7 Little Words an App Store smash from Aroostook County

Posted June 17, 2011, at 1:01 p.m.
Christopher York, owner of Blue Ox Technologies Ltd. in Caribou, has another hit on his hands with the 7 LIttle Words app for iPhones, iPads and iPods.
Christopher York, owner of Blue Ox Technologies Ltd. in Caribou, has another hit on his hands with the 7 LIttle Words app for iPhones, iPads and iPods.

CARIBOU, Maine — Christopher York’s experience in making computer games goes back a ways — all the way to the 1980s, when consoles weighed a ton and the TRS-80 was king.

A few decades later, he has returned to making computer games — and while the market is much larger, the devices he’s designing for are much, much smaller.

About three years ago, when apps for hand-helds started taking off, York, owner of Blue Ox Technologies Ltd., dusted off his old game design skills and made a go at the iPhone market with a basic memory game with a Maine twist, called “Moosentration.” That game was moderately successful, with about 100,000 downloads and a licensing agreement with L.L. Bean.

Next came Moxie, and a higher level of success. The game is a word game where points are scored by changing letters to form new words. Moxie was downloaded about a half million times.

But his most recent game, 7 Little Words, has really taken off. The game, a mix between a crossword and a word jumble, hit Apple’s App Store at the beginning of May. It jumped in the charts and has been downloaded more than 1.5 million times. Last Tuesday, on what’s the slowest weekday for app downloads on average, the game was downloaded 26,000 times for iPhones and iPads.

“It’s hit a sweet spot where it’s a puzzle that is not too difficult; it’s challenging enough to make a person feel smart when they solve it, but it’s not so hard they feel it’s impossible to do,” said York.

York’s success marks both the importance of broadband penetration into Maine’s interior and the ability of Mainers to carve out an entrepreneurial niche for themselves in a variety of fields, notes University of Maine economist James McConnon.

“Here’s a typical, innovative Maine person that develops an interest in something, a passion in something, and then through hard work and keeping his eyes open sees an opportunity to develop a business out of it,” said McConnon. “Maine is full of people like that, and stories like that — from folks who are involved in developing food products based on family recipes and developing a growing business out of that to software developers who utilize their knowledge and experience to create products and services that have a market.”

York, 43, bought his first computer, a TRS-80, when he was in the sixth grade, with money he saved from delivering the Bangor Daily News and Aroostook Republican in his hometown of Caribou. He taught himself how to program. In those days, computer magazines published code for programs for readers to duplicate and try. York had a few published, including a game that was sort of a combination Pong and Breakout that two players could play against each other.

Computers were a hobby until 1997, when he founded Blue Ox. He focused on building systems and programming for companies, including work at what was then Fraser Paper in Madawaska. He worked as a subcontractor for other companies doing computer work for firms such as Unum, MBNA, Xerox and others. Self-taught, he never went to college for computer engineering. He did progress through Microsoft’s certification programs until he was certified as a trainer. He traveled for several years, teaching Microsoft’s curriculum to other programmers.

He had long since gotten away from game development because the products had progressed to such a sophisticated, graphics-intense point.

“The biggest barrier to games for the last 20 years was that it became very, very difficult for one person to make a game that would be competitive,” said York.  “But when mobile devices came out, particularly the iPhone, I saw one person could make a game again — like back in the days of the TRS- 80.”

When Apple launched its iPhone developer program, York got into it. A month or two after the App Store was up and running, Moosentration was available on it. The game, and others York has produced, has appeal to the growing category of casual gamers. This includes people of all ages and both genders who are looking to play games in brief spurts — the five minutes while waiting in line at the grocery or at the doctor’s office.

“They’re not your hardcore teenagers sitting in front of their Xbox,” said York.

According to the latest projections from Gartner Inc., worldwide app store downloads across all mobile platforms are forecast to reach 17.7 billion downloads this year, a 117 percent increase from an estimated 8.2 billion downloads in 2010. The tech-analyst firm forecast that by the end of 2014, more than 185 billion applications will have been downloaded from mobile app stores, since the launch of the first one in July 2008.

Gartner reported that worldwide mobile application store revenue is projected to surpass $15.1 billion this year, both from the purchase of applications and from advertising revenues. That’s a 190 percent increase from 2010 revenue of $5.2 billion.

The Moxie game came as a partnership with his mother, who was going through chemotherapy at the time. York was spending a lot of time with her, and they were looking for things to do to keep her mind occupied and off her health problems. He suggested creating a game together, and they set to work using index cards to prototype the game play. Growing up, his family didn’t have a TV for several years, and they spent many evenings playing cards or board games. This was a natural extension of that experience.

Moxie hit the virtual shelves in early 2009, and his mother got to see it as a modestly popular success before dying. She was always proud of their work, he said.

“I’d bring her to the hospital and she’d tell the doctors to get their iPhones and play the games,” said York.

Moxie has a free version and expanded paid versions that run from 99-cents to $2.99. Moxie, said York, has paid the bills for the past few years.

About six months ago, he got the idea for 7 Little Words. He began to work at it a bit at a time, again, using index cards and testing out concepts on friends and family. He eventually came up with a model he liked and it went live in May. He cross-promoted it through Moxie, alerting players of that game about the new offering.

After it was out for a few weeks, Apple picked it as an app to feature, so it was highlighted in the App Store. That happened first in Australia and New Zealand, and the game took off — it was the number one downloaded app there for a whole week. When Apple highlighted 7 Little Words in the U.S., it hit number three for a few days before heading back down the charts.

The app seems popular; there are thousands of review written by users, mostly positive. A fourth-grade class in Chicago has incorporated the game into their lesson plans. Besides the right level of challenge, said York, another attraction may be the smiley face icon players get when each puzzle is solved.

“It’s very minimalist, but I think it just gives people a good vibe,” he said.

For this app, York has gone to the razor-blade business model. The initial game is free and comes with 50 puzzles. Each additional pack of 50 puzzles, however, costs 99 cents. So even if downloads of the game decline, revenue can continue to grow as users seek new modules for the game.

York has hired some subcontractors to develop puzzle packs — mostly puzzle writers who have previously focused on crosswords. He’s also developing French and Spanish versions of the game.

York declined to discuss specific revenues from the game, but said 7 Little words “has given me some breathing room to work without so many month-to-month worries.”

“More so than any money I can get from it, the fact that people like what I built is the important thing,” said York. “The biggest thing I like about it is I can create something and it touches so many people — it makes me feel like I have an impact in people’s lives.”

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