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Today’s interview brings together so many things that I love about this podcast… meeting cool people, digging into the mix of marketing and technology that created a successful project, and hearing a great story of an entrepreneur that worked really hard, and with a little luck, some great decisions, and the help of social media, achieved his goal.

In this case, the story is about Matt Rix, a Canadian Flash developer working full-time, that learned how to program on the iPhone, sketched out a puzzle-style game called Trainyard, topped the popular game Angry Birds at one point in iTunes, and by next year, will leave his full time job in order to pursue his dream of developing games and other apps full time.

Along the way, he gives great insight on:
- The evolution of the game
- How he tapped the international market
- The importance of a tutorial in his game
- The best day to launch an app
- How to leverage social media to launch a successful app
- The key turning point for his success

Download the podcast from iTunes, or play the full interview it below:

 

Below is a full transcript of our conversation:

Jim Hopkinson: Welcome everyone, this is Jim. Today on the phone I have Matt Rix who is a Canadian developer. And the reason he’s on the show is kind of a success story – bit developer, bit entrepreneur, and he’s used Social Media, and the App Store, to develop a game that ended up beating Angry Birds and making some money on the side and he’s going to tell us the story today. So welcome, Matt.

Matt Rix: Hey, how’s it going?

JH: Great, great. So what part of Canada are you dialing in from today?

MR: I’m from Mississauga, Ontario. It’s just outside of Toronto.

JH: Excellent, and so, you work fulltime for a company called Indusblue, and there you do iPhone app development, as well?

MR: Yeah, I do iPhone and iPad app development; usually not directly for ourselves, but for big name clients, like TV channels and stuff like that.

JH: And so the main story, though, is you’ve had this kind of whirlwind tour of an app being successful and everyone likes to hear these success stories. Have you been interviewed by any other media outlets or any fame, or just nerdy podcasts like me?

MR: Yeah, just a couple things. There’s been a couple blogs and sites that have done written entries and stuff, but nothing too much yet.

JH: Well, give us little bit of your background, how did you get here, did you have a computer background coming into it, and any kind of entrepreneurial spirit; what led you to this point?

MR: I‘ve been a Flash developer for a long time. So, I went to college for a couple of years for Flash development and I’d been doing it since high school. And then pretty much out of college I got a job at Indusblue, the same company I’m working at now, and I’ve been there for five years doing Flash development.

So, for the first four years I was working there, I was actually a Flash developer working on mini sites, lots of advertising stuff, even some banner ads; all that sort of stuff. But, gradually over the past year, the company has been transitioning towards doing more iPhone and iPad app development. You can kind of say we sensed a shift in the market a little bit from all the advertising mini site stuff with Flash to more app-based products, so that’s kind of where my background comes from.

JH: So it’s almost kind of fortunate that your company said, ‘Hey, we want you to learn how to develop for the iPhone, as well, and help kind of train you,’ and gave you that opportunity there.

MR: Yeah, exactly. So, it was almost a little bit a chicken and the egg thing where I was kind of starting to do it on my own time, anyway, and so that helped a little bit with; I had seen it a bit, so I knew it was something that we could definitely do; it wasn’t that far away from Flash development. And then we were given a bit of time by my boss just to spend a week or two just messing around with iPhone development, seeing how far we could get. And we realized during those couple of weeks that this is actually we can definitely do, it’s not that far away from Flash development and it’s a very similar skill set at the end of the day.

JH: And then when did the motivation come along for you to try your own game? I know some people just like they work 40-50 hours a week, and they just want to go home and sit on the couch and watch TV, or something. But, there’s another set of people that are like, ‘You know what, I want to try something on the side, I want to try to make some extra money,’ how did that come about?

MR: Yeah, I’ve always been into games, but I’ve never really, I made games on and off in my spare in time, but I never really released much, I don’t know if just I have high standards or something, but I just wasn’t really happy with anything I made. At around that time, I guess it was around a year ago now, I was really thinking, like, ‘I really want to make a game,’ and there were a couple of sites popping up where you could make some money with Flash games, so I was like, ‘I’m going to make a Flash game,’ and I knew I had the skills for it and it was just the sort of thing where I was like, what I really want to do with my life, eventually is just make games full time.

So, I got to take at least take some steps towards that. And, so that’s kind of what led me to start coming up with game ideas. So, I take a train to work every day, so I would just sit on the train with a pad of paper every day just writing down ideas. I had a little Netbook laptop and I would just program my prototypes of game ideas. And that was kind of, eventually what led to me coming up with the idea for Trainyard.

