My wife and I both had respectable careers underway when our son came along. She was doing great things in the medical field, and though I wasn’t able to work my way into the game industry with St. Louis’ somewhat limited opportunities, I was developing software for a variety of employers in the years following tech school. We loved the idea of caring for our son ourselves, but neither of us seriously considered giving up our career. We did have the option, we determined, to give up my steady income so I could take care of the baby while getting established to work independently. Though it wasn’t an opportunity I would ever have expected, we decided to move forward with this plan, excited to meet a family need and see what the future held.
Prototypes for different game ideas came together slowly—I was a team of one and that team had a baby to care for. I took advantage of some industry freelance writing opportunities to bring in a few dollars, hoping to keep an eye on noteworthy games and trends. It was during this time of demos and tinkering that I discovered a young child can reliably figure out a well-designed mobile interface, if it follows a few restrictions.
Curious, I created a small prototype using Lua, consisting mostly of a blue sky where cloud buttons display one alphabet letter at a time until the player pops one, which causes the next one to appear. We found that this helped our son learn the alphabet way ahead of schedule. I had my first project.
Over the course of about five months, I built out Letter Taps to include lowercase letters and numbers. I designed environments and added play modes. I created little characters to interact with. My wife and I recorded vocal tracks so the player would hear the numbers and letters they were seeing. I composed a soundtrack using the iPhone, iPad, and OS X versions of Garage Band over the course of a few days. All the while, my son played the game, revealing the software’s strengths and weaknesses.
When the game was complete, I was invited to speak about my new job at a local elementary school and conduct demos in the classroom environment with about 10 different groups. Feedback was positive from both students and teachers. Letter Taps officially launched in February.
What Went Right
1. The game made it to the finish line
Games fail to get made all the time. I’ve jumped ship on too many projects to count over the years, and at some point, failure crept in and made itself at home. I’m grateful to have found a project that I felt was bigger than me. Finishing it has given me experience with the whole process, start to finish, and I know that experience will serve me well moving forward.
2. Design process
I moved on from the prototype phase for Letter Taps knowing there was a ton I didn’t know. I tried to combat this with flexible assets, including vector art created in Inkscape that could be resized, modified, and reformatted based on needs I wouldn’t discover until weeks and months into the future. Even now while promoting the game I’m able to open Inkscape, set image dimensions, and push/pull assets to create crystal-clear promotional material.
I also took my hands off potential time sinks at every opportunity. I overlooked unattractive art, tuned out displeasing sound effects, and settled for placeholder music until the game was totally functional. I didn’t tweak animations until I had to. Going to bed with an extra level complete leaves you satisfied and hungry to push further. Going to bed with a better-looking version of the same 15% you had done yesterday is draining and serves as a real threat to a project.
3. I Received incredible favors
Who gets to go demo at a grade school?!? Just because I’d volunteered to help with the school’s “We love to code” event and mentioned the game in my introduction email, the school I visited took the ball and ran with it. The resulting experience was incredibly rewarding, but also yielded invaluable feedback I wouldn’t have gained any other way.
That wasn’t the last inexplicable kindness I would receive.
One of my favorite writing experiences as a freelancer was going through old episodes of Clarissa Explains It All and writing about the silly computer games featured on the show that Melissa Joan Hart’s character had programmed herself. It was a really cool element to the show and the article was received super positively, including attention from the show’s creator, Mitchell Kriegman.
Now, just to set the table for a moment, I was a 90s kid, super amped at all times about Nickelodeon. As an adult, I listened to the book Slimed!: An Oral History of Nickelodeon’s Golden Age on Audible more than once. Suddenly here we were, and Clarissa’s creator was asking me how to get my article in front of as many eyes as possible, and later used it to draw readers to one of his books.
Summoning greater nerve than what was probably appropriate, I approached Kriegman one more time while I was promoting the app. If he ever wanted to make someone’s year, I told him, I’d love to use a Mitchell Kriegman quote to help announce this game.
Before even replying, he tweeted much kinder words than I ever could have expected.
Using those words to promote Letter Taps has been a career highlight. Please, go support everything Mitchell Kriegman does.
4. Smooth launch
5. It’s helping kids
Before the elementary school demos, I only knew how the game helped and entertained my son. I knew there was a real challenge to overcome when it came to the vast differences between kids of the exact same age. I tried to stay mindful of this during design and development, adding content, tweaking performance, and ensuring the material covered as wide a range of advancement levels as possible. Before launch I ran through one last play session with a random assortment of kind volunteers from Facebook (and their children) looking for any sign that the design had missed the mark. When I got thumbs up across the board, I charged ahead.
