In October 2018 I released version 2.0 of World of Hex, and this one came with a massive expansion to the game that for some reason I never thought was worth writing about. 🤷♂️
Further to that, in August 2020 I also added macOS support which was far more significant than I had expected it to be at the time.
Now, in 2022, as I embark on another series of enhancements to the game, I thought it might be worth writing a little about the process of adding an entire (well sort of) solar system to the game.
When I first built the game I already had the Moon (or Luna) moving around the Earth at the right time and I was quite happy with that, even if I might not have got some aspects of it right. I had had thoughts of adding a colony to Luna but that wasn’t part of the original plan, so I launched the game with just Earth as a playable colony. It seemed like enough.
But then in 2018 I got the itch to expand, and with Mars being a hot topic I thought it would be neat to not only add a colony to Luna, but one to Mars as well. After all, with everyone wanting to get to Mars (like how many Netflix series are there taking people to Mars?) first I thought it would be a good draw card for the game.
Add to that the fact that I’d been thoroughly enjoying watching The Expanse™ on Netflix, that itch grew and I began to wonder just how hard it would be to “expand” the game to encompass more of the solar system, providing colonies on much more than just Luna and Mars.
Prototyping a solar system
So it was time to start learning how to build a model of our solar system. Google was my greatest initial resource along with Wikipedia, and soon I happened upon a set of data that I could use to model the positions of each of the planets in the solar system.
I started off with a small Swift project just as a prototype to see if I could do what I wanted in SceneKit. The existing app used SceneKit to display the Earth (a sphere) surrounded by a Hexasphere, with another appropriately scaled sphere (Luna) orbiting the Earth.
This prototype adopted a set of Orbital Elements, or Keplerian Elements to place each planetoid (as I called all of the planets and Luna) in the correct position given a date & time. I was thus able to render a basic solar system using SceneKit quite easily.
I was then able to take that prototype, rewrite the key elements of it in Objective-C and integrate it into World of Hex.
That then meant I needed to craft Hexaspheres for both Luna and Mars, that would act as a representation of the colonies on those planetoids. I built these based on my own naive ideas of what the colonies on those planetoids might look like (shape wise). (In hindsight I think the Mars colony is very poorly laid out and ignores the topography of the land entirely 😬)
At this point, the core functionality supporting multiple worlds with colonies worked, and I could have these three colonies but I needed to add a way for the player to move between the colonies.
Enter the solar system view. As I mentioned above I’d been watching and thoroughly enjoying The Expanse™, and one wonderfull thing I saw in a number of episodes was this holographic, interactive rendering of the solar system, showing the trajectories of planetoids (and in this case, spacecraft). Here is one example from Season 1, episode 6:
I wanted something like this. And I wanted, when a player chose to shift focus to a colony on another planetoid (at this time, Earth, Luna or Mars), the camera to be manipulated so that it looked as if the player were in a spacecraft, and that spacecraft would complete a partial orbit, turn to face the destination and then travel there.
This video shows what I was aiming for in this. It’s rough, based on a very early attempt at the animation.
I spent what seems now, a ridiculous amount of time (months) obsessing on getting this animation working. In the end, it beat me. I could not get it to work the way I wanted it to.
What I’d wanted in my I-am-not-a-pilot-or-astronaut position, was to compute the orbit position on the current planetoid that is closest to the destination planetoid, travel in-orbit to that, turning at that point to face the destination, and then travel to the destination, keeping in mind that it is moving in space as the spacecraft moves (so in essence, travelling to where it will be when my spacecraft is due to arrive). To this day, I’m still not sure where I went wrong.
The code is still there inside the current version of World of Hex; it’s just not enabled anymore. Apart from the problems I had getting it to work (so, so many variables), it also became obvious that if the player just wants to move from, say, Earth to Mars, the transition, whilst nice, would probably end up taking too long, and the player would just find it boring.
Below is a snippet of what it looks like when I re-enable that code within the current baseline.
At this point, being heavily inspired by The Expanse™ I started to think about adding more colonies. That also meant adding moons. Then of course in The Expanse there are also colonies on some of the larger asteroids.
This presented a problem for me. The Keplerian elements are great, and the implementation was remarkably easy given some hard work by people much smarter than I am, but you can’t use the same mechanism for some of the moons or for the asteroids. I couldn’t find data for them until I arrived at the realisation, with some advice from my online friends at StackExchange, in this case the Astronomy StackExchange.
