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Refraction developers share how they created a hit Android game

by Brad Spirrison

Independent game developers are increasingly finding opportunities for promoting titles to Android smartphone and tablet owners.

Case in point is Textual Indices, developer of the hit game Refraction (available to download for $1.99, there is also a free lite version). The challenging puzzle game, which was created on a shoestring budget by a few college students, recently was showcased on the front page of the Android Market.

Textual Indices, says co-founder Sean Kelly, is trying to make as much hay on Android today before the bigger developers inevitably embrace the platform.

“There have been several titles developed by large companies that were popular on iOS and once ported over to Android they became instant successes,” says Kelly. “We and many other smaller companies do not have the resources to ensure that we can hold our own against these larger companies, which may become very problematic in the near future.”

In this edition of Game Theory, Kelly talks about the extremely low-budget approach to getting Refraction developed, the company’s efforts to port the game to iOS devices, and how he and his partners worked review sites and social networks to promote Refraction to interested users.

Appolicious: Your firm Textual Indices chose to release its first game Refraction for Android users. Why did you choose Android as your first mobile platform?

Sean Kelly: We chose Android mainly because it had a lower barrier of access for us as a group. Two out of three of our members already had Android phones, only a single member had a Mac (which is required for Apple development). It was a cheaper upfront cost - $25 lifetime fee versus $99 yearly fee for Apple development. We viewed it simply as being easier to develop for Android because of the options we had available at the time. We were originally not viewing creating Refraction as a business and money making standpoint, we were mostly looking at which platform would allow us to start developing right away.

APPO: Who is the target market for Refraction and what should new users expect when they download the app?

SK: When we originally started development of Refraction and began creating levels, we had no specific target audience. We were just looking to make a good puzzle game that was fun to play and that we would enjoy playing. However, after starting and building levels, we quickly found that our basis of what is a 'hard' level is very different than what a new user thinks is 'hard'. Because we were involved in the technical aspects and logic of Refraction, it was relatively easy for us to pick up a moderately complex level and beat it in a reasonable amount of time. However, our beta testers were having a lot more trouble beating levels, because they were not as used to the mechanics as we were. After the release of Refraction, it seems our target audience has evolved to puzzle users who like a hard challenge. New users should expect a challenging logic puzzle game that gives them many hours of play.

APPO: How challenging is it to develop a game that plays well on multiple Android smartphones and form factors that are carried on several cellular networks?

SK: Ensuring that Refraction worked on all Android screen sizes was a task in itself. Our available resolutions for testing were 320x480 and 480x800, which seems to be the two most plentiful screen resolutions, but definitely did not cover all available phones and tablets out there. To ensure the game fit on every screen, we implemented our own custom scaling functions that resized all our bitmaps according to the size of the phone. Our main challenge came from the very small screen resolutions - mainly the HTC Wildfire which has a tiny screen of 240x320. Also many phones have different ratios of width and height which caused some unique problems during development. Another issue was screen real estate. Many of the smaller phones did not have enough space to reasonably include the top toolbar, which some users did not like. Overall, it was a lot of work to get Refraction working nicely on all screen sizes, but our implementation seems to be working well.

APPO: How does Refraction play on Honeycomb tablets?

SK: We have never actually tested and played Refraction on a Honeycomb tablet, but have gotten feedback from users that gameplay works really well on the larger screen sizes. To be honest, we never implemented high resolution bitmaps for tablets. But our custom scaling functions that we created to deal with smaller screen sizes ended up working perfectly for scaling the images up to make it proportionate for a larger tablet screen.

APPO: Are there any plans to bring the game to iOS devices or other mobile operating systems?

SK: We are currently in development of porting Refraction to iOS, both for the iPad and the iPhone. As stated previously, we all did not have access to multiple Mac machines for all of us to work on iPhone development which was an issue, but we managed to give an old broken Macbook laptop new life so that now two of our developers have a Mac platform to work on. Work on the port has been slow but steady, and we hope to have it done within the next couple of months.

APPO: Aside from creating a great game, how did you generate awareness of your app to Android users?

SK: During the initial development and release of our lite version, which came out roughly two weeks before the paid version, we posted it to many different forums and websites to get feedback and grow awareness for Refraction. Getting feedback from users in the beginning proved to be immensely helpful, as they told us what they liked about the game and what they thought could be fixed. Looking at our game when it was first released to now almost seems night and day - it's surprising to see how many features we added to the game that came directly from feedback.

After we released our paid version, we emailed as many review sites as we could, which ended up being a ton. We figured our best bet of getting our app exposure was by getting websites to review us, so we really put a lot of effort into getting as many reviewers to see our game as possible. Many websites never gave us a reply back or said we would have to pay a fee to get our game reviewed which we couldn't afford, so it was slow going in the beginning. We also talked a bit about looking into paid advertising on websites, but as college students we didn't have any money to buy significant ad space. Thankfully, a couple of the larger review sites picked us up, which made more websites write reviews about us which helped get the word out about Refraction.

APPO: How are you driving downloads over time?

SK: As of right now, we're still riding the wave of getting featured and being on the front page of the Android Market. After being featured, we climbed the market charts and are sitting at a much higher rank than before being featured, which seems to be helping us as far as continuous downloads. We are also working on implementing new gameplay features that enhance Refraction and add gameplay value. We are also still getting reviews written about Refraction, which always helps us drive downloads. The Android market space seems to be exploding at the moment, and we are doing what we can to get Refraction on alternative markets to get it available to more people than those who just use the primary Google Android market.

APPO: As part of a small team of mobile developers, from your vantage point tell us about the biggest three trends in the mobile gaming space currently keeping you up at night.

SK: We feel that Textual Indices is in a great market position. There are many opportunities to promote and distribute mobile games worldwide, and these opportunities are growing every day. As a new company we are trying to take advantage of every opportunity we can, but there are definitely some trends that we are wary of.

We're worried about larger development and publishing companies coming to the Android platform and squeezing out the smaller independent development companies like ours. There have been several titles developed by large companies that were popular on iOS and once ported over to Android they became instant successes. We and many other smaller companies do not have the resources to ensure that we can hold our own against these larger companies, which may become very problematic in the near future.

We've also wondered about how successful our iOS port of Refraction will be. We found a decent amount of success on the Android platform, and would really like to see this success carry over onto the Apple App Store, but have no idea what to expect. The App Store is inundated with high quality apps and games, and we're worried about Refraction's ability to garner exposure on a market already full of great titles.

Another issue we are currently dealing with is the question of whether we will be able to match the success of Refraction with our next titles. We have a couple good game ideas for the future, and we hope that they will reach the same audience as Refraction did. We want to establish ourselves as good quality puzzle game developers, and we want our future titles to cement ourselves as a strong puzzle game company for the future on all our platforms that we release games on.