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Going indie: the rocky road to Patchmania

The story of how I became an indie game developer after surviving a string of brutal disappointments.

Jon Grall, Blogger

March 18, 2015

11 Min Read

Tiberium never made it to launch. An epic fail, even by EA standards.

I founded Little Details in 2012 almost by accident, after a string of failures. In the fall of 2008 I left a disappointing career at Electronic Arts, after an ambitious game project I was attached to for 3.5 years, called Tiberium, was cancelled at the onset of the financial crisis.

Not long after I moved to San Francisco, and somehow managed to pick two winning startups to work for – Dropbox and Yammer – back-to-back. I learned a lot at these companies in a relatively short time. At Dropbox I learned about data-driven development, user acquisition, customer support, and got my first exposure to making iOS apps. At Yammer I learned about enterprise sales, and a little about marketing. I got to work with some of the smartest people in Silicon Valley. However, my difficult experience at EA had left me unwilling to sacrifice personal happiness for a job, and despite promising starts, neither of those jobs made me happy.

I quit Yammer in July 2010 without much of a plan, but with a burning desire to make something of my own, and anxiety about how much time had passed with so little to show for myself since graduating from MIT.

I spent the last half of 2010 at coffee shops around SF, and later at Dogpatch Labs. Hikes around the Bay Area helped me clear my head.

That’s when I began working on a startup called Friendfer – essentially a better Yelp, with an equally bad name – which was accepted into the winter 2011 class of the YCombinator startup accelerator.

An alpha version of Friendfer.

As is common with startups, Friendfer later pivoted, to something called SimplyListed – a used goods marketplace that helped people sell their stuff via a slick mobile app. Unfortunately, as if building an online marketplace wasn’t hard enough, I caught one of my two co-founders embezzling money from the company, and later discovered that he had fabricated virtually his entire life story.

SimplyListed ran regular flash sales – our first one was an electronics sale on September 12, 2011.

After SimplyListed ran out of steam – it didn’t implode immediately upon ousting the con-man cofounder, and we did actually manage to launch the product despite being exhausted and demoralized – I began working on a side project to keep busy and stave off depression. The new project actually arose out of a fight I had with my girlfriend – I had promised to pick her up from the airport, but had failed to set a proper reminder, misjudged the arrival time of her flight, and left her stranded at the airport for a full hour! After this blunder, I began looking for a better way to track incoming flights so I’d never be late to the airport again. However, after trying a dozen flight tracking apps, I realized that nobody was solving this problem. As it turns out, there wasn't an app for that! So I began working on an iOS app called Just Landed, that was specifically tailored to making airport pickup easy.

I didn’t really think Just Landed would go anywhere – I was building it for myself, and roped in a couple of friends, Graham Beer and Sean Nelson, to work on it with me. Just Landed launched on the App Store in June 2012. For a week it did absolutely nothing – just a handful of downloads. Then one afternoon, I was eating at my favorite Indian food joint, when I checked my inbox, and was shocked to discover over a hundred new messages – all about Just Landed! With no warning, Just Landed had been featured by Apple, was on the front page of the App Store, and was getting upwards of 15,000 downloads a day. From there Just Landed went on to become the #1 paid travel app on the iTunes App Store by the fall of 2012. Sounds like a happy ending, right? Not exactly.

Just Landed’s success was a complete surprise.

I began to get contacted by several well-known travel companies who wanted to know who was behind Just Landed, how much funding we had (none), and whether we would consider potentially being acquired by them. However, I knew that these companies wanted me and my team more than what we’d built, and that being acqui-hired was really just a regular job offer with a big signing bonus. I wasn’t ready to get off the rollercoaster and accept a quick payout and a comfortable job, so I turned them all down, despite not having any real plan for the future of the company.

By early 2013, it had become clear that Just Landed was not going to be able to support a team on its own, due to high running costs, and limited reach because of a lack of quality flight and traffic data available outside of North America. I was already working very hard for a relatively small financial reward, and so against the advice of some friends and investors, I decided not to embark on making a family of related travel apps. It had been 5 years since I had left Electronic Arts, and I felt that perhaps it was time to return to games, my first love, but this time on my own terms – as an indie developer.

Developing for iOS? Get ready for this.

In the years since EA my taste in games had changed significantly. I no longer had the time to play console games for hours on end, and had lost interest in the violent first-person shooters and real-time strategy games that originally attracted me to game development. During my foray into startups I had become an avid player of casual iOS games, particularly puzzle games. It seemed natural to follow my interests and make a game that I would want to play.

