Doodle The Doodler is a happy little hand-drawn figure, jumping calmly higher while dodging sweetly nonthreatening monsters and the occasional black hole. He's friendly, gentle, tenacious, and insanely addicting. "People seem to project a lot of interesting things on him," says Igor Pušenjak, 34, of the character who is at the heart of an iPhone game that has catapulted into the Apple Store record books. In the year since Pušenjak first sketched the game on a pad in his living room, Doodle Jump has become one of the most downloaded paid applications on iTunes--and the sixth-highest-grossing app in the store, with more than $4 million in sales. The wee Doodle has helped turn Igor, the artist and designer behind Lima Sky, and his brother Marko, the engineer, into gaming superstars.
It all started, as the best things often do, because the two brothers wanted to do something fun together. Igor was living in New York, putting his Parsons MFA in design and interactive technology to work creating Web sites and the occasional multimedia-art installation, while Marko remained in Croatia, treading water in unsatisfying engineering gigs. "Our goal was to replace his basic salary--about $1,000 a month in Croatia--with something really creative," says Igor. Devoted gamers, they saw the opening of the iPhone platform in July 2008 as a huge opportunity to play around--and, though neither has children, they went straight for kid's stuff. "We're not into violent games," Igor says. "We saw a chance to carve out a niche for kids, since the iPhone market wasn't tapped into that at all. The big question was, Would parents hand over a $400 device?"
Their first app, iBubbleWrap, was a digital version of a sheet of bubble wrap, and, evidently, just as fun to pop--they sold 49 copies the first day. As sales waned, they updated the app with colors and new features. Sales shot up. The insight: Keep your audience excited--and get them to share their excitement with others--with free updates. The approach is exactly the opposite of how traditional game designers, who think of their products as finished when shipped, market their wares. "It was ingrained in me because of my Web background," Igor says. "First releases should be substantial but not complete, and then you continuously add content every couple of weeks--like a television pilot." They also decided that they would put out lots of pilots, to test what would stick. Marko left his job a few months into their adventure, and the two began putting out simple games at a feverish pace.
Lima Sky is the epitome of a lean organization, with virtually no overhead; the brothers still work from their respective homes. For iBubbleWrap, Igor says with a laugh, "I recorded the popping noises in my bathroom." They've mastered designing for a unique, mobile environment. Think fast ... and slow. The perfect iPhone game follows the 30-second rule, they say, providing a satisfying quick play, but there's also a one-hour corollary: If you have the time, the game should keep you engaged for longer. (YouTube abounds with Doodle Jumpers filming their jaw-dropping scores after hours of play.)
The brothers now have a portfolio of nearly 40 apps and a licensing deal with GameHouse to develop Doodle Jump for other mobile platforms--there are versions for the Android, BlackBerry, and Windows Mobile. An iPad one is on the way. And Igor says they're working on more for what he calls a "very different environment."
The Pušenjaks' initial question of whether adults will hand over their iPhones to kids has been answered definitively: Only when they're done playing themselves. Consider the ridiculous romp Eat Bunny Eat, in which a cartoon rabbit catches falling carrots while dodging, inexplicably, plummeting cans of tuna. (Igor drew it and also voiced the munching sounds.) "In the U.K., entire pubs play together, losers buying drinks," he says. "We did not see that coming."