Indie Showcase: Kiragames’ Unblock Me

kiragamesKiragames is an independent game studio based in Thailand. It’s flagship game Unblock Me was released four years ago in 2009 and became the most downloaded application that year and to date is currently the #17 most downloaded game of all time in the US AppStore. Kiragames’ actual roots started from a sole indie developer named Kirakorn Chimkool that worked on Unblock Me to learn a new programming language for him. Little did he know it would be one of those life-changing moments and lead him to go full time with his game career path and establish Kiragames later on in 2011. Aun Taraseina, COO of Kiragames and a developer of Unblock Me, discusses the creation of the game.

To fully grasp the whole picture of how Unblock Me started, you will have to understand the nature of its creator, Kirakorn Chimkool. He’s the type of person who is really shy and rarely speaks to anyone he doesn’t know. He has always kept an extremely low profile of himself, so it wouldn’t be strange if you have heard or played Unblock Me before but have no idea what and who Kiragames and Kirakorn are.

In 2009, Kirakorn was working at an outsourcing division in a company from the US. His daily routine would be consist of looking trough list of issues that he needs to get finish and send back to his employers in US. While it did have good pay, it wasn’t something he wanted to do for the rest of his career. Kirakorn said his dream has always been to create games. After hearing that Apple will soon open its gateway for developers in Thailand to sell their Apps through the AppStore, Kirakorn quickly jumped on the bandwagon and started learning the native language for the iOS platform. Kirakorn said that the main reason for his interest of the platform was mainly because of his geek nature; he wanted to learn something new and he wanted to try the new platform ecosystem that seems to be very open to indie developers. I remember at that time, Kirakorn start sending some game ideas to me and one of our friends, Tim Promwanna, who is now the Game Director at Kiragames, to get a feel of what we think of his idea. One of the last game ideas that he sent us was a link to an iOS game that was already doing extremely well at that time, Blocked.

Starting with Concept

As a gamer and developer, I have really high respect for Blocked. It was a fun game to play with great fluid design. And for all the good reasons, Blocked had a good level of inspiration to Unblock Me, but the core concept of the game and theme would be different. Kirakorn wanted a game that anyone can play, so he made sure that there were different levels of difficulties to the game, especially the easiest levels. He felt that solving puzzles is a human instinct, the instinct to find answers and challenges, so he designed all the graphics to match the natural elements that surrounds him, such as the sky background or the wooden blocks. I later asked him about the the name Unblock Me came from. His simple reply was, the name Blocked seems like it’s stuck somewhere in the puzzle so he named his game Unblock Me in contrast to Blocked.

Comparison

A screenshot comparing Blocked and Unblock Me in the early versions

Development

After all the core concepts were final, Kirakorn started his development by buying a $700 Mac Mini with 10-month installments and a $100 secondhand iPod. The development for Unblock Me took Kirakorn about six weeks during his free time to complete from start to finish, including the time that he used to learn Objective C, iOS development and Coco2d for iPhone, which was the game engine used for Unblock Me. The puzzles were generated by a C# program that runs on Windows, and another python script was written to sort out the difficulties of each of the puzzles that were generated. After that, he would manually copy the puzzles to his Mac Mini and work on Unblock Me from there.

Kirakorn recalls that he was very fortunate that the decisions he made throughout the development cycle were correct.He didn’t have any problems or delays with coding at all, but he did take a bit of time to work on the graphics for Unblock Me since he’s not an artist. If you see the work he had done with Unblock Me in the earlier versions, you can see it is much cruder. With newer versions of Unblock Me, we have professional artists to work on the graphics, but the same feeling of those early versions still remains. I tried asking him what he considers to be the most difficult issue during development, but he couldn’t think of any. Most of the features took a couple of days to work on during his time from his day job. And I can related to this, as a long time friend of Kirakorn and as a developer that has been lucky enough to work with many developers, I can really say he is among the most talented developer I’ve worked with.

UnBlock-Me-Updates

Screenshot as Unblock Me progress throughout the 4 years.

Getting Unblock Me to the AppStore

Kirakorn didn’t have much emotions after the game was completed. He felt that he really enjoyed the process of learning a new language, a new platform and getting back to work on games again all together. If the game will succeed or not wasn’t much of his concern since that wasn’t the point for Unblock Me anyway. This make sense to me now because the first version of Unblock Me in the AppStore came in two versions: the full version for 0.99$ with 1200 puzzles and the free version with 400 puzzles for free with no monetization platform. I still remember the night he was about to submit the game to Apple, he was talking with me and Tim on Skype and was asking questions like “Do you think my game will sell at all?” or “Maybe I should just release one version and release it for free, I don’t think it will make that much money anyway.” Of course, I was against going with one version for free but in the end, it was his call. He did however, went with two versions, which proved to be a key factor to Unblock Me’s success at that time.

While the initial development of Unblock Me was a breeze for Kirakorn, he said that the most challenging process of getting Unblock Me to the wild was getting it to the AppStore. The game was stuck in the Apple submission process due to uncleared bank account info. Kirakorn said that the problem went on for about a month and a half, and during this time, he would constantly send daily emails to Apple for help regarding the issue. At the end, Kirakorn decided to apply for a new iOS Developer account and use a new bank for the account. The game eventually went live within days using the new iOS Developer Account.

Going Live and Wild

After the game went live, the paid version of Unblock Me was able to sell about 10 copies the first day and then 20 the second day and then 50 the third day, and it kept going on like this for about two weeks until it reached the #60 most downloaded game. Both the Free version and the Paid version did very well during its launch. The free version eventually became the #1 most downloaded app in every category within a few days and became most downloaded app of the year(2009) in the AppStore. A lot of Unblock Me‘s success has to be contributing to having a free version at that time. While the free version didn’t even have any ads in it, it created a huge buzz among blogs and forums. People have no problem trying the game for free, and most of them were willing to paid the extra 0.99$ for more puzzles. The biggest competitor at that time was Blocked, but it came with only 100 or so puzzles.

With the success of Unblock Me that year, Kirakorn decided to quit his day job after his contract expired. He continued to work on Unblock Me alone for another year before establishing Kiragames in 2011, which is when me, Tim and many more talented developers joined him.

Team

The Ongoing Development…

This is supposed to be a postmortem of Unblock Me, but I think everyone at Kiragames will agree that Unblock Me is still ongoing and everyone on the team is still heavily involved.  At the time of writing this article, I’ve just committed the last new feature for Unblock Me’s update on the iOS. Unblock Me on Android, which was released in 2010, will also get an update pretty soon, depending on how QA goes. We have definitely learn a lot from this four year process; we have seen how things quickly changed and got a better understanding of our users and the market in total.

Aun Taraseina will be a speaker at Casual Connect Asia in Singapore during May 21 – May 23,  and will be talking about “Key Points for Indie Success Globally.” Feel free to contact him via auntara at kiragames dot com if you are interested about the topic.

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