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 Ryan McLeod.
Ryan is the creator of the global hit app, Blackbox. Step inside Ryan’s creative mind as he describes the build of Blackbox and his thought processes for building new levels.
Ryan has a truly inspiring story and offers special advice for being an Indie iOS Developer and creating something truly unique to the Apple App Store.
Ryan, you have been an indie iOS developer for some time now. Can you tell me what you did before you were an indie iOS developer, and how you transitioned to being an indie?
I think it’s only been about two years, but sure feels like longer to me!
I graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 2014, and then fumbled around as a web app developer for a bit. I worked with a few friends on a social music startup but when that disbanded all I knew was that I didn’t want to move up the coast to San Francisco and take a real job. So instead, I tried my hand at consulting while trying to learn iOS with a little side-project I was calling “Blackbox”.
Whenever friends asked what I was working on and I’d hand them the Blackbox prototype. It was always a fight to get my phone back so I knew I was onto something. I was enjoying iOS development a lot and my costs were pretty low so I decided to go all in on it until I ran out of money, launch, and see if I could survive off it.
Blackbox ended up getting featured at launch and the whole week was pretty emotionally overwhelming; I felt like my life changed that week. However, things quickly trailed off revenue-wise and within a few months I was having some interviews: this time as an iOS developer though!
I released a big update as a sort of final burn to see if I could turn things around and sure enough, things took off and the numbers stabilized in better places (largely due to Blackbox getting more prominently featured). I think that’s when the naive idea of hitting it rich died and I realized that the indie life was within reach, but would require a lot of constant work.
Can you tell me your daily routine/schedule in detail?
I’m a pretty unscheduled person, especially since I can’t figure out if it’s better for me to work more nocturnally, but this week I’m trying to have a more normal schedule and it looks something like this:
- 7:00: Still asleep…
- 9:00: Wake up, make coffee, make breakfast, maybe catch up on news
- 9:30: Duolingo, Elevate, Twitter, general wake up time
- 10:00: Bike to my co-working space or cafe (hopefully not my bedroom office)
- 2:30pm: Realize I forgot to eat lunch, bike to burrito place
- 3:45pm: Struggle to stay off Twitter and work
- 7:00pm: Go on a trail run if there’s still light out
- 8:00pm: Start overambitious cooking project
- 10:00pm: Possibly work more, hang with friends, read, or do some “gaming research”
- 1:00: Sleep?
What is the hardest challenges of being an indie developer, and how do you combat those challenges?
Sometimes I wish I was working within a small team at a company somewhere so I could take a break from making decisions; my perfectionism can be really paralyzing but I’m practicing letting go of some control and not regretting decisions made.
Another challenge is living in a smallish town. I have a fantastic community of friends but I don’t have a professional community of people to talk design/development with or talk API changes over lunch with (unless you count Twitter of course). Sometimes that feels isolating and other times it feels liberating to be isolated from.
Developers talk about the “indie-apocalypse” and that how very few indie developers can survive, what would you have to say about this?
It’s not impossible, but it’s very hard. By all means, I’m very successful as an indie (call me the indie 1%) but I’d be hard pressed to grow my team of one right now.
I’m not complaining; my lifestyle is worth a lot to me, but I have a hard time finding the state of things encouraging for someone who’s maybe just getting started and has loans to pay off or a family to support. Dental and vision are nice, but so is going camping in the middle of the week.
However, even if all the surface gold has all been collected there’s still a ton to pan or dig for – it just takes divining and work.
Surviving off one app is rare these days but I think a lot of Indies are finding success by having a portfolio of smaller apps. Being a successful indie is so much less about engineering than anyone aspiring (raises hand) ever anticipates. A rock solid product guarantees nothing, it simply gives you the best possible weapon to take into battle.
Developers who stubbornly aren’t willing to realize this (I was in this camp) simply do not succeed anymore.
How did you get the idea for Blackbox?
A major unexpected seed of inspiration was the Inception app (a promotional app for the movie — it’s still on the store!) which makes audio “dreamscapes” by morphing and mixing mic input. The most compelling part of the app is that you can unlock new soundscapes by opening the app during a rainstorm, late at night, or by traveling to Africa… that kind of blew open a hole in my mind of what an app could be.
Then there was Clear (the todo app) which has Easter egg themes that you can unlock (often by surprise) by using the app at certain times, or poking around the app.
Finally, there was Hatch (the iPhone pet) that would dance if you were listening to music or yawn if your device was nearly dead. It personified our most personal device and brought it closer in a way. I think when I saw the trailer for Hatch might have been the moment I put it all together and thought, “Woah, there’s actually a lot going on here under the surface that most apps are not tapping into… enough to make something compelling.”
I love games that take over your mind after you walk away from the computer (Fez, Braid, Machinarium come to mind). They all require genuine outside-the-box thinking and provide so much self-satisfaction.
Indie developers really struggle to market their apps on the app store, but Blackbox hit the market by storm. What’s your advice to fellow developers?
I was in that struggle camp. Like a lot of indies my visceral reaction to the word “marketing” is a bad one; it means a failure of our products to represent and sell themselves, or gross growth hacking strategies and ads.
However, I found when your embrace it more holistically from the start it’s really not that bad and has far greater effect.
When it came to the idea itself I knew I needed to make something technically impressive or truly unique in order to stand out and not get lost in the sea of what’s now about two thousand new apps added each day. I didn’t have the skills to be technically impressive so I thought about what most games were doing (a lot of simple touching and swiping) and ran the other way.
