Quick Notes On Lion

Mac OS X LionA couple of days ago I had the misfortune of getting back home to find my 6 month-old MacBook Pro completely dead (my second Apple laptop casualty in three years–not a great track record). Long story short, the Apple Store wasn’t able to help me in any way other than ship out the laptop for repairs. Since without it I’m dead on the water, I bought a 17″ MacBook Pro on the spot. They didn’t have one with SSD hard drive, so this is most likely going back to the store when I get back my repaired laptop. In the meanwhile, I can continue working and it lets me check out first hand Lion and Xcode 4.

These are mostly quick notes to myself so I remember what to change when I upgrade my main machine, but I thought other developers hesitant to upgrade to Lion might find it useful as well. Continue reading

2010: Living The Dream

It’s that time of the year again. We all look back at what happened and have high hopes for the coming year.


For me this marked my fourth year as an indie developer. It’s not a huge milestone by any standard, but the fact that I’ve been going at it for this long and I’m not broke yet means it’s a sustainable business. Actually, as you know if you followed some of my numbers posts, this was the first year that income from my apps finally became (reasonably) profitable. Now, *that* is something worth celebrating!

Doing this kind of small-scale game development is exactly what I would do if I didn’t have to worry about money at all, so this is truly living the dream for me.


All is not sunshine and roses in Noel indie-land though. I accomplished some of my goals for this year, but missed others by a mile and a half:


I released a bunch of Flower Garden updates and ran a bunch of promotions that kept bringing revenue up. That went very well. Check.

Miguel and I also submitted Casey’s Contraptions to the IGF (with three hours to spare the day of the deadline). I’m very proud of that one. Even if we’re not selected as a finalist, the experience of submitting it and finally participating in the IGF was fantastic. Check.

Games shipped. Hmm…. That’s the total fail. The only new game I shipped this year was Lorax Garden, a very short project in collaboration with Oceanhouse Media, mixing their Dr. Seuss license with the flower technology I had already developed. I didn’t even manage to ship Casey’s before Christmas like I was hoping to do. I could make excuses but there’s no point. Real life happens and things go slower than planned (that topic is already brewing for a future post).

My goal for next year is to ship three new games, but always of the quality that I can be proud of. I’ll have to be very careful about design and scope to achieve that (I’m hoping that hanging out with Ian and Dave will rub off some of that genius they have for making awesome games on a crazy-short schedule).

Games From Within

I started my blog, Games From Within, exactly 7 years ago today. I guess that counts as my longest-running project. Some years it was sorely neglected with just a few posts, but this year I spent a significant amount of time on it, thanks in large part to #idevblogaday.

These were the most popular posts for this year (based on page views, which RSS readers make much harder to track):

2011 should be an exciting year for me personally and for all indie game developers out there. Happy new year everybody!

Jigsaw Guru For The Windows Phone 7 Postmortem

This is a new guest post by Frederic My. Frederic and I worked together in the past in big console games development, and now we’re both enjoying the indie life and making games for mobile platforms. Frederic is sharing with us how the development of his first Windows Phone 7 game went. Thanks Frederic!

New beginning

When my job position got terminated last summer, I decided I would take a break from working for big companies, and try to make a game on my own at home. I’ve been in the video game industry since the late nineties, I’ve written code for a few released PC and console AAA titles and probably as many canceled ones, and I wanted to do something different at least for a few months. Go back to the roots of game development, when one or two guys could create something in their garage or bedroom, without spending years and millions of dollars on it.

Platform choice

I’m a C# fan, I won’t deny it, I even explained why back in 2007. I also toyed with XNA each time a new version was released, and I like how straightforward it is to use. When the beta version of the tools to develop for the Windows Phone 7 (WP7 for short) became available, just at the right time for me, it seemed like the obvious choice for what I wanted to do. And developing for a brand new platform sounded exciting as well, even if it was perhaps a riskier bet than targeting well established markets.
For those who don’t know much about WP7 development, I just want to highlight a few key points:

  • Applications are written in Visual Studio using C#, and either XNA or Silverlight. This may come in the future, but at this point you are not allowed to mix them, and use the controls of Silverlight with the faster rendering of XNA, for example.
  • In App Purchases are not supported yet.
  • Programmable shaders are not available for WP7 (they obviously are for the PC and XBox360) in the current version of XNA. Instead, you have 5 predefined shaders with features that can be toggled on and off (such as fog or per pixel lighting). These shaders should cover most of the usual needs, but if you want something very specific that they don’t support, you’re out of luck (or have to fall back to multiple passes and alpha blending).
  • Paid applications have a trial mode, that allows users to evaluate them before making a purchase. Unlike on XBox Live Indie Games (XBLIG), where the game just abruptly stops after 8 minutes, developers have a complete control over what they want to show in trial mode (for example, the first few levels of a game, with no time limit, or without the ability to save, etc). In theory, this means you shouldn’t have to make a free version of your game in addition to the paid one, but I’ll come back to this later.
  • The certification requirement document is only 27 pages long, table of content and change history included.

