Hitting the Small Screen: Connecticut Designers in the Apps and Games Business

To the casual, iPhone-toting observer on the street, success in the app-development game means launching the next Angry Birds, the next Words with Friends, the next Fruit Ninja. It's all about creating that simple, super-addictive, viral app that pays for the 65 or so clunkers you've designed along the way, spinning off movie scripts and T-shirt licensing deals in the process.

"Games are very hit-driven," says game developer Joshua DeBonis. "If you release 10 games, maybe one of them will pay for all 10 of those. There's no way to predict which one will be the hit. Sometimes great games don't make any money and terrible games make a lot."

There's an entrepreneurial, independent spirit surrounding the game and app development world, for sure. And much of that creative work happens in Connecticut, where firms, ranging in size from dozens of employees to one guy with a laptop, pump out catchy games, add-ons to existing iPhone or Android features, or handy, information-based widgets.

Take MEA Mobile, for example, a New Haven-based design firm with two additional offices in New Zealand. They partnered with Walgreens pharmacy to create Printicular, an app that allows iOS and Android users to print photos from their camera roll, Instagram and/or Facebook accounts at their local Walgreens, usually within the hour.

"It's a great example of local company app development with a major retail partner," says Vin Framularo, MEA Mobile's business development manager.

Most of MEA Mobile's apps -- there are presently over 100 of them on the market -- are consumer photo and video applications. Popular apps include iLapse (a professional-quality time-lapse video creator), Speed Machine (a fast/slow motion video recorder), Grid Filter (a tap and design photo tool) and Part (a whimsical iPhone app whose tagline is "make something simple - find something beautiful"). They also develop grabby games (one called LexIt is due out later this year).

One top-selling video app is iSupr8 ($1.99), which allows users to shoot video that looks like it was taken with an old Super 8mm camera.

"It's like Instagram for video," says managing director Bruce Seymour, who's listed on imdb.com as a producer and actor in several independent films. "It takes beautiful HD footage and wrinkles it up and adds dirt and dust and grain, which makes it look like old-school footage. It's very cool."

For the most part, developers like DeBonis and Seymour work on two fronts: designing products or strategies on a work-for-hire basis for outside clients, to keep the lights on, with little risk involved; and developing speculative, in-house apps that potentially could land them on easy street.

A History Lesson in an App

DeBonis, 33, runs Sortasoft, a small Brooklyn, N.Y.-based firm that focuses exclusively on game development. While his first love is music -- he studied jazz performance at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury in the late '90s -- he was modifying board games from an early age, adding new parameters and shaking up the rules for the enjoyment of his friends.

"I would either modify board games we were playing or make extra modules for them," DeBonis says. He was also good at programming, creating PC games as unfinished experiments. Creating the games was the fun part, but he loathed designing the shiny wrapper needed to market them. The turning point was becoming committed and dedicated to creating a complete package that would appeal to others, "that people might actually pay money for."

Sortasoft's big moment will come in November, when they release "Meriwether: an American Epic," an "indie game" about the Lewis and Clark expedition (for Windows, Mac and Linux; it's not an app). Playing as Meriwether Lewis, the gamer follows the expedition from Washington, D.C. to the Pacific and back.

"We're being really extensive in our historical research," DeBonis says. "I have an historian on the team, Barb Kubik, who's amazing. It's an incredibly rewarding game to work on. I've learned a lot doing it. I've been able to travel and meet all kinds of cool people, and I really have fallen in love with the story of Lewis and Clark." "Meriwether" is unique, DeBonis says, not only because of the content, but also for that elusive quality he calls "game-play."

"It has a pretty unique game mechanic for how the conversations work that I have not seen done in other games," DeBonis says. "It's a deeper game, because it explores all of these other topics that are often not explored in games." Those topics include early 19th-century American life, politics, the many-faceted relationships between Europeans and Native Americans, slavery, class issues, "even depression," he says. "It covers a lot of heavy topics, which makes it a complex game to play."

Sortasoft also develops iPhone and Android games, mostly for outside clients. Recent titles include "PopBlocks" -- it merges "Brickbreaker" with trivia, and was designed for a nostalgia company called Do You Remember? -- and "Nimble Strong: Bartender in Training," an iPhone game that teaches you drink recipes as you play. "Most people wouldn't think of it as an educational game," DeBonis says, "but it actually is... You're mixing drinks for your customers, trying to choose the right ingredients and use the right proportions. But all these customers have these really interesting personalities."

How to Get Into App-Making

So, you think you have that killer, groundbreaking app idea. What next? You probably shouldn't order that Beemer just yet.

"A lot of people think it's cheap to develop [apps]," says developer Michael Lawson. "But they're actually more complicated than your average desktop apps... Everyone thinks it's easy because it's a smaller device. But there are more parts that could go wrong, more error-checking... You've got a pretty small amount of screen real estate." Apple, he says, also changes their requirements frequently for things like screen sizes. "They came up with the iPhone 5, which was bigger. They came out with the [iPad] mini."

As a developer, putting together the app is only the first step. Navigating the curated iTunes submittal process, Lawson says, can be tricky. It's a curated site, which means they check on your stuff to see if it's worthy. Android is not nearly as strict, and Microsoft falls somewhere between the two.

