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You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Screen

Well not necessarily a *bigger* screen, but you will need one that sports more pixels per inch. That is to say if the predictions about the iPad 3 are true then your current desktop setup is about to feel very inadequate when developing for Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS. How so? It turns out that the new iPad’s predicted native screen resolution of 2048×1536 is larger than will fit comfortably on any of Apple’s current desktop hardware. At the Iconfactory I use a dual-display setup of a 30″ Cinema display and a 27″ iMac. Even my 30″ doesn’t support enough pixels to view the iPad 3’s screen (particularly in portrait) and that’s a problem.

When designing or coding for the iPhone and iPad, it’s critical to be able to view your work at a 1:1 ratio. It’s best not to view a Photoshop mockup or Xcode simulator window by zooming out, or compressing the pixels to fit the screen. Doing so makes it difficult to tell when interface elements like buttons, tabs and fields properly align or are positioned correctly. I could go into a long explanation of how the math for all of this works out, but TUAW’s Richard Gaywood and App Cubby’s David Barnard have already done that in fine style. If you’re interested in the ins and outs of screen resolutions then head on over and check them out. For my part, I just want to know how long I’ll have to limp along designing for a screen resolution I cannot see 1:1 without having to scroll around. David suggests that Apple won’t be in any particular hurry to bump up the resolutions of their desktop offerings and I have to say I agree with him.

To Apple, the customer comes first not the developer, which is how it should be. Higher resolution displays will eventually be a great selling point for new desktop Macs (and will solve developers’ iPad 3 problems), but they will undoubtedly take time to bring to market. Recent discoveries in Mountain Lion bolster the theory Apple has been planning higher density displays for some time but that doesn’t mean Tim Cook will be announcing them on March 7th. So if you’re a developer like me, be prepared to feel a bit cramped for a while. How long is anybody’s guess but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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For a Small Fee

There’s been increasing talk about how unscrupulous developers have gamed the App Store in recent weeks. Typically, shady devs will submit apps to the store that have similar names and app icons to top ten titles and in the confusion (and perhaps the additional hype from all the attention) users download these “scam” apps and push them ever higher. For honest developers who play by the rules, it’s a serious problem, and one that Apple needs to do a better job addressing.

There’s another way to get your app into the App Store’s Top Ten list however. With enough money, and a faulty ethical compass, you too can be sitting pretty atop the mountain of App Store competition. This morning the Iconfactory’s webmaster account received the following email from an address in China. The person (or persons) purported the ability to get your app to the top, fast. We were just one address of perhaps 100 or more in the “To” field including lockerz.com, skout.com, tumblr.com, okcupid and many more. Why they didn’t bcc the list is beyond me, but at any rate for a mere $10,000 USD, using thousands of “legally” registered iTunes accounts, they will download your app and help boost it into the top ten. How long it stays there just depends on how much you’re willing to pay.

We have large quantity of USA ,UK,CA itunes accounts, registered legally, we can promote your free app in the US, UK, CA store.Don’t waste time in promoting,leave it to us! We are professional team for you and we are the most powerful team for app promotion in China.

10,000 downloads in one store, need 1000USD

If you want the ranking, here is the price list for weekday only,please check:
—————iPhone app———————
US top10 24 hours 10000USD
US top10 48 hours is 15000USD
US top10 3 days is 20000USD
Each additional day the need to increase $ 5,000, up to 5 days,only for weekday

UK top10 24hours 3000USD
UK top10 48hours 5500USD
UK top10 3days is 8000USD
Each additional day the need to increase $ 2,500, up to 5 days,only for weekday

CA top10 24hours 2500USD
CA top10 48hours 4500USD
CA top10 3days 6500USD

————–ipad app only for separate app———————
US top10 24 hours 4000USD
US top10 48 hours is 6000USD
US top10 3 days is 8000USD
Each additional day the need to increase $ 2,000, up to 5 days,only for weekday

UK top10 24hours 1200USD
UK top10 48hours 2200USD
UK top10 3days is 3200USD
Each additional day the need to increase $ 1,000, up to 5 days,only for weekday

CA top10 24hours 1000USD
CA top10 48hours 1800USD
CA top10 3days 2600USD

Weekend day, subject to 20%

The problem of scam apps seems like a relatively easy one to solve compared to this sort of App Store gaming. Apple should simply do a better job identifying and rejecting offending scam apps at the review level. But with enough legitimate iTunes accounts there’s no real way for Apple to identify “fake” downloads from real downloads and keep bogus apps from rising to the top. Perhaps if it happens often enough Apple can develop algorithms to help identify offending accounts and close them, but I’m skeptical.

It seems clear that a re-work of the entire top ten system is in order, and not just because of the recent rash of scamming. Some apps like Angry Birds can stay atop the Top Ten list for months on end making it harder for other awesome, smaller apps to see the light of day. Perhaps Apple’s recent purchase of Chomp will help solve the problem of discoverability, but until then unfortunately there will always be shady individuals willing to prey on people’s greed and desire to succeed.