I ended up in communication with the kind people at NAIF and one particular person from the Astronomy StackExchange, who gave me some advice and guidance on what I needed to do to get the information I needed from their CSPICE library. This required that I port their library (which itself is a conversion of the original Fortran into C) to compile and be usable on iOS and macOS. macOS was easy, but I found that the library assumed that files that it reads are in the “current directory” which is not going to be the case on an iPhone or iPad. So I went through the process of adding a wrapper to the library, and adding a way to tell CSPICE where to look for any files it needs to access.
This all worked a treat, and I was also able to get their TSPICE library of unit tests running, allowing me to validate what I’d done.
I’ve since been given the OK by the people at NAIF to make the GIT repo’s for both public:
With CSPICE in place and working, my next problem was that the data required to feed into CSPICE to provide the paths of all of the planets, moons and asteroids was bigger than I could reasonably load into memory.
As mentioned in my stack exchange query, I then used the SPKMERGE tool to generate ephemeris files that contained just the data I needed for my app. The app then loads those files via CSPICE and generates the positional data it needs. The data currently built into the app should be good till 2050. If World of Hex is still running by then, then I’m afraid it will probably be someone else updating the data files.
At this point, the solar system managed by World of Hex now comprised (with colonies on those with a ⬢):
It’s worth mentioning here that both Phobos and Deimos, moons of Mars move so fast that it became too difficult to keep the camera focused on them, so, apart from the Sun itself, these two planetoids are the only two you can see, but not visit.
Textures and visualisations
Another thing to consider, now that I had positional data, was providing textures for each of the planetoid bodies. For this, initially, I relied heavily on a website called Solar System Scope. (Incidentally, this really is a terrific resource, and it gave me some inspiration at well). From here I was able to obtain high quality textures for most planets, and for those I could not get, I sourced from sos.noaa.gov, or from artists who contributed to the Celestia project. Credits are all provided in the game on the credits screen (if you can find it…)
For the two asteroids, Ceres and Pallas I confess to cheating and just treating them as spheres so that I could use Hexaspheres to represent their colonies.
The Great Conjunction
Back on the 22nd of October, 2020 I was able to record The Great Conjunction, the lining up of Saturn, Jupiter and Earth from within World of Hex, showing that my use and implementation of the SPICE libraries had worked. Here is a short recording I shared with the folk at NAIF:
Scale; the art of fitting an entire solar system onto a screen.
One of the things I had to wrestle with was how to deal with the vast distances that the planets, and especially, the asteroids and Dwarf Planet Pluto travel, and still be able to show more than just a dot for the inner planets.
If you look at most implementations, and Solar System Scope is no exception, it’s impossible to fit it all on a single screen, whether it’s an iPhone or a 42″ TV.
So whilst World of Hex correctly computes everything, the representation is all scaled in post processing of the computed positional data so that:
You can see everything within reason; and
It is still a reasonable representation of the distances.
In addition to scaling the distances, I also took the step to scale the size of the planetoids, and this scaling changes between when you’re in normal play mode, focused on one planetoid, and when you’re in the solar system view mode. When in solar system view mode, the scale of both the distances, and the sizes is dynamically recomputed so as to make the solar system easily navigable.
This gave me an approximation of what I’d seen on The Expanse™ that I was happy with.
Now, if our iPhones or iPads had a 3D holographic projector that could place the solar system all around us as seen in The Expanse™ I’d be looking at how to make that happen…
So what’s going on now?
I’ve written this (rather long and rambling) post because I’ve been working on some changes to the game as part of a push to improve it’s presentation, perhaps open it up to more players, etc. I’ve just finished a 2 month effort to create the first large update since bringing the game to macOS back in August 2020. The update notes for v4.2 are longer than I ever intended them to be.
I initially intended “simply” to add portrait mode to the iPhone. As part of doing that, one thing I’d needed to fix was how I put text on the screen.
When I originally developed World of Hex, the SKLabelNode, part of SpriteKit, did not support Attributed text (text that can change style) so I’d built a way to do this that worked, but not well.
Apple have kindly added native support for Attributed text in the meantime, so I’ve moved to using that, and an entirely different method of creating that Attributed text for display via a wonderful library of code called SwiftRichString. My expectation now is that I will be able to add support for more languages, thus widening the audience of the game.
