When the App Store first launched in 2008, it set off a gold rush for app development. So long as you had the guts, some coding skills, and a sufficiently good idea, you had a legitimate shot at making it big. It was a great equalizer for software industry outsiders who now finally had a channel to share their creations to the world.
That’s also the story for Penguin Hustle, a head-to-head and online multiplayer variant of Tetris. The game’s developer, Justin Yek, first came up with the idea after seeing a dearth of real-time multiplayer games in the App Store. Having always been interested in tech entrepreneurship, he thought it was a great opportunity to pursue.
There was only one hurdle: Justin was a banker, not a game developer.
Originally from Singapore, Justin moved to New York to take up financial engineering in Columbia University. He then pursued an investment banking job in Hong Kong after graduating in 2009. Crossing over from finance to game development is no easy feat, but it’s even more challenging for someone with a taxing full-time job, almost zero programming background, and a development budget of only SGD 2000.
Still, six months after coming up with the idea, he was able to release Penguin Hustle to the App Store in July this year. Although it’s yet to climb the long ladder of App Store rankings, it’s already generated significant traction, with some users playing up to 100 games a day. I tried the game out just to see how it worked, and found myself completely hooked. I never expected that outsmarting online opponents with fun powerups and falling blocks could be so thrilling.
So how did someone coming from a deep finance background pull this off? We spoke to Justin to find out.
SGE: Since your background is in finance, how long did it take for you to get to the level of being able to develop games?
Justin: I took introductory programming classes in college where we wrote Java programs and ran simulations in Matlab. In December 2012, I bought my first Mac and received an iPad as a Christmas present. Fiddling around with my iPad, I noticed there weren’t many games where you could compete real-time against your friends. I wanted a game that was interactive, familiar to people and unique at the same time, but was clueless as to how to write one. Then one day, I came upon a Carnegie Mellon lecture series on IOS programming in iTunes U. I watched the first two lectures, did the assignments and found the material quite intuitive. I was inspired and that was how Penguin Hustle began.
I hadn’t written code for three years and was starting from ground zero in a new language. It took hours to place and move a square block across the screen. I was as far as I could be from a product and while I knew vaguely in my mind what I needed to get there, I didn’t know how to. Fortunately, with the amount of resources on the web, you can google your way to writing a game. I broke it down into pieces, approached each piece a step at a time and managed to get into the swing of things in a couple of months.
There wasn’t a specific time where I felt as though I reached the level of being able to develop games. It is a continuous learning process and you don’t have to understand much about anything to do it. For instance, it was not until a lot later that I understood how memory management worked, but I was cleaning up leaks anyway through trial-and-error. It is better to take a stab and figure things out along the way.
It is also more about attitude than time. Someone once made a passing remark that I’d be good at whatever I set my mind to do, which was a paradigm shift for me. It made me realize that a can-do attitude goes a long way. There will always be extremely talented programmers out there who write better and faster code, but it takes grit and belief to see an idea through. Who knows, some of these talented programmers might even want to be part of your team one day.
How were you able to allocate your time between your job and developing this game?
I make time for game development whenever I can. I am an early riser so I write code from 6-7am before work begins and in the evenings when time avails. Apart from weekends and public holidays, I also write while commuting on trains and planes. I was once writing code on the subway when a stranger stopped me and introduced himself. He was an entrepreneur who owned several factories in China and told me that I reminded him of what he used to do as a programmer back in the day and encouraged me to keep at it.
When work gets busy, which it often does with investment banking, I usually stop work on the game. It is important to keep a balance, which includes getting eight hours of sleep and time with loved ones and friends.
There are already many Tetris spinoffs out there today. What makes your game unique?
The inspiration behind Penguin Hustle was to bring the classic Tetris game to the app store with a twist. Existing Tetris variants on the App Store largely consist of single player games, with Tetris Blitz as a notable example. With Penguin Hustle, players can play head-to-head against each other or with other players online.
An average game lasts for less than a minute, and I believe that such a fast pace will appeal to a broad audience of casual gamers. Customizable spells were introduced and the blocks were designed to further speed up gameplay and increase interactivity. The game, in its online battle form, is probably the first of its kind on the app store.
Penguin Hustle also aims to contribute to the tech startup and broader community in Asia in its own way. 7 percent of proceeds from the game go to a charity in Hong Kong. This commitment to give back to the community is part of my philosophy in starting a business.
How were you able to work with such a small budget (SGD2000)?
It comes down to a willingness to roll up your sleeves and do it. I thoroughly enjoyed the development process for the game and was happy to learn things along the way. I also believe that one of the keys to running a successful business is to keep overheads tight.
The natural result was a very lean cost structure. I put together the code, website and server at almost no cost. A friend of mine was the voice of the penguin, which were processed with Garageband. Effects and music were from the web. I learned basic video editing to put together the app trailer with Adobe Premiere and a screen capture device. To reduce illustration costs, I worked with freelance illustrator Nick Street in Hong Kong and learned to image edit and work with sprite sheets so he could spend more of his time on artistic work.
Has your background in investment banking/financial engineering helped you in some way in your foray towards games development?
Investment banking trains you to analyze and summarize large amounts of content quickly. When looking for a solution to a problem, I look through articles and forums on the web for an answer. Chances are that others have also encountered the same problems. Of course, one of the prerequisites to doing that is choosing a platform that is well-documented and widely used.
Investment banking also teaches you how to run a timetable. In December, I set a target to launch the game in June and broke the programming, marketing, design, testing and other workflows into smaller steps. In the end, the game was launched on July 7 and most of the delay was due to the Apple approval process, which to some extent is not entirely under my control.
I’ve also met many great people along the way who have been extremely supportive, inspirational and encouraging. It often takes a remark from the right person to enlighten and set you in the right direction.
Are you looking to go full-time and expand beyond a one-man operation?
There are no plans to go full-time at the moment. If I do, I want to find partners as it is more fulfilling to pursue your dreams together with people you enjoy working with. For now, I plan to continue to make Penguin Hustle more fun and social.
Having said that, my ultimate goal is to work on bigger tech ideas. I particularly like mobile and community-based platforms because they change the way we connect with others. If the opportunity arises, I am also open to making more games in future.