The Secret Behind Blackbox

This is the first interview I conducted with an indie iOS developer. Ryan McLeod is the creator of Apple Design Award winning game "Blackbox". I hope some of his experience can help you in your indie app development journey.

How did you get into iOS Development?

When the iPhone came out I really wanted to be able to design apps. I thought it was neat to play with them, but there were always things I wanted to see done differently, and changed. But I didn’t actually learn iOS for a long time. I found it kind of hard to get into because I was more of a web developer. And then the college I was going to, Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, offered an iOS class for the first time and I think it was sort of modeled after the Stanford course, so I hopped into that and did some development. I was pretty into it, then didn’t really pick it up again until I graduated and was tired of web development. So Blackbox was sort of an attempt to learn everything about iOS so I could take an iOS job, but then it sort of gained a life of it’s own.

Breaking up with the [square bracket]

Have you adopted Swift, or are you still using Objective-C?

I actually don’t know Swift, I’m embarrassed to admit. I mean, I can read it and stumble my way around it, but I haven’t taken the time to learn it yet. I started Blackbox when Swift was out, but it was very new. It was changing pretty quickly, and the library support wasn’t there. It seemed like it was harder to cross into the low level stuff that I was going to need with Blackbox. So I thought it was wise to stick with Objective-C, but things moved really fast. I already feel like I’m on the wrong side of history. New nice libraries coming out are for Swift only, and it can be a pain to work backwards. It’s all Objective-C right now. My background in school is with C so I like it, but Swift would definitely save me a lot of typing and make errors a lot harder to happen. My next projects will definitely be in Swift, but for now I’ll stay consistent.

Did Objective-C make it harder in the long run?

I don’t think so. I think Objective-C is just verbose and has a lot of boilerplate to it, and that wastes a lot of time. And a lot of the Swift features that prevent you from shooting yourself in the foot would’ve saved me a lot of time. But I think the initial hassle in that first year/year and a half of developing it in Swift wouldn’t have been worth it if it delayed getting the game out or as polished. I think I made the right choice at the time. If I could go back, I would choose Swift.

When did you decide to make Blackbox?

I graduated college in Summer of 2014 and then I started working on this social music network with some friends called resound.fm and that was all web stuff, then realized it’s really tough to get into the music industry like that. I started working on Blackbox February 2015 really seriously. That was when I started doing a beta with friends and realizing it was something that people wanted. Then I worked on it for about a year, while doing some other consulting. Then launched it February 25, 2016. So it was about a year in development, and it’s been out a year now.

How were you able to spread the word about your app?

I couldn’t be doing this full-time without the Apple Features (that’s what they call it when they put you on one of those slots). I got some coverage from App Advice and CNET and some other app review sites and blogs. But that coverage didn’t drive a ton of traffic. And I think some of the bigger publications I wanted to get was harder because I didn’t have much credibility. It’s just hard to get attention for a new puzzle game that doesn’t have some sort of really interesting intrigue behind it or some dramatic story. But Apple luckily took notice, and they featured it when it launched in “Best New Games” but it was way off the fold, so you had to scroll all the way to the side and click see all, and then go to the bottom of the list and it was there. So that definitely helped, but it wasn’t great, and the downloads started sort of tapering off. Then in October, I was able to bundle up an update with a ton of content and tell them, “Hey, I have all this stuff coming out”, and they put it in that list. That was huge. Being able to sort of cater to the platform helps a lot. Apple always wants to showcase things that make their platform and their devices look good, and I think I knew some ways to do that. As soon as the iPhone 7 came out I ordered one, had the Taptic engine stuff ready that I had been playing with, and got that integrated. I made it so it worked with the new headphones and made that prominent in the app. I think little things like that help with featuring, but it’s all kind of a black box 😉. Baking in vitality to the app also helps. Having the features brings in a big funnel of people, but having it so it can organically support itself to some degree is huge. People dump so much money into paid growth and most of your app is sort of taking advantage of people in a casino-like way. You’re not getting a return on your investment for indies probably. So in the game there’s a lot of loops to hope the people will come back the next day, or to encourage people to share. It’s not to make people share when they don’t want to, but hopefully they kind of want to, and then it’s incentivized, or something like that. And the nature of some of the challenges almost require you to work with someone else, or make you stand out to someone else, so they’ll want to ask what you’re doing. Or you’re out with other people on some trip, and you think to check Blackbox for a puzzle, and it begs a conversation. Things like that can really inflate promotion, and that helps keep things afloat. So I don’t have to put in as much work doing marketing stuff, which is not my favorite thing to do.

Extra challenges that /push/ what’s possible

How were you able to influence users to buy in-app purchases?

