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How To Become An App Millionaire

Fire Maple Games owner Joe Kauffman says his secret is great entertainment. But his success story also includes Corona SDK, a programming tool that fuels iOS, Android, and soon OS X apps from one code base.

Joe Kauffman is living the mobile app developer dream. His company's two mobile games, The Secret of Grisly Manor and The Lost City, have been downloaded over 3.5 million times to date, and have generated more than $1 million in revenue.

His company, Fire Maple Games, has one employee, if you ignore the photographic work done by a friend and the contracted music.

"Because I do the art and the programming, there are no arguments," Kauffman quipped in a phone interview.

Without doubt, Kauffman is an exception in an industry where the average developer earns less than $10,000 per year.

Mobile developer Insurgent Games last month gave up on the game business and gave away the source code of the company's five apps because, as the company explains on its website, founders Micah Lee and Crystal Mayer "quickly realized that unless you're incredibly lucky, it's hard to make enough money developing indie mobile games to pay San Francisco rent."

[ Read 10 Android App Hidden Gems. ]

San Francisco, incidentally, is where the Game Developer's Conference is being held this week. It's chock full of sessions about how to be a successful game developer, to do what Joe Kauffman has done.

Kauffman is the first Corona SDK developer to hit the million dollar mark, an event that Carlos Icaza, co-founder of Corona SDK maker Ansca Mobile, characterizes as a validation of his company's vision to democratize development.

"There are compelling stories and games out there," said Icaza in a phone interview, "and with our software, developers and designers can spend more time telling stories than writing code."

Corona SDK is a cross-platform programming tool that allows developers to create iOS and Android--and soon OS X--apps from a single code base. Developers create their apps in Lua, an open source programming language known for being easy to use and for its small footprint, which makes it suitable as an embedded language. The simplicity of Lua and the Corona APIs really do accelerate project development, though coding time has a lot to do with project scope, too. Try programming a complex, real-time multiplayer game that integrates with back-end services, and Lua won't make your life miraculously easy.

Icaza says that Kauffman's success reflects well upon Ansca Mobile. "It benefits us because it proves that Corona is a technology that can make it happen," he said. "Without successful developers, we wouldn't be successful."

The company very nearly wasn't. Back in 2010, Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple at the time, declared that "letting a third-party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform."

Jobs had declared war on Adobe's Flash platform, but other technologies appeared likely to suffer too. For the first few months of 2010, it looked like Apple might not allow iOS apps to be built from Lua code. But later that year, Apple softened its stance on apps created with technologies other than Objective-C, and the third-party developer tool ecosystem (with the exception of the Flash platform for mobile) has been thriving ever since.

Though Jobs' complaint has some merit with regard to the availability of new APIs--Corona SDK is expected to implement in-app billing for Android this week, a year after Google made the API available in its Android SDK--his view that third-party software leads to sub-standard apps doesn't appear to be shared by those buying Kauffman's apps. In fact, the corollary of Jobs' assertion--that apps of adequate quality can only be made using Apple's technologies--is demonstrably false.

Kauffman, who was a Flash developer for 10 years, started making desktop computer games in 2008, back when the standard pricing was $19.95. "Things have definitely shifted since then," he said.

Though prices are lower for his mobile apps--Grisly Manor has been made free to promote The Lost City for $0.99--Kauffman says that has meant a lot more users.

"It's more fun to have the volume, to have more people play the games," he said.

If there's a secret to Kauffman's success, it's that people, lots of people, like his games.

While mobile developers, desperate to stand out in crowded app stores, appear to have an endless appetite for marketing gimmicks--integrating apps with Facebook or other gaming networks, cross-promotional ad schemes, paying for reviews, or similar stratagems--Kauffman says he didn't do any of that.

"I did a basic press release," he said. "I didn't spend money on marketing, or email review sites." The games, in other words, spoke for themselves.

In terms of game design, Kauffman says he focused on the interface. He says he has a friend who worked on BioShock, a well-regarded, high-budget, first-person shooter that took something like four years and 400 people to produce.

"Kids finish it in 12 hours," he said. "I don't have the resources to compete with that." The Secret of Grisly Manor took him seven months, he said. Lost City took a year. But he's serving a different audience, one that skews more toward adult women than teen boys.

Hence the focus on interface: "A lot of these people are playing games from the first time," he said, meaning they're not familiar with the vocabulary or design conventions of video games.

While Kauffman appreciates that tools like Corona SDK have made it easier than ever to create games, he acknowledges that there are trade-offs. "The downside is by letting everybody play, you're allowing lots of garbage in," he said. "But I like it because it lets more people try it out. It lets people experiment."

As federal agencies embrace devices and apps to meet employee demand, the White House seeks one comprehensive mobile strategy. Also in the new Going Mobile issue of InformationWeek Government: Find out how the National Security Agency is developing technologies to make commercial devices suitable for intelligence work. (Free registration required.)

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