My first step was to reach out to other independent game developers to exchange information about our respective apps. I wanted to hear first-hand about their experiences, and to educate myself on the mobile games market. I was surprised to discover that the indie community was quite receptive to having this discussion, and in some cases even shared detailed information on the financial performance of their games. After talking to a number of developers, including the lovely husband-and-wife team behind the hugely successful casual puzzle game “Flow Free,” I had convinced myself that it was worth a shot – the opportunity in games was two orders of magnitude bigger than travel or utility apps, and seemed a lot more exciting.

When work began on Patchmania, I had never built a game on iOS, and didn't have a team or even a real office – development began from a desk in my kitchen. I knew I wanted my first mobile game to feature the same level of care and attention to detail that I had put into Just Landed, at the same time as offering something new and delightful. My first step was to research the tools of the trade, read some game development books, and then choose a game engine. I ended up settling on the excellent open-source game engine Cocos2D, which despite a few warts, was ideally suited to my needs (more on that in a future post).

For me, the fun in mobile games starts with the controls, so I began by building prototypes around a simple path-drawing mechanic, and asking friends and loved ones to play them. This gradually evolved into an original puzzle where the player moved little animated bunnies around a grid collecting food. Rather than building an abstract puzzle with geometric shapes, I wanted players to have a strong emotional connection to my game, which is why I opted for lovable characters that would make the game more memorable and whimsical. For months I play tested the game with members of the public at coffee shops, college campuses around San Francisco, and even at the California DMV! Many iterations helped to perfect the game’s controls, and refine the puzzle into something with broad appeal and enough depth to be challenging for even the best players.

Testing an early prototype of Patchmania at the DMV.

In the summer of 2013, I reached out to Glenn Iba – a puzzle expert and fellow MIT alum. After months of collaborating remotely on the puzzle design as an advisor, I convinced Glenn to join the team and take the lead on the development of hundreds of new puzzles, in exchange for a share of any future profits. At this point, Patchmania still had no sound, and only developer art for graphics. This was a deliberate choice – past experience at EA had taught me that if the game looked or sounded too good early on, that it could mask problems in the game design, and become a crutch that we’d rely on to feel better about our creation and delude ourselves. I felt that the best way to mitigate this risk was to keep iterating until the game was really fun with crap art and no sound. That way, we’d have to reach a higher standard of fun in the core puzzle design before investing any time and money on beautiful visuals.

Glenn (at right) is our team’s eccentric and brilliant puzzle designer. I was lucky to find him!

Once we were getting consistently high feedback in playtests (avg. score of 8.5/10 in surveys, 75% said they would buy), and I was confident that we’d nailed the puzzle design, I decided it was time to bring on an artist. In October 2013, after an extensive search, I hired Bonnie Lui, a talented artist who took a huge chance on the project after turning down great offers from well-known entertainment companies. As the Art Director, Bonnie created Patchmania's distinctive art style and cast of lovable characters, and transformed the project from an ugly prototype into a real game. The team grew organically from there as we figured out who else was needed, and Patchmania began to take shape.

By July 2014, the game was beginning to look complete, with finished art and animation, and over 800 levels! We could have shipped it at that point. However, I was feeling a little burnt out, and so I took a couple of weeks off to get some distance and perspective on the project. By the time I returned to work, I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that the game wasn’t good enough yet, and that launching it was premature. In particular, I felt like that in our rush to finish, we had cut too many corners with the story – it had a decent start with a nice opening cinematic, but no middle or end. Playtesters would often ask us why the bunnies were eating all of the vegetables, and what was going to happen next. They wanted a proper story, and we weren’t delivering one. Of course, many puzzle games don’t have story at all, but we wanted to do better.

That’s when I reached out to an old friend and colleague from my days at EA – Brent Friedman. Brent and I had worked on the backstory for Tiberium, and I knew he was just the person I needed: someone open-minded, deeply creative, and approaching the project with fresh eyes. Brent and veteran storyboard artist Pete Von Sholly came to our aid, and after an intensive 2-day workshop, followed by a few days of storyboarding and discussion, we emerged with a complete script and storyboard for 7 new cinematics, a new antagonist (Farmer Lester), and a renewed drive to finish the project to a higher quality level.

Bonnie (right) and I celebrating the moment we submitted Patchmania v1.0 to Apple.

In the end, Patchmania took 2 years to develop, and remains 100% indie and self-funded, with the core team members working solely for profit share. Despite a tiny budget, and a geographically dispersed team, we managed to attract an impressive group of game industry and startup veterans, who all took a chance on this unlikely project. I’m extremely proud of what the team has accomplished – a game that we all enjoy and can feel good about.

Patchmania launches for iOS this Thursday March 19th. You can download it for free on the iTunes App Store in over 150 countries and 11 languages. We hope you enjoy it!

Bonnie (right) and I celebrating the moment we submitted Patchmania v1.0 to Apple.

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