Archive for March, 2010

The Story of Hearts Attack

I’ve already posted the press release for Hearts Attack, but I thought I’d share a little about how Hearts Attack came about.

Way back in 2008 the original iPhone SDK came out, and I, like a lot of people, was excited about developing apps for the iPhone. My company is primarily a software development services company so I was mainly interested in learning the SDK so we could pick up iPhone contracts in addition to Mac ones. It also happens to be the case that my favorite card game is hearts, so I decided a good way to learn the iPhone SDK was to write my own hearts game.

After a couple of weeks I had the basic functionality implemented, and noticed I was playing it a lot. I realized then that I could probably make this into a product. Furthermore, releasing an iPhone app through the App Store seemed like a good way for us as a company to begin making the transition from a services based company to a product based one.

If I was going to release Hearts Attack as a published app, I knew the UI and presentation had to be greatly improved. I went through a lot of mockups for the main playing view, including one where everyone’s cards — all 52 of them — were always visible somewhere on the table (a truly horrible idea). Unfortunately I don’t seem to have most of the mockups around anymore, but I found a couple which you can see below. (See the product page for the end result.)

HorizontalLayout.jpg VerticalLayout.jpg
VerticalLayout3.jpg HorizontalLayout3.jpg

The biggest challenge I had was fitting everything on the screen and it still being legible and usable. By trial and error I figured out how small I could make the cards and still make them tappable, as well as their optimal position to make them accessible with one hand.

I began thinking about what would make Hearts Attack unique or different from its competitors. Back then there were literally just two iPhone hearts games in the App Store, and I felt pretty confident that what I had was already better than them, but I wanted to be sure. I decided on: oddball talking computer opponents, a tutorial that gave not only card suggestions but the rationale behind the choice (a pet peeve of mine), and multiple undo support for mis-taps and tactical errors.

The last step was to get professionals to do the sound and graphics. I ended up hiring a sound designer, a graphics designer, and a character illustrator. The sound design went smoothly, but getting the graphics done was a lot more involved than I anticipated, which is another story for another day. Jordan of OneToad Design created the app icon, playing backgrounds, and the special card backgrounds for the queen of spades and jack of diamonds. Lara Kehler did the character illustrations, which turned out great.

Unfortunately, Hearts Attack went on hiatus in early 2009. I was working full time on an iPhone contract, and simply didn’t have a lot of time to put into Hearts. Secondly, I had lost all desire in finishing it. It was becoming increasingly apparent that iPhone users didn’t want to pay more than $0.99 for anything, despite all the whining I did about it. I convinced myself it wasn’t worth releasing Hearts because it would never make back the money it cost us to make. Hearts stayed dormant for an entire year.

A couple of months ago, I decided to pick Hearts Attack back up again. I had the time and, as someone pointed out to me, it would never make money if I didn’t release it. I was tempted to update the app to the latest SDK (I started Hearts back before you could even use nibs on the iPhone) and add some features. I decided against this, because I really just wanted to ship it. I did have to update it to the 2.2.1 SDK because the current Xcode tools no longer ship with the 2.0 SDK.

Instead I focused on fixing the bugs and adding polish. Fortunately for me my wife happens to be a professional software tester with iPhone experience, so I got lots of good bugs to fix. I also prepared a press release, created a website, and otherwise got ready for the release. After I felt the app was stable enough, I submitted it to Apple on Friday. It was approved on Monday.

At this point, I’m still not convinced I’ll ever make back the money we spent on sound and graphic designers. A hearts card game simply is never going to be a big seller, and price point isn’t high enough to make up for that. Right now, I’m tending to think pessimistically about sales, but I’m going to do what I can to drum up sales and see how things go.

It’s a “wait and see” situation as to if we develop any more iPhone applications to sell ourselves. Of course, regardless of how well Hearts Attack does, we’d be happy to develop your iPhone app for you.

Distributed Version Control and Other Religions

Lately it seems there’s been a lot of talk about distributed version control systems — especially git and Mercurial — and how they’re the bee’s knees or possibly even the cat’s pajamas.

But at the risk of having my programmer’s license revoked, I have to confess I don’t really care about version control systems. I mean, I think it’s important to use version control, but I don’t get all excited about the latest ideas in version control technology or the newest VCS on the block. It’s just a tool. It keeps versions of all my code, and allows me to revert to previous versions, see when and how things changed, and collaborate with other programmers working in the same codebase. Beyond that I don’t much care.

The tools don’t make the programmer.

What’s new with DVCS is the proponents seem to think they need to evangelize their system. Unfortunately they rather suck at it, and their arguments usually leave me feeling that I don’t want to use software used by such jerks, on account that it might make me into a jerk. Or at least a bigger one.

However, I do think that a DVCS can be a really useful tool so I’ve come up with some suggestions for those wanting to effectively evangelize their favorite version control system, or at least annoy me less when they talk.

  1. Don’t be condescending or insulting

    I think it’s part of human nature — or at least programmer nature — to assume you’re the smartest guy in the room, and think that anyone who disagrees with you is a real buffon. Programmers seem to take great pleasure in showing that the other person is an idiot, or didn’t know something they did, or is at least not as clever as they are. A lot of arguments for git or Mercurial seem to revolve around explaining how git or Mercurial are so clearly superior that only morons would use something else.

