Bubble Ball Beats All

8th-grader's iPhone game takes top spot among Apple's apps

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum's "This Week in Technology." Last week, Sony finally unveiled their much-anticipated next generation of its PSP handheld console. The new device has some pretty stunning features, but it won't launch for almost a year. In the meantime, there's a new game in town for handheld gaming—smartphones.

My guest today is Robert Nay, the founder of Nay Games and the one-man development team for the game Bubble Ball, which for the last few weeks now has been the most popular app on the iPhone—even more popular than the game Angry Birds. Robert joins us by phone from Spanish Fork, Utah.

Robert, I don't usually start by asking a guest his age, but I don't usually have to wait for a guest to come home from 8th grade before starting an interview.

Robert Nay: Yeah. So I'm 14.

Steven Cherry: Fourteen! Wow. Welcome to the podcast.

Robert Nay: Thanks.

Steven Cherry: The game is called Bubble Ball. Can you describe it for us? How it's played?

Robert Nay: Uh huh. So it's a physics puzzle game where you have to get the bubble into the goal, and you have different pieces that you can place to help it get there, and then you click Start to activate gravity and see if it works.

Steven Cherry: And there's different levels and it gets harder and harder?

Robert Nay: Uh huh. There's 32 levels right now.

Steven Cherry: I have to say, your mom must be pretty smart, 'cause the first version of the game had 32 levels, and I understand she helped design some of them. I downloaded the game about an hour ago, and I'm pretty well stumped on level 6…

Robert Nay: [laughs] Uh huh.

Steven Cherry: Can you tell us about the development process? When did you start and what did you use?

Robert Nay: So I started in early November, and the whole thing took about a month and a half. And I used a platform called Corona SDK, and so it basically lets you publish to both IOS and Android devices with the same code and also has a built-in physics engine which is a big part of Bubble Ball.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, I understand that. How does that work? I guess when it comes to things like how the planks of wood behave you're mostly specifying variables?

Robert Nay: Uh huh.

Steven Cherry: That makes it a lot easier. Is that right?

Robert Nay: Yeah.

Steven Cherry: Now the game's also on Android, and you used the same Corona code for both. Was it a big deal doing Android as well as IOS?

Robert Nay: Well, my main goal was to do it for IOS, but since I could do it for Android I decided to.

Steven Cherry: Was it a lot of extra work?

Robert Nay: Not really, just fixing some Android specific bugs and tweaks and stuff.

Steven Cherry: Bubble Ball was first made available on the Apple app store starting December 9th. And I guess it hit about 2 million downloads within the first two weeks, and now it's up to what, like 6 million?

Robert Nay: Seven million.

Steven Cherry: What do you think makes it so popular?

Robert Nay: Um, I just think it's a fun game, and after you complete one level you just want to complete the next. And like, if you're stuck on one level, you want to figure, like, you have to figure it out.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, I'm pretty annoyed that I'm stuck where I am, I have to say. I'm definitely going to have to go back to it as soon as we're done. You also wrote a version for the iPad. Did that take a lot of time?

Robert Nay: No, 'cause Corona lets you do universal builds, and so I just had to tweak some stuff and make sure it looked good on the iPad with the higher-resolution graphics. So that wasn't very hard to do at all.

Steven Cherry: And you've already come out with an update of sorts, I guess with new levels…

Robert Nay: Um hm.

Steven Cherry: How many additional levels are there?

Robert Nay: Eleven.

Steven Cherry: Eleven [laughs] That's unbelievable. Are many of your friends getting through all the levels?

Robert Nay: Um hm.

Steven Cherry: Wow, smarter than I am. You know, it seems that smartphone games are getting more popular and more sophisticated, and there's certainly a ton more of them, but do you have like a Wii or a PSP, and do you think you'd like to develop for one or the other of them in addition to or instead of the iPhone?

Robert Nay: I have a Wii. I never even thought of developing games for it, but that's a pretty cool idea.

Steven Cherry: [laughs] Tell me what it felt like when your program hit number one in the app store. Tell me about that moment. Were you at home?

Robert Nay: Yeah, I was at home, and we'd just been watching it rise throughout the day, because in the morning it was number 20. And then I went to school and came home, and then it was like number 4 and it just kept rising. And it got to number 2 and we were like, "Oh, it's never going to beat Angry Birds," but then it did, so that was pretty cool.

Steven Cherry: That is pretty cool. You made Bubble Ball a free app. I'm wondering, 6 or 7 million downloads later, are you regretting you didn't charge 99 cents?

Robert Nay: Um, not really, because it was my first app, so I didn't know how it would do, and I'm going to release a level pack that costs 99 cents with an app purchase.

Steven Cherry: Very good. And I guess you formed a little company, and you're going to develop more games. Do you have anything in particular in mind?

Robert Nay: Um, not really, right now.

Steven Cherry: I guess you have some time.

Robert Nay: Um hm.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Well, thanks for talking to us.

Robert Nay: Uh huh, thanks.

Steven Cherry: We've been speaking with 14-year-old Robert Nay about his hit game Bubble Ball, which recently topped the charts as Apple's most popular free app. For IEEE Spectrum's "This Week in Technology," I'm Steven Cherry.

Segment producer: Ariel Bleicher; audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

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