Blackjack Strategizer 2.0

There’s a new version of Blackjack Strategizer in the App Store. This was a pretty big update, the biggest yet, so it’s been dubbed 2.0.

It’s the “iOS 7 update” (released after iOS 8 was announced. Sigh, side projects.). A complete graphical overhaul, I got rid of the felt and leather textures to make way for simplified designs that fall in line with the iOS 7 design principles.

There really aren’t any new features to speak of, it’s more or less the same exact functionality. In fact, what’s more interesting is what I removed than what I added:

  • No more gesture-driven input. When the app was out in the wild and I watched people use it, nobody would ever remember how to split or double down. Input mimicking what one would do at a casino table was a fun novelty, but it actually made the app less usable. So now there are four buttons at the bottom of the screen.

  • Lots of code. The original version was built using the iOS 5 SDK but wasn’t released until around when iOS 6 came out of beta, so there were a lot of runtime availability checks. With simpler play, there was no longer need for a tutorial mode, which wound up killing more code than you would probably think. The animation code was greatly simplified using the keyframe animations made available in iOS 7. I also simplified the graph view, which meant I was able to delete a lot of complicated math and drawing code.

  • Images. The original design required over 50 images to construct all of the various real-world looking objects in the app. Version 2.0 only has 6 images aside from the Icon and Launch Image.

I did get to add some stuff. The custom UIViewController transitions are pretty neat.

As for what’s next, it’s a side project app and realistically I’ll probably only do one more update over the course of the next year. The biggest thing people ask for is an iPad version, and given how Universal apps are going to be much simpler to build in iOS 8, thanks to Adaptivity and the Storyboard improvements, I may finally make one. Going on both devices would also be a great chance to finally try out Core Data syncing via iCloud, showing the user’s play history across all of their devices.

Wildcard and plans for 2014

Back in the beginning of February, I joined the team at Wildcard. We're building the new mobile internet. Stay tuned.

After my Kickstarter ended, I was a bit sad, but...

And Rob Ryan the market I did. After just a couple of weeks filled with a ton of interviews, I picked Wildcard. It's a killer team run by proven entrepreneurs who are building something really cool. So the choice was easy.

I'm still working on some stuff at bpm apps. During my search I spent a bit of time reimagining Blackjack Strategizer for iOS 7, and I've been putting the finishing touches as time allows. Hopefully that's in the App Store in a few weeks. I've also been fixing a couple of bugs in NYC Bike Buddy and have already shipped one new release with another coming soon. Hopefully I can add some new features and updated data  in a Spring/Summer update.

Despite the failure of Ringmaster, I still would like to do something in the Pro Wrestling app space. Again, stay tuned.

How to fail at your Kickstarter

The funding period for the Ringmaster Kickstarter ended without success. 179 backers (well actually, 183 total: apparently 4 people don't understand how Kickstarter's "all or nothing" funding model works)? That's pretty cool! But, only managing to scrounge up 19% of my goal wasn't pretty cool. So what went wrong? In my post-mortem, I said it was a "combination of reasons". I'll try to break that down further here.


I picked what I'd imagine is an atypical funding period. Since I didn't want to start or end during the holidays, I ran from mid-December until mid-January. The thought was that hardcore fans wouldn't be distracted or feel like their budget was constrained by gift-purchasing. But:

Screen Shot 2014-01-18 at 4.46.34 PM.png

That's NINE DAYS with just three new backers. Celebrating the birth of Jesus is great, but it killed the little momentum that my campaign had. I'm not saying that a Kickstarter with a similar timeline is always doomed - there are several ending in the next few days that have reached or exceeded their funding goals - but it sure doesn't help.


A couple of people asked why I didn't set a lower goal: my answer was that I wouldn't have been able to realize my vision. So what about reducing scope to something less ambitious? Say enough to get down to $20,000: simplify both single and multiplayer, and cut down from 50 wrestlers. Even then, it's more than double the amount that was eventually pledged. But I think that the final pledge number could be a bit misleading, since if people see a project that they think is going to lose, they probably won't back it.

