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Interview with Doodle Jump's Igor Pusenjak, part 1

There are a lot of successful apps in the App Store, but perhaps there are none more successful than Doodle Jump. Igor Pusenjak and his brother have propelled their simple game about a doodle flinging himself into the sky, platform by platform, all the way up into the top of the App Store charts. They've stayed there longer than any other app, pulling in almost as many sales as there are iPhones to go around.

Now, in addition to all of their monetary success, Pusenjak and his brother have also picked up an Apple Design Award; this simple little game is now critically acclaimed as well as being one of the top-grossing iOS titles of all time. I sat down with Pusenjak last week in Los Angeles (just a few miles away from where the traditional game industry was holding their E3 expo) to talk about the past and future of Doodle Jump and how they've found such great success.

This is part one of the interview, and it talks about the business of the App Store and how Lima Sky has done what they've done. Part two will be posted on the site later today, and will explore future updates to the game and the long-awaited Doodle Jump for iPad.


TUAW: Congratulations on your Apple Design Award. How does it feel to have an iPhone app that's won that award?

Igor Pusenjak, Lima Sky: Very amazing, very humbling, and very unexpected. We've obviously gotten a lot of great responses and great reactions from players, from press, from everyone who has played and seen the game. But to actually get the accolade officially from Apple and to have Apple point out some of the design elements that we've put in the game and thought were quirky and unique, and to actually have them acknowledge that felt really, really good.

Yeah. It's for a game, too, which is strange. Did Apple say anything, or have you heard anything from them about that? It's not really their thing, gaming.

No, we had no idea this was going to happen. In fact, the only indication we got that there was something cooking is that we got an email from Apple asking if we were going to be at WWDC. That meant to me OK, great. We'll meet up with our Apple representative, and we'll talk about how to work together better, and we'll let them know what our plans are. Sort of talk about ways we can promote or what works for them and us. But actually, up until that last moment, I had no idea we were going to be there and actually had not expected it.

I also talked to Firemint, and the people from Articles, and the question that I asked them was that this is the first year that Apple hasn't given any design awards to the Mac. Do you feel, as an iPhone developer, that you're taking something away from the Mac? What would you say to a Mac developer who said, "How dare you steal an award from Transmit 4?" What would you say to that?


First of all, Transmit 4 is an amazing app. I have it myself. I love it to death. As with a lot of things, I think choosing only 10 apps or games, or 10 of anything, in the entire Mac universe is a very, very tough decision. Obviously, Apple picked this direction this year where they honored the iPad and the iPhone apps and games, which in many ways, have been the biggest explosion and the biggest talk of town in the last two years and especially this year. So, I think it really was the acknowledgment of that. I think it was also showing Apple's future and direction. Apple has said, of course, that the fact that they haven't given any Mac OS awards is not an indication of anything, and I'm sure you've heard the rumors or thoughts that they're thinking of having a separate WWDC for OS X and iOS.

I would honestly not be surprised if Apple is going in a direction where even the desktops or the Macs of today become the iOS devices of the future. The App Store has been a tremendous success in many ways, not only for us developers but also for consumers as well, where they have an easy and inexpensive way to legally purchase software, which is not very often the case with OS X software. Especially independent software -- it's more difficult to find, the prices are higher. I'm not saying not deservedly so, but the payment systems are also not as streamlined as they are in the App Store. So, what I would really love to see is Apple somehow integrate the OS X software, either in the App Store or through some other way. Of course, that brings up a whole issue of curating and what's available and what's not, but honestly, there are stores outside of the App Store where people can put whatever they want. It's a little more difficult to get to that content, but it's there. I think the OS X content probably needs more of an open way of installing something that's not Apple-approved, but I'll leave that to Apple.

Well, there's a lot of stuff in what you just said there. The first thing, saying that it's easier to get content in the App Store than it is outside of the App Store -- I would say a Google search is a little easier than doing an iTunes search. But to the App Store for OS X -- that's an idea that's been around for a while. Games especially, you need a platform like Stream, and now Steam is there, so why do you think Apple hasn't done it themselves?

I think it's a matter of resources. They've obviously having incredible success with the App Store, and in many ways, it's very similar to questions that we get asked about why haven't you done this or done that. It's just because we can only do so much in a given time. I wouldn't be surprised to see if Apple is thinking about it or if they already have a project in the works, but you can only do so much. And you know how Apple is -- they never announce anything prior to actually shipping. If they are making their own Steam for the Mac, and they're working on it, we will not know until it actually ships.

Well that's all hypothetical, of course. Doodle Jump has been out for a while, and how's it going with that?