    While this works great for rallying the troops, it’s counterproductive when trying to win someone over to your side.

    Think of it this way: suppose someone comes to your door to tell you about their religion. During the discussion they are self righteous and condescending; they don’t listen to your arguments, but are only interested in proving that they’re right. Are you likely to be swayed to believe in their religion? If you’re like the other hairless bipedal mammals inhabiting this planet you won’t be, even if they had some valid points.

    As soon as you become insulting or condescending, your arguments will be rejected out of hand. I know this will upset some programmers because they believe if you show your argument is superior, everyone will accept it. But that’s not the way people work.

  2. Try to be helpful

    The best way to introduce someone to your DVCS is by trying to help them. Not in the “I have all the answers” way, but in the “I’ve dealt with that before, and here’s what I did” kind of way. People will run into the kinds of problems that DVCS are good at solving. When they do, you can helpfully suggest a solution.

    However, some care should be taken so the suggestion doesn’t come off the wrong way.

    Wrong Right
    Dude, why are you using subversion? I’ve run into that problem before. I solved it by using feature X of git/hg in this way.
    Dude, just use git/hg. You smell nice.

    Be aware that people may not know where their pain points are. I’ve seen customers jump through some excruciating hoops to get a piece of software to do something when there was an easier way. People get used to pain and begin to assume it’s normal. If you notice something like that, even if they’re not complaining about it, you can politely suggest a better way.

    Instead of a list of features that a DVCS provides or abstract arguments as to why they should be using it, people respond better to concrete examples of how a piece of software can make their lives better. People are also more responsive when they know you’re on their side, trying to help them, even if they don’t — or currently can’t — take your suggestion. Keep in mind switching VCS in the middle of product cycle is likely something most people can’t do.

    The right attitude is that of trying to help a friend, not conquer an enemy.

  3. Be willing to answer questions, even dumb ones

    Distributed version control works differently from centralized version control, and it does require a different way of thinking. I know I was confused by it when I first started looking into it. A lot of tutorials jump into the mechanics of how to perform certain tasks, but rarely talk about the philosophy of the system or why things are the way they are. If you want to successfully persuade people that your DVCS is the best then you need to be willing to do a lot of patient education.

    I say “patient” because after using centralized version control they might have difficulty switching over to a new mental model. Or they might have heard a lot of FUD about your DVCS that you need to put to rest. It’s important to do this patiently, respectfully, and not insultingly because they’ve picked up misinformation or don’t immediately “get it” like you do. Otherwise they might ignore your DVCS so they don’t have to deal with people who look down on them because they don’t “get it.”

  4. Make it trivial to install and use

    This seems like a no brainer, but it is an important part of any software. If it’s hard to try out and use your DVCS, it simply won’t get used. I think that for the most part both git and Mercurial succeed in this respect. My only complaint is neither has a good Mac GUI client. Contrast that with Subversion which has both Versions and Cornerstone on the Mac. You shouldn’t underestimate the draw of an easy to use, beautiful GUI.

I think Joel Spolsky has given the best example of how to properly promote and evangelize a DVCS. He wrote a blog post — Distributed Version Control is here to stay, baby — about how he came to learn and use DVCS. It’s well written, and instead of condescending, he’s actually humble and admits he was wrong about DVCS to begin with. Joel also created a site called HgInit that does an amazing job of explaining the philosophy behind Mercurial and gives a solid introduction to right way to use it. It’s actually the site that convinced me to start using Mercurial for real.

Redesigning a Software Contractor's Website

It’s been about eight years since our company website has had a major redesign. But that changed today.

The old design simply wasn’t meeting our needs. Specifically:

  • It didn’t communicate clearly what exactly we do here.
  • It had a search box which, as far as I can tell, didn’t, and has never, worked.
  • It had several pages describing services we don’t perform, at least not when a cop is around. Some of these pages just had boilerplate text in them. e.g. “Item 1″, “Item 2″, etc
  • The visual design was really old and unprofessional. The new is at least not old.
  • The old feedback form demanded a lot of extraneous information like title, company, telephone number, home address, when you shower, etc.
  • It had a copyright date at the bottom of 2002, which caused people to ask: “Are you guys still in business?” This was apparently a barrier to them sending us money.

Fortunately, we mainly rely on word of mouth to get clients, but a bad website certainly doesn’t help our business. We could be missing out on clients who find our website, but don’t contact us for any of the reasons listed above.

I’ve recently had some time between contracts, which I used to think about how a software contractor’s website should be structured and what kind of information it should present. Also, I slept in late a lot. I came to some conclusions:

  • It should immediately obvious to a visitor what the company does, no matter what page they land on.
  • It should have a portfolio so the visitor can see what kind of work we have done in the past, and see if that matches up with what they want done at the quality level they want.
  • A brief description of services that we do provide, explained in layman’s terms.
  • It should be obvious and easy to get in touch with us. The form for submitting a message should have as few requirements as possible.
  • It should contain a brief overview of the company, and the people in it. It should put a human face to the company.
  • Noon really is not a bad time to wake up.

I also decided to add a page for products, mainly for future use.

Overall the project was a fun — and hopefully financially rewarding — exercise. It was interesting to think about what would induce a visitor to stick around on our site, and then actually contact us. I’m not sure if I got it completely right, but it’s at least a step in the right direction.