I don’t think I’m very good at that. It’s really, really tough. You probably know some of the numbers. It’s less than 3% typically for purchased content. And sometimes I wonder, Blackbox has gotten featured in these categories, like “Games That Blow Our Minds” and stuff, and you’ll look in there and there’ll be games like *Prune* for $4 and *Monument Valley* for $4. Basically every single app was paid except for Blackbox. I think there’s a lot of people that see, “Oh, it’s got a good mark from Apple and it costs some money. There’s value there.” and they buy it. Those apps are probably making more, I don’t know. There’s just a lot of weird psychology that comes into play when people download something for free and get a ton of enjoyment out of the 80% that’s free, and somehow feel like they need to game the system to not pay for the rest. It’s tough, and it’s discouraging when you have people that love the game and take the time to write long emails about how much they love it, and then are asking how they can get a $1.99 thing for free. I don’t think I’m entirely good at it. I’ve been playing with it more, like exposing the paid content sooner trying to set expectations. Like, it sucks when you’re playing, playing, playing, playing, you think it’s all free and then you hit a point where there’s a roadblock. You see it in games like Super Mario Run where players are leaving nasty reviews, seemingly surprised when they’ve hit a pay wall and just now realized that the entire game isn’t free. I try to set it up so there’s two paid packs, but there’s sort of a fake paid pack that comes earlier in the game and it’s free, but it sort of indicates that it would’ve been paid, but now it’s a free pack. That’s just to mentally prepare people, “there’s paid content coming up”, and I think that sort of softens the blow and maybe allows people to rationalize the purchase before making it. But I’m not an expert that’s just stuff I make up in my head. I’m trying other things, like the purchase buttons that say “Unlock for $1.99”. I fairly regularly get emails from people asking, “Is there any other way to unlock the content for free?” It always confused me. I thought it was people trying to take advantage of me and just play dumb or something, but I think what I’ve been realizing is that there’s a lot of games that are “Complete all 50 levels with 3 gold stars and you get the content for free, or pay to play and bypass it.” So I think even the language of “Unlock for $1.99” was ambiguous. So in an upcoming version I’m changing that to “Buy for $1.99” and we’ll see if that changes anything. It’s been tough. I’m still figuring it out to be honest, trying sales and very careful push notifications sometimes. I’m not really sure, I don’t think it’s optimal. It’s weird to me that half of revenue comes from hints, which was something I never really wanted to have. I wanted to not have hints or give them away. I don’t think anyone should ever forget or put aside their ideals entirely, but you do have to look at what people want if you want to make it a business and not just a hobby. For Blackbox there’s a large demographic that’s under 18 and doesn’t have iTunes gift cards or anything like that and they’ve grown up learning that you pay for things by watching ads, which is kind of despicable to me, but it’s pretty par for the course these days and me keeping ads out isn’t doing anyone good if I have to stop making puzzles and take a real job. Especially when I have players explicitly asking me; they’ve said “I would like to watch ads”, so I don’t know what to do about my “good fight”. I’m playing around with a lot of things, it’s kind of a pain, but it’s something you’ve got to do if you want to make it more than a hobby!

Ok, that’s impressive.

How are you able to get high ratings on the AppStore?

That’s been really insane, I feel very grateful and thankful for that. I wrote an article about it (you can read it here) and the big takeaways were:

I hate pop-ups that interrupt me, and it’s hard not to interrupt someone with a pop-up like that. Frankly it’s lazy from a development perspective too. I understand the need for positive reviews, but you don’t inherently deserve them for asking in a lazy way. The bar is so slow that it takes minimal effort to stand a mile apart from the crowd. Allowing someone the opportunity to help rather than asking leaves someone feeling like they’re helping out rather than acquiescing to a request, especially when you provide the opportunity at the right moment — like after certain, what I call, “crowd pleaser” puzzles that leave players with a great feeling of accomplishment. So allowing someone to discover rating the app out of curiosity at the right moment and making a personal appeal rather than being a company name asking for help can go pretty far. And even if a game studio of just two people (or even 8!) is putting a company name in front of those faces and names it tends to lessen personal connection and rapport with the game. I think at that point people are pretty stoked and it’s left in their court whether they want to leave a review or not. Just from reading them you can tell how excited people are to voice how they feel about the game. It’s good for the game but it also motivates me every day.

What’s one tip you have for new iOS Developers?

Merit on it’s own doesn’t lead to success.

There’s a metaphor I like to use where there’s a beautiful swan going across the surface [of a lake] and it’s swimming really elegantly and it looks like it’s so great on it’s own, but if you could see under the surface you’d see that it’s kicking and fighting furiously to move forward. That’s true with apps too; a lot of us get deluded into seeing success stories and thinking, “That app was well made and therefore it’s successful.” But there are so many that are well made and are not successful. It’s really easy to say, “Marketing is not something I want to think about” or “Business is not something I want to think about, I just want to develop it”. That’s the difference between it being a hobby and it being a business. So don’t underestimate the amount of work that goes into success. Whenever you see something that appears like it’s just successful on it’s own, it’s probably not. There’s probably a lot of hustle going on under the surface too, getting press coverage, or just keeping the thing afloat in general. The good, well developed, well polished thing is half the fight.

What’s your favorite puzzle in Blackbox?

My favorite for a long time has been the Touch-ID one. It’s my favorite because it plays so true to my favorite concept of Blackbox, thinking outside the box. It’s one where you come in with a set of beliefs of how things work and if you don’t stop to really break your mold of thinking, you’ll continue to fail it by winning. You have to realize that you have to lose to win.

You can download Blackbox from the AppStore today.