I could have also done more work up-front instead of looking for funding at the prototype stage. If it was a six-month side project, maybe I could have gotten 10K to finish it. But the fact that this project didn't meet its goal as is may mean that more effort up front would only lead to a more painful financial failure down the line.

And, I hate doing side projects.


Marketing is something that I had very little experience in, but it's vital to the success of a campaign - Kickstarter hammers this home in "Kickstarter School":

An exceptional project can lead to outpourings of support from all corners of the web, but for most projects, support comes from within their own networks and their networks’ networks. If you want people to back your project you have to tell them about it. More than once! And in a variety of ways!

I came into this project with a really strong pro wrestling network. I was able to get the support of Dave Meltzer and Bryan Alvarez, who run the industry's most influential publications in WO/F4W. I got some help from other influencers like Chris Harrington of Indeed Wrestling and author Paul O'Brien. I managed to get myself booked on close to 20 podcasts. I also partnered with indy wrestlers like Adam Pearce and Bobby Phobia. On the wrestling side of things, I probably couldn't have done much better (unless I somehow had partnered with WWE, but they would have never done that unless the project was already a rousing success).

However, I'm not well connected in the game industry at all. I did manage to get a quick post on Kotaku, but almost nothing on other sites. This was despite pitching to video game writers who are known to be wrestling fans. Why did I fail to get press? Maybe my pitch sucked. Maybe the project just wasn't that interesting. Or maybe it was another casualty of timing, and the press was too busy with other stories and the holidays to bother with a Kickstarter project that was far short of its goal.


Another popular question, maybe even the most popular question: "what about Android?" The tone is often as if thinking that it will only take a moment to support, naive to the reality that it would have doubled the budget of the project. Anybody that knows me knows that I'm not a huge fan of either Google or Android, but that's not why I went iOS-only. Rather it's because supporting other platforms would have made this whole thing even more expensive. The hope was that going Universal and supporting both iPhone and iPad would have appeased many who owned an Android phone but happened to have an iPad. 


Here's the breakdown of reward popularity:

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Kickstarter claims that the average pledge amount, site wide, is $70. In my case, it was $32.50. Mine was boosted a bit by the $40 reward level, in which backers could add content to a fairly prominent spot in the game without spending too much money. Originally I was going to put this reward level at $30, and I'm glad I went a little higher, as it proved to be more popular than the iBook.

Since Kickstarter also says that $25 is the most popular pledge level, I do think it was a shame that so few people went for the iBook. Initially, this book was going to be just a strategy guide. Later, when I partnered with O'Brien and the comic book creators, I realized there was room for more content. I was hoping that these additions would make the iBook more enticing and people would adjust their pledges. Nobody did. Part of the blame lies in the fact that I couldn't actually change the copy for the reward level since there were already pledges at that amount. Kickstarter's rules. I tried to make the case to Kickstarter support that adding some pages in iBooks Author would be a minimal amount of work and was unlikely to turn into an empty promise, but they wouldn't budge.

I also went with a price anchoring method (another thanks to Chris Harrington for his advice here) to make the $300 "Create a Wrestler" reward level seem like a bargain. It worked, as a few pledged at that amount, but I suppose it didn't work well enough.

I also didn't have a $5 reward level despite the fact that that would be the likely retail price of the game. A large number of $5 pledges wouldn't help much in terms of reaching the goal, so I wanted to start at $10. But I didn't want that $10 to be a rip-off, and just putting the name of a backer in the credits didn't seem like enough. And of course, it came to me in the shower: what if I made that name a tappable link that could go anywhere the backer wanted? Being the first Kickstarter to do that is something I've claimed since the beginning of the campaign, and nobody has disagreed with me. So even though my Kickstarter failed, I can say that I invented something.


When it comes down to it, 180 backers isn't very many. Maybe there just weren't enough people that want to see a pro wrestling promoter sim on iOS. It's a niche (promoter sim fans) of a niche (pro wrestling fans), of a niche (those who own iOS devices). And maybe that's not a market large enough to make it worth developing a $30,000 game for.

