Climb The Wall App
A project management and design story of how I developed one of the first mobile rock climbing games for iOS.
As an avid rock climber and as someone that works in information technology I always wanted to merge these two worlds together in a creative and fun way. In fact, ever since I was 17 (the year the first iPhone came out) I wanted to develop an app. In 2012 I got the idea to design and develop a rock climbing game for the iPhone iOS platform.
In 2013, I had an initial sketch made by my neighbor: at the time he was a 12 year old boy talented in drawing based on whatever you told him to draw. His sketch is what gave me true "vision" of this becoming real one day. Notice: the name was different back then.
Limbo / "real life" challenge
I spent 2.5 years in limbo. Just couldn't get anywhere. If I had to pinpoint it all down to one thing I would say: "excuses & not enough DOING." Some other obstacles that contributed to a broader challenge at hand were:
1. Friends Dilemma - relying on friends for help and time (charity)
2. What platform would I code this for first?
3. Developer Dilemma - couldn't find anyone good enough with knowledge of X-Code or affordable enough for my budget
4. Cost Dilemma - no real budget for such a project. No idea of what such budget should look like
5. No guarantee of quality
In 2015, after Martin (a spiritual friend of mine) visited me, I became motivated to start acting. My mantra became DOING and since I am a DOER I started doing. The day that I had this epiphany I was at a Denny's diner for breakfast...all alone (yup cliche)... I drew it on a piece of napkin... I took a photo of that napkin to hold myself accountable in the future.
My task at hand was to create a game that would immerse its users and cater to both climbers vs. non-climbers at the same time. On top of all of that I needed to make sure users would keep coming back to the game - wanting to play more. In this case it was crucial for me to not only getting the user to download the app but also to make the user a recurring user. I wanted to capture both gamers that understood climbing and gamers that never heard of rock climbing nor did they understand how to properly rock climb. The hidden goal of the game was meant to educate people on terms climbers use and on the tools they use. I chose rock climbing because it was something from the real world that was hard to replicate on a 2D touch screen. So how did I do it ? I decided to make this a puzzle game! Puzzles on a mobile experience keep people coming back and interested.
My requirements going into all of this:
1. Be in 100% control of all the decisions on this project
2. In order to achieve point #1 I had to make sure to on-board only local people so that I could meet with them
3. My budget was not to exceed $2,000
I started by researching the market and looking for rock climbing games. I met with many rock climbers and code developers to understand their take on such a project. 99% of the people said this wont work. Many of my initial ideas were hard to code (without a large cost) and many of the real world translations of climbing onto a phone just didn't give the user the ability to understand what rock climbing is. I also researched a lot on what type of engine / dev platform I should develop this on. Other research included understanding all the underlying and future costs. I had to develop a budget. As mentioned before since this was a puzzle style experience I also research a lot of puzzle games. Two games that inspired me were: Where's My Water & Cut the Rope!
Before diving into wireframes and actual development work I explored all the ideas of a gamification via storyboarding. I took a bunch of illustrations we made and printed them out (some I photocopied straight from our sketchbook). I then cut out each object and placed each cut out piece of paper on a table. Together with my friend Antonia we spent a whole night playing out this game on a table with pieces of paper.
Based on my climbing expertise I started creating the end user experience. I gathered the in game personas and user needs. Then I created a a workflow and started pseudo-coding.
During this phase of the project I used a pencil & paper and a graph paper. I created a numbering scale and thanks to this scale I was able to create a 2D field with proper coordinates. These coordinates would then translate into code within which each coordinate would have a graphical object assigned to them. The first prototype was simple with black and white bubble representing objects. See below:
Believe it or not but all the levels in this game are actually coded in notepad :) I then have the code read a notepad file and I use an intricate excel document to keep track of each item and its action. More on that below.
TOP 5 Design Decisions
After developing the prototypes it was time to start developing the actual full on version (beta). This is where I had to find an x code developer. My budget was $2,000 and everyone I met with quoted me with $30k to $35k price tags! I found an x-code developer on craigslist and he was a student so I figured I could bargain pricing with him. I then decided to get his help on the coding piece ( I would design levels via notepad and feed him the above coordinates).
Everything started with Art. The first sketch ever made (see above) was the one that had me convinced this would work. I had to to make the visual aspect of the game top notch so that it would appeal to any age group (young and old). We spent months sketching things on paper with my neighboor and then translating those sketches into full on vector style objects that developers also call sprites. I hired an artist abroad
I wanted to make sure that every piece of art in the game had a friendly feeling while also resembling the objects in real life. Here is how the walls came to be about (for the walls I used a different artist that I found on craigslist).
Introducing "energy" into the game was a key point because it allowed me to do several things. It gave me room to simulate real life stamina of a climber and assign each action a certain energy. Meaning that if the climber used small holds he would use more energy than if he were to use bigger holds. If the climber used items such as "chalk" or "tape" it subtracted away from the climber's energy. Energy was also something that allowed me to introduce in-app purchases (the user can buy more energy to be able to continue playing.) One feature I included at the end was a chart that listed out user's score. It would show the "par" score in comparison to the users score. Why "par" ? because it was possible to score better than par allowing the user to feel more confident. The plan here was to include a social plug in where users could compare their scores.
