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Crickler was a difficult app to get out. How difficult? After checking my old emails, I realized that I first started to think about getting this onto a phone back in 2003. Why did it take so long for this to happen?

William Volk, Blogger

May 20, 2011

4 Min Read

Making Crickler Mobile
Why Did It Take Eight Years?

A late game is only late until it ships. A bad game is bad until the end of time.
- Shigeru Miyamoto (Creator of Mario Bros)

Crickler was a difficult app to get out.  How difficult?  After checking my old emails, I realized that I first started to think about getting this onto a phone back in 2003.  Why did it take so long for this to happen?  Well that turns out to be a very interesting tale.

The story of bringing Crickler Daily Word Puzzle to mobile is in a way, the story of the evolution of mobile gaming.  The time it took to bring it to mobile is a reflection of the desire to do this game right, to match and in some ways exceed the user experience of the original flash based title.

First some background.  Crickler was launched in 2001 and currently runs, in Flash on over 40 Newspaper websites worldwide.  It can be thought of as an ‘adaptive’ crossword puzzle.  The puzzle consists of sentences missing a word or words that needs to be filled in by the player.  Letters are shared between words.  The adaptive part is a handicapping system that changes what words are selected and how many letters are shared.  Here is a picture of a section of the Flash game (you can sample this at Crickler.com):

The typical puzzle is based on the news of the day, but the puzzles can be about any subject.  

So why did we want this on a mobile device in the first place?

When I first started in mobile gaming (2002 or so) the games I saw were “Just like Gameboy tltles, only worse”.  The screen sizes were tiny (I recall doing one title for a 64x64 pixel display) and memory limited (64KB or less in the worst cases).

The thing I didn’t get was that the games didn’t seem to be taking advantage of the connectivity of the device.  To be honest, when I looked deeper I was shocked at how poor the development systems were.  Anyone who struggled to get network play (multiplayer) working on a mobile phone in the 2004 time-frame knows how crazy it was.

Crickler looked promising.  It could take advantage of the connectivity of the device to present a new News Puzzle every day.  It didn’t require ‘real-time’ data connectivity which was critical given the state of the platforms.  By 2004 we even had a prototype running on some Nokia handsets:

The problem was, it was frankly … awful to play.  Multi-tapping in letters and all of that.  So that was out.

Fast forward to 2007/8.  The iPhone shows up with a pretty decent web browser for apps.  We started putting out web apps for the iPhone the weekend it shipped.  Initially simple stuff like a “whack a mole” game called iWack … but eventually a collection of casual games like blackjack, bowling, backgammon etc...  and of course, Crickler:

But the user experience, while better than the old Nokia handset, was still cumbersome.  You had to click in each letter space and then enter a letter.  An impressive achievement in web scripting, but still lacking.  We choose not to make it public.

Luckily Apple did launch native apps, so the effort to have a native Crickler was begun.  Even then, until we had the ability to modify the pop-up keyboard to add ‘arrow’ keys, it still wasn’t quite the experience we wanted to provide.   Eventually all the pieces came together, not the least of which was the in-app purchase system to enable a way of monetizing the application.

So as the mobile platforms matured, it became possible to match the experience of the original game.  Care still had to be taken to insure proper operation in the case of signal loss.  For example when the catalog of available puzzles is looked at, all the new ones are preloaded so that if you were to take the iPhone onto an airline flight, you would still have the ability to select a new puzzle to play.  

Even today, mobile phones and tablets still have limitations that need to be respected.

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