Ben Dodson

Freelance iOS, Apple Watch, and Apple TV Developer

The Times They Are A-Changin'

Over three and a half years ago I announced the launch of WallaBee, “the ultimate collectibles game for iOS”. Whilst it has been a labour of love for me for over the past four years, it has also been incredibly stressful and draining at times. Today I was very happy to announce that I’d sold WallaBee to Munzee. I won’t go into the details of how that will work for players (you can find out all about it on the WallaBee Blog) but I did want to talk a bit about how a relatively simple game became a huge business.

I created WallaBee as it was a game I wanted to play1. I’d built several iOS apps in the past (including several that were featured by Apple) and my day job previously had been as a PHP developer so it was fairly trivial for me to throw the basic building blocks together. Over a few months of testing and iteration the game went live; it was free but monetised by using In-App Purchases for in game currency as well as a pro subscription for $5 a month which gave additional benefits to players. The feedback was great and I iterated quickly to a v1.1 product which launched at Nonick 012 where WallaBee was voted the ‘Best European Gaming Startup of 2012’. Over the coming years I’d add extra bits of complexity and hidden secrets2 and generally expand things out.

However, my big plan was to launch a version 2 product. I’d always considered v1.* to be a proof of concept and I had a ton of ideas for things I wanted to improve on. I pitched the idea to my co-founders in November 2012 and we showed off some screens and concepts to our players on April 1st 20133. It was around that time that the number of players was expanding rapidly and so I spent most of my time dealing with server issues and scalability. Over time, the fast iteration I’d started with slowed to a halt as I dealt with server scaling and that lead to issues when the innovation of iOS overtook us; for example, we didn’t implement AutoLayout and so weren’t equipped to deal with things like the iPhone 6 resolution change. This eventually led to nearly every issue needing the same solution; a complete rewrite of both the app and API. Unfortunately this was difficult to manage as all of my time as the sole developer was being taken up either trying to hold the server issues together enough for another release or dealing with player issues that crop up when you have thousands of people able to communicate with each other.

After a while, it just wasn’t fun for me anymore so I made the decision that I would shut it down. A few minutes after that announcement, Rob Vardeman from Munzee got in touch and asked if we could speak. I’d met him before when he was in London for a Munzee event and after a discussion, some emails, and a lot of thinking, I decided to let Munzee acquire the company so that they could continue to grow it in the way I had wanted to. I am confident that they will do an excellent job at maintaining the quirky side of WallaBee4 whilst also being able to add some amazing new features; I’m so sure of it that I have remained as a shareholder of the company.

Based on my experiences, I have a few pieces of wisdom to share:

  • It’s fine to get something launched but don’t forget to put in the groundwork for scalability. If you don’t know what you’re doing, find someone who does.

  • Monetise your game from the start. We never had any issues but I see startups every day that get a big of investment and think that if they build it they can monetise it later; don’t do that. We launched with 30-day and 90-day subscriptions and most players bought a 90-day one straight off. It is much easier to alter your existing payment structure (as we did when we went from subscriptions to single payments for goods) than to try and add one when everything was free previously.

  • Never announce something before it is built. This is a lesson that few people have mastered as it is insanely difficult trying to keep something awesome from the people who are going to love it most; it is also easy to announce something as then you feel like it forces you to launch it by that date but it doesn’t work. Take a leaf out of Apple’s book and only announce something when it is done and going to ship within the next 2 weeks (and when it comes to software, announcing something that is available “Today” should be the rule).

  • Do not underestimate how difficult it is to manage a community of players or how crucial it is that you do. I frequently had to deal with issues such as bullying, stalking, and just generally petty squabbles. We had births, deaths, celebrations, and everything in between5. There was also the inevitable bugs and server issues that required an apology. However, because of the way we handled those issues publicly and fairly, it cut us a lot of slack when things went wrong. A good community is the key thing for any social app and must be nurtured.

So what now? Without WallaBee to manage over the past few weeks, I’ve found myself at a bit of a loose end with so much more free time! I’ve written three apps so far including a content blocker, an app based on HealthKit, and an app to let me fly my Bebop Drone with an iOS MFI controller6; all of them will be available on the App Store at some point. I’m also collaborating on an Apple TV game with another developer which will hopefully be live in November. Beyond that I haven’t decided what the future has in store but I’m enjoying working on small, offline apps for the time being.

The final thing to mention is a slight change to the way I do my freelance work. Due to WallaBee becoming my main business for a while, I changed my company name from Ben Dodson Apps Ltd to WallaBee Ltd. As Munzee are based in the US, they have no need for a UK Limited company and so they have simply purchased the rights and assets of the WallaBee app and brand. I’ve therefore changed the company name to Dodo Apps Ltd7 and that is what I’ll be using for all of my freelance business from now on.

  1. And the nice thing now is that I get to play it and enjoy it! ↩︎

  2. One of our players, ‘SkipOkane’ put together a list of some of the secrets. My favourite is probably the ‘Mirage’ item which would always appear as a #1 when you purchased it (although the ‘Boomerang’ item that comes back if you try and recycle it is a close second as is the jousting minigame…) ↩︎

  3. My reasoning was that if they hated it, we could pretend it was a joke. ↩︎

  4. They’ve done well so far; the first set they created is made entirely of dancing cats. I think it’s in safe hands! ↩︎

  5. I would never have believed that somebody would want to speak with me in the final weeks leading up to their death as they wanted to make arrangements for how their game items could be distributed. It’s humbling and hard to deal with. ↩︎

  6. I would love to do a Steve Jobs “these are not 3 separate devices” but they are. ↩︎

  7. I first used the name “Dodo Apps” when I was doing my A-Level IT course. I built a choral robe management system in Microsoft Access and had to choose a name for the about page; I chose “Dodo Apps” as I was a big fan of the dodo from Alice in Wonderland and because it used letters from my surname. ↩︎

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