The full update notes for version 4.2 are listed below:
World of Hex is starting a new phase of enhancement, and to kick this off, the way text is displayed on the screen has been improved, so if you’ve seen a partial message, or been confused about something, perhaps this will help.
On iPhone and iPad, support for Portrait mode has been added, at last! Yes, you can now play World of Hex one-handed on your iPhone or iPad whilst standing on the train commute to work. With this rather large change a number of related bugs have been fixed that have been plaguing players for a while now.
New users are now introduced to their AI module right from the get go, so that they know there is more to the game to build towards. Did you know that you can program your own AI with commands to defend the world tiles you win? No? Well all you need to do is reach level 2, and access will be granted!
The leader board now displays a more information about how well those players at the top have been doing.
For those of you that have noticed that the Earth seemed to get confused about just where the Sun actually is, and turned the wrong face to the Sun, I believe I have finally fixed this. It won’t affect play at all, but it affects my sanity. So this way I get some peace of mind too.
Finally, finally, World of Hex no longer stops your favourite music from playing when you launch the game! I’m sorry this one has taken so long.
Panning a world on macOS now works as nicely as it does on iOS, iPadOS and tvOS. And it’s even nicer on those too!
The player information panel now shows a small meter to indicate to you how much more you need to play before reaching the next level.
Experience points (XP) can be earned faster now with the addition of a “win multiplier” for each world tile. If you, or someone from the same faction keeps winning consecutive games in a given world tile, then XP are earned much faster.
On macOS, panning to rotate the selected planet or moon using two fingers now works as smooth as silk (finally).
Fixed a number of nasty memory leaks and buggos.
Fixed a problem where the colour of a tile was not changing after you win a game. This bug was introduced back when I added the Game Center Achievements. My apologies; it’s fixed again.
A note for the wary. Apparently, if you force kill World of Hex, iCloud can get it’s knickers in a knot and stop sending the app the background notifications that allows it to keep the state of the world tiles up to date. If you’ve done this, and think the tiles are not accurate, then the only way to fix it (apparently) is to reboot the phone. Not my preferred advice to anyone but it’s all I got. I spent quite some time trying to work out if I’d done something wrong, but no…
On the Apple TV, something special, well I think so. You can now zoom in and out in little bits.
And where to next?
Now that v4.2 is out there, the current roadmap of things I want to do are:
Allow it to be played offline (which is needed for an Arcade title I understand).
Add portrait mode on iPhone.
Add localisations to the game to make it more accessible to non-English speaking players.
Add accessibility to the game.
Add controller support, especially for tvOS.
Add more visual polish and eye-candy.
Add more moons and asteroids.
For fans of The Expanse™ add a pocket universe and allow the Ring Gate to be activated.
Add an Easter egg or two. There is already one (the credits scene) if you can find it.
I call this a roadmap which implies some sort of order. As you can see, the order means little. Some items are easy enough to do, though cost money (and believe me, this game does NOT pay it’s way) because I need to pay others for things like translations.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. I hope it wasn’t too hard to follow.
Back in the 1980’s, when I used to spend way too much time playing games on my Apple IIGS (and earlier, my Apple IIe), one of my favourite games was Fortress, by SSI.
Fortress gave me a small game board where I would fight it out against one of several computer AI’s, where a game consisted of 21 turns, and whoever controlled most of the game board at the end was the winner.
One of the things I loved about Fortress was the way the AI’s got smarter with time. When you first started playing, it was easy to win, but after a few games, it became more challenging. This kept me coming back to Fortress as I felt I was playing against something that basically learnt as I did.
As a programmer/developer, my mind is rarely idle, and I always have a project on the go. In the 1994 I thought it would be neat to rewrite Fortress for the Apple IIGS, using higher resolution graphics.
I started doing this with the ORCA/Modula-2, which I had recently brought to the Apple IIGS with publishing help from The Byte Works and some connections at Apple.
As part of writing this blog post, I’ve run up my Apple IIGS environment (yes, I still have all of it) within the wonderful Sweet16 emulator and found that code:
I hadn’t realised just how much of the game I had written. I thought I’d only written a bit of the game logic, however it turns out I’d written a lot of the UI as well, as can be seen from when I ran it. The AI’s hadn’t been written but the basic building blocks were there.
The funny thing is, I have the code; I have a compiled binary that I can run, but I can’t remember how to re-compile the source code anymore. I’ve got a build script there, but my memory fails to help me out.
