Meriwether: An American Epic

A screenshots from Sortasoft's Meriwether: An American Epic. (Courtesy Sortasoft / February 27, 2013)

To the casual, iPhone-toting observer on the street, success in the app-development game means launching the next Angry Birds, the next Words with Friends, the next Fruit Ninja. It's all about creating that simple, super-addictive, viral app that pays for the 65 or so clunkers you've designed along the way, spinning off movie scripts and T-shirt licensing deals in the process.

"Games are very hit-driven," says game developer Joshua DeBonis. "If you release 10 games, maybe one of them will pay for all 10 of those. There's no way to predict which one will be the hit. Sometimes great games don't make any money and terrible games make a lot."

There's an entrepreneurial, independent spirit surrounding the game and app development world, for sure. And much of that creative work happens in Connecticut, where firms, ranging in size from dozens of employees to one guy with a laptop, pump out catchy games, add-ons to existing iPhone or Android features, or handy, information-based widgets.

Take MEA Mobile, for example, a New Haven-based design firm with two additional offices in New Zealand. They partnered with Walgreens pharmacy to create Printicular, an app that allows iOS and Android users to print photos from their camera roll, Instagram and/or Facebook accounts at their local Walgreens, usually within the hour.

"It's a great example of local company app development with a major retail partner," says Vin Framularo, MEA Mobile's business development manager.

Most of MEA Mobile's apps -- there are presently over 100 of them on the market -- are consumer photo and video applications. Popular apps include iLapse (a professional-quality time-lapse video creator), Speed Machine (a fast/slow motion video recorder), Grid Filter (a tap and design photo tool) and Part (a whimsical iPhone app whose tagline is "make something simple - find something beautiful"). They also develop grabby games (one called LexIt is due out later this year).

One top-selling video app is iSupr8 ($1.99), which allows users to shoot video that looks like it was taken with an old Super 8mm camera.

"It's like Instagram for video," says managing director Bruce Seymour, who's listed on as a producer and actor in several independent films. "It takes beautiful HD footage and wrinkles it up and adds dirt and dust and grain, which makes it look like old-school footage. It's very cool."

For the most part, developers like DeBonis and Seymour work on two fronts: designing products or strategies on a work-for-hire basis for outside clients, to keep the lights on, with little risk involved; and developing speculative, in-house apps that potentially could land them on easy street.

A History Lesson in an App

DeBonis, 33, runs Sortasoft, a small Brooklyn, N.Y.-based firm that focuses exclusively on game development. While his first love is music -- he studied jazz performance at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury in the late '90s -- he was modifying board games from an early age, adding new parameters and shaking up the rules for the enjoyment of his friends.

"I would either modify board games we were playing or make extra modules for them," DeBonis says. He was also good at programming, creating PC games as unfinished experiments. Creating the games was the fun part, but he loathed designing the shiny wrapper needed to market them. The turning point was becoming committed and dedicated to creating a complete package that would appeal to others, "that people might actually pay money for."

Sortasoft's big moment will come in November, when they release "Meriwether: an American Epic," an "indie game" about the Lewis and Clark expedition (for Windows, Mac and Linux; it's not an app). Playing as Meriwether Lewis, the gamer follows the expedition from Washington, D.C. to the Pacific and back.

"We're being really extensive in our historical research," DeBonis says. "I have an historian on the team, Barb Kubik, who's amazing. It's an incredibly rewarding game to work on. I've learned a lot doing it. I've been able to travel and meet all kinds of cool people, and I really have fallen in love with the story of Lewis and Clark." "Meriwether" is unique, DeBonis says, not only because of the content, but also for that elusive quality he calls "game-play."

"It has a pretty unique game mechanic for how the conversations work that I have not seen done in other games," DeBonis says. "It's a deeper game, because it explores all of these other topics that are often not explored in games." Those topics include early 19th-century American life, politics, the many-faceted relationships between Europeans and Native Americans, slavery, class issues, "even depression," he says. "It covers a lot of heavy topics, which makes it a complex game to play."

Sortasoft also develops iPhone and Android games, mostly for outside clients. Recent titles include "PopBlocks" -- it merges "Brickbreaker" with trivia, and was designed for a nostalgia company called Do You Remember? -- and "Nimble Strong: Bartender in Training," an iPhone game that teaches you drink recipes as you play. "Most people wouldn't think of it as an educational game," DeBonis says, "but it actually is... You're mixing drinks for your customers, trying to choose the right ingredients and use the right proportions. But all these customers have these really interesting personalities."

How to Get Into App-Making

So, you think you have that killer, groundbreaking app idea. What next? You probably shouldn't order that Beemer just yet.

"A lot of people think it's cheap to develop [apps]," says developer Michael Lawson. "But they're actually more complicated than your average desktop apps... Everyone thinks it's easy because it's a smaller device. But there are more parts that could go wrong, more error-checking... You've got a pretty small amount of screen real estate." Apple, he says, also changes their requirements frequently for things like screen sizes. "They came up with the iPhone 5, which was bigger. They came out with the [iPad] mini."

As a developer, putting together the app is only the first step. Navigating the curated iTunes submittal process, Lawson says, can be tricky. It's a curated site, which means they check on your stuff to see if it's worthy. Android is not nearly as strict, and Microsoft falls somewhere between the two.