Lawson started a Hartford-area firm, 2nd Opinion Technology, in 2007, and he runs the popular music website LocalBandReview.com. He's been designing applications for well over 20 years -- standard fare for insurance companies, manufacturing, on and on -- but he says his experience with mobile is relatively limited, with only a half-dozen apps under his belt.

"I'm kind of a one-man shop," Lawson says. "I depend on the companies or the people that want them designed for the content. I do the layout. I have a couple of graphics people I can call to do some extra graphics."

For the most part, Lawson says it makes sense to create the Apple version of an app first, because "you can actually make money... The Android community doesn't normally pay a lot [for apps] whereas Apple, because of the whole iTunes culture, they're easy. They have your credit card information. You see 99 cents and you go, Yeah, okay, I'll take it."

Most developers, Lawson says, will put most of their effort into an Apple app, even though the curation process is more difficult. Apple not only tests for memory leaks and performance, but also for design patterns. And they'll reject anything that resembles what programmers call "fart apps" - essentially iPhone whoopie cushions. They don't want a bunch of fart apps clogging up their iTunes interface.

"Some of their points are valid and some of them aren't," Lawson says. "You can't really compete with any of the native features they have on their phone."

DeBonis agrees. "Sometimes [Apple] will mention something small to fix," he says. "It's never something insurmountable. I was nervous about "Nimble Strong" because of the alcohol references and the content is a little more mature. But that wasn't an issue. It's usually a technical thing." One of the games Sortasoft submitted was sent the day the iPhone 5 was issued, without the team having access to it. "We got feedback that something didn't display correctly," DeBonis said. "That was actually helpful to us... It delayed the launch by a few days, but we didn't want anybody having a bad experience either."

Seymour and MEA Mobile, meanwhile, haven't had too many issues with Apple's curation process. "It is a walled garden," he says. "But there's more hype to them rejecting things than the reality." The bottom line, he says, is that if you create a useful app that does something beneficial, Apple will approve it.

"We've never had an app rejected outright," Seymour says. "Apple is very good about identifying why an app was rejected, and then have the ability to correct that and resubmit to Apple. The good far outweighs the bad. In fact, there is no bad."

The Independent Spirit

They come from different backgrounds - Lawson from traditional programming and network security, Seymour from film and DeBonis from board game design and jazz. But all three developers seem to possess a fierce, independent streak.

Lawson mostly works alone, championing independent musicians in his leisure time, while Seymour and his colleagues all have indie filmmaking backgrounds. "We're all ex-indie film guys," he says, "which is why a lot of our apps are in the photo/video space." Among other films, Seymour produced the 2006 Connecticut-based indie film A New Wave, which starred John Krasinski (The Office), Andrew Keegan (CSI: NY) and Lacey Chabert (Party of Five). (Seymour himself played a character named Eugene.)

"Developing apps is very similar to filmmaking in that it's very collaborative," says Framularo, MEA's business development manager, who also has several film credits attached to his name. "You really need a team of people, just like doing a feature film."

For his part, DeBonis is actively engaged in what he calls "indie gaming" culture. He raised funds for "Meriwether" through a successful Kickstarter campaign, a strategy that's popular with indie rock musicians. Indie gaming, DeBonis says, is what indie filmmaking is to Hollywood: working with smaller budgets, incorporating experimental topics and perhaps getting as cutting-edge as possible. It also means less polished production values and smaller audiences.

"There's a range of different developers doing that style," DeBonis says. "A lot of them are just individuals working out of their bedrooms. Some are small studios, like what we do, a lot of which are temporary collaborations or very small companies or virtual companies. Then there's a few fairly large companies that are more established, maybe just on the edge of what's considered independent versus non-independent. There's no clear line."

Like indie rock, there's an aesthetic and attitude that comes through in the work, one that appeals to a particular type of gamer.

"It's for a combination of two groups," DeBonis says. "People who are looking for something deeper and maybe more artistic and creative, which are often the same types of people who seek out independent films or music."

The other group, DeBonis says, are "lapsed gamers," "people who used to play a lot of games on Playstation or whatever," DeBonis says, "but now that they're older and have families and jobs and other commitments, they don't really have the time to play a 100-hour console experience." Lapsed indie gamers are still looking for depth, he says, but in a form that can be played in 10 minutes or less on their iPhone, on the train or when they have a few minutes. "These two groups are looking for the same type of thing, but for different reasons... I would put myself into both of those categories."

Lawson spends much of his time these days developing an app that's most likely not going to lead to early retirement; it's an app for LocalBandReview.com, his blog dedicated to the Connecticut music scene. When it's finished, he hopes to have multiple RSS feeds coming in from other area music blogs.

"We don't want to hijack other people's [music] blogs," Lawson says. "But if they want to have their content in there, they just have to put their tag on it and it'll show up in our [app] newsfeed. I believe in giving credit to everyone. That's what I do."


App developer Michael Lawson.

A screen capture from Sortasoft's Nimble Strong. (Courtesy Sortasoft)


Follow @MikeHamad on Twitter


Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times