People should learn to code by making iOS apps

Last week, along with my friend Pablo Quinteros, I led an Internet Week New York “Classroom Session” on how to build an iOS App.

We’re living in the early stages of the “Learn To Code Movement”. Training site Code Academy has raised millions in funding. Famous Bills like Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, and Will.I.Am have lent support to And while actor Jason Bateman stars in a revival of a TV series cancelled 7 years ago, his 47 year old sister Justine is working on her Computer Science degree at UCLA.

Although the movement itself is language agnostic, it’s most often that lessons are only available in JavaScript, jQuery, or a server language like Python or Ruby. It’s rare that iOS is mentioned as a starting point. But I believe that iOS is not only a great platform for aspiring programmers to learn how to code, it is the best platform for aspiring programmers to learn how to code.

The secret of getting ahead…

If getting started is the hardest part, then iOS wins out the gate thanks to Xcode. OS X ships with both Python and Ruby, but accomplishing Hello World in either involves Terminal, and learning how to navigate a UNIX command line. Xcode is a simple Mac App Store download, so Mac users will already know how to set it up.

When the download is complete and the first project created, the beginner doesn’t have to learn some arcane command to compile and another to run: they just click the huge Play button as they would in iTunes.

Oh, this old thing?

Even if a newcomer picks up Javascript in a day, they’ll still be limited to building things with Times New Roman on a white background. It doesn’t look good. But a new project in Xcode looks great on first run. The nav bar is curved at the top with a subtle shadow at the bottom. The font choices are sensible for mobile software. All of the great animations and graphics in UIKit are given to the programmer, for free.

You’ve got to hire a designer to really knock socks off in the App Store, but bare-bones UIKit has enough on its own to make for a sexy to-do list or time tracker. It’s easy for newcomers to stay motivated when the environment automatically makes everything look nice.

Lesson 1: Drag. Lesson 2: Drop.

Storyboards are an incredible tool and I have used them to ship the last several apps I’ve worked on. They aren’t perfect for all use cases, but debating whether or not they are good for experienced developers is not a point I want to argue here: they are absolutely fantastic for new developers. What could be simpler than Drag and Drop? And if one wants to tweak a UIButton, it’s just a checkbox or text field edit away. Of course not everything can be accomplished with Storyboards, but the paradigm encourages top-down thinking. It then feels natural to move on to filling in the blanks by providing UIViewController method implementations.

The web is still dead

Making a website just isn’t that exciting or interesting anymore. There are a number of services like SquareSpace, Tumblr, and Wordpress which can be used to build something that runs in a browser. When was the last time we saw a web app that blew us all away? Everything exciting is now happening in the App Store. People prefer to use apps, so it’s only natural to assume that they’d prefer to make apps as well. Learning how to build a cool app is a lot more fun than learning how to build a cool website.

The bad

Is Objective-C the easiest language to learn? No, just the nature of having syntax means a newcomer is going to fumble when beginning to edit source. But the verbosity of Cocoa Touch frameworks makes this easier to get a handle on - it’s clear what all of the required pieces are to make something like animateWithDuration:delay:options:animations:completion: do what it needs to do.

Also, accessibility is an issue. Not everybody owns an iOS device, and not everybody has a Mac. But those that do should learn to code by learning how to make iOS apps.

Exhibiting at Macworld

Blackjack Strategizer sales spike when posts like those in The Daily or Gizmodo are published. So I’ve been trying to garner more press, but simply sending out a pitch and a promo code to bloggers hasn’t led to much success. Since it’s so difficult to get noticed via email, I thought a face-to-face approach may get me better in touch with writers: enter Macworld-iWorld. The annual trade-show/conference looked like a great place to show off my app, but I wasn’t sure if the potential costs would make it worth going. To my surprise, exhibiting was affordable. I registered quite late, after the early bird pricing period has lapsed, but getting a small kiosk in the “Appalooza” section still cost less than $1300. If my presence led to just a published article or two, the trip would be more than paid for. No-brainer.