The limitation was liberating and helped Blackbox stand out which probably helped it get featured. When it came to brand voice I struggled to get in character to write chipper, helpful copy; so I instead just started channelling my own sardonic, less than helpful voice and it resonated with a lot of people if for no reason other than being real and refreshingly different.
People share stories, not apps (literal stories, not the circle encapsulated kind). When the Inception app was going around the conversation was always about the ridiculous Africa puzzle… why would the developers add a puzzle they most people would surely never solve? People talked about it endlessly.
While working on Blackbox I often asked what the conversation was. Lo and behold many puzzles and features—purposefully or otherwise—encourage story telling and sharing. Whether it’s a going on a hike with a friend, talking to a friend, singing like a mad person, or trying to get to Africa to solve a damn puzzle.
I always try to work backwards. If I imagine myself leaving a rating, sharing something, or purchasing something: what proceed that happening for me to care enough to do that and to do so gladly?
Did you have a clear marketing plan for the launch of Blackbox? If yes, can you describe to me the plan in detail?
Get featured haha!
I don’t think I had much of a plan beyond that. I didn’t know what I was doing but I had read a lot. I tried as best I could to give the app a decent shot at being featured by making it make the platform shine as much as I could muster, having a great preview video, etc.
When I made the scale app Gravity it got tons of press on its own. I think I hoped Blackbox could draw a similar crowd but it didn’t. In fact, the overall impact of the press I did get was so much smaller than I could have ever anticipated.
For a while I tried to get YouTubers to check out the game, tried some social ads and generally floundered. When Mashable featured Blackbox on their Snapchat story earlier this year (unbeknownst to me) it was a mind-bogglingly, record-setting day. I don’t exactly know what I’d do differently if I did it again, maybe a soft launch to build some proof of success first? I’m not sure.
I like the trailer for your app. How did you make it?
I made the original trailer (the one with the overly cinematic music) in Final Cut. Believe it or not I made the Push Pack announcement one in Keynote (I’d love to learn to properly do motion graphics).
The latest super epic one was made in collaboration with my friend at Foreground Films. It features my sister’s hand, a jerry-rigged living room light box, and a high Sierra camping shot. I think it’s Super Bowl ready.
One of the most challenging parts of making a game is tweaking it just right so it’s not too easy, not too hard, and just the right level of fun. How do you go about doing that?
I tend to think of the puzzles as interfaces tuned to be on the cusp of intuitive but not quite as to leave the player with a mental gap they must bridge and cross in order to put the whole thing together. Like interface design, a lot of puzzle design is as much about what’s there as what isn’t.
The best experiences are delightful not because of how they handle things going right but because of how they prevent things from going wrong. Providing delight and deeply satisfying “ah ha!” moments is as much about preventing needless confusion and frustration as it is nudging the player just enough in the right direction.
Beyond that, I’ve gotten really in tune with my gut so I know when an idea, visual, etc doesn’t feel right. It wasn’t a difficult sense to develop but it was very hard to learn to listen to and still can be; sometimes I misjudge how something could be interpreted or what someone might try but that’s where beta testing and player feedback often saves me. Two people putting their phone in the freezer is two too many.
Swallowing my ego to take feedback is critical. It’s easy to say but going out of my way to get critical feedback and listen between the lines of what people are willing to say can be a fight against nature.
Players can be quick to blame themselves for misunderstanding things and it’s easy to agree to avoid cognitive dissonance but I have to remember that at the end of the day it’s almost always my fault and responsibility to improve. Something that tripped up one person and caused a poor experience is bound to affect magnitudes more down the line.
Procrastination is a real problem for most developers. Can you tell me how you focus on the day ahead?
I’m always experimenting with new tools and techniques to focus—exercise, good music, and coffee are my main weapons—but it’s a constant battle and learning process.
Generally I avoid procrastination by creating stress for myself! I know this is not the healthiest method, but it worked well for me when my savings were dwindling so we’re familiar frienemies.
My biggest form of procrastination is getting myself really lost in the weeds on arguably unnecessary features and detail. Before I know it a week has passed, and I’ve finished one feature but learned to make solar plots accurate to a degree no one will ever notice. I think this attention to detail is what makes the game in a way but it has to be balanced with shipping.
Reading reviews and emails from players is one way I derive positive motivation to get to work and remember to zoom out to focus on what really matters.
Do you use any tools to manage your daily tasks?
In general I plan things very loosely but I do try to keep lists of daily task that I can strike off (if for no reason other than to allow myself to feel somewhat accomplished at the end of the day). Right now I’m in love with:
- Things 3 for planning my weeks/days
- Bear to write long form things
- GitHub Issues to keep track of bugs and feature
- RescueTime to track my unproductive time
- Gyroscope to help visualize on the rough metrics of my week
How do you prioritize what new features to add into your apps?
I try to strike a balance between things that keep players satisfied, keep the lights on, and keep me entertained as a developer. If I could just build puzzles 24/7 I would—I have a long backlog of ideas—but I always have to take two steps back to:
- fix bugs
- keep up with hardware/software changes
- answer messages
- take time to solve important problems like “where are new players getting stuck and giving up”
These all need to be resolved before I can work on new things.
Where To Go From Here?
And that concludes our Top App Dev Interview with Ryan McLeod. A huge thanks to Ryan for sharing his journey with the iOS community :]
We hope you enjoyed reading about Ryan’s inspiring story at being an iOS indie app developer. In the end, being completely different on the App Store seems to be the key to success in Ryan’s case.
Ryan’s special eye for detail and desire to be different really stands out and has made him & Blackbox Puzzles a real success. I think taking some of the tips and advice to heart could really help you in making the next successful App Store explosion!
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 join the discussion in the forum below!