UPDATE: Matt Ryan over on LockerGnome reports a possible explanation for how these app “promoters” can secure thousands of iTunes accounts to artificially inflate apps – they steal them. Both Ryan’s PayPal and iTunes accounts were hijacked and then used to download copies of an app called iMobster. It should come as no surprise that when the promoter says he uses thousands of “legally registered” iTunes accounts, he means it except they’re not his. So not only do devs fork over tens of thousands of dollars, they’re most likely doing so to criminals who hijack legitimate iTunes accounts and milk them dry until they are caught and shut off. Alarming to say the least.

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Tiny Wings: Tips & Tricks

Tiny Wings is an iOS game for the iPhone and iPod touch by programmer and artist Andreas Illiger. When it was released in February of 2011, it immediately earned praise as one of the most fun and addictive games to ever hit the App Store. Being a developer of iOS games myself, I’m always skeptical about such claims, but after having spent some quality time with Tiny Wings over the past few weeks, I have to say I agree.

The game is not without some level of frustration which is made worse by the fact that there is but a single interaction method – Touch the screen or don’t. Given such simple controls you’d think the game would be easy to master. Not so. The player slides over hills and vales and either taps to increase their decent or lets up to slow their decent to the ground. Where they land on a slope depends on how well they slide up the next hill and back into the air once again. Tiny Wings is a “height climber” style game ala Doodle Jump where the player tries to get as far as they can in a single session. When the game ends, the player must return all the way to the beginning and start over. The great thing about Tiny Wings is that it’s so engaging and addictive you really don’t mind starting over each time.

By far the greatest challenge in Tiny Wings is mastering the art of sliding. In order to succeed in the game, you’ll need to practice and become really good at hitting just the proper point on hills in order to achieve maximum momentum. Learning this skill can be tricky and when I first started playing I was so frustrated I was minutes away from deleting the game. Trust me when I say stick with it because once you figure out how to slide properly, the entire game’s fun quotient gets amped up by a factor of x1000.

Each hill has a small landing window on the backside that you can hit which results in a perfect slide. This keeps your momentum going and if you stack three perfect slides in a row, you’ll enter fever mode where every point you earn is doubled. Mastering perfect slides is key to climbing the leader boards in Tiny Wings. The more perfect slides you make in a game, the faster you’ll go, the more likely you’ll be to touch the clouds (bonus points) and the longer you’ll be in fever mode. All of these factors add up and when combined with coin collection, result in a higher final score.

In addition to mastering perfect slides, there are a few tips and tricks I’ve learned that may help you get further and score higher in Tiny Wings. As with anything, your milage may vary but as School House Rock taught me, knowledge is power, so here you go:

Nest Up – Take time early on and knock off some of the game’s achievements in order to “Nest Up” to the next level. Every time you increase your nest level you increase your score multiplier. For the first upgrade, you will need to perform 7 Perfect Slides, gather 100 coins in total across all games, and reach the fourth island in at least one game.

Touch the Sky – Try and touch the sky as often as you can because doing so earns you 20 points times your multiplier. Each touch represents an ever-increasing award of bonus points towards your final tally.

Reset Button – If you don’t leave the first island in fever mode, start over. In fact, if I’m not in fever mode one half way through the first island I usually kill my game and begin again. Since you’re so close to the start you don’t lose a lot of time for trying this technique. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

Play on an iPad – If you own an iPad I urge you to play on it instead of the iPhone. As of this writing, the game isn’t universal but it doesn’t matter. The iPad’s large, roomy screen makes seeing the oncoming terrain much easier and gives you plenty of space to place your finger that’s out of the way.

The main thing to remember when playing Tiny Wings is to try and stay calm and remain focused. If you miss a slide and start to lose momentum don’t panic just keep at it and get back into the groove as quickly as you can. If you spot a speed coin, gobble it up to quickly get air back under your wings and get going again.

All in all, Tiny Wings is a masterful creation that is sure to give you hours of entertainment and enjoyment. I have to hand it to Illiger because there aren’t many iPhone games that hang around on my home screen for more than a few days. Tiny Wings has joined Parachute Panic, Orba, Plants vs Zombies, Hot Plates and Carcassonne as one of my all-time favorite iOS games. Have fun and fly far my tiny-winged friends!

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The Art of the Ringtone

Although modern smart phones can play a wide variety of musical and audio files as ringtones, very few work well. Popular songs are great for entertainment but aren’t written as attention getters from inside your pants pocket. Ever since the iPhone debuted, I’ve been using Marimba as my ringtone. Not because I’m a technophobe who doesn’t enjoy customizing his phone, but because nothing I tried managed to catch my attention like Apple’s default setting.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a brainstorm to ask friend and one of the composers behind Ramp Champ, Mike Weiser, to create a custom ringtone for me based on Marimba. I asked him to take the main theme from one of my favorite films and “Marimba-ize” it, with the following awesome results:

Please don’t ask me to post the Marimba-TRON ringtone. It’s based off music by Wendy Carlos written for the Disney movie and I had it made for my personal use. The last thing I’d want is to get myself or Mike in any trouble by re-distributing it. If you’d like your own custom designed ringtone, be sure to head on over to Mike’s website and learn all about the music-based services he provides, which now includes ringtones. Now if you’ll excuse me I’ve got to go watch that TRON Legacy trailer for like the 50 billionth time. Is it December yet??

