Making an iPhone Game without Code


For most of my life I’ve played games. In highschool I overindulged in RPGs like Final Fantasy and Xenogears. In college it was Counterstrike with friends in my dorm, and today my infrequent “play time” focuses on offline games like Settlers of Catan and Cards Against Humanity.

Earlier this year I felt inspired to design an own smartphone game (today’s modern gaming platform) but there was a serious problem ahead of me: I don't know how to code.

The challenge:

As much as I'd like to, I’m wasn’t going to learn to program iPhone apps any time soon. I also didn't want to deal with the App Store(s) and potentially not have my app approved after all that work and/or investment. And finally, although my goal is to create a game that lives on mobile devices, I didn't want to contribute to the zombification of smartphone users who constantly walking around with their heads down glued to a screen.

So what could I design that got around these major obstacles and was still fun? Cartegram was the ultimate output.

Existing Frameworks

The only thing I really needed for this exploration game to work was a photo network with tagging functionality. Instagram is a perfect place to house Cartegram because it’s simple, accessible, and already has millions of users.

While games like Ingress or Geocaching require you to download their own app, Instagram is something that’s already on countless devices. And half (most of) the battle with getting people to play your mobile game is convincing them to download it.

Pocket Sized

I wanted to create a pocket-sized game, but also have it be something that was linked to the social web. Given I wasn't programming anything, I decided to extend beyond the screen and make a significant portion of the game live in a physical package.

Icons, strong copy, and illustrations work really well in games whether they're digital or physical. I decided to use such common game elements in a small portable package (a notebook) that essentially rests next to your phone when you're exploring your city.

Not only does this format work well because of size, but the physical notebook complements the very tangible experience the players of Cartegram are having while exploring the world around them.

“Old” Tech Kills Distractions

iPhone games generally don't take up much of your attention because you're just one click button push away from your email, twitter, facebook, and other distractions. By making a game that largely uses paper, your eyes, and your legs, there’s less to rip you away from the play experience. Sure your phone is still in your pocket, but it’s a lot easier to break out of a smartphone trance when you're standing in the middle of a street or field with noises and sights snapping you out of it.

Minimum Viable Product

When it comes to an MVP, apps can be tough. There’s not a great solution right now for building a prototype game that people actually want to play. If you want to release a decent game on the iPhone or even Android, you're plunking down a minimum of $10,000 in time or money (and that’s being extremely conservative). Not only did my lack of programming push me towards building a “physical” iPhone game, but my lack of budget did too. I put together a humble Kickstarter to make sure I could pay for the first run of printing Cartegram, but other than that, the cost of putting out an MVP was pretty cheap relative to a traditional mobile game.

Platforms on top of Platforms

Building a native iPhone or Android app gives you a lot of control over the experience. Because Cartegram relies heavily on Instagram, one tweak to their interface or change in how tagging works could really create some big challenges for the community I’m building. That said, any time you’re building a platform on top of a platform, this risk will exist.

On the plus side, as Cartegram evolves and grows I won’t be subject to the rules of the app store, nor will I have to pay a substantial percentage (30% is Apple’s take!) for purchases that my customers make. I will sell direct and only pay a simple transaction fee. And even though the purchase process is going to be slightly more work for players than a screen tap, tools like Stripe make the process extremely easy. In other words, I’m sacrificing a bit of visibility for a hell of a lot more control over the experience.

Will It Work?

Native apps do well because they're customized to the exact specifications of a device. I’m creating a Frankenstein’s monster mobile app because it’s all I can do right now. I’m taking the non-technical hacking path to building a successful game and will continue developing it based on the needs of participating players. Maybe someday Cartegram will push me to learn to build an actual iOS app, but for now, this mobile game won’t have a single line of code written by me.