the so-called larger games released at the time. Aurora Feint was the first review we posted here on 148Apps, and an early consumer favorite, reaching over one million users in the first nine months.
Aurora Feint integrated game-wide top player lists and some social interaction, also unseen at the time. Other developers were clamoring for those social gaming network features included in the game, simple as they were initially. That led to the launch of OpenFeint in early 2009. During it's three year run under Jason Citron, OpenFeint reached a total of 120 million players through integration with 7,000 games. OpenFeint was sold to Japan-based mobile gaming giant GREE in 2011 for $104 million. Jason left the company shortly after that. GREE closed down OpenFeint in 2012 when the company changed direction.
Jason Citron has taken all of his experience and his wish of creating a core gaming audience on the iPad and recently founded his next company Hammer & Chisel. Developing a MOBA type game, Fates Forever for the iPad is their first announced game.
Let's talk a bit to Jason about his experience in these past five years with the App Store.
148Apps: How has the App Store changed your professional life?
Jason Citron, Founder of Open Feint, Hammer & Chisel: Entirely! The year before the App Store was a really pivotal year in my life. I had quit the console games industry to attempt to start my own company. This was the time of "Web 2.0" sites. Facebook had just opened up their application platform. So I was working on these various website ideas that had elements of games in them. Fortunately, they weren't doing so well and I switched to building an iPhone game. That project shipped and eventually morphed into OpenFeint, which was a success beyond my wildest dreams. Having the opportunity to build and run a company that employed 100 people and had such a big market footprint was incredibly humbling and educational. I compare the experience to a trial by fire Business School. Now, I'm taking all those learnings and applying them to start Hammer & Chisel, my new gaming company.
They say that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. I suppose I was prepared to start a company and the App Store turned out to be the perfect opportunity. Lucky :-)
148Apps: You were first on the App Store with the original Aurora Feint. What was it like developing for the App Store back then?
Jason Citron: I actually started developing for iPhone before the official SDK was even announced. It was using this unofficial iPhone OS programming toolchain. I worked on some prototypes for a couple of months. One was a multiplayer fighting game that used the wolverine character sprite from Marvel Vs. Capcom! When Apple released the real SDK I had this hunch that the App Store would be like a new console launch: the few games "on the shelf" on day 1 would get a ton of customers. So I got a bit more serious and teamed up with my cofounder to start on Aurora Feint. We ended up building that game in just under 3 months. It involved a lot of all nighters, sleeping in the corners of the office, and general insanity. We submitted to Apple the day before the App Store opened and got approved as one of 400 launch apps.
I actually have a distinct memory of waking up the morning the App Store opened. At 10am it was supposed to "turn on" so people could start downloading apps. I had our database open and kept hitting refresh to see if any players had launched the game. I was expected to get like 100 users in the first week. We ended up with something like 1,000 in the first hour. It was shocking. So began the crazy ride of the App Store.
148Apps: In the five years since launch, the App Store has gone through considerable changes. The number of users has skyrocketed along with downloads, prices for paid apps has stabilized way lower than many expected, free to play has dominated the top grossing charts. If, knowing what you know about the App Store now, you could go back and influence your path five years ago, what would you say?
Jason Citron: Honestly, the whole last five years was so rewarding for me that I don't think I would change anything. But, I suppose if I had to pick something, I think we should have made Aurora Feint use a respectful free to play monetization scheme. We had priced the first game at free and got a LOT of players. The second one we priced at $7.99 hoping to "upsell" people. We found out that first Christmas that $0.99 was the most successful price point for paid games. That failure led us to quickly pivot the company to the OpenFeint idea.
Like I said, not sure I would really change anything :-)
148Apps: What have you seen on the App Store, outside of apps published by
you, that has surprised you most?
Jason Citron: I expected very different kinds of applications to be popular on the iPhone, as opposed to say the PC Web. It turns out that almost every successful iPhone App has been a reinterpretation or straight up clone of a PC product but with a modern twist. For example, instagram is really just "flickr on the iPhone." The popular F2P sim games are all mostly the same as the Facebook games that came before them. Etc. This isn't to be disrespectful to any of those apps. Many of them are awesome. But I was surprised at this. I've since long changed my opinion on what that means for starting new businesses on new platforms.
148Apps: Any predictions on what the App Store will be like five years from now?
Jason Citron: Ahh predictions. Five years is a long time. Honestly I have no idea. If I had to wager a guess, not much will change. There will be many more customers. The economy will be bigger. There will be new waves of apps that have come and gone. Tablets will be much more significant then they are now. You'll have human beings who literally don't know what corded phone is. Who've never used a normal PC. Their expectations of what apps do for them will most certainly be different.
These days we tend to overestimate how much technology will change in 3 years but underestimate how much it will change in 10. Five years is comfortably in the middle.
Thanks very much to Jason Citron for his time.