3. In-App Purchases
How can I recuperate $ costs put into this project? Only by including In-App purchases and making the game difficult. Difficult to the point where it is still passable without having to purchase extra items but for some people it may not. The goal here was not to make money but to at least break even. This was actually the hardest part of the whole app to implement.
4. Education: in-game handbook
Every single item and its function is explained in the game handbook. The handbook is available throughout the game and the user can access it to better understand each item and how to use it.
At the back of my mind I always had the notion of the game needing Audio & in-game music + audio effects (FX). So what I did is that I rented a professional recording device. I was lucky because in the building I lived at (at the time) they had a sound proof quiet room for musicians to jam out in. I went into that building with 50% of my climbing gear and recorded sounds. Over and over again until I got the sound I wanted. If you do get to play the game try to notice the subtle sounds each action makes. I think the in game music is a little loud so it overshadows the FX. When it came to the music I wanted the music to have a good vibe hippy style happy music that a climber and for that matter of fact any person would like. I once again approached another set of neighbors that were musicians. They composed four 1 minute tracks for me. Each track had a certain theme to it. I wanted one track to play in any of the menus and the other 3 would play in different levels. It was also important to compose the track in such a manner that when it ended and started over again (loop) that it was not noticeable by the user. In case it took the user 5 minutes to solve the problem they would not know the music has been playing over and over again. I then had everything mastered into .WAV format:
Submission to the Apple App Store
In the fall of 2015 with my x code developer we were ready to submit the app to the Apple App store for review. If you remember, we started coding in the summer of 2015 so if you think about it we had quite the quick development timeline. Submitting to the Apple App store was one of the worst experiences in the whole life-cycle of this project. Talk about submission issues with apple... They constantly had a problem with our in app purchases and the way we coded it. We kept going back and forth for 3 months. What was difficult was the fact that it took weeks before apple would get back to us. From the time of submission to the time we would hear back from apple it could easily have been 3 weeks. Check out some of the dates and timeline below. For some reason Apple kept throwing a Network Problem at us. Apple forums did not have a clear guideline on how to deal with this error. What it turned out to be is us having to code the store NOT to work when in airplane mode. If you think about it...this should have been natively done within the iOS software and not our app.
The app was announced on thanksgiving in quite the creative way. I stood on top of Wanya Pichu (the mountain bove Machu Pichu in Peru) and wearing a shirt with the App Logo I made an announcement. Subsequently, the app launched on December 11th of 2015. I did a whole launch party at a local climbing gym (this was the first day the gym was opened). During the party everyone had to download the app and the first 3 people that passed the first 15 levels got a prize! Here is a short video of the launch party:
Post Launch: Performance & Marketing (Update: Sep 2018)
It has been almost 3 years since the app was launched. Since then we did one small revision from version 1.0 to 1.1 to fix a couple user bugs. The app had 2.75K downloads and $60 in in-app purchases.
Majority of the marketing was done via Facebook & Instagram ads. Initially the marketing brought in a lot of downloads. Most of the app downloads and purchases came during the first 3 month window. The first 3 months is also when I marketed the app heavily. After that I moved onto another project and let the app live (one could say die...). Additional marketing done was to create shirts (about 20 shirts), business cards, and a website. A budget was assigned to pay for more ads: got google ad words as well to direct traffic to the website where users could download the app.
I want to point out that FEEDBACK has been great. What is interesting is that rock climbers really liked the app and kids came to a close second. Age groups 4-14 were the most active crowd.
Budget vs. Actual Cost
Keep in mind this was a personal budget in which I initially made a requirement of not crossing over a $2,000 budget threshold. The actual cost was double that. Here is a simple cost structure summary as of Sep 2018:
1. Start doing, put things into motion.
2. Get as much free work from people as possible. Especially free art and royalty free music.
3. Keep searching for team members (a developer) until you are happy. Do NOT give up!
4. Cliche: It truly does take a team to succeed
5. Stay organized. Prioritizing is key
6. Follow proper UX design methodologies - Do more user testing and check your work
7. Apple is picky on app purchase options. Understand the rules Apple has in place
8. Use Instagram, Facebook, and Google marketing options
9. Tackling a steep learning curve is inevitable
10. Understand the market better, control your budget and spend less
11. Get a mentor that has done something similar
12. Never publish an app into the Apple App store during holiday season
13. Develop code agnostic apps (that you can port to other mobile platforms such as android or windows phone)
The app has a lot of potential and room for improvement. If there was budget available and or someone willing to help (GIVE ME A SHOUT) then these are the things that should be done next to correct mistakes and improve:
1. Need to work on version 1.2 to incorporate user feedback
2. Port to other platforms: Android
3. Have 60 more levels available
4. Have a "zoom-out" functionality built into the game so the player can see the whole climbing route prior to trying to attempt solving the puzzle (climbing the route).
5. In app marketing / in game brand marketing / brand placement - opportunity for a lot of this
6. Social integration and the ability to share results with friends.
7. More targeted marketing
8. Fix horizontal vs. vertical positioning