Welcome to another installment of our Top App Dev Interview series!
Each interview in this series focuses on a successful mobile app or developer and the path they took to get where they are today. Today’s special guest is Thomas Castel.
Thomas is the co-founder of a 3-person indie app development studio in France called 1Button. Together he and his co-founders have developed over 15 apps, of which 14 have been featured on the App Store worldwide.
In this interview, Thomas explains how he and the 1Button team manages their day to day processes for releasing new apps, and shares some great advice. Let’s dive in!
Thomas, you’re one of the rare 100% full-time indie developers. Can you explain how you transitioned to being full-time indie developer?
Back in 2010, after graduating from the same software engineering school, Alexandre, Jeremie (the two other co-founders of 1Button) and I were all working in different companies but we were not happy, we wanted to create things and to work on our own projects. So we started to make apps during our free time.
At first, of course, our apps were not successful… We made only $17 with our first app! But little by little, app after app, we started to gain experience and make a little money.
It took us two years to reach the point where I could start working full-time from home. I was the only one working full-time. One year later, Jeremie was able to quit his job and we officially created the company in April 2013. 1Button was born. For the first time we had our own office! Another year later, Alexandre finally quit his job too and the triforce was reunited :]
What’s your typical daily schedule looking like?
- 6:00: Wake up, have some breakfast.
- 6:30-7:00: Exercise (not everyday).
- 8:30-12:00: Start work in the office.
- 12:00-13:00: Take a break for some lunch.
- 13:00-17:30: Return back to work.
- 18:00: Swimming pool (not everyday).
- 19:00: Have some dinner.
- 22:00: Go to sleep.
You mentioned it took you 3 years working in a free time before you were all able to quit your jobs and create a company. However, most developers would have given up within that time! How did you manage to keep motivated and positive during the long road it took?
As software engineers, we knew how to develop apps, but we quickly understood that we were completely unable to sell them.
So we focused on improving ourselves in this area, and we saw every little success as a milestone. Even if we didn’t make any money with our first apps, we were very happy when we got 10k downloads for the first time, 100k downloads, 1M downloads, first news on a famous website, etc. This way we had the feeling that each new app was a step forward to the success. Even if there were no visible success, we learnt a lot of things along the way too.
We are very good friends too we do a lot of things together. Recently we traveled in Japan and in California together and we share the same passion for good food and dark chocolate.
Can you tell me how 1Button started from the past to present?
After officially creating the company, we kept focused on what we did previously. We developed some simple puzzle games and some utilities, like Mr Mood, a minimalist private journal for monitoring user’s moods.
We continued and spent too much time on an over-complicated fast-paced puzzler that miserably failed.
In 2014, during the Flappy Bird buzz, we casually launched Mr Flap, our own attempt on the Flappy Bird concept, that we managed to develop in just 10 days.
It did so well on the App Store that we had to develop an Android version too, it was our first real success, almost out of nowhere. In 2015, among other games, we launched Mr Jump, a minimalist platformer. It did over 10 times better than Mr Flap in terms of downloads and money so we released several updates with new levels and power-ups.
We never slow down and get stuck on the one game, so we started to work on new projects. One of them is Nekosan (‘Mr Cat’ in Japanese), that we launched in 2016. We see it as a spiritual sequel of Mr Jump, but it didn’t reach the same success.
What is your definition of success at 1Button?
We are happy as long as we can live from our passion. But of course, we like it when one of our games is a hit and when everyone talks about it. That’s what happened with Mr Jump, and it was super satisfying to know that thanks to this success we were now completely free to work on any project for many months.
You’re 1 of 3 members of the team at 1Button (Co-Founder). Can you tell me the structure of the company and who plays which role?
As we are only 3, we have a very simple structure with no hierarchy. We went to the same software engineering school so we basically have the same background. But we also have our own specialities, which is great because we do everything internally.
Creating a game is not only about coding, it is also about creating images, soundtracks, sound effects, videos, levels, texts, photos, etc. Once the game is finished, we also need to communicate about it, manage the ad networks, etc.
- Alexandre loves server-side development, so he is usually in charge of the “invisible” projects, such as the tools that we need for our apps (push notifications, ad network mediation…), he also creates the soundtracks for our games.