One of these days I should bring all that code out, and store it somewhere safer.
Around this time, I got distracted and much of my home based projects took a back seat, Fortress included. My work took me away from Apple development entirely for around 15 years.
So Fortress GS was left on a floppy disk (or two) in a box of backup floppies along with everything else.
Then, in 2012, after I’d been back developing for Apple hardware again for a few years I got the bug again, and, having recovered my entire Apple IIGS development environment from hundreds of floppies and some second hand SCSI drives (my how they’ve grown; did you notice the size of the “M2” hard drive above?), I was able revisit Fortress GS.
I ported the guts of the code to Objective-C and wrote a basic prototype to show to another developer at the time as a proof of concept. This one was really basic, but it allowed me to place moves for both sides by tapping the screen.
I showed this to a designer I knew at the time who thought the idea was great, but suggested that it would be more interesting with a hexagonal grid rather than the rectangular one.
I toyed with the idea at the time, but I did nothing with it; I had other projects happening, and I wanted to focus on my educational apps.
Moving up to 2016, and the release of the Apple TV, I launched my latest educational app, Tap Tangram (which I later launched as Classroom Math Drills), and due in part to my failure to recognise that I’d missed my target, and the complete lack of featuring by Apple, the app never gained any traction and failed at launch.
That left me wondering what to do next, and then it occurred to me to reboot the Fortress app idea once again. I’d also recently read a most-excellent blog article by @redblobgames about manipulating hex grids in software, so my mind was abuzz with what I could do with it.
Enter World of Hex, my latest, and final attempt to reimagine the classic Fortress for iOS and the Apple TV.
I started out just playing with the hexagonal grids code that I wrote as a port of the code provided by @redblobgames and getting the basic board working with the underlying move computations.
Once I’d done that, I sat down and brainstormed how I wanted the app to work; how the game would play and during this process, I asked myself:
“What if, rather than a simple rectangular grid of cells, we had a map of the world as a map of hexes?”
And then I got going.
“What if, the terrain was somehow represented in this 2D map of hexes. Rather than try to represent the 3rd dimension as a true 3rd dimension, colour the hexes to represent the terrain.”
“Hmm. how many cells?”
“Earths land surface area: 150,000,000 km2”
“If we say each hex has a real world “size” of 1km, then we need to be able to map out 150 million hexes eventually. Even if they aren’t all being used by players, we need a way to know where on the earth a hex maps to land.”
“So, what is probably easier, is to map the entire planet with hexes, and then mark some as usable land, and others as ocean, unusable land, etc. that means a lot more hexes in the database though. It means millions of hexes to cover the planet completely. too many.”
“Will performance be an issue? yes.”
And so it went; with performance an issue and no real idea at that point of how to make it all happen I went hunting for others that had build a world of hexes. I needed to get an idea of:
Could I get the basic mechanism to work on an iPhone
How many hex tiles would I need to build a reasonable approximation of the Earths land areas?
How would it perform if I built a model with all those tiles?
After some searching with Google, I happened upon the wonderful Hexasphere.js by Rob Scanlon. This gave me hope. If this could be done in a browser, then I could do it.
This is where I started to hit upon the boundaries of my knowledge of 3D modelling and SceneKit. I also found myself struggling with some of the math concepts involved, having to trust in these people that obviously handle it better than I.
I did get Hexasphere working, though it was extremely slow because every hexagonal tile was being implemented as a separate SceneKit node. It did work, but it just wasn’t going to cut it for a production quality game. At this point I was using very large hexagonal tiles, so the tie count was still quite low. Once I increased the resolution of the model, there would be a lot more.
I ended up posting a question or two on the Apple developer forums and the Games Stack Exchange. These helped me better understand how to improve the performance of my 3D model however I was still hitting problems in that the on-screen representation of the Hexasphere was not high enough quality.
I spent several weeks working on it and getting some great help from colleagues who knew math, and 3D rendering far better than I. The end result of that was a perfectly rendered Hexasphere using only 4 SceneKit nodes that rendered at a full 60fps on devices as old as the iPad2. The change was to put all of those tiles into a single model, and to colour them individually via the shader and it’s inputs.
I finally had what I needed to get on with the game.
At this point it was just a matter of bringing all of the pieces of the puzzle together and making them work well.