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The Music of Ramp Champ

For designers and artists, the chance to collaborate with others who share your passion for creation is a wonderful event. Ideas feed off of each other and lead to new connections which can both surprise and delight. Such was the case while scoring Ramp Champ, the Iconfactory’s & DS Media Labs’ ode to the classic games of Skee-Ball and pinball for the iPhone. I’m pleased to report the game’s soundtrack was recently released on iTunes, something none of us at the factory could have dreamt of happening.

When we originally designed the game’s ramps, we knew we wanted the quality of the music to match the fidelity of the visual elements. Having a generic track repeat itself across multiple ramps, from outer space to under water, wasn’t going to be fun for the player. During the initial production phase of Ramp Champ, composer Noe Ruiz took the lead and created many of the tracks for the default levels such as Clown Town, Breakwater Bay and Space Swarm. Noe has a wonderful ear for rhythm and was able to incorporate these into the widely varied themes with ease. Of all the tracks he originally produced for Ramp Champ, Space Swarm (along with it’s dance and techno re-mixes) has to be my favorite of the bunch. Space Swarm is filled with old-school retro arcade sound effects that play perfectly into the look and feel of the ramp, helping to evoke the feel of a classic 80’s arcade game.

Atomicon’s David Weiner took up where Noe left off and came on board to help us produce the music for two of the game’s add-on packs. The Challenge Pack featured Molar Madness and Happy Place, both of which required a decidedly twisted approach when it came to the score. David’s work on Molar Madness is nothing short of brilliant. The samba-like piece he created for the ramp is both catchy and just the sort of thing you’d hear coming from the speakers of a dentist’s waiting room. Molar Madness is, without a doubt, one of my favorite pieces in all of Ramp Champ. Happy Place somehow managed to take the absurd notion of dolphins and unicorns floating in the sky and give them life. The track is zippy and light, but has decidedly dark undertones that foreshadows ominous events the player encounters within the level.

When it came time to write the music for our special Halloween add-on pack, David once again stepped up and gave us two wonderfully spooky tracks. When I approached him about Trick or Treat, I knew I wanted music that sounded both eerie as well as innocent. The ramp features children as they roam a neighborhood for candy on Halloween night. As we talked through our ideas, one of our inspirations was Vince Guaraldi’s classic Great Pumpkin Waltz from “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown”. David’s final piece has this jazzy feel as well as elements that remind me of the creepy TV cult hit Twin Peaks, which worked out wonderfully. The other piece in the Halloween Pack, Grave Danger, draws obvious inspiration from Disney’s classic Haunted Mansion with all kinds of over the top scary sound effects like thunder, ghosts and werewolves.

For our 3rd release, David Weiner was already busy scoring the Challenge Pack as well as our other iPhone title, Pickin’ Time, and so we turned to composer Mike Weiser. Mike has created music for many iPhone games including Stick Wars and Tower Land and I was fortunate to be able to work with him on Plunderin’ Pirates and Star Struck. Mike’s score for Plunderin’ Pirates, inspired by Disney’s famous Pirates of the Caribbean ride, is one of the funnest pieces in the game and does a great job of evoking the high seas thanks to the use of instruments like the accordion and steel drums. The sound effects I produced for the ramp added to the overall feel and makes for what many players have called their favorite level in the game.

On Star Struck, both Mike and I decided to create something that reminded the player of space exploration, like you’d hear sitting in a planetarium. The “computerish” tones that come in at the start and end of the track were originally an ode from one of my favorite films ever, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, although Mike masterfully made them his own in Star Struck. The album version of Star Struck that appears on the soundtrack is a specially composed version of the game’s track and is my favorite piece in all of Ramp Champ. You’ll be able to catch more of Mike’s work in the Iconfactory’s next software title, coming to the iPhone in the second quarter of 2010.

Collaborating with Noe, David and Mike on the music for Ramp Champ was, without a doubt, one of the most rewarding things I’ve done during my time at the Iconfactory. The talent these guys posses to take one’s creations and run with them musically is nothing short of astounding. Their work made our efforts that much better and for that, we are all grateful. With Atomicon’s help, we’re proud to finally be able to bring you the complete original soundtrack. I really encourage you to check it out and hopefully you’ll enjoy listening to it as much as we had bringing it to you.

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Orba: My New iPhone Obsession

Every once in a while you run across a piece of software that’s so elegant and well done it makes you smile from ear to ear. Orba, the new free puzzle game from Kieffer Bros. is such an application. Released for the iPhone and iPod touch in late November, Orba is a great example of casual gaming in the spirit of Bejeweled or Tetris.

I love games that can be explained in 25 words or less and Orba’s just such a game. Clear as much of the board as possible by tapping chains of three or more same-colored orbs. The bigger the chain, the more you score. The premise is simple, but after playing just a few games it quickly becomes apparent tap mashing won’t get you very far. Each game starts with only 3 colored orbs shown on the board, so creating long chains of like colors is relatively easy. As you progress, more and more colors are introduced and it becomes quite difficult to clear enough of the board to be able to continue. When no chains can be cleared, the game is over.

As is the case with much of the software that lives on my iPhone, I first discovered Orba via a tweet from a friend, Jason Snell of Macworld. Since I know all too well how important it is to get the word out about great iPhone apps, I’m only too happy to recommend Orba to all of you iPhone and iPod touch users out there.

