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Wednesday, December 12,2012

We, Robots

Local startup hopes to go viral with addictive new videogame app

by ALLAN I. ROSS
If you’ve ever lost a day’s work slinging ornery-looking cardinals at grimacing green pigs, you should probably stop reading right now — this story could cost you several hours of productivity. But hey, at least you could say you’re supporting a local startup. 

Meet Dan Latterner and Dave Cheng, co-founders of Free the Robots, a videogame app company that launched in August 2012. The pair worked for the better part of a year on an Apple iOS app game called ShadowArc that was released last month. And although their early numbers may not point to an “Angry Birds”-level success, how many first-time games do?   

“We’re really happy with the numbers so far, especially given the limited marketing we’ve been able to do,” says Latterner, 28. “It’s given us the momentum to keep moving forward, both with the upgrades to this game and the development of new ones.” 

In ShadowArc, the player controls two paddles that move circularly around a set of expanding waves that originate from a point in the center of the screen. The goal is to keep the waves from “escaping” off the sides of the screen. 

“I’d been experimenting with mobile technology, and I thought it would be fun to make a Guitar Hero-type game,” he said. “Originally, we were trying to sync up the arcs to music, but we found it was incredibly difficult to get that kind of technology to work on phones.”

Videogame music was actually what hooked Latterner on the medium in the first place. He went to the University of Michigan for performing arts technology, a program that focuses on the synthesis of digital music production. 

“Growing up, I played every videogame I could get my hands on,” says Latterner. “My mom couldn’t turn me away. And I always loved the music. In high school, I wrote music for DVD games. That’s what got me started.” 

After college, Latterner sent a demo version of a game he’d been tinkering around with to TechSmith Corp. in Okemos, a software development company specializing in content capture tools. They hired Latterner as a user interface designer, creating workflow and graphics to increase the usability of the company’s product. It was there that he met Cheng, a programmer, and after each expressed an interest in developing a mobile app videogame, they decided to give it a shot. 

“The thing that motivated me was the advent of the app store,” says Cheng, 32. “Someone can put together a game and sell it to the masses. You don’t have to go through a publisher. I heard about a guy who made a game in three months and sold 20,000 copies. I thought, I can make a game better than that.” 

Cheng works remotely in Clarksburg, Md., a half-hour northwest of Washington. He said TechSmith okayed the move, which allows his kids to be closer to their extended family, who live in the area. 

“Well, it took us about nine months to develop ShadowArc, and the due date we set just so happened to coincide with the birth of my third child,” says Cheng. “In a very real sense, I look at ShadowArc as my other baby.” 

Videogames aren’t just played by teenagers in basements anymore — or even in office cubicles by slacker employees. The rise of mobile apps has revolutionized the art of procrastination, turning coffee shops and DMV lines into de facto arcades. It’s also given a shot in the arm to whole new set of developers looking for a piece of that $14.5 billion pie. 

Since ShadowArc’s launch on Nov. 15, the free version has been downloaded about 7,000 times, with an impressive start of about 1,000 a day for the first week. You can find both free and pay versions at free-the-robots.com. The pay version costs $2.99, with upgrade packets ranging from $1 to $10. 

Latterner says he wants to switch gears so the team can “hit the ground running” to work on a new game, but they’re going to come back continue to upgrade ShadowArc over time. So is ShadowArc their Italian plumber, providing ample room for sequels and spin-offs?  

“We haven’t found our Mario yet,” he says with a laugh, “but we definitely want to find something we can come back to.”

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