For this game, the main pieces were:
The hexasphere code
The Hex Grid code
SceneKit and SpriteKit
CloudKit (iCloud based database)
I’ve already spent enough time on the hexasphere and hex grid, so I’ll try to restrict the rest of this post to the hurdles I had finishing off the app and bringing it all together.
SceneKit and SpriteKit
Apple’s engineers have done a wonderful job of these two API’s. Having developed most of my apps with Cocos2D, the transition to SpriteKit and SceneKit was pretty painless. The primary difference for me was the coordinate system.
The main reasons I went with Apple’s frameworks this time were:
I wanted to be able to render the 3D world, which Cocos2D wouldn’t do.
I also wanted to branch out and learn something new.
That said, the trick was that I needed to be able to overlay my 2D game components on top of the 3D components. After a little research I discovered that Apple had kindly given us an “easy” way to do this via the overlaySKScene property of the SCNView class.
This works remarkably well however it does introduce some problems because there are bugs in the Apple frameworks (at least, there are at the time I write this). I found that there are some things, like animations of the SpriteKit nodes that need to be forced to be done within the SceneKit renderer thread. It seems that Apple use a multi-threaded renderer for SceneKit/SpriteKit and some operations that you’d expect to be thread safe, aren’t.
With a lot of help from Apple Developer Technical Support, I found and fixed this problem and filed a bug report #32015449 (github project) accordingly.
Another issue related directly to the use of overlaySKSCene was an incompatibility with the tvOS focus engine (it basically doesn’t work). I ended up having to port a focus engine I’d written for Cocos2D on tvOS and enhance it to work with World of Hex. I’ve also filed a bug report for this issue: #30628989 (github project).
Apart from this, SceneKit and SpriteKit work a treat and have made my life so much easier.
CloudKit and iCloud Integration
Once I’d decided to expand the original game beyond a single game board, and to allow people to play games in a world of game boards I needed a way to store the game boards in the cloud so that everyone sees the same thing.
When I started to develop this idea my family and I were enjoying Pokemon GO for the novelty it provided. As a user, one of the things I really didn’t like about Pokemon GO was the way it forced users to either associate our existing Google account with the app, or to create a brand new Google account just for the game. There were other options, but they all involved forcing the user to log into a specific account, just for the game.
So I looked at Apple’s CloudKit which is just one part of the whole iCloud service layer that Apple has been building and developing for years now. One of the beauties of CloudKit is that for every person using an iPhone or iPad that is logged into iCloud, an app integrating CloudKit will just work because there’s no explicit login required.
This is what I wanted. On the whole, the CloudKit integration was very straight forward and it does just work.
I really enjoyed the ease with which Apple have allowed us to define our database structure via the CloudKit dashboard, make changes and even migrate those changes from development to production environments painlessly.
If there is one thing that I found lacking it is that in the dashboard, there is no way to simply remove all existing data without also wiping the database model itself.
World of Hex has grown far beyond what I originally set out to write. It’s nothing like my original attempt back in 1994 on the Apple IIGS, and even my really early brainstorming of last year differs somewhat from what I’ve built.
One of the reasons I build these apps is for the challenge and to keep my active mind busy. I certainly don’t make much of an income from them (though, mind you, I wouldn’t complain), so there’s a lot of satisfaction in having an idea realised and released into the world. Yes it can be crushing when it doesn’t take off, but, as I mention in the credits scene within World of Hex (can you find it?), “Never Give Up”.
Learning some of the quirks of Apple’s frameworks has certainly been a challenge. Cocos2D has been wonderful to work with over the years, and in some ways it’s more mature and easier to work with than SpriteKit, however SpriteKit’s deep integration is hard to pass up now that I’ve learnt it.
SceneKit offers some pretty amazing functionality from my point of view. I remember, as a teenager back in the early 80’s having a book with some algorithms for 3D line art animation that blew me away at the time. Being able to draw a model in your fave modelling tool, drop it into Xcode and have it on a device screen in minutes is insanely great. For developers out there that think its tough work creating an app, you have no idea how spoilt you are.
If you’ve read through all this, then thanks for staying till the end. It grew somewhat longer than I’d planned.
Here it is, my World of Hex. I hope you take the time to have a game, and that you enjoy it.
As some may be aware, the Parse service is to be shutdown on the 28th of January. Parse gave developers 12 months to sort ourselves out and find another place to host our data, and drive our services.