The game’s user interface is drool worthy. Everything about the game’s design just seems right from the user interaction and the help screens to the friendly “Hello Again.” message that greets you every time you begin. The UI is minimal, but elegant and does a wonderful job of not getting in the way as you play while still looking freakin’ cool. About the only thing I probably would have done differently are some of the sounds. They too are minimal, almost to a point of being non-existent. Despite the audio nit pick, the designers at Kieffer Bros have a well-earned reputation for beautiful software and their work on Orba is no exception.

As a causal gamer, I was surprised and delighted to find that Orba was being offered on the App Store absolutely free. As a fellow developer of iPhone titles, I would have gladly paid upwards of $4.99 for this wonderful piece of art masquerading as a casual game. Since my parents always taught me never to look a gift horse in the mouth, I won’t say any more regarding the decision to give away Orba except to say “Thank you” to the folks behind the orbs. I’ve already gotten many hours of enjoyment out of the download, and that will most likely continue for some time.

I love that I can play this game for a few minutes or hours on end, pause and come back at will. Since there is no time constraint, the only pressure to achieve higher scores are the ones you impose on yourself. Orba doesn’t have online scoreboards or social network boasting, but it doesn’t have to. It is what it is. If you’re looking for a well designed, friendly and casual game for your iPhone, Orba just might be the game for you. Head on over to the App Store, download a copy and let me know when you break the million point mark.

UPDATE: Of course on the very day I decide to publish this post, Orba goes from free to 99¢. I’m actually glad they made it paid since it’s worth 4-5x what they are asking for. You can still try the first 12 levels for free by downloading Orba lite so no harm, no foul.

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Losing iReligion

A great deal has been written about the App Store, both good and bad, and much of it comes from developers I know and respect. It almost seems pointless to add my own thoughts to those who are more widely known and respected than I am, but given how my feelings have evolved regarding the App Store recently I think it’s worth a shot. If what I have to say gives a potential iPhone developer reason pause and re-examine their entry into the space then it will have been worth it.

The App Store is broken. I know from the outside glancing in, it may not look that way but it is. It also doesn’t seem like it’s broken from Apple’s point of view since the store and its tens of thousands of software titles have helped place the iPhone firmly at the head of the smart phone industry. But speaking as a small developer who’s been releasing Mac software for over a decade, the App Store is broken. The ironic part is that if you had asked me this a few months ago I would have denied it with my dying breath.

Since it first launched in July of 2008, the App Store has been evolving and changing to suit the needs of both Apple and consumers. Unfortunately for developers many of these changes have hurt more than they have helped. The utter race to the bottom of the pricing structure by thousands of developers has created tremendous pressure to set applications at either free or near free price points. I know this first hand because when Twitterrific for the iPhone first debuted we set it’s price at $9.95 which, by today’s App Store standards, is almost unheard of. It wasn’t long before lagging sales and increased pressure from competition forced the Iconfactory to lower the application’s price to $3.99, still “expensive” by App Store standards. Not only was the price lowered, but the feature set was more than doubled and yet many users still complain it costs too much. While these changes represent perks for users, it also means that sustaining profitability for a given piece of software in the App Store is nearly impossible unless you have a break-away hit.

This leads me to the next point of failure for the App Store – visibility. Everyone has heard about the so-called “gold rush” certain developers have experienced. Flight Control’s 1.5 mil sales record. Trism’s incredible $250,000 short-term bonanza. But for every one of these lottery wins in the store, there are hundreds, if not thousands of developers who see little if any return on their investments of time and money. What’s worse, the success or failure of a particular piece of software in the App Store depends as much on Apple deciding to feature your creation as the creation itself. One can shift the tables in one’s favor with a sizable advertising budget, but many of us like the Iconfactory don’t have such generous resources at our disposal.

When the Iconfactory & DS Media Labs released our latest iPhone game, Ramp Champ, we knew that we had to try and maximize exposure of the application at launch. We poured hundreds of hours into the game’s development and pulled out all the stops to not only make it beautiful and fun, but also something Apple would be proud to feature in the App Store. We designed an attractive website for the game, showed it to as many high-profile bloggers as we could prior to launch and made sure in-app purchases were compelling and affordable. When the moment came, Ramp Champ shot up the charts quickly but just as quick, it hit a brick wall. Within days the app that had peaked at #56 on the top paid chart fell off the top 100 despite receiving praise from users and reviewers alike. The lack of store front exposure combined with a sporadic 3G crashing bug conspired to keep Ramp Champ down for the count.

A new version that corrected crashing was completed quickly, but once again the App Store reared it’s broken head as the review process kept the fix out of user’s hands for almost two weeks. By this time it was too late and momentum had been lost. Despite a “What’s Hot” feature by Apple in the App Store, Ramp Champ’s sales have not lived up to expectations for either the Iconfactory or DS Media Labs. What’s worse, many of the future plans for the game (network play, online score boards, frequent add-on pack releases) are all in jeopardy because of the simple fact that Ramp Champ hasn’t returned on its investment.

In order for a developer to continue to produce, they must make money. It’s a pretty simple concept and one that tends to get lost in the excitement to write for the iPhone. It’s difficult for me to justify spending 20-50 hours designing and creating new 99¢ levels for Ramp Champ when I could be spending that time on paid client work instead. I would much rather be coming up with the sequel to Space Swarm than drawing my 200th version of a magnifying glass icon. But I’d also like to have some assurances from Apple about reducing the length of the App Store approval process, having the ability to respond to factually incorrect iTunes reviews, not be limited to 100 beta testers, or that large, prominent developers won’t always get preferential treatment. In short, I’d like to know things will be fixed and I don’t mean merely posting a page of marketing text in iTunes Connect.

