Lessons Learned From Building My First Independent Kids Game

Got to figure out how to make those App Store screenshots!

I’ve just released Boxapopa – a silly but fun game for young kids that I’ve been working on for over a year during the pandemic, mainly really late at night after my real work and family time was done for the day. I’ve a full-time job that I love, a family who I want to spend as much time as possible with, and also a couple of charity apps that I’ve been been also creating and maintaining. So building a game good enough to actually show other people isn’t easy when you’ve basically no spare time, and it’s only you working on it!

What is it?

It’s a really simple idea – each time you hit the button, something else will pop up on screen – it could be an animal, a submarine, a balloon or something else entirely – that kids can interact with. Hit the button again and something else will appear to play with.

Why did I build it?

Like all developers I have about 12,456 different ideas for apps and games, but choosing what to work on during that precious spare time is hard, and actually seeing something through to completion is even more difficult.

During the pandemic however my kids have definitely been using devices more, and I realised how few good games exist that don’t have ads or some crazy expensive subscription model. My older kids don’t like the ads but can tolerate them, but my younger kids don’t understand what’s happening when suddenly there’s a full page ad for some other game on screen.

On most of the rare games without ads, there can be too many in-app purchases – gems, boxes, whatever – just constant prompts on screen to buy more content, and the gameplay itself can be limited without shelling out some cash. I understand why developers and companies do it – to make as much money as possible; but my kids just want to play games without all the interruptions and distractions.

So I decided to make my own game with zero ads, for my own kids. They like it a lot so I decided to release it onto the Apple App Store aswell.

Lesson learned over the year and a half I was working on it:

Building a good game takes much longer than you think it will.

I’m a big believer in ‘Done is better than perfect’ and the MVP approaches of getting a solution out there quickly to get feedback etc; but with a kids game it needs to have enough to keep them interested and playing it – a few levels isn’t enough.

The three year old was always telling me “it’s broken” when he came across a level with no sound yet — nobody wants to play an unfinished game.

Graphics and sounds take much longer than you’ll think!

My game is basically a whole lot of images and a whole lot of sounds. I’m paying licenses for pretty much all of them, and spent so much time searching for the right ones.

After a day of building enterprise serverless solutions, and thinking about things like security, scalability & robustness, I’d find myself in the middle of the night trying to choose between two different frog sounds.

Having testers at home helps a lot!

The game was made for my kids, and they’ve tested it to within an inch of its life! They’ve also contributed some of the sounds!

It’s very easy to be distracted by other work.

I’ve managed to stop myself starting other games and side projects, but as well as working late regularly on my actual day-job work, during the last year I made an entirely different app, with both iOS and Android versions, to help folks with heart issues track their weight, as part of an initiative for engineers and other professionals to build solutions for good during Covid. I also continued to maintain and make changes to a full serverless & app solution for a homeless charity in Ireland.

Both very worthy causes but definitely impacted my Boxapopa making time!

Regular small sessions will get the work done.

Building a large game when you’ve very little spare time can be off putting, but if you manage to actually knuckle down and put in an hour as often as you can it’ll slowly get done. I’ve tried to commit code every day – I never manage to achieve this but I love seeing the GitHub chart fill up with little green squares so it’s encouraged me some nights to take out the MacBook when all I wanted to do was sleep.

September wasn’t so good!

You need to know the App Store guidelines

I sometimes wonder if Apple actually enforce their design and user principles, as there are a lot of apps I’ve seen that couldn’t be adhering to them! Building a kids’ app though, you want to make sure it won’t get rejected — so read up ono the guidelines and implement features like ‘parental gates’ (something to stop kids reaching commerce or external related places in your app) if you need to.

parental gate in Boxapopa

Pivoting is good but once you’ve gone so far stick with it.

The app’s gameplay is completely different to what I’d originally planned, but I made the decision to alter course very early in the process. Once I’d started building multiple levels I kept having new and different ideas but I did my best to ignore any big ones. If I’d entertained them I’d never have finished.

Marketing is key, and I know nothing about marketing.

You can build the most amazing game in the world but if nobody knows about it, nobody will download it. Aswell as building the game I’ve been reading up on marketing approaches – if I ever manage to understand it I’ll write another post about it!

As an independent developer, you’ll need to find good resources

One person can’t do everything, so you’re going to need to find good (and ideally cheap or free) resources online.

You can host your promotional site for very little cash

I created a quick website aswell to host information about the app (and you’ll need somewhere anyway to host your privacy policy for the app stores) — and hosted it on AWS, using a serverless pattern (Route 53, Cloudfront & S3). The only real cost is the domain name for $12, the rest is covered by some free credits I have.

Keep the faith!

Late at night, when everyone else in the house was sleeping I sometimes thought I’d never get the game finished, but perseverance will win out in the end!

You can check it out here: https://apps.apple.com/ie/app/boxapopa/id1550536188 and any thoughts or questions, just let me know below!

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Creator of Boxapopa, the iOS game for young kids with zero ads, just fun! https://apps.apple.com/ie/app/boxapopa/id1550536188

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Andy O'Sullivan

Andy O'Sullivan

Creator of Boxapopa, the iOS game for young kids with zero ads, just fun! https://apps.apple.com/ie/app/boxapopa/id1550536188

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