Red Herring (Free with IAPs) is one of my favorite iOS games. It’s one of the few single-device iOS games out there that plays better with groups of people than solo. My kids and I regularly gather round an iPad, launch Red Herring, and share time puzzling out the latest daily challenge and game packs.
It couldn’t be simpler: sixteen words and three unknown categories. It’s up to you to figure out how to group those words together leaving four stray red herring “spoilers” that may include words that look like they should fit but don’t actually belong, like “spine”, “bone”, “skin”, and “heart” in the example at the top of this post. The puzzles are tricky, silly, funny, and demanding.
Each game typically takes a few minutes, although a really tough board may last as long as a quarter hour or more. Fan sites have sprung up that offer cheats and solutions, a testament to how loyal and rabid this game’s fanbase can be.
Red Herring is from the creator of 7 Little Words, Moxie, Monkey Wrench, and a few other apps, all aimed at a family-friendly audience. I first wrote about Red Herring a couple of years ago, finding it to be fun and engaging. Last week, I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Joe Jordan of Blue Ox. We discussed what it takes to grow and retain this kind of loyal customer base and provide a constant stream of creative, one-of-a-kind puzzles.
Blue Ox’s offerings use a standardized model: they include a trial pack to get users hooked, daily free puzzles that acts as maintenance doses, and budget-friendly IAP puzzle packs. Unlike King’s Candy Crush series, Blue Ox’s free users never get to a point where puzzles become impassable or the game sets up the proposition: “Pay us or stop playing.”
Jordan assured me that Blue Ox treasures its free users. “The potential marketing exposure is tremendous. The more they play, the more they’ll tell their friends about it and the more they feel a kinship with us and our games,” he said. That balance between free games and paid makes it easy to transition from free customer to revenue stream. For me, it’s when we’re out for Family Game Night and I want to grab a big set of puzzles to work on. The packs aren’t expensive and they offer a solid game “hang time”.
“We feel very strongly about the value proposition, giving people a good value,” Jordan said. “We’re always happy to have users continue to play, even when they’re just playing the free one.” It’s a philosophy that started with founder and owner Chris York. “Even in internal discussions, he’s always got the viewpoint that we love the customers who only play our daily games and never buy anything from us. They’re always a positive thing and not a drag.”
From a developer’s point of view, Blue Ox’s “virtuous circle” is aspirational. “Our way of approaching customers and potential customers is to give them enough benefit to support us and feel good about what they’re giving money to, the game that they’re a part of, and they like to talk to other people and they perpetuate that forward.”
The IAP becomes a rewarding gratification rather than a game-cheat to keep moving forward. Free daily games ensure that each IAP pack is a positive choice, not a shake-down.
Maintaining the quality of those packs is another business necessity. Each one is hand crafted, typically by professional crossword puzzle designers. Blue Ox has built a network of game authors over time. They started with a few crossword experts and branched out using word-of-mouth recommendations to create an extended team of contractors.
“Our first puzzle writer outside the company was a gentleman in Wisconsin named Ray Hamel. He’s a trivia guru and he brought that to bear on 7 Little Words and was one of the first creators working on Red Herring puzzles. We also have Sarah Hayes, who has written a ton of puzzles for us who is one of the top UK crossword puzzle writers.”
(Hayes also holds the world record for running a marathon while dressed as a beer bottle. The record applies across all bottle types, not just beer.)
Creating the right purchasable content for your game can make or break your application. “We contract with new writers for a small puzzle group to get a sense of what they can do and like to do. It gives a sense of the kind of puzzles they come up with.” When they find the right fit, they expand the contracts to larger batches. Red Herring puzzles are typically purchased in groups and they can take a long time to perfect. “It can be a painstaking process, going back and forth until it’s just right.”
A Red Herring puzzle has to be “unexpected, with relationships among all the different elements of the puzzles,” Jordan said. “We love misdirection: among the categories and between the categories and the red herrings. It has to be more than just, say, the position of a letter within a word or the number of letters that make up the word. There should be a deeper connection of the puzzle elements.”
I asked Jordan what makes a really good puzzle, and he provided several examples. About the puzzle at the top of this post, he wrote, “It is not complicated but it is elegant.”
And this next one? You might not expect to find Macaroni as a Penguin species or Fuseli as a red herring. “This puzzle has nice, discrete categories that require a certain amount of trivia knowledge (while avoiding esoterica). The fusilli/fuseli misdirection is somewhat rare – we’re not trying “gotcha” trickery – but it seems like it works here.”
Playing with sounds and word structure is another Red Herring trademark, as you see in the following example. “I’m a sucker for puzzles of this type, and I don’t see them enough,” Jordan says.
Here’s another of his favorites. Although the Jazz Greats may seem a little obvious, the Arthur Dent (Hitchhikers’s Guide to the Galaxy) and cat’s lives twists add a lovely resonance to the puzzle.
(There are just seven hills of Rome if you were wondering.)
From a programming point of view, there’s almost nothing in Red Herring that a competent coder couldn’t put out with a few weeks of effort and testing. The secret to its success isn’t its GUI or its graphics. Like the best of games, it’s a gateway to a larger experience. The solid puzzles behind the game are the basis of that experience.
Between its respectful balance of free-and-paid elements, and its commitment to ensuring high-quality puzzles, Blue Ox has evolved from a one-man effort to nearly a dozen employees servicing a core family of applications. If you’re starting your own games business, there are a lot worse business models you could follow and few that get it right more than this.