It is a truism that everyone who creates content is a control freak. From fine artists that decide what gallery their work will hang in, to architects who scratch tooth and claw with stubborn clients about what materials will be used in construction. Software developers are no different. We all want as much control over our creations as we can possibly have and the App Store in it’s current state has removed a significant level of control from our hands. I’m not ready to throw my lot down with those who have renounced the platform just yet, but unless some significant changes come very soon, myself and others like me will have no choice but to focus our development efforts elsewhere.

UPDATE: Several developers have contacted me and told me privately that they think it isn’t so much the App Store that’s kept Ramp Champ from being a success as it is the game itself. Given the fact that Freeverse’s newly released and shallower ‘Skee Ball’ currently sits at #6 in Top Paid apps in the store, part of me wants to agree. I could second-guess myself about what didn’t go right with Ramp Champ but in my heart of hearts I know RC is better than 90% of the games that get to the top of the list. I have to keep telling myself that what doesn’t kill us will make us stronger in the end. Hopefully.

UPDATE II: Seems I’m not the only one cooling to the idea of developing for the iPhone. Macworld’s Dan Moren reporting from the C4 independent developers conference says many of the developers are frustrated at their lack of control in the App Store. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one.

UPDATE III: Marco Arment has written an excellent piece that addresses my post. I agree with much of the analysis there and tend to think that their may indeed be “two App Stores” so to speak. As a result of suggestions from both Marco and the commenters here, Ramp Champ’s vague app store description has been re-written and new screen shots posted to show more content. Thanks to everyone who suggested these changes, I think they will definitely help sales.

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Rolling the Hard Six

This week marks the release of the Iconfactory’s third piece of software for the iPhone platform, and only our second game – Ramp Champ. Ramp Champ is a fun twist on some of the carnival games you’ll remember from your childhood. The game was designed with love by the gang at the Iconfactory and implemented with skill by the talented folks at DS Media Labs. It’s been in the making for the better half of a year and the time has finally come to release it into the wild.

I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t have a huge case of stomach butterflies right about now. We’ve invested a ton of time and money in Ramp Champ and its relative success or failure will be determined within the next 2 weeks. I always get nervous before software releases, but more so when it’s something completely new. Unlike some other large developers, we don’t have a huge well of funds to dip into to develop our apps which makes writing for the iPhone something akin to playing the lottery. We always do our best to design and implement applications that we think people will use and love, but until you actually get real feedback from users, you just don’t know.

When it comes to the App Store, it seems that the success of a particular application has as much to do with luck as it does with blood sweat and tears. I’ve seen apps I never thought even merited being in the store rise to the top despite poor quality or being based on a questionable premise. Meanwhile, defying all developer logic, some of the very best applications never rise above the top 25. Some are sandbagged by the perception of being “too expensive”, others get obscured by the meteoric rise of novelty “ringtoners” who inevitably take the App Store’s coveted top slots.

Talk to a bunch of iPhone developers and they’ll most likely tell you that everything being equal, success in the App Store is a crap shoot. You can push the odds in your favor by producing a high-quality piece of software, as well as offering it for next to nothing, but in the end fate feels like the final arbiter. I’m very proud of all of the guys, both at the Iconfactory and at DS Media Labs for putting together one heck of a fun game. Hopefully you will enjoy playing it just as much as we enjoyed creating it. No one would deny that producing applications for Apple’s iPhone isn’t risky, but as I’ve told myself again and again lately, without risk there can be no reward.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go chug a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.

UPDATE: Well, we’re over the release hurdle at this point and I’m feeling a lot better. Overall the reaction to Ramp Champ seems to be very positive, although we’re dealing with some memory issue that are causing crashes, particular for 1st Gen device users. The good news is we think we’ve ID’d the problem and should have a fix submitted to the App Store soon.

Thanks to everyone who’s posted or tweeted positive feedback about the game, it’s done my heart (and my stomach) a lot of good these past 2 days. If you’re interested in knowing what went into producing Ramp Champ, head on over to Louie’s blog for some insights. More to come!

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Mr. Jobs, Domino’s Calling!

I’ve recently discovered creating a successful iPhone application is a lot like baking a pizza. Take the best ingredients, like skillfully crafted code, bold and flavorful interface design and combine with a dash of love and you may end up with a delicious dinner. Unfortunately for App Store developers, once you’ve rolled the dough, spooned the sauce and added the toppings, the delivery process itself can often be frustrating.

Apple’s process of getting apps reviewed and posted to the App Store leaves much to be desired. Once submitted, we developers must sit back, cross our fingers and hope everything is in order so that the “pizza” makes it to your device in a timely fashion. One of the criticisms of the App Store in recent months is that it can take more than 2 weeks to have an app make it’s way through the review process, sometimes only to end in rejection. When this happens, the problem must be corrected, the app resubmitted and the developer goes to “the back of the line” and starts all over again.