It's been fantastic. You always kind of wait for this moment where people will get tired of it and sales will go down, but we've been in the top five for the last six months, and even according to some of the independent analytics companies' research and reports, Doodle Jump is the app that's spent the longest in the top five of all the apps on the store.

And I presume that means you're still getting new users. Are you still getting new users?

Yeah, obviously, staying on the top, you have to have a constant influx of new purchases.

So my question is, where are they coming from? Who hasn't bought Doodle Jump?

Apple sells like 15 million devices a quarter, and we've done some math in terms of how many devices that is per day and what kind of market penetration we currently have and what kind of purchases we can get from daily, new iDevice owners. And in many ways, you get to the point where it almost seems like it would be possible to carry this on for a very, very long time with such a big influx of new device owners. What we've seen, actually, in the last couple of weeks is a little bit of a slowdown in the number of key units but not necessarily in the order of ranking, which tells us that there's a limited number of people buying the new devices because they're expecting the new iPhone to come out. So, they're kind of slowing down. We're also expecting to see an increase once the iPhone 4 is out in the next couple of weeks, and it will be interesting to see what happens.

So, your sales are such a wide market share that you actually mirror Apple one-to-one in terms of unit sales.

Well, in terms of the percentage of the overall penetration of the entire market and looking at sort of projecting that percentage to the new devices, we actually are able to get as many new sales as it takes to keep up on the top.

I do want to talk about the updates you've done, and this kind of dovetails with what you just said and also the Apple Design Award. Whenever I go to these conferences, I hear a lot of examples getting thrown around of big apps on the App Store, and Doodle Jump is one of those that gets brought up most often. Do you feel pressure, in terms of your sales, from other developers? It's really held up as a sign that people can pull this off? And then with the recognition from Apple, is there pressure there? You seem very sure -- the sales are rolling in and everything's great.

I'm not sure at all. It's a constant sort of looking at the trends, looking at what's going on, measuring every single move on that scale. But remaining optimistic, and this will probably not be fit to print, but working your ass off to maintain this. This is something that did not just happen. This is something that my brother and I, and kind of still just the two of us, have started with a schedule that's really impossible. Nights, weekends, pretty much between the two of us, 24-hour workdays. The idea initially was, OK, let's push this as long as it goes. One of the big pushes we had was pre-Christmas, where we wanted to be as high on the list as possible because of the amazing increase of sales for Christmas Day. And [we were] thinking OK, let's give everything we have now for that, and then once sales start going down, which we expected to happen after Christmas in the January and February period -- which is traditionally slower -- we'll have some time to relax and take it easy. But, both, luckily and however you want to say it, we haven't seen that. We keep going and going and going, and we have to take this opportunity as long as we have it and put everything of ourselves into it. It's been taxing.

The traditional model is that you develop, you release, and then you take a break. But it sounds like it's been the opposite with you guys.

Yes, exactly. Because what we've done is -- I come from Web publishing. And websites, unless they are kept alive, no one comes back to them. And so we've taken this model and applied it to the App Store. Apple provides this amazing system of updates, which enables you to add new content pretty much as frequently as you see fit. And initially, each update would give you a little boost on the rankings, on how things were ordered, and that was one of the early motivators early on. What we've also seen is something that I've talked about before -- people just love updates. They feel that they're getting something new, because they are getting something new. It's easier to consume content episodically than getting everything all at once.

So, for example with AniMatch, we've released a game that had 10 animals in it, and we've released a new animal every week. And what we've seen is comments from parents saying how much their kids love AniMatch and how really excited they are to see what animal will be added next, versus releasing a game that has 30 animals, having the kids play it for a day or two, being bored with it and being done. This way, you can create this continuous excitement and interest in the game.

What I've been realizing lately, and the way I've been explaining it, is that it's a model that's similar to the differences between the movie industry and the TV industry. With movies, you create a movie, you release it, it goes out to the theater, you're done, you start working on a sequel. With TV, you create a pilot, you see how it does, if it does well, you start developing a series out of it. If season one does well, you sign up for season two. And that's very much the model that we've been following for our App Store apps and games. We release a pilot, a game that has the game mechanics, the graphics, that's a complete thing in its own, but also has room for improvement -- room for telling additional stories. So, you keep on adding these new elements throughout the addition of the episodical content, and you see how well it does. And at one point, when the season is over, no one is interested any more, you're done with the show, you go on to the next.

It's not a new idea -- it's software-as-a-service, basically. But you're not getting paid for the service part of it. It's all through more sales.