The project

aaa9dd16-fbda-df11-a844-00237de2db9e.pngI wrote a few ideas on paper, but they all looked too ambitious for a first project. One thing in particular that I wanted to avoid was to require a lot of content, since I didn’t even know how I was going to find an artist yet. During a bike ride, I thought about using photos, and that’s how I decided to make a jigsaw puzzle game. Not super original, I know, there are several of those on the iPhone and iPad, but there was none on the WP7 since it wasn’t released yet :), and it looked like a good project of the right scope to keep things under control and learn the platform. For example, I had never worked with a touch screen device, and it was pretty obvious from the start that I was going to spend quite some time iterating on the user interface part of the game.

The game is called Jigsaw Guru, and you can go to http://www.fairyengine.com to see more screenshots and a video.

What went right

I actually already mentioned some of the things that went right in my opinion, but here is the full list:

  • Working on a short project, without too much content to integrate, instead of picking another more ambitious and time consuming idea, was the right choice. My goal was to have Jigsaw Guru on the marketplace the day of the WP7 launch, I submitted it on 10/18 and it got approved on 10/23 (the update I submitted in December passed even faster than that), two weeks before the US launch and two days after the other territories started getting their phones. At times I still had more items on my to-do list than I would have liked, and I made a good push in the last 3 weeks to get everything wrapped up in time, but it never got too crazy.
  • Knowing the tools beforehand, and using C# and XNA, definitely made me feel productive. The phone emulator was surprisingly stable in the beta, and the XNA forums were very helpful when I wasn’t sure about something. It’s also worth noting that the website used to submit bug reports allows everybody to see what other people have written, and vote on issues you think are important and should be fixed first.
  • Garbage collection is the one thing that can hurt your framerate really bad when using XNA on XBox360 and WP7. But it’s not that hard to avoid: when I had a look at my memory usage late in the project, I only found two spots where I was creating some amount of garbage each frame (both related to strings). Basically what I do is each time the player goes from one screen to another, I load everything I need for the new screen, and I force a garbage collection. This gets rid of temporary objects that may have been created during the loading process, and objects from the previous screen that are not used anymore. After that, I don’t allocate anything, and the garbage collector never has to do any work.
  • Finally: testing. Very few people tested my game while I was developing it, but my friend Alexis alone kept giving me more feedback than I thought I could handle. He never said anything was good just to make me happy, he reported every little detail he didn’t like, even and especially the ones I was aware of but never had time to fix (and maybe thought nobody would notice). Even if I sometimes felt he was nitpicking, this was exactly what I needed.


What went wrong

Developing for a new platform has its share of drawbacks, it’s just how it is. The final version of XNA 4.0 only came out mid-September, and before that I was working with the beta version. As mentioned before, it was pretty solid already, but there was no redistribution of the runtime. Which means you had to install all the tools to be able to just run the game, and you could only install them under Vista or Windows 7 because the phone emulator requires DirectX10, and some of my potential testers were still using Windows XP. So, even if what I was sending was a PC version of the game, they couldn’t run it on XP just because the phone emulator, which they didn’t need, requires a more recent operating system. To work around this problem, I made an XNA 3.1 PC version of Jigsaw Guru, but maintaining two versions side by side for several weeks and merging back and forth between them was not fun.

Coding for a device that wasn’t released yet also meant I could not test what I was doing on real hardware. I unsuccessfully tried to get a phone prototype, and basically the only way I found to run my game on a WP7 at the end of September was to go to a Microsoft event. Even there, I thought there would be phones locked to the tables, that developers could connect to their laptop and use for the whole day, but I was wrong: there was no such thing, and the 4-5 persons who already had a working application to test like me had to do it on the phone of the event’s organizer, when he wasn’t using it for something else. I was able to run my application twice for about 5 minutes each time, and fortunately everything seemed to be working fine, which is a testament of the reliability of the emulator.

When the game began to be really playable, with most of the screens that are in the final version, I started looking for an artist and a musician. I did it way too late, and I was lucky to find Aimee and Tim through the XNA forums, and that the time estimates they gave me just matched my own programming deadline. So, in the end everything worked out well, but even if I wanted to wait and be sure the UI elements were final before asking somebody to redo them, I believe I also waited just because I was more comfortable doing my programming tasks first, and that was a mistake.