I’ve been using Parse for a couple of years now, to provide a push notification service to my uAlertMe app. I was looking at removing the app from the app store, and discontinuing support, because I couldn’t find a cost effective way to keep it all running. uAlertMe is an app that sells perhaps 200 copies a year, so there’s not enough income to cover monthly service fees.
Then, late in 2016 I saw a message on one of the local developer groups that Buddy had established a relationship with Parse, and were providing a wonderful migration tool to allow us, in a relatively pain free manner, take our data from the existing Parse service, import it into Buddy, and (hopefully) sit back.
Now I’d have to say that it wan’t quite that easy. Because I jumped on board pretty quickly, and because I wanted to use the Push notification system, I was wanting to use features that hadn’t been completely polished.
So, with some really terrific support from the kind folks at Buddy, I worked on getting everything working, and as of today, iAlertU and uAlertMe are happily talking via Parse on Buddy.
So, if you still haven’t migrated your Parse data, and are wondering what to do, you have 21 days (as I write this) remaining. Get on over to Buddy and get the process started.
Today, after what has seemed like an eternity of waiting (it wasn’t but it seemed like it), Apple kindly approved the latest update to “Dollar Up”. The app is now called “Money Up” and it has taken on a whole new look.
With the invaluable help of Ben Lew of Pi’ikea St, the app has been completely revamped. The user experience is smoother, and to top it all off, now sports 5 wonderful, friendly characters:
From left to right, they are: Grace, Sparkles, Ted, Zilla and Pirate Joe.
For a brief preview of the new Money Up, watch this video:
“One More”… is no more…
For those people that have purchased “One More” in the past and would like to enjoy the new Money Up app, I’m willing to offer a free promo code for Money Up if you can provide me with proof of purchase.
One More was originally created in an attempt to make Dollar Up more “searchable” for people in the UK that might have been put off by the icon and the word “Dollar”. Now that v2.0 has been released, and the emphasis on the “Dollar” has been taken away I’ve elected to discontinue “One More”.
As I said above, if you’ve previously purchased One More, then please send me proof of purchase (either a receipt from Apple, or a screenshot of the main menu) via email to support [at] pkclsoft.com and I will send you back promo code for Money Up.
It’s been a busy couple of months since Apple released iOS 8, the new iPhone 6 and 6+, Yosemite and … hold on, this post is supposed to be short. If I list everything that Apple announced, I’ll be here all day!
On with it. Since Apple’s big event, I, like most other active app developers, have been very, very busy. I’ve been working away at a new app for special needs education, and a complete rework of my first special needs app, Dollar Up. I’ve also had to update all of my apps to be sure that they work on iOS 8.
As if that wasn’t enough, I’ve also written another new app called 9 Letters which is due to launch this Thursday, the 20th of November. 9 Letters is all about letting the inner word searcher go mad. If you like Scrabble™ or Boggle™, or just about any other word game, I think you’ll like 9 Letters.
One of the really neat features of iOS 8 and Yosemite is Continuity. I love it; it brings to the Apple devices a wonderful synergy where they work together to become a single powerful tool that anyone can use. No more do we have to close a document, save it somewhere special and then reopen it on another device in order to continue our work. We can now just Handoff the document, in it’s current state, from one device to another.
When I was nearing completion of 9 Letters I realised that the game would benefit from this neat feature in iOS 8, so with a remarkably small effort (Apple really made the process very easy) I added Handoff to 9 Letters, and I love it.
Now, when I am on the train home from my day job I can play a game of 9 Letters on my iPhone, and then handoff the game to my iPad when I get home. It really is great.
Below is a short video I recorded tonight that tries to demonstrate just how great this is. I hope you enjoy it. I also hope that other developers get behind Apple with Continuity and all it offers; working with computers and mobile just got even easier.
There seem to have been a number of blog posts of late talking about how difficult it is for indie developers to make a sustainable income from their apps. The app store has evolved over the past few years, and not all of us developers have managed to find that pot of gold.
For example, I consider myself an indie developer, though I don’t try, and never have tried to make a living from my apps. Yes, it would be nice to be able to, but I’ve not managed to create any of those app store hits, and I didn’t enter this game early enough to establish my ‘brand’ before the app store became crowded.
With a few exceptions, I’ve focused my attentions on kids educational apps. It’s what I enjoy writing. I know that, even though my apps might not be runaway successes that are loved by all, they are loved by some, and that’s good enough for me. I know that my apps are used regularly by some people; maybe not a lot of people, but by some. I want my kids educational apps to be fun, and helpful; it’s what got me started when I wrote Tap Times Tables.
