Creating Word Search Party for Windows 8 - developer interview

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Lightwood Games began developing games for iOS in 2010 and the first app they released - Word Search Party - was launched later that year. It has now been downloaded more than one million times and the Lightwood team of Chris Newman, the Founder and Katherine Gordon have now eagerly developed it for Windows 8. They specialise in puzzle games and have won various awards from taking home two awards at the UK's first GameHack event for their game Plasma Party. They won "Best Use of Mobile" and "Most Innovative App" for developing a unique multiple screen gaming platform in just 24 hours. In September 2012, Lightwood Games was shortlisted for the category "App Developer 2012" at the Appsters Awards.

We spoke to Chris about developing for Windows 8, the challenges of game development and what is next for Lightwood Games.

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Tell us about the app, what is it and who is it for?

Chris: Word Search Party is a word puzzle game that the whole family can enjoy. It's a classic word search brought to life with a buzzing library of user-created puzzles. Because this game is already established on other platforms, there are nearly 8,000 different puzzles already available, and if you can't find something of interest you can create your own!

How is it different from the iPhone app you built?

Chris: Although the core gameplay is the same, we were keen to make an app that looked the part, not just do a straight port. It was completely redesigned to embrace the visual style and features of Windows 8. We offer a huge number of puzzles and even the selection of top level categories can be a little overwhelming. Therefore we implemented the Semantic Zoom feature to make browsing easier and used the integrated search contract to allow users to quickly query the large puzzle database.

The sharing lets you tell your friends what you're playing and brag when you complete a puzzle quickly. We also made sure the app supports all possible views. Tablet users can play in portrait or landscape mode and when the game is put into snapped view, it remains fully playable, so you can move it to one side and keep playing casually while doing something else.

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What's the business model and why?

Chris: All our games are fully playable free downloads with optional upgrades that can be bought in the app. What excites us is seeing people playing our games and hearing how they're enjoying them. It's really important to be able to have the widest possible reach, so we don't put a payment barrier between users and our apps.

Free users can always play the top puzzles of the moment - a selection that changes throughout the day based on other users' ratings. You can choose to unlock access to the entire puzzle library to give you literally thousands to choose from.

Users can also unlock the "create your own" feature, which lets you make word searches using your own choice of words and then play them immediately. We're also monetizing the app using ads, but if a user buys either upgrade, we remove all the advertising too.

Why a Windows 8 app?

Chris: I'd had one eye on Windows 8 for a while, but it was something I didn't think we had time to get involved with - and certainly didn't believe we would be able to get an app ready to be in the Store for GA. Then we crossed paths with a Microsoft evangelist at our local Mobile Monday event and were quickly introduced to a number of people, all of whom assured us that we still had time to make things happen.

Turns out they were right! It's been a frantic few weeks, but the opportunity to get our games onto millions of PCs and also make it available on the new generation of Windows tablets was too good to resist!

What languages did you use to write the app?

Chris: It's written in C# and XAML, and communicates with the same back-end server as our iOS apps, which was written in PHP.

How long did it take to build?

Chris: It took three weeks to go from the initial sketches of how we thought it might look in the Windows 8 style to submitting it for certification. We had a bit of a head start as this was already a fully realized game concept, but that was offset by the fact neither of us had written in C# before! There was a bit of a learning curve, but after the first week things were flying along!

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What did you have to consider from a design and ux pov?

Chris: As we were working with a game that had originally been designed for touch, we had already covered that aspect of the user experience. For example, the app shows you when you tap and drag in an invalid direction by changing the colour of the selection. The letters you've selected are also spelled out at the top of the screen, so you can see what you're doing even when your fingers are in the way.

Otherwise really it was just a case of working out how best to present our puzzle library using the Windows 8 style, and given the tools are built to allow us to focus on content, this fell into place quite naturally.

Were there any specific design challengers and how did you overcome them?

Chris: Working with screens that can scale to different sizes is something we've not had to deal with before, and clearly it's impossible to test on every possible screen resolution that might use the app. This comes down to putting faith in the way certain elements will scale with your content and not making any design decisions that rely on fixed pixel heights.

Interestingly, implementing the narrow snapped view was much easier than I expected though. It's actually exactly the same width as an iPhone screen, so designing for that size was second nature!

What did you enjoy most about developing for Windows 8, for example the focus on content or the intuitive, customisable menus/bars?

Chris: Actually my favourite part was making the live tiles. Having that area of screen available to communicate with users even when they're not using your app is very exciting and we've created a few different views which cycle various information about the game.

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How will you approach promoting your app?

Chris: We've made good use of cross-promotion in our mobile games and I'm intending to continue that with our Windows 8 apps. To get things moving, I'm sure many of our mobile users are going to like the idea of being able to play Word Search Party on their PC at home (or at work!). We can spread the word via in-app advertising and through our social media and customer newsletters.

Just like we did on iOS, I'm hoping we can build a reputation for producing quality, engaging puzzle games for Windows 8 and create a loyal user base that are always looking for our next release.

What are your plans for the future?

Chris: We've already completed our second game for Windows 8 and, if all goes well, there's a third one that might just manage to sneak into the Store before October 26th! I'm really excited by how easy it's been to create new versions of our games for Windows 8 and I've already started planning how we approach the next one!

I've also heard that porting from Windows 8 to Windows Phone 8 is going to be pretty straightforward, so I'm looking forward to getting my hands on the new SDK.

What advice would you give aspiring app developers who are looking to turn their idea into a reality?

Chris: Make sure your idea is something you can be truly passionate about - if you don't love it, you can't expect other people to. Also, be realistic with your expectations. Play to your strengths and appreciate every happy user. Don't get disheartened when you don't instantly have a million downloads!

Want to know more?

A big thank you to Chris for chatting with us! For more information visit Lightwood Games.

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