Here’s a scene we’re all familiar with these days: a group of friends, all sitting together yet ignoring each other, each engaged in his or her own smartphone.
Since smartphones entered our lives they have both enabled us to stay connected to our friends, family and even strangers who share our interests while at the same time distracting us when we are in the real world presence of these same people.
This phenomenon led Ynon Lan to create MonstAir Hockey, a game for iPhone and iPad in which two players next to each other can face off by linking up their devices.
The idea came to the 24-year-old Lan while on a trip with fellow students from the joint integrated studies program for design and computer science at Jerusalem's Bezalel Academy of Art and Design and Hebrew University.
"We sat down together and tossed around ideas for apps, and I thought of hooking up screens together to create a larger screen," he says. It was one idea out of dozens that were batted around without any serious intention of realizing them. But Lan understood the potential for this to become a real project and decided to create the first app in this particular niche. For the task, he enlisted the help of his cousin Elad Amit.
"I didn't have any experience working on technological projects, my experience was just in the area of animation," says Lan. "But my family works in computers. My brother studied computer sciences and Elad and another cousin work at start-ups. So, I decided that it would be best to turn to family and try to set up this project together."
Lan and Amit founded Nextends, of which MonstAir Hockey is a part. In the digital edition, just like in real air hockey, two players compete to score goals against each other. Like the actual arcade game, each player can see his side of the table up close as well as the entire playing field.
In Lan and Amit’s version, the usual goal posts are transformed into monsters' mouths and the puck is a piece of candy. A player wins by getting seven pieces of candy into his mouth – one more than the monster can hold in his stomach.
"Creating the game took a couple of months," says Lan, adding that after he and his cousin created the game in their free time.
"From my perspective, the idea is to create a social experience that brings people together due to the degree of physical proximity needed to play the game," says Lan. He compares the experience to that of traditional board games where people "gathered around to play together."
Lan, who specializes in graphics and animation, focused meticulously on the game's design, designing the marketing tools and prepared a sample video clip. Amit handled the programming work for the app. Lan admits that programming wasn't simple because of the fast connection needed for two players with individual apps to respond with quick reflexes in real time. Older smartphones have a time-delay because of their use of earlier, less-advanced versions of Bluetooth technology.
Finding a way to leverage early success
The game's success exceeded Lan and Amit's expectations. Though Lan isn't willing to reveal exact figures, a large number of users have downloaded the free app and the young entrepreneurs received requests to develop newer versions of the game.
"Advertising firms contacted us to request that we create branded versions of the game," says Lan. "In addition, users asked us to develop a single-player version of the game. This raises philosophical questions for us because it contradicts the goal that we developed the game for. However, it also proves that people like the game beyond the linked screens gimmick."
As to the concern that other, larger companies might swoop in to steal the idea and take it further, Lan remains unfazed. “Other companies can create their own versions of what we are doing,” he says, “but the combination required for the development of complex technology to create really good games bypasses the need to register for a patent."
According to Lan, not every game can draw players just because they can play with another live player. Moreover, he thinks large companies lack the flexibility and originality needed to develop these kinds of ideas ahead of smaller competitors.
"Today, people look for products with added value, especially those that don't come from the giant companies that dominate the globe," he says.
Today Lan is focused on expanding the existing game to leverage its early success. The app doesn't include any ads and Lan says that he has no plans to include ads in the future. Instead, he is looking for what he considers a broader business model: selling added game levels and bonuses to players.
"Whether Nextends becomes a full-time job depends on the level of its success," says Lan "If it happens, it will be a dream come true."