The Crazy One: An Interview with Trey Smith, founder of Buildbox


“Here’s to the crazy ones. The rebels. The troublemakers. The ones who see things differently. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” – Steve Jobs

Welcome to the latest installment of Leadbolt’s interview series, The Crazy One, celebrating and learning from the best minds within the mobile industry.

We recently sat down with Trey Smith for a candid conversation about where he sees the industry going, and asked him to share his experience from the front-line as an app developer.

About Trey Smith:
Trey Smith is game developer and founder at Buildbox™ and Kayabit Games.  He’s had 7 games break the Top 30 of the app store including Phases, Bounce, Jump Pack, Maze+, Monster Magic and The Line Zen.  He currently resides in La Jolla, CA with his wife and two children.

From where do you hail and how big is your company/team?

We’re in La Jolla, CA, but in the process of moving to Palo Alto this summer.

Tell us your story. How did you start in this business?

I pretty much stumbled into this whole game business thing.  Back in 2010 I was blogging often about creating software and decided to take a stab at the app market.  I hired a coder from the Ukraine named Nik Rudenko on Odesk and made a game called Kolo’s Journey for about $1700.  The game actually did OK.  We were featured by Apple, made a decent ROI and I decided to try a few more.

Fast forward 5 years and Nik now lives in the US, we’ve had multiple top games and created a drag and drop game builder called Buildbox.

What was your first app and which app are you most proud of?

The game I’m most proud of is Phases.  It was the first game ever created with our software, was greenlit on Steam and broke the Top 28 of the App Store.  I created every part of the game from the graphics and level design to the music, so it’s a special one for me.

Who uses your app? 

We’ve had 3 games published by Ketchapp, so we’re strongly focused on the casual audience.  I test our games on my 7 year old daughter and my 64 year old father.  If we have a shot at the top it’s important for us to create widely addictive gameplay if we want a chance of a going viral.

What is different or unique about your app?

With Phases I did a few different things.  First off, because we wanted to keep the controls simple on mobile devices, we had the ball automatically jumping.  I’m sure it’s probably been done before, but I’ve yet to find a platformer where the character constantly jumps.  Then I decided (for better or for worse) to end the game with an endless “Phase Zero”.  While I think it made it more interesting than a simple game over screen, it definitely confused some, if not most, of the players.  Regardless, it was definitely unique even if I don’t necessarily recommend it.

How did this app come about?  What triggered/inspired the creation of your app?

Actually Phases started off as a preset for Buildbox.  I was playing around with a Doodle Jump style preset I was working on for the final version of Buildbox, and accidentally turned the screen orientation Landscape.  Obviously a lot happened after that, but this was the initial inspiration.

What was your first major challenge and how did you go about overcoming it? 

I released the game as a .99 cent paid app and it didn’t do that well.  Actually, it didn’t do horribly… I believe it even broke the Top 100 of all paid apps, but monetization was not there.  I wanted to go freemium, but it was built with an alpha version of our software and we didn’t have ad networks setup yet. Like most developers, users was a big issue at first.

How did you go about getting your app discovered by new users?

After I saw the game wasn’t going to hit the numbers I was hoping for, I contacted publishers to see if I could get some traction and signed a deal with Ketchapp.  They’ve been great to work with.  Really solid guys.

How does your app generate revenue?  (in-app purchases, in-app advertising, subscription, download fee, a combo of monetization strategies?) 

Most of our revenue is from Ad Networks, but Phases did very well with a $.99 in app purchase to skip a level.

What trend do you see happening in the mobile app economy that you think will impact mobile app developers?

Many people, me included, thought we would see a stronger push in console quality games by this time.  While we do have some, they don’t typically to have the staying power that simple addictive one-touch gameplay does on mobile.  I think this trend will continue and I’m very interested to see new one-touch social games that branch out beyond match 3 and city building.

If you could offer one piece of advice or life-lesson to developers starting out, what would you tell them?

You have to be semi-insane to make it work in this business.  You have to test, test, test and then test some more.  When you think the game is done, then you have to take a few days off and come back to it with fresh eyes and be extremely critical on your design choices. Then you have to rinse and repeat.  If you are not sick of your game, it’s not ready for release.  The biggest mistake I see new developers make is they don’t spend time polishing their games.  It’s really important.

Of course, polishing a really bad game doesn’t make it better, so the last piece of advice I have is to take a birds eye view of your game on a consistent basis.  Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the tiny details and forget to step back and think about the game as a whole.  Is the game really fun?  Will new people enjoy this?  Does it have a hook that makes it unique?  What emotions, if any, does it spark when you play it?  All of these are good questions that you can’t ask too many times.  We’ve changed many things at the last minute by taking a step back.

Give us an inside peek into what’s next for you.

Nik on our team is creating an amazing new game called SKY with a prototype version of Buildbox.  I’m excited to see how this one does.  It’s pretty addictive and has great style.  We’re pretty sick of it, so it’s about time for release 😉

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