Adding to the expense was the need for some kind of promotional material. Some research showed that those in Appalooza typically bring flyers, but my lovely PR advisor insisted that stacks of papers would be expensive trash. Instead, I purchased three hundred clay casino chips, a $30 customizer kit, and started sticking stickers. It took no longer than six seconds to decorate twenty chips at a time.

The Blackjack Strategizer kiosk
The Blackjack Strategizer kiosk

Paying the lowest price available for a spot on the floor meant a small, unchangeable area for presentation. A pair of small stands are separated by a poster board partition, creating two neighboring kiosks. The upper half of each side displayed the company name and a banner touting the platform (iOS or OS X), while the lower half was open to customization by the exhibitor. Unfortunately, with just a day to provide custom artwork, I only had time to quickly throw together a vaguely on-brand (Palatino!) bullet-point list. And yes, I winced every time an attendee would read this (literal) wall of text before deciding the app wasn’t for them and moving along.

The tabletop provided enough room for me to have the schwag spread and a single device. I opted to use an iPhone 3GS for demo purposes, a wise move: a nearby exhibitor had an iPhone 5 stolen from their area, and it was never recovered. No security was provided for my grade of stand (the next expensive package, upwards of $2000, came with a tiny lockable cabinet) and I left all of my weapons at home, so I had to keep a close eye on my stuff for three days.

Another thing I had to do for three days: not sit down. If I can give future exhibitors one piece of advice, it’s don’t go alone. Bring a friend, a loved one, an intern… just bring somebody. Standing for 6–7 hours straight for three days without breaks is exhausting. I was so pooped at the end of each day that I didn’t partake in many evening activities. Luckily, my show floor neighbors were willing to cover quick bathroom and food breaks, but the reality is that they paid their own money to be there for their own thing, so leaving my booth unmanned would mean opportunities lost. To further twist the knife, being there alone meant that I had no chance to check out any of the sessions or even the rest of the expo hall. While Macworld actually prohibits more than one staff member at a kiosk at a time, it’s a rule that isn’t enforced. So bring somebody!

With over 25,000 in attendance, there were plenty of iFans to meet. One annoying part of this population are the badge-carriers pitching their products to exhibiting developers. These are folks that did not pay IDG $1,000 but still want to get the word about their stuff. Admittedly, some of these services are worthwhile: I got a nice lead on a top-flight localization service, and worked out a free advertisement with an app review site. But did I really need to hear about a hundred different analytics SDKs? My advice to people who came to pitch exhibitors: show a genuine interest first, and before parting ways throw a quick one-liner and offer a business card. The indie developers at Macworld paid a lot of money for their spot, and don’t want to spend a significant amount of time hearing about your services.

So did I get what I came for? Did I meet a bunch of journalists who wrote a bunch of words about the app? Well… I did have a different kind of brush with fame:

But no, no press. The only thing I’ve seen written about Blackjack Strategizer was getting honored as one of the best “stupid” apps at Macworld. That’s been printed out and posted to the fridge.

Despite the lack of media attention, there was an another benefit that I didn’t anticipate. Being at Macworld got me something I couldn’t get anywhere else, and that’s a first-hand look at how a couple of hundred strangers use my app. And these aren’t geeks who ask if it’ll sync with their Dropbox or when the Android version is coming. These are real, regular ass people. The great feedback kept coming and coming: why Blackjack Strategizer doesn’t have a left hand mode? Why can’t the in-app cheat sheets be printed? Why is the stay gesture totally inappropriate for the Australian market? Perspective.

One more thing: I neglected to collect many email addresses from interested parties. I do maintain a mailing list managed by mailchimp, and their iOS app provides a single-field form for new subscribers. It would have been so easy to amass a large list of potential recipients, but the opportunity slipped my mind! That’s another reason to bring somebody else along: there’s simply too much going on for one person to remember everything.

All in all, paying to exhibit at Macworld was worthwhile. Unless I have a new app to demo I probably won’t do it again next year, but I recommend developers consider the trip if they’d like to take advantage of being in a room with twenty thousand Mac and iOS users.