JH: Nice. And so who is the typical user or the person that you’re kind of aiming this towards?

MR: It was tough at first when I, even when I released it I actually thought it’s very like a very logical game, there’s people who like logic puzzles, the kind of people who like Sudoku. But what I’m actually finding now is that it seems to appeal to a lot more people than I thought it would. I get tons of emails from people I wouldn’t expect to enjoy the game at all. It seems to really appeal to the same kind of audience that likes games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope, and I didn’t think it would actually be that accessible as a game.

JH: Yeah, I think games are definitely the number one type of app that is downloaded on the iPhone. Is that correct?

MR: Yes, that’s definitely correct.

JH: So you’ve got that, you know, Sudoku, those are really popular, and then you targeted Angry Birds. I like that, because it’s kind of your underdog story, right? Everyone needs that kind of adversary to shoot for. And you said, ‘You know what, I want to build something that can knock Angry Birds out of the Top Ten.’

MR [LAUGHS] Yeah, exactly. It was funny because at the time, I think at the time I actually started building it. I don’t even know if Angry Birds was on the Store quite at that point. But when I saw Angry Birds in the Store, I think I was still developing it at the time that came out. I was like, “That’s a really good game.’ And at the time I actually didn’t really think that it would appeal to that broad of a demographic; I knew it had some potential to be really popular with certain types of people, but I didn’t think it would actually be that popular.

And now Angry Birds has been at the top of the charts for, I think, like six months or something now. So I knew that they didn’t have quite the staying power that they once did and that they really were something that I could pass. And there’s still a huge, huge presence on the App Store. They, right now, in the top three, they have two of the top five, with Angry Birds and Angry Birds Halloween. So, they’re definitely not something that’s completely just falling off the App Store by any means.

JH: Yeah. So, take us through the building process. So, you’re working on a new platform, you said a couple of months that you thought you could get it done, but what were some of the challenges that came up?

MR: Yeah, well, there’s a great kind of framework for iPhone involvement called Cocos2d that is actually very similar to doing Flash development; so, that helped a lot. I used that and I was like, ‘You know what, I can do this.’ So the first thing I did was I actually built a completely different game – it’s like a tic-tac-toe sort of game just to kind of figure out the whole process of making a game for the iPhone. So I went through the whole process.

The game was completely done, but I never actually released it. It was just a game; it’s kind of work out the kinks and figure out how the system works. And then, after I finished that, I was like, OK, now I’m ready to build Trainyard; I have the skills, I understand some of the pitfalls and stuff of the iPhone platform.

And, I think around that time, it was probably September or October last year. And, I figured that in three months I could finish Trainyard, I could have it done by Christmas, and then I could just use my Christmas vacation time – a couple of weeks or whatever to polish it off and submit it for the App Store. But that turned out to be very […]

JH: … a little ambitious? [LAUGHS]

MR: A little ambitious, yeah. I think it was partly that the scope of the project kept changing as I worked on it. I was like, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be great if I could do this, I can’t release the game without having this feature and I would realize all these things, and the graphics would never be quite as good as I wanted them to be,’ and I actually found that was one of the things that took the most time was doing design work.

It’s probably just because of the fact that I’m not really a designer by trade, so that sort of work takes a long time for me. It’s a very iterative process where it starts out ugly and I make it a little bit better and little bit better, and a little bit better, and gradually, finally, it comes to a point where I’m actually happy with it.

JH: What I really liked, and I bought the game on iTunes last night and got through four or five different rounds, it is a little bit, and I saw this on your blog or by people talking about it on Reddit, it’s a little tough to describe, and when you look at it some people are saying when you look at the screen shots, it’s not like, ‘Wow, this looks amazing,’ but it’s really kind of addictive.

And, I think that one of the key things you did is really built in the help, because it’s kind of a slow learning curve, like you go through multiple levels over and over and it’s getting harder and harder and harder, a little bit at a time. And, I think adding that Help, and say, ‘This is how it’s going to work, this is what this level does, try it,’ I think you did a really good job with the Help.

MR: Yeah, I think that was actually one of the big things that really helped sell the game because at one point in the development process, the Help was just a big block of text that just said, ‘Here’s how to play,’ and it was just kind of, it took forever to read.

And I realized if I want this game to do well and I want it to be the best it can be, I’ve gotta spend a lot of work making an actual tutorial system. So, I probably spent a month work just on the tutorial system that teaches you how to play. And the beauty of that system, though, is that you don’t know how to understand English to even understand how to play.

