Wednesday, March 24, 2010

History of Buttonia - Maltese iPhone game

Buttonia was originally invented by Sven Neumann back in 1996. The first time I saw it was ten years later in 2006 when I was at Sven's place and he was showing me his prototype games.
When he showed me his version of Buttonia I was hooked. Its simplicity and addictiveness was its strength. The first couple of seconds you are really puzzled on what you need to do, but then you immediately realise that each button effects it's neighbours and that's it. You just need to turn on all the buttons.

It was still a prototype at the time and he never had the time to polish it. I told him "We got to polish this and push it out and see what happens". I had done some shiny buttons and Sven put up some javascript together and we rolled out an online version on We had a daily 3x3, 4x4, 5x5 and 6x6. The 6x6 were a bitch to solve and took around 5min to solve it. We had quite a hit when it got reviewed by blogs. At one point we were flooded from the Japanese. They seem to like these kind of puzzle games.

At the time we spewed out randomly generated puzzles without verifying if they were solvable or not. The users could flag if it wasn't solvable or not. We knew this was a problem and we had several chats on how to come up with an algorithm to know whether a generated puzzle was solvable or not. Sven is more into Math than me, and after a lot of research/trial and error he came up with a mathematical solution. He tried to explain it to me, but it was beyond me. Too many matrices and transformations for my liking. But it works! We give the algorithm a randomly generated puzzle and it tells us whether it is solvable or not.

Meanwhile I was interested in iPhone development, not because of the gold rush really (which is over by now), but I always wanted to know what it would be like to develop for such a device. I had already developed a couple of games for the n-gage (Symbian OS), and sincerely the SDK wasn't that well organized (but maybe they fixed this by now). So I bought a second-hand macbook and also a second-hand ipod touch (with a cracked screen), and started developing some prototypes, unrelated with Buttonia. I had started an engine for shoot'em ups but realised I needed a lot of art to make it really addictive and polished. Then I met Sven again and he tossed the idea of porting Buttonia for the iPhone. And that's were I started creating an even more polished version of Buttonia. We met every now and then to see what was working and what not. The prototype was done in a couple of weeks, but then remained the next 90%. Polishing takes ages. We wanted to get the tutorial as best as we good, and when we give the device to our friends to play it, they still people press Play and don't care about the How to Play section :). They still figured out what they need to do.

I carried out two beta phases with my friends who had an iPhone/iPod touch and they gave valuable feedback. I only had one crash from one of the testers, and sent me the crash log and solved it. Thanks Luke. We had valuable feedback and fixed some usability issues. The best feedback though was when I showed someone the game and I just see how he/she will react to the game. Awesome experience for a developer to see his product being used. It's an eye-opener, because everyone will act differently and they always do something with the game you wouldn't have ever imagined. My best beta test is actually my wife. She likes games and she finds bugs so easily. So she is the first one to play my games before showing it to anyone else :).

Last week we released the game to Apple and it was approved within a couple of days. We are currently waiting for some iPhone app reviewers. We are already hit #1 in Malta's AppStore, but we still need to make a hit internationally. Unfortunately when you release a game on the AppStore it immediately gets buried in the hundreds of apps released per day. So you really need to have a polished product to get noticed. We'll wait and see. We have to spread the word :)

For more information about the game and a video check out
Buttonia is now available on the AppStore.