Marketing was a difficult problem: I knew I needed to do some, but how? When Jigsaw Guru got approved, the WP7 wasn’t out yet in the US, and had just been released in a few countries of Europe and Asia, as well as Australia and New Zealand. Basically, nobody had that phone yet, and I couldn’t find any website reviewing its games. Even when I had a second look for the US launch, I only saw a couple of sites testing 2 or 3 of the official XBox Live games (that’s how they’re called even if they run on a phone), but nothing related to indie games. So, what ended up happening is I did nothing, and just hoped that because there weren’t too many applications on the marketplace yet (which is the reason for being a launch title, right?), people interested in jigsaw puzzle games would fine mine. Of course I was wrong, and the fact that the search in the Zune software didn’t seem to care about the keywords you enter when submitting your app, or couldn’t find my game when searching for ‘jigsaw’, didn’t help (this seems to be fixed now). I don’t know how other developers releasing WP7 games around the same time as me handled their marketing, but I would be curious to hear it, that question is still a mystery to me.

Downloads and sales

This could have been another paragraph in the “what went wrong” category, but I think this subject deserves its own section. Download and sale numbers for WP7 apps became available on Wednesday 12/08, and I don’t think anybody was thrilled. Don’t get me wrong: WP7 is a very young platform, there aren’t tens of millions of phones in circulation, sale expectations have to be low for now, and can certainly not be compared with those of competing platforms. No, what really surprised me is not the number of sales, but the number of downloads.

On the “top selling” tab of the Zune software (which is more likely based on downloads, like the Bing visual search), Jigsaw Guru has always been in the middle of the paid games from the puzzle & trivia category, the biggest category by far (about 45% of all games). Today for example, it’s 174th out of 363. How many downloads do you think this means on average? About 0.65 per day. This totally blows my mind, but is in line with a graph a developer made with the numbers from his 4 apps, that shows the relationship between the marketplace rank and the number of downloads.

One potential problem is it’s not obvious enough that lots of paid games support the free trial mode, and some players don’t know they can download them for free. But really, it all comes down to most players only checking the XBox Live and the free sections, and rarely visiting the paid one. Which is why although I said earlier that in theory, and thanks to the trial mode, you shouldn’t need to make a free version of your paid game, in practice it’s obvious this doesn’t work, and you have to do it. My friend Noel, who is an experienced iPhone developer, had actually told me I should release my game as a free, ad supported app; unfortunately, the ad SDK’s for XNA didn’t exist at launch and are still in their infancy, the one from Microsoft got released this month and only serves ads in the US, the other ones are either not finished or not stable yet.

So, what’s next? I’m submitting Jigsaw Guru Free (with the Microsoft ad SDK) this week, because as a developer, I still want people to play my game and hopefully have a good time with it. The two projects I started working on after Jigsaw Guru might follow the same path and be free apps from the start, whether it’s on the WP7 or another platform.

Communicating With Players

By now every iOS developer knows that making a great game and putting it on the App Store is only part of the work. In order to get significant sales, it needs to be noticed. You need to spend a significant amount of time in marketing and PR, making sure that blogs cover it, magazines review it, or at least jump-starting it with a group of devoted and vocal forum fans.

Most often, the advice stops there. So you get your initial sales spike and then sales go way down. What do you do then? Usually, developers release new features and updates. That’s great, but how do you get people to notice it. You need to establish some form of communication with your players.

Update Messages

The simplest form of communication is through the “What’s new” section in the update. You can use that section not just to list what features you added and what bugs you fixed, but also to let your players know about other things: plans for the future, other games to try, or even the URL for your Facebook group.

Credit goes to Igor for bringing up this idea and pointing out the URLs are even clickable in this field (but they aren’t in the app description).

Of course, if you’re like me and you update your apps only once in a while, this technique isn’t as effective. Right now my iPhone tells me I have 67 new updates available. I’m clearly not going to be reading through the release notes of each one.

In-Game News

fg_promo.jpgA more direct way of reaching out to your players is to have some sort of in-game news system. At any point you can update a file in your web server with any news, and it is displayed in the game. It can be implemented in many different ways depending on “on your face” you want to be about it: a pop up that comes up when the user runs the game, a ticker that runs constantly across the bottom of the screen, or, what I did for Flower Garden, a news icon with a badge indicating how many unread items there are, that brings up the news page when you tap it.