Since most developers would rather have too much feedback rather than too little, one way to ease the pain of the review process would be to add more feedback. Developers love feedback, whether it comes in the form of bug reports, reviews, emails or simple sales figures. In the world of home pizza delivery, when it comes to awesome feedback, no one beats Domino’s.

When a customer orders a pizza from Domino’s online, they receive instant feedback on the status of their order via Domino’s über-cool pizza tracker. The tracker tells you where in the cycle of delivery your pie is, what time it started the last phase and who’s currently working on it. It may sound corny, but this is exactly the kind of feedback developers need when submitting software to the Apple App Store. Imagine a meter that outlines each part of the approval process with time and date annotations for each step. The App Tracker would be of enormous assistance to developers, ensuring proper completion of each part of the submission process. A developer could track their “pizza” as it made its way to the store and get a better sense of when to expect final delivery. It could also help Apple internally so they know what phase a particular application was last in if a problem arises.

Such a system would allow companies to better plan their product’s marketing efforts and direct their resources more efficiently. Not to mention reduce the level of stress associated with being left in the dark regarding your application’s approval. Apple recently implemented a small counter for developers to let them know what the average approval time for their applications are in iTunes Connect. This was a great first start, but I suspect that with a bit of love, and a few lessons from the folks at Domino’s, getting through the app store approval process could be as easy as pie.

A Bird in the Hand…

The recent release of Twitterrific 2 for the iPhone has reminded me that software development is replete with truisms. The primary thing I have to constantly remind myself is that, no matter what you do, or how hard you work, you simply cannot please everyone. Anyone who works in a creative field knows that there will always be those who are unsatisfied with the result.

For iPhone developers, these people usually fall into the “if it just had feature X, I would use it” category, but every so often you get someone who just poo-poos your efforts. It’s easy for devs to fall into the trap of trying to keep everyone happy, but years of experience have taught me that this is a losing battle. Development quickly builds into a sort of “features arms race” that usually ends with bloated software and burnt out programmers. No, the answer is to design first and foremost for yourself. If you can produce a piece of software that you are happy with, then chances are the majority of your users will be too. The trick is trust your gut enough to tell the difference between constructive feedback and the nay-sayers so you can move beyond them when it’s appropriate.

The other truism I’ve found is that there’s always room for improvement. The new posting user interface for Twitterrific 2 demonstrates this point perfectly. All through beta testing, the posting UI was the same as it was in version 1. If you wanted to change your update from one type of tweet to another, you had to toggle the tweet type using a single icon on the post bar. Although this method had served well since our initial launch, neither us nor the beta users were satisfied. Their feedback, combined with Louie’s desire to improve the posting experience challenged us to do it better. The result was a re-designed UI that fulfilled user’s desires for posting clarity while giving the Iconfactory a big new feature to tout. The amount of work required to pull off the revised posting interface so close to the end of the beta was intense, but ultimately worth it.

Lastly, if there is one axiom that Twitter has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt it’s simply that if you give an inch, the Twitterverse takes a mile. Lately I’ve been seeing more than a few requests for Twitterrific to support Twitlonger, a service that allows you to “expand” on the 140 character limit that is at the very heart of Twitter. The argument goes that allowing long updates to be read directly in-app is preferable to having to post multiple tweets. This may indeed be true, but I hesitate to support any service that, for lack of a better term, subverts Twitter. Brevity is the soul of wit, and in Twitter’s case, its lifeblood.

In my opinion, any update that can’t be held within Twitter’s 140 character limit should be taken offline to email, Facebook or Friendfeed. What’s the harm in supporting a great service like Twitlonger you ask? Seemingly none, except that Twitlonger is a very slippery slope. Imagine typing a tweet of any length right in Twitterrific. When the message length exceeds 140 characters, the app automatically creates web page entry where your followers can read your magnum opus. Sounds great, except its no longer Twitter, it’s called a blog. Given how easily such a feature would be abused (as is evidenced by the Twitterverse’s aggressive adoption of RT), I don’t see Twitlonger support in Ollie’s future.

As developers, all we can do is our best. Sometimes our best is good enough and sometimes it doesn’t cut the mustard. I’ve been very pleased with the positive reaction that Twitterrific 2 has been receiving from the Twitter community. There are updates coming that address some of the most requested issues from the initial 2.0 launch, but I have no illusions that even these updates will satisfy everyone. Not to mention all those people out there who are patiently waiting for an update to the Mac version of Twitterrific. To them, I offer one last proverb – Good things come to those who wait.

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Switching Hats

Back on December 1st, I put on my artist’s hat and wrote a post about the importance of icon design and how it shouldn’t be taken for granted or seen as an afterthought. The post garnered a fair amount of exposure and I received a great deal of positive feedback from designers and developers alike on the importance of icon branding and standing out in the App Store.

Near the end of the piece, I offered up this unassuming little opinion which has caused me a fair amount of stress these last few days:

“Lately, developers have taken to plastering “SALE” or “60% OFF!” within their icons. They’ve become lazy and let the iPhone software mar their design with glossy highlights which obscure efforts to brand their software. Fight the urge to cheapen your brand and instead give your icons the love and attention they deserve. You’ll still sell boat loads of copies and your users just might end up thanking you at the same time.”