So, two of the biggest markets for the game have actually been Japan and Italy where obviously they don’t speak English or not as much. And it’s done great there because the people there can still understand how to play, despite the fact that they might not understand the language the game is written in; and I think all that is due to the tutorials.

And I also think the kind of help with the market of people who may just see something in the Top Ten, they’ll buy it for a dollar or they’ll play the free version and they don’t really want to invest so much time in the game; so they might, if they see a big block of text, for all I know, they’re just going to close the app and uninstall it. But if there’s a colorful tutorial that shows them exactly how to play, I think that helps to really make people want to play the game and understand how to play the game, even if there are more complex concepts and all that sort of thing.

JH: Yeah, there’s no substitute for a quality product and something that is easy to use. So, then you entered 2010 and you set yourself another deadline. Now tell us how that worked out.

MR: Sometime in May I was hoping to release the game, basically, but just so happened that my wife was pregnant and we had our son a month early, so instead of the game being finished in May, my son actually came in May, which is, obviously an interesting twist to the timeline I planned. I was like, ‘OK, this month I’m going to release the game,’ and all of a sudden we have a baby a month early, but that actually kind of worked out in my favor because I was given a month off from work which was actually really helpful to help my wife, but it also, he slept most of the time so it gave me a ton of time just to really polish off the game and do all the last finishing touches that I wasn’t sure I’d have time to do before, so it was, actually, the timing worked out really well in the end.

JH: You might be the only person saying, ‘If you really need a lot of extra time make sure you have a newborn.’ [LAUGHS]

MR: [LAUGHS] Exactly. Yeah, he takes up a lot more time now, that’s for sure. But, at the time he was sleepy and that was quite handy for me.

JH: Excellent. You probably you just worked in like two-hour bursts here and there, right? [LAUGHS]

MR: [LAUGHS] Yeah, basically all through the night or something like that. Not quite so much, but, yeah.

JH: You submit the game, it gets approved by Apple in about a week and then you set about for the marketing plan. And so, a couple things I read on your post where you’re going to word of mouth, you’re going to talk to a lot of people that have iPhones, you did a video trailer, you were going to developer blogs and you tried some AdWords, so tell about that first phase of marketing and how that worked out.

MR: Yeah, so those were the main things I did. I didn’t have a whole lot of money to really spend on marketing, so, the vast majority of things I did was just the little things I could do. I sent what I thought was a fairly personal sort of email to all the big blogs that I could think of.

Like you said, I made a trailer which I thought was pretty good at the time. But those are probably the main things, and then the thing I was really trying to do was to get mentioned on Touch Arcade which is the biggest site, by far, for iPhone games and so that one of the things I was trying to do. I didn’t get mentioned there at that time. They also have a forum there so I posted threads there and that sort of thing.

And then I did a little bit of marketing, not marketing, but advertising; I spent fifty dollars on AdMob, I spent fifty dollars on a really cool site called Project Wonderful that has kind of unique auction system for apps, and they have ads on a lot of web comics and things like that. I even spent fifty dollars on Google AdWords which definitely was the least effective of all the advertising things I did by far, I think, probably just cause of its distance from the actual App Store. I think AdMob could work if I had spent enough money, but with the small budget I had none of those things were very effective, at all.

JH: And so at that point, you were still getting some sales, right, about almost $1000 a month worth, or?

MR: Yeah, around $1000 a month worth. Yeah, that’s probably accurate; it was very up and down so one day it would be $50, one day it would be $10. Every once in a while some blog would mention it or someone would mention it, someone influential would mention it on Twitter and I’d see sales spike to maybe a $100 or $200 for that day; but, by and large the sales were probably under $100, probably an average of maybe $30 to $40 a day.

JH: But that’s still not a bad thing, right? You wake up in the morning and you get a couple of emails, ‘Oh, I made 200 bucks last night, or something.’ But then, kind of the tipping point I guess was two things, right, was it mentioned in the UK or was it mentioned in Italy?

MR: It was Italy, yeah. So…

JH: Italy and then Reddit after that.

MR: Yeah. Well the big tipping point was actually releasing the express version, so…

JH: OK.

MR: […] when I released the game I knew I really had to make a light version to get the word out there, but, one of the things I wanted to do was actually wait and see how people reacted to the full version, so that when I release the light version I could kind of tweak it based on the feedback I’d heard. So, the full version I had heard some complaints from people that it was too slow and that sort of thing, so I eventually made a light version, but I steepened the difficulty curve a bit so it got to the hard parts a bit quicker; and I released that on September 30th; so not even a month ago yet.

