Developer Workshop: Pint Sized Mobile

Developer Workshop is a series of profiles exploring the current state of the mobile marketplace from the point of view of the software developers mapping out its future. Each profile will focus on a developer with a compelling story to tell, and offer their perspective on what the industry's doing right, what it's doing wrong and how to make it better. The profiles will also explore the developer's creative philosophy--why they chose to write for mobile devices, how they hope their applications will impact the lives of consumers and their advice for aspiring developers. Check out our previous workshops on Shazam, InfoMedia, Viigo, Meet Now Live and Shortcovers.

This week FierceDeveloper profiles Pint Sized Mobile, which offers the popular Card Ninja game for the iPhone. The company hopes to roll out an updated version of Card Ninja, but has run afoul of Apple's App Store for unknown reasons.

Earlier this month, Apple's App Store celebrated its first birthday--according to the computing giant, the virtual storefront now boasts more than 65,000 iPhone and iPod touch applications, with downloads exceeding 1.5 billion. In addition, membership in the iPhone Developer Program now tops 100,000. With that many applications and developers in the mix, it's getting more and more difficult to stand out, but Pint Sized Mobile is beating the odds. The firm's first application release, the iPhone game Card Ninja, hit the App Store in May--a virtual card flicking game featuring ninja-themed illustrations by Archie Comics artist Fernando Ruiz, it soon landed on iTunes' New and Notable countdown, and from there, sales skyrocketed. Pint Sized Mobile reports that by early June, Card Ninja was the App Store's second most popular card game, and the 28th most downloaded game in the U.S.

Pint Sized Mobile planned to roll out an updated version of Card Ninja last week, but the developer is now grappling with the negative side of the App Store experience: Apple rejected the update, citing concerns over the game's inclusion of user-generated content...except Card Ninja doesn't actually feature user-generated content, causing no small amount of confusion and frustration for co-founders Jonathan Bertfield and Gregg Delcurla. As of this writing, Pint Sized Mobile is still attempting to solve the problem and release the updated app as planned. FierceDeveloper spoke with Bertfield and Delcurla about Card Ninja, mobile gaming and taking the good with the bad.



Jonathan Bertfield on the origins of Pint Sized Mobile: I had been involved in a bunch of startups, and the combination of long development cycles, funding challenges and technology complexity left me very frustrated. What appealed to me about mobile was the notion of a more bootstrapping environment where you could do something very quickly, without a lot of outside funding requirements.

Gregg Delcurla: For me, it has always a personal dream to publish a video game, and the iPhone is the first time there's been a robust open development platform for that. Previously you had to deal with companies like Sony or Nintendo, who are very propriety and difficult to work around. Previous mobile gaming environments are just not as powerful.

Delcurla on developing Card Ninja: We had a bunch of ideas, but we were looking for one that would be the perfect introduction for the size of our team, as well as something that would offer users complexity and value. We're very big on interfaces that feel natural--flicking cards is something that feels natural on an iPhone. From there, we went though many iterations of what the game would do and how it would work.

Bertfield: As we started thinking about what would be the most compelling visual genre to play in, we decided to build the game in a way that would allow us to quickly move from one niche to another. Future versions could move to an alternative visual metaphor beyond ninjas--they would rely on the same game mechanics and the same code, but offer a very different visual element. We went into this knowing we didn't want to over-invest until we know the dynamics of the business. We've got a whole bunch of ideas about what we would add to the game--the question is whether we should invest more in this game, or invest somewhere else. We're still learning what the lifecycle is for this kind of game.

We created Card Ninja to be a good time waster--it's not easy, but it's not an intense challenge, either. It was designed to be an action-packed puzzle game, which is kind of unique. It's also intentionally a little bit obscure in terms of wild cards and clues, which leaves some people frustrated--there's not a lot of instruction, which is a deliberate choice we made. In the update, we added a lot more help. We're interested to see whether that changes the dynamic of the feedback we're getting.


Bertfield on mobile application marketing: We've done a lot of the standard things--we're on Twitter, and we have a Facebook page. We attacked the reviewing crowd in terms of sending copies to blogs. One thing we did that's slightly outside of the box is we created a series of promotional cards with some of the visual images from the game, and we handed them out at technology events around [New York City.] It's guerrilla marketing. I still give out those cards whenever I see someone using an iPhone in real life.

For reasons known only to Apple, they put us on the iTunes New and Notable list. They said they loved the game. The email we received was very mysterious--it initially felt like spam, because it was headlined something along the lines of ‘Hot Marketing Opportunity!' and it wasn't written in the familiar Apple way. It turned out to be true, but Apple didn't explain why they picked us--we speculated it was because Card Ninja used the iPhone touch interface well.


Bertfield on the App Store submission process: Earlier we learned that Apple can't approve the Card Ninja update. We mentioned the price in our description, and you can't do that--Apple says it could confuse customers. They also said our application includes user-generated content that could lead to exposure of inappropriate content, and our app isn't rated for that. The problem is we don't have any user-generated content in our app. There's good and bad here--we didn't pay to get in to the App Store and we didn't pay for any special promotion, so you have to deal with the arbitrariness and opaqueness of the approval process.

Delcurla: I'm not defending it, but you can't know all of reasoning behind something like this--it could be Apple is changing its rules. It's not a big deal to make the changes they requested, but we want to make sure there's not a mix-up with another game.


Bertfield on advice for aspiring developers: The biggest lesson I've taken away is you need to move as quickly as possible. This is very much an evolving marketplace--if you try to second guess and overthink, you're going to end up with something that will inevitably miss the mark. It's about creating the opportunity to do something quick. Learn your lessons, and build on that.

Also, doing something innovative is the key to getting attention, although it's not necessarily the key to getting rich. But there's no doubt in my mind that if we had done a version of Solitaire that was ninja-themed, we wouldn't have had the same level of satisfaction or attention. We didn't get all of it right, but focusing on innovation was the most satisfying aspect of this project.