What is the source of my distress? Over the course of the past week, the Iconfactory and ARTIS Software jointly agreed to put our game Frenzic on sale for the Christmas holiday. From the moment we launched the product, we had always planned on temporarily lowering the price for the holiday rush. When I wrote the original post I was unaware of the importance the app’s icon plays in marketing an online sale. I’m guessing you can probably see where this is heading. As the app went on sale today, it reluctantly sported a new badge. The same type of badge that I railed against in my original post.

If you care as much about icons and design as I do, then you’re probably asking yourself how I could allow something like this to happen. At first I couldn’t figure it out myself, and then it became very simple. I took off my “designer hat” and put on my other one… the one that says “business owner”.

The business owner in me doesn’t wrestle with many of the lofty ideals that my inner designer aspires to. Being a partner in a successful company sometimes means doing what’s best for the health and growth of the business, especially in today’s unsure economy. It’s easy to criticize someone’s design decisions when you’re on the outside looking in. You think you’ve got everything figured out, but then your app starts to sink off the App Store and suddenly nothing’s as simple as you thought.

Although I initially resisted calls to slap a “For sale” badge on our icon, I came to realize that it was one of the most important ways to get people who had previously dismissed Frenzic due to its $4.99 price tag to take another look. The change may not affect sales at all, but on the other hand, it may help to get Frenzic in front of more people’s eyes than ever before. If that means that I have to eat a hefty helping of crow in order for us to maximize our exposure in the App Store, then I say pass the ketchup.

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Why Icons Matter

I can’t tell you how many times in the course of my career as an icon artist that a client considered their icons to be an after thought. After spending hundreds of man hours and pouring thousands of dollars into software development, some clients just refuse to devote the attention needed to the glyphs that act as both button and branding. At the Iconfactory, we try and educate clients about the importance of icons and how they strengthen a company’s brand as well as communicate a product’s core concepts quickly and easily. It may sound like marketing fluff, but years of experience have taught me it’s the truth.

So when it comes to designing our icons for our own software products, we almost always end up obsessing over them. The redesign of the application icon for xScope went through nearly 20 different revisions before we settled on a final version. This time around, the drama was caused by the new icon for Frenzic for the iPhone.

Standing Out From The Crowd

When it came time to design the icon for Mobile Frenzic, we knew we wanted to use a 2D translation of the OS X version from the desktop. However, unlike Mac desktop icons which have a canvas size of 512×512 pixels, iPhone and iPod touch app icons are limited to 57×57 and look best when designed straight on. At first we decided to translate Frenzic.com’s fav icon which was a pie of green and orange wedges on a glossy black base. Early beta versions of Mobile Frenzic used this icon, but there was a problem. It just wasn’t eye catching.

Our artist, David Lanham, went back and added a neon-like inner glow that gave the impression of the icon being lit from within, like it was a piece of plexiglass. The results were effective and with the addition of a high-tech circuit board motif, I knew we had a winner. The icon both stood out on the iPhone’s home screen and did a wonderful job of branding “Frenzic” on the device. Despite these successes, there were those among us that thought it stood out a little too much.

As artists, we often get butterflies the first time we show a client our designs. In this case, the “client” was Frenzic creator and lead programmer, Wolfgang Ante. We’ve had a close working relationship with Wolfgang for years and even though he almost always loves everything we do “out of the box”, he was hesitant about the icon’s treatment. Both he, and our own lead programmer, Craig Hockenberry played devil’s advocate and thought that the glowing, high-tech icon might be too dissimilar to be effective. The design didn’t seem to follow conventional wisdom for iPhone app icons and we debated the pros and cons of the design.

In Expertise We Trust

The great thing about working at the Iconfactory is that we play to each other’s strengths. While I may have ideas about how a particular software feature might work, I trust in the skill and expertise of Craig and Wolfgang to pull off the actual programming. I often put my faith in their hands when it comes to coding, and likewise, they do the same for us when it comes to design. This is more than I can say for many of our clients who think they know best when it comes to icon design. Despite a client’s lack of experience of how icons communicate, where they are seen, or the technical details needed to pull them off, I often get lectured on how they should be rendered or what form they should take.

So, in their wisdom, Wolfgang and Craig set their hesitations aside and let the designers do their job. The result was a unique and compelling application icon that was simple to understand, easy to spot and visually unique from all other iPhone application icons. Maybe its even helped sell a few extra copies at the same time.

All too often icons are treated as second-class citizens, especially in the App Store. Lately, developers have taken to plastering “SALE” or “60% OFF!” within their icons. They’ve become lazy and let the iPhone software mar their design with glossy highlights which obscure efforts to brand their software. They use dull colors or pile on heaps of detail that just adds unwanted noise to an already cluttered array of choices. After the flashy ad pitches have faded, the icon still has to live on the user’s device and is often the first line of interaction with the product. Fight the urge to cheapen your brand and instead give your icons the love and attention they deserve. You’ll still sell boat loads of copies and your users just might end up thanking you at the same time.

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RIM: What, me worry?

There are very few surprises left in the world, so when something outside my experience comes along, I prick up and take notice. Lately the shock of the new comes in the form of commercials from Research In Motion (RIM), makers of the BlackBerry line of smart phones.

Before April of 2008, RIM never saw fit to advertise its products or services to the general public, instead relying on its core business of Enterprise users to carry them to profitability. Despite calls from BlackBerry surrogates to build brand awareness, RIM was content to go about their business confident that nothing could erode their firmly entrenced army of “CrackBerry addicts“.