And, so I released that, I did something kind of unique with it, most light versions have maybe five puzzles in them or levels, or whatever; but instead I wanted something that completely stood out, so I made 60 puzzles and I made them brand new so none of them were in the old game; I made them all from scratch. It took a few weeks and then I released it and for a couple of days people were buying it.

And then an Italian blog, probably the biggest one in Italy for iPhones and stuff, picked it up, wrote a great article about it and pretty much right away it shot to the number one free apps in Italy. That was pretty much the turning point I guess you could say for the popularity of the game.

JH: That’s so cool, cause I haven’t even thought of that, like I’m looking to maybe doing something for the App Store and like, marketing to Italy and their App Store is like one of the last things that I was thinking about right now.

MR: Well, it was funny because even at the very start when the game came out, I don’t know why particularly, but there just seemed to be a lot of interest in the game in Italy. I even had a guy email me and just say, ‘You know, I’d like to translate your app description for free, is that OK if I do that?’ And I said sure.

JH: Wow.

MR: So, he just sent me my full app description in Italian and I put that on; and I think that was actually one of the things that helped sell the game was just the fact that the description of the game was in Italian. And, it didn’t cost me anything; it just happened to be a guy who was a really big fan of the game just offered to do that for me. So, that sort of thing was really cool.

JH: Excellent, so then things are really taking off, and then tell us what you did with our, as most people know Conde Nast-owned Reddit.com, and what you did with them.

MR: Yeah, so that was, I guess we’re basically up to a couple of weeks ago now, so I had a whole bunch of kind of stuff coming together. So because of the express version doing so well, Apple decided to finally feature the game which is a huge thing; it’s kind of like a mini-winning the lottery in the App Store world – that was a big thing. And that means that when you open your phone there’s a featured apps list and it’s on that featured list.

So I was like, ‘Great,’ it’s featured and I let it say featured for a few days, and at that time the price of the game was $2.99. And, I think it was featured on a Thursday – games, everything are always featured on Thursdays, that’s just how the Apple system works. And so I let it stay at $2.99 for a few days and then when it was coming up to Tuesday, I decided to kind of put a marketing plan into action.

So, because of being in the featured list, the game was already rising up the charts, and by that time, I guess it was Tuesday morning, the game was, I think 48 in the U.S. overall charts. And that’s actually quite high and especially at the $2.99 price, that was great.

But I realized that I kind of had unique opportunity with being featured and with the price of $2.99, and a whole lot of things, so I wrote the blogpost that we’re kind of talking about now, which is the story so far where I go through the whole history of the game from its beginnings to where it is now and then I posted that story on Reddit and I said, ‘If you guys buy my game, it can beat Angry Birds and to help you guys want to the but the game, I’m going to drop the price to 99 cents, right now, the moment I post this post it on Reddit. So, please help me out. You know, this will actually change my life if you guys do this.’ And that was kind of the beginning of the crazy experiment, basically. [LAUGHS]

JH: That’s great. And, so, and the Reddit community was able to give you feedback on the game and what was kind of most helpful with, what’s happened with that?

MR: Well, yeah, it was great. The Reddit community was able to, they had lots of great feedback,  everyone seemed to like the game, they were obviously buying it. I heard a lot of comments from people saying, ‘I wouldn’t have taken a chance if this was [$] 2.99, but since it’s $.99, why not.’ It’s such a small cost for me to help you out.

There was actually one guy who mentioned, I think he was a writer for Attack of the Show, which is a pretty big gaming show in the States, and I actually just… He wrote a segment on puzzle games for Attach of the Show. I actually just saw that this morning that it was on that show so that was really cool, too. Yeah, it was just a huge, huge amount of feedback, and just really positive, everyone helping out. It felt really, really cool.

JH: Now what about Android, is there any chance that, like how difficult would it be to convert it from what you have now into an Android app?

MR: Well, the way I’ve written it now, unfortunately, is in Objective C, so it’s basically Apple’s language. So it’s not directly portable, but Android development is, by far, the biggest thing I’ve had requested from people. I think I get more emails about Android than anything else, probably like two or three times more emails about that. I have to look into it more, but I think it actually might be possible to develop the Android app using Flash which is the skill set that I already have. And if not, I’m looking into other technologies like Unity to do hopefully do more of a cross-platform development across things like Android, maybe stuff like the Palm Pre. I’ve had a lot of requests for a desktop version of the game. So those are all kinds of things I’m considering at the moment.