Make sure players are able to click on URLs in your news messages so you can direct them to different web pages easily. More on that on a bit.


Update messages are only good for players who update their apps (ahem, ahem), and in-game news for active players who’re currently launching your apps. For maximum effect, you can send an email newsletter and that way you can also reach users who played the game at some point in the past, but aren’t currently playing it now. They’re the ones probably most interested in new updates and features, and chances are you can rekindle their interest in the game.

To do this, you should encourage users to register for your mailing list, or collect their emails with their consent in some other way. This was a technique I started using back in December of last year with great success.

I’m currently using Your Mailing List Provider as a means to delivering thousands and thousands of emails [1]. By the way, don’t miss a chance to join the Flower Garden mailing list 🙂


Similar to the mailing list approach, Facebook groups can be a very effective form of communication. An additional benefit is that friends of your players might see them participating in the page and might make them try out your game.

Case Study: Pocket Frogs Cross-Promotion

All that is fine in theory. How does it work in practice? I have been using all four forms of communication for a while, and I’m definitely seeing good bumps of sales and downloads with each update and each major communication.

Last week, Ian and Dave from Nimblebit and I, decided to set up a cross promotion between Pocket Frogs and Flower Garden.


I updated the in-game news and send out an email newsletter coinciding with the latest Flower Garden update telling the players that if they downloaded Pocket Frogs from within Flower Garden, they would be awarded 5 doses of fertilizer. Nimblebit awarded players a flower if they downloaded Flower Garden Free from within Pocket Frogs.

When you have over a million downloads in a week like Pocket Frog did, that kind of player communication is the equivalent of a nuclear cannon. The effects of the cross-promotion were obvious the instant the news went live:


As you can see, Flower Garden Free made it all the way to the number 56 in the iPhone Top Apps chart in the US! The effect even spread to the paid version of Flower Garden:


Pocket Frogs at the time was hovering at around #9 on the charts, so it was difficult to have much of an impact on that position without major numbers, but we suspect it might have hovered there a little longer because of the extra downloads from Flower Garden.

Here is what the downloads for Flower Garden Free looked like for the last month. The Pocket Frogs cross-promotion is quite noticeable:


All those downloads also translated into in-app sales through the Flower Shop. Here are the revenues for that time period:


One consequence I wasn’t expecting, but in retrospect I’m not that surprised about, is that the ratings for Flower Garden Free dropped by a whole star (from 4 to 3), with a large percentage of 1-star reviews. That’s because a lot of people who wouldn’t have downloaded Flower Garden otherwise did it anyway, didn’t like it, and deleted it right away.

To wrap things up on a better note, there was yet another side effect of the cross promotion. The Pocket Frogs link was using my LinkShare referral code. Sending all those users to the App Store to download a free game link resulted in about $200 in referral profit for the week.


Communicating with your players is more than just profitable: It’s crucial to the sustained success of your games. Make sure you try to engage with them in every way you can, keep them up to date with developments in your game, and don’t hesitate to run the occasional cross-promotion, especially with other games that are a good match for your target audience.

[1] If you decide to use them and wouldn’t mind using my referral code (WQHVUF), I can get a small percentage back.

This post is part of iDevBlogADay, a group of indie iPhone development blogs featuring two posts per day. You can keep up with iDevBlogADay through the web site, RSS feed, or Twitter.

My Standing Desk Experiment

I’m not sure where I first heard about standing desks. It was probably about a year ago in some online article, but it didn’t have much of an impact at the time. Since then, the benefits of standing (or rather, the dangers of sitting down for prolonged periods of time) has been appearing in the news more often. Some people even went as far as setting up treadmill desks!

Initially I dismissed it for me because I’m reasonably active: I either run or bike 5 or 6 days per week, and the rest of the days I go for a walk around the neighborhood. It was the combination of increased studies on the effects of sitting, some people in my social circle finally making the jump and raving about it, and me developing some problems in a hamstring that finally made me consider it more seriously. And trust me, if you’re a cyclist or a runner, the last thing you want to have is hamstring problems.

It turns out that my 5-mile morning runs weren’t making me immune to the dangers of sitting. It’s not how much exercise you get per day, but how long do you sit on a chair continuously. And no, buying an fancy, expensive chair might help with your back, but it’s not going to do one bit of good with all the other problems.

One of the many advantages of working from home is that I can try weird things that would be much more difficult in a regular workplace. I also have a track history of liking to experiment on myself [1], so it didn’t take much convincing to give this a try.