- Jeremie creates the sound effects and the videos (trailers…), and he works on the communication plans. As we have a zero-dollar marketing strategy, we send a lot of emails when we launch a game.
- I design all the graphic files that we need inside the game (characters, items…) and outside the game (banners, icons, artworks…).
The apps you produce at 1Button are very simple, yet visually fun & addictive. Can you explain the process of how you come up with your app ideas, and how you decide which of them to pursue?
We have our own philosophy: create simple apps or games. We never spend more than 3 months on a project. This way we limit the risks in case of failure and gather more experience. Most of our ideas will fit these principles.
We usually start with a quick and dirty prototype. For example, the first prototype of Mr Jump displayed a red rectangle that was able to jump with a tap. We continued and progressively added new elements and tweaked the parameters until we were satisfied.
Most of the time we don’t have a clear vision of what the final product will look like, it is an iterative process.
Are you taking advantage of any automation at 1Button? If so, can you tell me how and where?
This is not related to our main activity but we developed our own bot that searches for clones of our games on the App Store, Google Play, etc. It even compares the icons! When the bot finds a clone, we manually check if it is an actual copy, and if so, the bot will automatically fill and send the complaint form to make the copy removed from the store.
We have already killed 280 clones thanks to this bot!
14 out of your 15 published iOS apps has been featured on the App Store in one way or the other worldwide. This is a massive struggle for many developers, so what advice can you give to developers itching to get their app featured?
When we launch an app, we never know if Apple will feature it on the App Store, so we don’t rely on that. The features are managed by an editorial team, which means that it is made by hand.
What helps is to follow the guidelines, use the new/exclusive technologies and, of course, make great apps and games that have never been seen before!
When we met Apple for the first time, they strongly insisted on language support. At the time we were only supporting English and French. They advised us to support more languages, so we looked for a good translation company and we launched our new apps with 14 languages. That helped a lot for being featured in other counties.
The app store is growing every day at a rapid speed. How do you keep your ideas fresh and unique so your apps stand out?
We tried to develop our own style and our own visual identity made of simple colors and geometric shapes so that our products are easily identifiable. Even our sound effects have a specific style that is common to all our products.
It’s all in our heads but we often talk about our style. We try to focus on simplicity, which means simplifying both the functionalities (what we can do with the app) and the interface (how we use the app).
When we manage to simplify these aspects, it is easy to create an app that looks simple too. This way we can usually use only a few flat colors and simple geometric shapes, with perfect alignments.
For example, in Mr Jump, thanks to several simplifications we ended up with a full-screen and refined display: as the interaction is only based on one tap to jump (the character runs automatically), we don’t need to display any control buttons, players can tap anywhere. In the same way, we don’t need a pause button, because players would not have enough time to reach it before dying.
What does the future look like for 1Button?
We have a rough roadmap for 2017, but we don’t know what we will do next year. We are working on ways to make our activity more durable. For now, each time we launch a product, it is like a one-shot, which is a bit risky.
Are you using Swift in your apps at 1Button & how are you re-using code across multiple apps?
Swift looks extremely modern and it is very appealing, but we are still using Objective-C in our current projects.
In fact, we have a lot of existing code that we developed over years and that we reuse in all our projects. This code would not be compatible with a Swift project for various reasons such as memory management.
All our projects are stored in a dedicated git repository and we have created a sub-repository that all our apps use. This sub-repository contains all the libraries and the classes that we have created to manage various things such as the in-app purchases for example or the ads.
We improve these libraries continually because all our apps are based on them, old apps also benefit from the improvements :]
Where To Go From Here?
And that concludes our Top App Dev Interview with Thomas Castel. Huge thanks to Thomas for sharing his indie life, his neat clone app bot and finally running a successful company 1Button.
We hope you enjoyed this inspiring interview and if you’re thinking of starting your own company or eager to make the leap to become indie to take Thomas’ advice to heart.
If you are an app developer with a hit app or game in the top 100 in the App store, we’d love to hear from you. Please drop us a line anytime. If you have a request for any particular developer you’d like to hear from, please post your suggestion below!