What Went Wrong
1. Tool choice
I’m a coder at heart. It’s one of the few things I’m good at, and it’s been that way a long time. I have a ton of respect for engines like Unity and those who have become so good at them over the years, but I’ve personally always preferred to sharpen my coding skills instead of gaining expertise in menu systems wherever possible. That choice did not benefit me while making this game.
I’ve tried to put my finger on the exact problem over recent months, and it really seems like the big engines have taken the wind out of the sails of the competition. The LÖVE framework is really cool. Lua coding is a blast. I thought it had more than enough community support left to ship a good game for mobile devices, because it had enough support to put together good prototypes. The last mile, where polish, menus, and platform-specific problems live, just about did me in.
Building my game for Android required me to use a couple of outdated tools because there was no existing documentation/code support for newer versions. I never got my LÖVE files to function on iOS emulators. I had to develop and deploy without them. When the project was done, I tried to register for the LÖVE forums to share my experiences with the community and possibly even help with some outdated documentation. Registering required some form of manual approval which they’ve never granted me to this day.
The areas of development where we need the most help are the very areas where the least help exists. I should have welcomed up-to-date technology with open arms, no matter how it meant I’d be spending my development time.
2. Bad Estimates
I’ve never hit a release day I’ve announced, still to this day. The more I shut up about timelines, the better an experience I have. Even though I kept myself from falling into the public announcement trap for Letter Taps, I gave out a few verbal estimates to eager parents that I absolutely did not hit.
Even in terms of casual planning around the house, I fully intended to have the game in the approval process before a vacation I’d planned with my wife and spent the week before in a frenzy trying to finish my work, which still wasn’t done months later. Who did that help? As an independent developer, I think it’s a better idea to take advantage of the scheduling flexibility than to fabricate deadlines to whip yourself with. I think I was trying to keep myself motivated through the hard scary parts of the project I didn’t have any experience in, but instead I just put stress on myself and everyone close to the project.
3. Marketing efforts
Part of my professional software experience includes a long run with a marketing company where I received a ton of training in advertising, promoting, and general customer engagement. I still greatly underestimated the difficulty I would have putting eyes on this game. I’ve received positive feedback from a large majority of the parents and kids old enough to express such approval, but educational games are exceptionally difficult to promote, and I did not have the right answers in time.
If I could go back in time, I would have probably put out a smaller free game first, intended to grow an audience and build a user base to notify about this product.
4. Budgetary issues
I’ve long believed a worthy indie project should pay for itself. This one hasn’t. That’s just reality. The problem is that this belief kept me from spending anything I didn’t have to during launch, and that hasn’t done me any favors. I felt the press release I crafted myself was effective at its job. The paid ads I eventually put out were ineffective, possibly because I waited too long after launch. Educational apps, I’ve learned, also qualify for many certifications and directory inclusions of widely-varying value, but they should at least be strongly considered as part of your launch strategy if you ever find yourself in this category.
5. Lack of support
I risk sounding resentful here and that isn’t my intention. Objectively, I can only continue down the educational product path with a certain amount of support. I was surprised I didn’t see more sales or word-of-mouth help, even among my personal network. A lot of parents I know didn’t seem interested. Some asked if they could have it for free. Many have said kind things and expressed intentions to write reviews, download, or share with a friend, and that was the last I heard. A school or two expressed interest in bulk licensing for classrooms and those discussions trailed off as well. To date, of all the promo codes I’ve sent out, only one has been redeemed, and it hasn’t led to a review or a mention so far. There has been a big disconnect with the demand I hear about for this category of teaching tool, and the support this one received after launch.
Letter Taps hasn’t taken the world by storm. I haven’t knocked Daniel Tiger down a peg in the charts and most of the discussion about the app has been based on polite interest in the development community. I may have snagged a bit of a celebrity endorsement, but no one has agreed to review or write about the game. Though I've made some valuable new contacts and fielded some business inquiries, the future is as wide open as it began.
What I have received are notes of thanks from parents for making an effective teaching tool available and affordable. I’ve opened messages suggesting and requesting material for future educational apps. I’ve even received pictures from parents of kids playing and enjoying the game. Students hugged me and thanked me for letting them play it. I’m sure I’m biased, but it really seems like the game is making a difference. That’s something you don’t think about when you’re 17 and wondering if you could make a game that would impress your friends, but realizing your work served a higher purpose is humbling and rewarding in ways I struggle to explain. Honestly, my next game is unlikely to be in the educational category, but I’ll never stop using development to help my son learn, and I’ll continue to look for ways to make educational tools a viable path for my studio.