Just about a year ago, we published our first word game of our own – So You Think You Know Words. We’d like to share a few facts, figures, and lessons that we’ve learned one year on.
We are primarily a consulting firm – we write software and apps to spec for our clients. One of our clients, Blue Ox Technology, had early success with their word game 7 Little Words on iOS and they asked us to write the Android version of their game. We were happy to comply and their Android game has now enjoyed millions of downloads. Toward the end of 2011 we knew that we wanted to try our hand at producing a word game of our own, so we contacted the fine folks at Blue Ox and talked to them about our desire to prevent any conflict of interest. The all clear was given and we were off to the races. Now, what to build?
So You Think You Know Words is Born
We began with a series of round-table meetings wherein we tossed around ideas for a word game: “What about word tetris?” “What if it was a trivia game?” “How about words with Smurfs?” We eventually formed a few basic requirements for whatever our idea would be:
1) The main focus of the game would be about the words themselves, with no gimmick attached.
2) There would be no timer, allowing the user to play at their leisure.
3) There would be no special graphics or animations, again allowing the focus to rest on the word game itself. (more on this later)
Eventually we landed on a concept surrounding synonyms – So You Think You Know Synonyms. The idea was that the player would be given a word, and they would have to think up three synonyms for that word. But we quickly realized that the concept was a little too restrictive. We decided to make Synonyms be just one puzzle pack in the game, changed the name of the game to So You Think You Know Words, and boom: we had our idea. We would show the user a clue on any topic, and the user had to unscramble three answers to the clue from the letters provided. We would have puzzle packs on various topics created for the game. Now it was time to build it. Ugh.
Shoemaker Has No Shoes
We knew that we wanted to launch the game on all the serious platforms – iPhone, iPad, Android, Kindle, Nook – (no Nook jokes) and we wanted to launch simultaneously. But as I mentioned, we are primarily a consulting firm, and that continues to be our primary focus. With the luxury of 20/20 hindsight, this is one of the mistakes I made early on: I didn’t dignify our word game project by promoting it to first class citizen in our company. It sort of remained a pet project for a while. I asked our most junior iOS developer to “put something together” to get some ideas going, and didn’t give much more direction. After a month of focusing on client projects, I came back to Jr and said, “Hey, what’s up with our word game?” So mistake #1 was not treating this project like any other client project and giving it the treatment it deserved. This was not good leadership. Long story short, we dedicated a Sr iOS developer and a Sr Android developer to the project “to get things moving.” That got things moving alright, but moving where?
Who’s On First?
After realizing that we needed to either do it properly or not do it at all, we got serious. And along came my mistake #2: No clear spec. “SERIOUSLY?” you might say. “After talking to your clients until you’re blue in the face about ‘needing a proper spec in order to do this right’ YOU didn’t give your developers a spec on your own project!?”
Oh I gave them a “spec” but it was woefully incomplete. No serious design treatment, no clear screen flow, no maintenance plan, etc. It was just a few pages in a Google Doc roughing out how it would look and what the main functions would be. Horrible, I know. So once we got moving, it started moving in different directions. The iOS app began to have features that the Android version didn’t and vice versa. Mistake #2: No serious design spec. After a series of knock-down, drag-out meetings with the guys, we finally got our head in the game and produced one consistent app together the hard way.
What About The Puzzles?
We hired a couple of professional crossword puzzle creators to write our puzzle content – one of them creates puzzles for the New York Times. We also hired a couple of crossword puzzle hobbyists to do a few puzzle packs. I can’t overemphasize the benefits of hiring a pro. That really paid off.
We knew from working on 7 Little Words for Android with the Blue Ox team that In App Purchases were the way to go, and we built that in from the beginning on iOS and Android. For Amazon Kindle and Nook, however, this was not available at the time (it’s available on Amazon now). This got us into a interesting situation where our iOS and Google Play versions of the app supported In App Purchases for puzzle packs and the app was free. But on Nook and Amazon, we produced a full (pro) version of the app for $2.99 and a “lite” free version of the app with limited puzzle packs. But then Amazon introduced In App Purchase support. That put us in a bit of a position as to how to make the transition from Free and Pro versions to the single free-with-in-app-purchase model. We decided to just leave it that way since none of our transition options were good for all of our users. Going forward, we won’t distribute apps on different platforms with different upgrade paths – it just gets too confusing to manage.
- Use a real designer to design your gameplay and screens.
- Create a complete spec before you begin developing, especially if you’re targeting multiple platforms.
- If you’re creating a totally free app, I would suggest including Android. If you’re planning to charge for the app, or have in app purchases, I would suggest starting with iOS only.
- If you’re going to take on a project in house, promote it to the same importance as your client work. And dedicate the appropriate staff to the project. Don’t just do it “on the side”.
- Be careful about developing across platforms that impose different architectures or monetization models. Have a plan for when the model changes.
After having been in the app stores for right at a year, I can give you the following results: We have gotten 16 million plays across all platforms and we are now getting 200,000+ plays per day. Daily plays have tripled since Christmas 2012. Financially, I can say that iOS is the platform to target. No doubt. 75% of our profit has come from iOS. We are now getting somewhere on the order of 3,000 daily downloads, higher on the weekends. In all, it’s been a great project and we’re glad we did it. We are working on more puzzle packs and on a new interface for version 2.0.
There are plenty more lessons we learned by taking on this project. If you have any specific questions, please feel free to get in touch. We’d love to hear from you!