That's what's been interesting -- ever since the whole in-app purchase model became available, we've been closely following that and seeing how it does, and different people have had different levels of success. What we've found, which seems counterintuitive, is that my belief is that we're actually getting more sales because of giving away this free content than we would have if we'd sold that content separate. Every time someone gets an update, plays the game, they'll show it to someone else, it'll become fresh again. And every time we add more content, people are more likely to say, "You know what? Now it's really time to buy it." It's sort of the philosophy of people who are investing in stocks but are not necessarily proficient in it. So, you follow a stock, and it goes up and you're like, "Eh." But it goes up, and it keeps going up, and it keeps going up long enough that I'm comfortable in investing in it.

It's weird. Seems like "the long tail that wags the dog," so to speak. So, you've done a lot of updates on the app so far. The other thing about this model is that I'm glad to hear you say you're giving content out, because a lot of other developers are interested in giving out more content, but charging more. But one thing you haven't done versus something that traditional gaming has been doing for years is -- when did it release?

Last March.

So by now, if this was a traditional game, we'd be talking about sequels, spin-offs, franchises. Have you looked at the idea of a Doodle Jump 2, or what are you considering there?

There are a couple of diverse answers to that question. In a way, what happens in the traditional gaming industry, a year after, you're not at the level you were when you launch. But in fact, we're much higher than we were when we launched. So, for us to drop this and move on to the sequel doesn't make sense. On the other hand, what you see now is pretty much Doodle Jump 3 already, but it's been fit into the single product. Initially, the game was basically one background, one theme, one style, and we went for the sort of traditional sales curve on the App Store. We started low, we got promoted by Apple, went to the top, and then sales started going down.

And around this time last summer, actually, we started working on a sequel, which was going to be Doodle Jump 2, which was going to have all of these different worlds. But we also continued working on and pushing this version. And what we've seen is an increase in sales of this version, which then kept going and going, and we decided then to give up on this idea of creating the sequel, and just putting elements that were going to be in the sequel in this version. That said, there are certain opportunities that we're pursuing outside of the iPhone space, in terms of franchising and pushing the character and the game further. We've licensed the game to GameHouse for Androids and BlackBerrys and so on for other phones in the world. We're talking to a few publishing houses for potential console versions of the game. We're also looking at licensing opportunities for toys, publishing, and so on.

So, you're still on the trajectory with the original game, but everything that would be happening with a sequel is already happening. Do you think -- and this is the big million dollar question for everybody else -- is it possible to do this again? As much as you say it's a matter of work and updates and just pushing this game, is it possible for someone else to do this, or is it just an App Store time and place kind of thing?


The timing is obviously important, as in anything else. Had we not been in the App Store from the beginning, we would probably have had much more of a difficult time to adjust to how the App Store will work -- being able to promote the game efficiently, and the mechanisms of it. And you see that from people who are entering right now -- it's really hard to break through over 200,000 applications. That said, we've seen a similar model work on a couple of games out there. One of the good examples of that is Angry Birds, which is now the top selling game. And they're running the same model, where they're adding additional levels and new content, keep on adding on top of a very simple game mechanic, which is not necessarily original, but which has been improved and done right. Pocket God is one of the early successes of this sort of episodic content model, where they started with something very simple and kept on adding new things. People would download the game, download the update to see what's going on, someone else would see it, and it would go on and on. There are a couple of other games -- you mentioned Firemint earlier. I think Flight Control is a fantastic game that should actually be much higher than they are now, and part of the reason why they're not, in my belief, is that they're not releasing as many updates as the App Store audience wants. You've spoken to them. I've spoken to them. The reasons why they don't do it are their own.

And they've also won an award, they've got plenty of success.

Of course, but in terms of the model that keeps on selling. You have the games that are fantastic, but they don't get as much of a spotlight of some of the other ones that are maybe not so fantastic but get more spotlight. And you have a game like ours that gets a lot of spotlight, a lot of sales, that also gets recognition. And I truly believe that Flight Control is a top ten game. They're pretty high there. They've recently released an update, which saw them spike back into the top 25.

All the examples that you just gave are all iPhone games. Is something like this possible on, say, Xbox Live? On PCs?

I'm not sure. What's interesting about this is that there's this moment in time when you have the tipping point, which the iPhone can create because of the large market penetration and the large number of people who have devices, and the fact that it's so casual and easily accessible and doesn't cost much that people are willing to experiment. Xbox requires a more committed player, a more committed audience, and the cost of the products are much higher. In terms of getting a small dev team that has a large success on traditional platforms, I can see that through downloadable content like WiiWare or Xbox LIVE or something, but it's a different game. That hasn't happened yet.

Stay tuned for part 2 of the interview later today!

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