Spokane Journal of Business

An app with a new approach

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An app with a new approach
-—Staff photo by Jessica Valencia
Pixel Buddy creator Emerson Shaffer says the game had been downloaded more than 12,000 times as of Jan. 25.

Unlike popular mobile games such as Angry Birds and its subsequent spinoffs, Pixel Buddy, the brainchild of 17-year-old Emerson Shaffer, can do something other apps have struggled to wrangle: crowdsourcing its content.

Shaffer is a senior at Mt. Spokane High School and owns Missing Pixel Studios Inc., the parent company for his recent mobile game, Pixel Buddy. Pixel Buddy is a two-dimensional, pet care simulation game available for iPhone, iPod, and iPad devices.

The game entails users keeping a virtual pet alive by playing with or taking care of it by using a number of in-game objects to keep the pet happy.

Shaffer attended Startup Weekend Spokane last April, where he garnered recognition for "best development work" during a competition. Shaffer says he began development of Pixel Buddy last June, and the effort was funded with $100,000 provided by a private investor.

The game was rolled out Jan. 15 on the Apple App Store, where it is available for free. Shaffer says he expects his company to bring in revenue through users buying in-game currency, known as chads, or content packs.

Shaffer may have gotten some of his entrepreneurial spirit from his parents, Jeff and Lisa Shaffer. The pair recently started a new business here called Paw Print Genetics that focuses on running genetic tests on dogs. That business has garnered a national audience since opening. In 2003, Lisa Shaffer was a founder of Signature Genomic Laboratories LLC, a Spokane-based biotech company that provides genetic testing for children with developmental disabilities. That company was purchased in 2010 by PerkinElmer Inc. for $90 million.

As of Jan. 25, the Pixel Buddy app had been downloaded 12,254 times. It's averaging about 1,200 daily downloads internationally. Shaffer says Pixel Buddy ranks in the top 100 for arcade and kids new categories in four countries, including the Czech Republic and Finland. Pixel Buddy has more than 4,600 downloads in Europe since its launch.

Shaffer says he hopes to bring Pixel Buddy to Android devices, but doesn't have any immediate plans to do so.

He says Pixel Buddy uses crowdsourcing by attempting to engage its users in generating content players would like to see.

"We built this game to be directly designed by the users that played it," Shaffer says.

Pixel Buddy users have the option of submitting ideas of what they would like to see in the game, such as an item for their pet to play with. Suggestions singled out for further development are released in content packs with other game enhancements, such as chads.

"They don't have to know any programming. They just have to have a good idea," Shaffer says.

He says the game's first content pack is slated to be released next month. Content packs are expected to sell for 99 cents through an in-app purchase.

"The goal of the entire thing is to point out the user can play a role," Shaffer says.

App users possibly know the games better than developers, Shaffer says, and those users often can find bugs and quirks in a game faster than the development team is able to. Nobody plays the game like the user, he says, particularly when looking at how much time those users log compared with the time the app spends in development.

"It's like trying to race light," Shaffer says. "Things are going as fast as possible."

He says through the use of a Pixel Buddy forum, and social media, he's trying to field as much user feedback for the game as possible, both for requested items users would like to see and for problems with the game itself.

"Usually if there's a complaint, there's someone else with the same complaint," Shaffer says. "It's not your (the developer's) game. It's their game; it's our game."

Kait Copenspire, of Spokane, worked on the graphics and animation for the game, and Spokane-based composer and sound designer Tim Larkin worked on the music. Shaffer was the lead designer for the game, provided the voice for Pixel Buddy, and handles social media in conjunction with Copenspire.

Shaffer says he doesn't intend to create spinoffs of Pixel Buddy and more likely will seek to improve the current game's content through patches and by boosting the intelligence of the pet.

With one game launched, though, Shaffer says he hopes to build off of ideas he has for additional games, both for traditional platform systems and mobile devices.

So far, game users have made more than 100 purchases of chads, the in-game currency. Internet purchases generate revenue from the game. He anticipates the game will generate more revenue with the release of content packs in the future.

Shaffer will begin school next fall when he enrolls at Neumont University, in South Jordan, Utah, where he plans to study game design. He says he feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to develop Pixel Buddy before leaving for college, particularly because of a constantly changing gaming and technology market.

"The opportunity for Pixel Buddy to succeed may not have ever existed" if he had waited until after college to develop the game, Shaffer says.

Shaffer says with about 100 apps released into the Apple App Store daily, he's happy with the success of the mobile game so far. He says he initially wanted the game to have 10,000 downloads, a goal it surpassed shortly after the first week.

"It's an experience that can never be brought into the classroom," Shaffer says.

To allow for Pixel Buddy to be developed further while Shaffer attends school, he contracted out with third-party development company Light Blue, a spinoff of Cyan Worlds Inc., based in Mead. He says the app will continue to be developed over the course of this year depending on how popular the app remains among users.

The game's success so far shows age doesn't have to be a restriction, he says.

"Someone who's 17 knows just as much as someone who's 25 if they're put in the right situation," Shaffer says.

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