JH: Well, now that you’re a pro, does a Sprint 4G App Challenge that we’re running on Wired and the first prize is $50000, but it ends in nine days. So, [LAUGHTER] So, I don’t think you’re quite up to speed […].

MR: [LAUGHS] Yeah, that would be a tough one.

JH: [LAUGHS] Well, great. Tell us kind of like the overall lessons learned either from the tech side or dealing with Apple or kind of the marketing on it.

MR: Yeah, I definitely learned a lot. I think one of the actually the interesting things I learned for people who want to games […] the App Store is that you really don’t need a publisher. There’s been a lot of debate about whether you need a publisher or not to get up with App Store, and I think, obviously I’m not the only person to do it by themselves, but, I think a lot of people, especially recently, seeing games like Angry Birds at the top of the App Store, they’ve been thinking, ‘Maybe I need a publisher like that to get me to the top,’ but I think my story kind of proves that you don’t need a publisher, you can do it by yourself.

And, actually Rovio, the company who made Angry Birds – their first version of Angry Birds was published by [Chalingo] but they’ve come out recently and said, ‘You don’t need a publisher on the App Store, we wish we hadn’t chosen Chalingo, basically, we could have done that ourselves.’ So, I think that’s one of the big lessons for sure.

And, just in dealing with Apple, I don’t think I’ve ever actually had to […] build the Trainyard rejected by the App Store. I’ve always made sure to follow their guidelines, to check for bugs and things like that sort of thing. So, that hasn’t been too bad. And in regards to getting featured, I can’t say it’s totally random, but it’s definitely, you have to get your game out there and have people talking about it. And, the best way to do that us with the free version, then you might as well do that. Because once you get featured by Apple, that’s kind of the tipping point for, if you utilize that featuring correctly, you can really make a huge difference to your bottom line.

JH: That’s kind of the ‘Golden Ticket’ like you said, to, once you get featured; and I know we’ve had that here with some of the apps we’ve done. Well, that’s awesome. Right now we just checked the rankings – you’re number 4 in the U.K., number 5 in Canada, and number 7 in the U.S. So, that’s great. You said that you said to Reddit, ‘Help me get this and do well and it will help me change my life.’ Would you say that’s happened? Do you mind, have you shared some of the stats of where you are now?

MR: Well yeah, absolutely, I haven’t really shared the actual financial details, per se, I’ll just say that it’s a very comfortable amount of money [LAUGHS], I guess you can say. But my plan is actually to, I have a lot of loyalty to Indusblue where I’ve been working, and I have some projects I’m working on there, so for the rest of the year I’m going to stay there, finish off all my current projects.

But, in 2011 I’m actually going to set off on my own, start my own small games company which will probably just be me at first, and maybe an employee down the road or something like that, we’ll see. But, yeah, obviously it’s been a huge, huge change in my life or at least it will be in 2011. It’s great cause I’ve reached my goal which was to do game development full time and that’s all I really wanted to do; so, now I’ll be able to do that; come up with some more interesting games. I’m going to work on Trainyard a lot, add some features people have been requesting. So, yeah, it’s been amazing.

JH: That’s amazing, that’s great. Well, I’ve bought it and it is, if you like puzzle games or iPhone games it is addictive, and, like I said I’ve been through about four or five levels, and come on – $.99, it’s definitely worth shot. Do you have a URL where they can get to that directly, or

MR: Yeah, if you go to trainyard.ca, so it’s a Canadian domain. Yeah, but trainyard.ca, you can get information about the game, you can see the trailer, there’s a link to buy it on the App Store, all that sort of stuff.

JH: And is that where your blogpost is, as well?

MR: Ah, sorry, my blogpost is at struct.ca.

JH: Well, excellent. So, like I said, everyone check out trainyard.ca to download the app, and struct.ca to read more about Matt’s story. He kind of like we went through, but in detail with some screen shots of everything from his original scribble notes to his cute baby that helps him launch this.

MR: [LAUGHS]

JH: So, thanks so much, Matt, for coming on. I appreciate it.

MR: No problem.

JH: This has been the Hopkinson Report podcast. I’d like to thank my special guest, Matt Rix. Remember you can read about his iPhone game at trainyard.ca, follow the Matt Rix entrepreneurial story at struct.ca, or just go to Trainyard in the iTunes App Store.

And while you’re in there, check out the new ARS Technica iPad app – I had a small hand in the testing of that stuff and it’s a really good app.

And, always, thanks for listening.

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