Then came the iPhone.

When the iPhone was released in June of 2007, RIM CEO Jim Balsillie shrugged off Apple’s entry and denounced the iPhone as a light-weight consumer device that would have little, if any effect on their core business market. At first this might have been true, but as the success of the iPhone grew and owning a smart phone became “cool”, even Research In Motion could see the writing on the wall.

In June 2008 Apple released the second generation iPhone, the 3G and again the media reported that RIM “wasn’t worried” about the iPhone. Deon Liebenberg, regional director for RIM actually said that the iPhone’s release would be good for BlackBerry since “BlackBerry will offer a serious [Enterprise] solution that Apple can’t.” Strangely enough these comments came just about the time RIM aired its first consumer commercial to the public.

In September Research in Motion missed sales targets for the BlackBerry device despite having recently expanded their product offerings. The addition of new (and potentially confusing) models to its already complex product line includes a phone with no physical keyboard, something that Co-CEO Mike Lazaridis had publicly stated wasn’t for RIM. Now come commercials that profess the BlackBerry to be more than just a tool for corporate email and Enterprise calendering. RIM wants to be hip.

In the end, all of these developments increase competition, and that is a good thing. It spurs innovation, lowers prices and gets companies like RIM and Apple off their complacent asses to develop and market better products. RIM’s recent moves will hopefully spark improvements to the iPhone as well as encourage Apple to correct service problems with Mobile Me. But the next time you hear an arrogant CEO brush off Steve Jobs, Apple or the iPhone just remember to take what they say with a huge grain of techno-salt. They probably have a commercial in the wings ready to advertise the stuff they just railed against.

UPDATE: Apple released its financial information for Q3 in 2008 this week and in terms of total revenue, Apple’s iPhone has outsold RIM’s Blackberry handily. Not bad for a company that has only been in the smart phone market 15 months.

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What of Frenzic?

The launch of Apple’s App Store was one of those moments that developers live for. After weeks of coding, designing, testing, tweaking and debating, Twitterrific for the iPhone and iPod touch was released to overwhelmingly positive reviews. All of us at the Iconfactory, especially the big guy in Laguna, are all gratified that users seem genuinely happy with Twitterrific for the iPhone. Apple’s handheld hardware is a wonderful new development platform that’s bound to get better with time, and we were pleased to be present at launch.

However, throughout this whirlwind day, I kept receiving emails about another of our software products and why it wasn’t included in the App Store kick-off. That application of course, was Frenzic. More than a year ago, I posted on my blog asking users to write Apple in support of bringing a native version of our addictive Mac-based game to the iPhone. You showed your support for our efforts to bring the best possible version of Frenzic to the iPhone, and now thanks in-part to users like yourself, that native version is becoming a reality.

I’m here to tell you that Frenzic is definitely coming to Apple’s handheld party. Some of Craig’s coding buddies got an early sneak peek of Frenzic at WWDC, and it’s only gotten better since then. The mobile version of Frenzic is confirming my suspicions that this is how the game was always meant to be played. Placing pieces is fast, responsive and fun as all get out. There is a tactile sense of immediacy when playing Frenzic on the iPhone or touch that simply isn’t present in the desktop version. We still have tons of work to do, but trust me when I tell you it’ll be worth the wait.

In a way, I’m glad Frenzic wasn’t ready for today’s App Store launch. There are already tons of great games available for the iPhone. Pangea’s Enigmo and SEGA’s Super Monkey Ball both come to mind. Frenzic’s day will come, and when it does, all of us at ARTIS Software and the Iconfactory hope you’ll give it a try. The Mac desktop version’s slogan has always been “Addiction never felt so right.” Thanks to the App Store and iPhone, I think players everywhere are about to get addicted all over again. For now, hang tight and hone those reflexes. You’re gonna need it!

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The Little Blue Bird That Could

Today, at Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference in San Francisco, the computer maker unveiled its plans for the next generation of iPhones as well as a sneak peek into third party applications headed our way. Due to hit public airwaves July 11th, Apple’s new iPhone/iPod Touch “App Store” as it’s being called, will allow users to purchase third party mobile applications directly over the air. I speak for all of us at the Iconfactory when I say we were just as surprised and delighted as you probably were to find our very own application, Twitterrific, featured heavily on Apple’s website.

It seems after flying high and far, sometimes to shady destinations, the little blue bird has finally gone legit. I don’t think any of us at the factory realized just how popular Twitter, and in turn Twitterrific would become in this past year. We’ve been making various software applications for a decade now, and in all that time, none of us would have expected such an unassuming little app to become our most well recognized piece of code. Twitterrific’s success speaks volumes about the fine work of the folks over at Twitter, and the hunger for today’s users to stay in touch with friends, relatives and co-workers via new media like social networks.

We’re very pleased the Mac community took to Twitterrific so well and helped make it the success it is today. We’re looking forward to bringing the application to a whole new generation of users for the iPhone and iPod Touch, and would like to extend our thanks to Apple for giving the blue bird such a fine new home. We feel both excited and privileged to be a part of the new App Store and are committed to bringing our users the best software we can offer. We look forward to these first steps on what is sure to be, a fun journey for both users and developers alike.