After some initial research, it appeared that the way to go was an adjustable-height desk. That way you can work standing, but you still have the flexibility to sit down whenever you need to. I also found out that apparently this is not all that uncommon in Europe. The only drawback is that adjustable standing desks are not easily available here in the US, and the ones that are out there are aimed at offices and big companies, with matching eye-popping price tags. Even though Flower Garden continues to do well, I wasn’t quite ready to plop down several thousand dollars on something I might end up hating.

standing_1.jpgSo I decided to start cheap and work my way up from the bottom. First I had to decide if I even liked this whole working-while-standing thing. I wasn’t even sure I would be able to type! I thought about raising my desk with cinder blocks, but I would have to raise a lot and would make it very unstable. So instead, I created four stacks of books on top of my desk and put a board on top. Then I was able to put the keyboard, computer, and monitor on the board and give that a try.

Let me tell you: It was weird.

At first I didn’t know how to type. My fingers were constantly off to the side. It turns out my initial height was too low. You really want to have the keyboard at a height that puts a 90 degree bend on your elbows. That’s what they say about the sitting position, but somehow I can manage to have less. However, standing, I really needed that height.

Even once I adjust the height, the first day was kind of rough. After an hour, I was definitely feeling it in my feet. I think I did half a day the first day and I felt totally exhausted. All that running wasn’t helping that much standing at my desk apparently.

Fortunately things got better very quickly. In a few days, I was able to work for hours without much problem. I would find myself constantly shifting my weight between my feet and moving around a little bit. I was definitely liking that whole standing thing.

standing_2.jpgAt this point I decided that the stack of books was too annoying, but I wasn’t quite ready for an expensive desk. So I picked up a Fredrik Ikea desk from Craigslist for $50. The nice thing about this desk is that it can be assembled so the top of the desk is almost at any height. You can’t change it on the fly, but at least it serves as a standing desk.

Finally I was able to work standing and be comfortable at the same time now that I had space for more than a mug along with the keyboard. The extra shelves on the desk were also very handy (one over the table top and one underneath).

After spending a couple of weeks with the desk, I decided that I definitely liked standing and it was something I wanted to continue doing long term. I felt more focused while standing, and my productivity was up. An unexpected side benefit was that when someone else comes into the room, they can walk right up to the desk and we can look at the monitor together, or look at some papers, much more easily than if it was a sitting desk.

However, it was also clear that I needed to switch things up a bit. Spending the whole day standing continued to be pretty tough on my feet, and it even made it so I didn’t want to work any longer than I had to. I really had to combine the standing with some hours of sitting down, which is probably a healthier thing to do anyway.

At this point I had two options: I could go full out and get a motorized adjustable desk, or I could get an adjustable draft chair which are tall enough to sit comfortably at a standing-height desk. Since I already had a nice office chair, and the Ikea desk was a bit wobbly set up like that, I decided to spend the money on the motorized desk.

Again, after a bunch of research, it seemed that one of the best options was to order a (very appropriately named), GeekDesk online. They have them in two sizes, Classic and Mini. It turns out I wanted something more in the middle (around 60″ wide), so I ended up ordering the Mini frame and a desk top from Ikea for $80. It wasn’t cheap, but it was way cheaper than the alternatives and all the reviews and experiences I read were very positive.

It arrived very quickly and it was a breeze to assemble. I did have a scary moment that it looked like one of the wheels didn’t fit in the metal opening, but I eventually managed to coerce it. Hopefully this kind of manufacturing problems aren’t common.


I can only describe the final setup with one word: Awesome. The desk isn’t wobbly at all, and it takes just a few seconds to change heights with the push of a button. Not just that, but I can fine tune the height at any moment in tiny increments. And in the sitting position, I can put it low enough to make typing very comfortable (most desks are set up too high to type really comfortably for me).

My daily work routine has settled into working standing in the mornings, sitting for an hour or so after lunch, standing all afternoon, and then sitting in the evening I have have to do some work. With the wonderful weather here in Southern California, I’ll often take my sitting work time outside in the back patio in the shade. So all in all, I probably spend one or two hours sitting down at the desk.

Yes, it was a significant amount of money, but it’s something I’m using every day and it improves both my productivity and my health. Definitely worth it.

Standing desks have one downside though. This situation happens embarrassingly often. Good thing I work home alone!

[1] A few years ago I gave polyphasic sleep a try. It was actually really great for gaining extra hours, but eventually I gave it up because I was constantly out of sync with the rest of the world. I’d do it again if I were spending months alone in a research station in the Antarctica.

This post is part of iDevBlogADay, a group of indie iPhone development blogs featuring two posts per day. You can keep up with iDevBlogADay through the web site, RSS feed, or Twitter.