Interview with Nicholas Holland of Side Hobby

26 10 2009

I wrote a brief article not too long ago about a recent iPhone obsession of mine called gpsAssassins; if you haven’t checked it out please do so. Due to that obsession and my obvious persistent nature I recently had the opportunity to ask Nicholas Holland CEO of Side Hobby, who developed gpsAssassins, a few questions about their game along with the overall challenges that arise when developing for the iPhone. Check out the full written exchange below. Enjoy!

BTDP: First off tell me a little about yourself?

Jackson and myself are serial entrepreneurs in Nashville, TN.  He owns a few retail stores, invented www.statzen.com, and dabbles in various other projects.  I own/run www.centresource.com, an Interactive Agency with 20+ staff.  We’re in our early 30’s, have kids, and want to put Nashville on the map in terms of technology!

BTDP: Describe in your words what gpsAssassins is?

Its a location-aware mobile game based on the original college game, Assassin: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassin_%28game%29

BTDP: What inspired you to make this game? Have you always wanted to do this?

The real force behind the game was Nashville Startup Weekend 2008 (http://nashvillestartup.ning.com).  It was our first time hosting the popular format from StartupWeekend.com and I pitched the idea in hopes of making the weekend fun.  We had a successful weekend and at the end, Jackson and I thought it would be fun to finish it.  What we thought would take 1 month took a full year 🙂

BTDP: What gave you the idea to make this type of game?

I remembered the college game (played at Tulane) and thought it would be perfect for gps-enabled mobile phones.

BTDP: Are you happy with the overall reception of the game?

Extremely! In fact, we’ve stopped advertising because we can barely handle the load of existing players 🙂  We’re working on a new release that fixes a lot of bugs and then we’re pushing for another major version with new features, etc.  Since we went free one month ago, we’ve picked up 20k new players.  We’re nearly at 30K downloads – and this is just in a version 1.0 game!

BTDP: What if anything would you change or do differently?

We spent too much on the iPhone development side.  Our developer was great, but we didn’t’ know what we wanted & its always way more expensive if you make things up as you go 🙂  This is just a factor of experience, but its still annoying to know that we could have been a lot smarter with our money.

BTDP: What did you learn during this process?

We’ve learned a lot about mobile markets & just how important ease-of-use really is.  We’re also learning how important ‘adoption’ and ‘retention’ are – the more people play and the longer they play tend to mean the more money they’ll spend.  We’ve also learned that the iPhone app-review process has a negative bias.  We have 20k+ players & because of a bug – we get 1000 one-star ratings and have to bribe people to give us a 5-star just to counter-balance.  You’re only ever asked to ‘rate’ an app when you delete it – so of course most of your ratings will be negative.

BTDP: What motivated you to make this game free?

Some publishers have seen a 400-to-1 ratio of free vs. paid.  Our game is boring if you don’t play against real people, so we want to remove any barriers to keep people from playing 🙂

BTDP: Since the game is free what is your monetary plan?

We have a virtual currency called ‘Blood Money’ that allows players to buy weapons & armor.  They can earn the money, or they can buy the money through the AppStore.  Since apple only allows you to sell an app one time, some players buy all the premium apps and then had no other option to get more money.  Next, we added an ‘Offer’ system from our partner, TapJoy.  Players can complete various offers to get more Blood money.  Last, we added a Google-checkout process via the website.

BTDP: How do you plan to stand out in such a crowded space?

Ironically, there isn’t another game like ours (that we’ve seen), so we’re pretty unique.  You either love it or think its lame 🙂  We need to keep expanding on the neat location based possibilities, make the game better, and then make a huge push to gain critical mass (aka: someone for you to play in every city).

BTDP: Describe to us how Google and their free services played a part in your development?

AppEngine has been very helpful in our growth.  Our entire platform runs on AppEngine and it gives us great flexibility in updating the game on the fly.  We also used all of the Google tools (Google Docs, Gmail, GTalk, Knol, Checkout, YouTube) to build our company.

BTDP: What kind of unique opportunities has this given you?

We love the concept of location-based apps and we’re eager to develop more!

BTDP: Are you planning to make more games in the future? Have you thought about different platforms or are you sticking with the iPhone?

Yes! We’re really excited about Android and its projected growth.  We’ll stick with iPhone, but their review process almost broke us – mentally and financially.  We were in limbo for 3 months and it was very difficult to get answers from anyone.

BTDP: In the future can we expect to see in game advertising, for instance a cup of Starbucks coffee as a weapon?

We hope so – once we hit a critical mass, we like the concept of people going to locations to pick up virtual items.  This can be a win-win for all parties.  The player gets a new item, the retailer gets foot traffic, and we have another way to monetize a free game.

BTDP: Talk a bit about the review process for applications and how you gave incentives for reviews?

See above for reason.  All we said was ‘Give us a 5-Star rating and we’ll give you $35K in Blood Money’.  I thank my lucky stars we did that – otherwise the negative bias would have us at 1 star & wouldn’t reflect all the thousands of players who enjoy the game daily.

BTDP: Where can people find more information about the game if they are interested?

  1. www.sidehobby.com (business side, reviews, etc)
  2. www.KillYourNeighbor.com (overview, how to play, purchase, contact us)
  3. http://amberadams-assassin.com/index.php (unofficial fan forum with a great 101)

BTDP: Anything else you would like to add or close out on?

The game isn’t morbid, despite its name and slogan.  In fact, players can create their own items and 99% of them are awesomely benign 🙂

Again I would like to thank Nicholas Holland for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions, I am grateful for the opportunity. It’s not often that someone of his stature would be so willing and eager to divulge answers to our questions. Show your appreciation by downloading this highly addictive and fun game.

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If you have any questions or feedback on this interview or suggestions for future interviews feel free to comment below. I look forward to hearing from you.

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