Early on in this adventure I discovered the Moms With Apps forums where I found other developers. I was looking for help because whilst I knew how to write an app and make it work, I had no idea on how to market it or sell it. I know a lot more now, and that is largely because I found Moms With Apps. The people there, especially the team, headed at the time by Lorraine were so helpful, and through them I discovered “AppFriday”.
“AppFriday” has been, for several years now, an opportunity for developers of kids and family friendly apps to promote their apps at a discount, or for free in attempt to gain more visibility, connect with customers, and hopefully increase sales.
What many of us have found is that AppFriday has been very successful overall, however there has always been an undercurrent of wishing we, as developers didn’t have to mark our apps down so much so that we could not make enough income from them to keep developing. For some time now I’ve tried to avoid setting my apps to free, only doing so when combining it with other promotions, or when I was basically desperate enough for a sale that going free wasn’t going to lose me anything.
Most of the times I set my apps to free, I would see a little kick, but that would only last a day or so. So whilst AppFriday was helpful, it didn’t produce any big sales numbers.
Something that a number of developers have been noticing for a while now is that the number of people turning up for AppFriday has dropped off, and that when an app is set to free, there have been some unusually large educational volume purchases. I can speak for everyone here, but in my case, I set Tap Times Tables to free on the 25th of April. Leading up to that date I was making roughly 1 or 2 educational sales each week. Since that date, I’ve had one single educational sale of Tap Times Tables in the US.
As the images show, educational sales in the US prior to setting the app to free on the 25th of April were a significant proportion of my sales. Since then however that has changed dramatically.
This observation (and I am not the only developer to make it) plus the oft mentioned race to the bottom for prices has led the AppFriday team to try something new. When AppFriday went on hiatus for the Northern Hemisphere summer break, the team sought some feedback from developers on what we wanted to do when the hiatus was over. Did we want to continue with AppFriday in it’s present format (i.e. discount or free promotion only) or did we want to try to try something new?
Well, as I just mentioned, the decision was to try something new. As of the 1st of August 2014, AppFriday has changed to a new format where the only apps that are promoted are apps that meet the guidelines shown at: http://www.appfriday.com/About
Now, instead of promoting discounted apps, we are promoting quality apps that have been Handcrafted for use by kids, that are family friendly, and safe to use. This new emphasis is an attempt to shift the focus of customers so that they will hopefully place some value on the apps that they purchase. We want people to buy our apps because they meet a need; that they are fun, friendly and helpful. Getting people to download something just because it is free or discounted heavily doesn’t encourage buyers to value the apps or what they can do for their kids.
It is also an attempt to return to the days in the app store when you had a new app and actually had a way to let people know it. When many of the developers in the Moms With Apps group began this journey, Apple provided a space in the “New and noteworthy” area of the app store. This gave customers a way to see the new apps, regardless of who published them.
The “Best New …” area in the app store these days is not actually a list of “new” at all; it’s a curated list of what is selling well. Sometimes there are new apps in there; but most of the time the apps there are not actually new. People like to see new, shiny things on the shelf; even if it’s just to take a look and consider whether they want it. This new AppFriday is our effort to give you a new way to find the new apps, and the freshly updated apps for your family and your kids.
So this Friday, when you see developers and other people on Twitter using the #appfriday hashtag, take a real look at the apps. See if there is something you need. Are your kids struggling with their Times Tables? Do they need help with spelling? Do they need a fun distraction like colouring in, or playing with concepts such as recycling, body parts, reading, etc?
And, if you do purchase an app, and you like it, don’t be afraid to pop into the App Store and post a review to let the developer know. Reviews make a big difference. Even if you don’t like something about an app, the developers would love to hear from you via email (most of us provide links to support sites).
Dollar Up is now just over 2 months old. As a developer I’m especially proud of this app, not so much for what I’ve done within it technically, but for what the app can do for people.
The main reason I wrote Dollar Up was to help out. A teachers aid/assistant wrote to me and asked if I was in a position to write some apps for Special Needs students. Whilst I wasn’t able to do everything she asked, I was quite excited at the prospect of writing an app that had the potential to really make a difference.
So I came to an agreement with the teachers aid who provided a lot of input into the initial design and layout of the app that I would build it at no cost to her or her school, and provide her with as many copies as she needed. I got to own the app itself, and consequently any proceeds from sales.
