Simeon Saëns is the co-founder of Two Lives Left, the makers behind Codea, a Lua code editor for iOS devices, as well as Cargot-Bot and Crabitron. Codea was released in 2011 and was notable for being one of the first iOS Lua editors ever created. I spoke with Simeon via Google Hangout about his career as an indie developer, creating Codea, and how the idea for it emerged out of a bet.
Simeon: We - myself, John Millard, and Dylan Sale - were three computer science students doing our PhDs in Computer Science and the iPhone, the very first one, had just come out. I picked it up the day it was released. Then we used third party tools to start building for it. We immediately fell in love with the touch screen interaction and all the possibilities that hadn't yet been invented at the time. So, we stopped doing our PhDs and decided to build games.
Specifically with Codea, what happened was my friend and I had an argument. I said that you couldn't use the mechanics of interaction in a game to tell a story about the real world without having some aspect of the real world in the game.
At the time, I was at a cafe and I only had my iPad, but I was trying to write a demo of a game to prove my point. That's when I realized: I couldn't do it on my iPad. When I got home, I used my computer to write an app for my iPad, so that I could code a game if I was ever in that position again. At the time, it was the first sort of coding that had happened on the iPad.
Simeon: A few weeks in, it was doing great. It even turned $27,000 in one day, which was crazy. It was very big for quite a few months, but then it's revenue went down. We were only working on it a couple of days a week still, because we didn't want to go all in on it, but it was a really big launch at the time.
Simeon: Later on, the following year, I set up forums so that users could ask questions and talk. There were some people that were doing really clever things with it. One of the guys, Deanna who lives in New York, was remaking Pac-Man.
He wasn't good at the graphic side, but he was very good at coming up with good, interesting puzzles. I contacted him and said, can we help you turn this into a really polished game and give it away for free?
He worked in the finance industry, so he was able to work with us as long as we didn't make any money off it. I ended up designing the graphics, writing a lot of the effects code, and polishing the interaction code. He designed all the puzzles and then that really made Codea popular again since it was the first game programmed entirely on someone's iPad. That was the biggest marketing thing we ever did.
It was like watching the launch happen for the first time all over again, but two years later. The forum has lost some traffic in recent years, but there's a lot of people that have just been there for a very long time that support everyone else on there. They also help find all the bugs that I need to fix, which is really helpful.
Simeon We started Shade in late 2018 because Apple protested open GL, which is the rendering system that could be used for rendering graphics. It was deprecated, so Codea's shader section wasn't going to work anymore. I was talking to my colleague, John - he works a lot on the rendering side, whereas I worked on the code editor in the UI - and we thought, well, maybe the way to go with this is as a shaded graph editor.
He is the type of person that comes up with a working prototype, then two days later after an idea. And that's what he did. Once I saw the working prototype, it seemed a lot more real.
Simeon: We released a game in 2014 where you control a giant spacecraft with your fingers. It was a game that John had an idea for, because he was trying to think of a game that you can only play on an iPad and he had thought of using your claws to tear things apart. It went well and we released three other games at the time. Each one made more money than the last.
We made $5,000 off the second one, and then $30,000 from the third one. Overall, they did $90,000 altogether. So they were really good projects and I think if we kept going with games, we would have gotten better at selling them. But in the end, our attention went towards building developer tools instead of games.
Simeon: The market's a lot less saturated on tools, or at least for interesting tools. If I look at games now, it's so much more explored than it was back when mobile devices first came out. There's also just so many good games coming out all the time. It just feels really crowded compared to building tools.
The problem with certain products is that people write code against what you've built. And then if you break what you've built, you break what they've built. So there's a lot of time spent trying to decide if I really want to put something in there because if I take it away it might upset someone.
Simeon: A lot of my time is spent on very specific bugs. Someone might use a very obscure feature that not many other people use, but because I want to make sure they're supported, I could spend a day fixing something for them.
Simeon: It didn't find the same audience as Codea. Shade.io is more niche in that it's targeting graphic artists who are specifically interested in material design for video games or for visual effects and then taking that set of users and targeting the people who would do that on a mobile device. We do get some really professional users using Shade, but we didn't find a way to reach out to all of them and say, this is what we made. My target revenue for the product was initially I would be happy if it did $50 a day and so far it’s done that. So I’m quite happy.
Simeon: A big part of why we do it is because we love doing it. The money is good in that it covers business expenses, and gives us an extra $30,000 a year. I don't care so much if my work sells or doesn't sell. I like being free to try whatever ideas I like. These days, I don't go into the creation process expecting to make money. I go in hoping people point out a small detail and really appreciate that detail. That's my favorite thing.
Simeon: Its first year, it was about $30 per day. In subsequent years it did $11,000. This year to date it's about $8,000 again.
Simeon: I would like to take what we built in Shade and build a product that hopefully one day earns enough that we don't have to work other jobs and can support ourselves from the revenue that's generated from the app sales. I don’t know if you're familiar with Sketch, but their model is that when you pay for a year of updates and then you stop paying, you stop getting updates. That model allows people to show their interest in a way that encourages active development.
Simeon: Not working all the time. I used to overwork myself to the point of sleeping in my car. When I first started making games, I would drive to work and then maybe catch a few hours asleep in the car and then go back to work on games. It would be all encompassing. Now, I make sure that I go for a run every day and I'm always there with the kids. Then I’m super productive with my remaining hours.