GameDock Postmortem: Prelude
by Chris Jorgensen on January 10, 2014
In early 2012, I wrote my good friend Andi the following email:
Subject: Kickstarter Idea
Been mulling Kickstarter for a little bit. Came up with something. iPod accessories seem to be funded more often than others. Some get huge amounts of support.
Imagine an old video game console —the kind where you plugged in a cartridge. Now replace the cartridge with an iPhone. That's my idea. Basically, the "console" is just a charger, a TV out, and a couple USB ports for controllers and a simple motherboard that converts the USB signals into proper bluetooth controls.
Who would want this? Retro enthusiasts. Indie devs who want to stand out. People with kids (ie two kids on an iPod/TV is cheaper than a PS3).
I figure the player one slot would output signal format identical to the iCade, which is a fairly popular accessory for the iPad / iPhone. And the two player angle is unique but appealing.
Cavorite had been a hit for me. I was neck deep in developing its sequel. The "retro" indie game trend was on the rise. I had plugged in my own SNES from time to time for inspiration. Somewhere in between the game playing, coding, and brainstorming the (yet-to-be-named) GameDock was born. Naturally, I shared the idea with Andi.
This wasn't the first time one of us had pitched a project idea to the other. About a year before that, we had teamed up to create a service that allowed drivers to pay for their parking spot via text message. This parking "startup" fell apart for a few reasons. Though we never discussed it, I've always suspect the primary reason was neither of us truly felt passionate about car parking, and it's hard to put long hours into a product you don't love.
Still, we learned a few things. It became clear then that we had the right combination of skills to make ideas come to fruition. Andi was (and still is) very skilled at cobbling together working prototypes out of spare parts that have no business being connected together. I had experience starting and completing self-driven projects, primarily computer and iPhone games. I was confident that if we came up with the right idea, we could make something worth selling.
My pitch worked and we immediately started researching its feasibility: could we buy USB gamepads cheap enough? How much do parts cost? How would the enclosures be made? How do you import stuff from China? How much does circuit board assembly cost? I dissected an iCade and iControlpad. Andi scoured the Internet for the right electronics. After a few weeks it was settled: this was possible.
In retrospect, our research was naively shallow. In the words of Donald Rumsfeld, we didn't know what we didn't know.
One month later, things changed. What had been my full-time iOS development job turned into a series of short-term contracts. The instability was not welcome. I stopped working on GameDock in favor of getting Cavorite 2 out as soon as possible. Andi, as he is prone to do, stayed on the project with a mild degree of obsession; by March we had a prototype running on a breadboard, virtually entirely thanks to him. It didn't look like much, but playing Mos Speedrun on it for the first time felt fairly magical.
At the same time, Cavorite 2 launched stronger than its predecessor. In fact, it remains my biggest game launch ever. My relationship with my primary employer, however, had soured. I didn't like my future contract prospects. Though I'd promised myself not to take on full-time work again, I also knew the timing wasn't right to "go full indie" —especially with a risky Kickstarter looming in the future. Andi's solid web work from our parking startup had helped land him a job offer from CBS and I'd been courted by a number of local companies to come work for them as an iOS developer. By mid April, oddly on the same day, we both started new, full-time jobs. Suddenly, neither of us had much time for the project.
Enter Will Pickering of FunGizmos. Andi had the foresight to hire someone with more experience than us to help finish design and assemble a true prototype. Will's hiring was the first major disagreement between us. I wanted to Kickstart with the breadboard "dock." I felt that our education (an MSEE and an M.Eng.) would be enough reassurance to backers that we could get it done, even without a complete prototype. I was, to say the least, over-eager to test the viability of the idea; I even wanted to film our Kickstarter video with the prototype off screen if we needed. Andi disagreed, in part because he felt we didn't have enough done to go for it and in part thanks to project burn out. He wanted to put on the brakes until things had settled down. We met somewhere in the middle with Will being responsible for the circuit board. Once that was done and working, we would be ready for Kickstarter.
By mid-June, we had our first official prototype board. Andi, however, began to hesitate again. We had some trouble getting a prototype enclosure made. Our first choice of help was suddenly too busy to build a model from his initial design. I had (reluctantly) agreed that a lack of enclosure made the project look less ready for funding. So I turned to Matt Mitman —a trusty "glue guy" that I've used many times to fill gaps in my projects.
Matt created a 3D model from the original design. I had it 3D printed. It was a solid block, top fused to bottom, with no real holes —just hollow rectangles that fit USB heads. I then spray-painted the print, propped it up in front of my old TV with controllers plugged into the front and my phone tenuously resting on top, then snapped a photo. After a little time spent in Photoshop, we now had our "complete" prototype, ready to share with the world. (It is the picture at the top of this blog.)
And like that, almost unwittingly, we had just created the core project team. While other folks helped, nobody was more critical to the project that the four of us: Andi, Will, Matt, and myself. None of us predicted that the project wouldn't be complete until 18 months later.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 (Soon)