Over the next 3 months I spent most of my development time (which means spare time as this is not my main job) putting Dollar Up together. My understanding was that there was a genuine need for an app that helps to teach basic money skills to people with learning difficulties such as Down Syndrome or Autism.
This was to be my first foray into Special Needs education. Over that first month I learnt a lot about what makes an app easier to use for people with special needs. Make buttons bigger, allow students an option to retry a question, etc.
One huge lesson was that my perception of what people can grasp and understand was centred around my own experiences. That is to say, I had no comprehension of just how much I take for granted in this world. The simple fact that some students couldn’t be expected to grasp or learn concepts like numbers over 10 rocked my world. More than one night I’d get an email explaining this sort of thing to me, and I’d turn to my wife, shaken and unable to get on with the programming. It takes time to absorb this sort of thing for me. Whilst I’m by no means the smartest guy out here developing apps, I’m so used to being able to do these simple things, that comprehending just how ignorant I am of those around me left me more than a little upset.
This learning experience did one thing; it galvanised my desire to do this app, and do it well. I wanted to make a difference, to help fill a gap in the app store, and provide Special Needs teachers around the world with a tool they could use.
In the past, with one notable exception, I’ve done all of the work on my apps; the code, the artwork, the sounds, everything. I work to a shoestring budget. Some say that my apps suffer from this; that if I spent the thousands they do on artwork I’d do better. They may be right. With Dollar Up, I decided to use my little income from the other apps in my portfolio to pay for voice work, and some artwork.
Initially Dollar Up was just for Australia, but it became clear that there was a demand for it in other countries as well, so I started researching where to get permission to use images of coins and banknotes from other countries. In some cases, like the UK and Canada, this proved to be a long process involving a number of emails and in one case phone calls to sort things out. Eventually I had the permission I needed. I never set out to make much money from Dollar Up so it was important that the various institutions understood that.
At release, on the 7th of February, Dollar Up supported 7 lessons with 5 currencies (Australian, US and Canadian Dollar, UK Pound, and Euro). A week later, I added a 6th currency (New Zealand Dollar) because I’d heard via @TheAppyLadies that there is a strong Special Needs community there. Since then, there have been 2 more updates, adding at least 9 new features the most recent of which is the ability to extend the app using the iPad’s built-in camera.
During the last few weeks prior to the first release, I distributed Dollar Up to over 30 beta testers around the world. This was invaluable, not just for fixing things and improving the app; it showed me that people really were looking for an app to help them teach their students or children money skills. It heartened me and confirmed to me that I had done the right thing taking the time to write Dollar Up.
On the day the app was released I remember having a coffee with my wife. During that coffee my phone was buzzing away with messages and tweets showing support for the app. It was an affirming moment for me.
In all of this my expectation was that by supporting all of these currencies I would see some interest from the key markets of Australia, US and UK. Whilst I included the Euro as a currency, I didn’t expect a lot of interest from Europe because the verbal/audio feature of the app is English only.
One thing to note; if you work with currencies other than “Dollars”, don’t let the name of the app put you off . If you select Pounds or Euros as your currency, then the app will intelligently use the correct terms through all of the lessons, both on screen and via the audio prompts.
What has surprised me the most is that the UK has proven to be the quietest. As the graph to the left shows, the US is by far the strongest market, but the UK falls into the bucket at the bottom.
Sales haven’t been huge, but I never expected them to be, and it’s not why I wrote the app in the first place.
I had however thought that the spread of sales would be more uniform. My hope with this post is that by telling the story of the apps development, I can try to give it a human side. I’d very much like to reach more people and schools with Dollar Up; I want it to help. If people don’t know it’s there, they can’t use it and it can’t help.
If you represent an English speaking school that uses, or wants to try the “Next Dollar Up” method to teach money skills then perhaps “Dollar Up” can help. If you’d like a promotional copy of Dollar Up to try, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Explain which school you represent, what your needs are and if I can I’ll help out with a free copy or two. Of course, I only have limited numbers of these so I’d really prefer to provide them to schools where the potential to reach more students is higher.
I’m pleased to say that I’ve just submitted to Apple for review, my latest app. This app has been written at the direct request of an Australian teacher to help her teach her students the “Next Dollar Up” technique.
Below, I’ve included a youtube video trailer for the app, just to whet your appetite. If you’d like to know more about the app, please contact me for some information via the support page.