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Passion for gaming turns into business plan

  • Article by: KEVIN ALLENSPACH
  • Associated Press
  • March 8, 2014 - 12:05 AM

SARTELL, Minn. — Some kids — well, a lot of kids — play video games. For some, interest fades as they get older. For others, like David Hanson, the passion only grows stronger.

Hanson, a 27-year-old former Sartell High School graduate, grew up on Super Nintendo, mastering the various Mario games when he was in grade school before graduating to a GameCube and, eventually, the Xbox platform. His fascination grew with titles such as "Call of Duty," ''Halo" and sports game, although his parents made sure he didn't go stale with a controller in his hands. He played soccer, basketball and baseball through high school.

"It was around that time when I was figuring what I was going to do next," Hanson told the St. Cloud Times (http://on.sctimes.com/1eYc0WX). "I started to look at games in a different way. How were they made? What do you do to get them to interact with you? I started to experiment on my own, looking things up on the Internet and I learned a lot about programming and coding," Hanson said.

That curiosity led to a degree in computer science and, ultimately, a job as a software engineer. But what sets him apart is the mobile gaming business he developed in his spare time. Its first release, "Shuffling Sheep," appeared during January in the Apple Store and at Google Play, and has been downloaded in more than 40 countries so far.

After tossing aside more than a dozen ideas, Hanson landed on "Shuffling Sheep." It's a strategy game in which you navigate sheep across a pasture laden with hay bales. You compete against up to five different characters with varying levels of skill. The first to navigate 10 sheep across the pasture wins.

The game was inspired by classic children's strategy-based board games, specifically one called "Shuttles," released in 1973. But it's challenging enough to keep adults interested.

The game has five initial characters, ranging in difficulty from simplest to most proficient. They include Farmer Joe, Farmer Betty, The Kid, The Executive and The Robot. The app tracks wins and losses, points, winning streaks and other achievements. It is free to download if you enable the in-game native advertising, which produces revenue for Hanson's company, Frigid Turtle. You can also download an ad-free game for 99 cents.

"People have made it clear with a lot of mobile games, they don't want to pay for the games themselves," Hanson said. "That's why the ads are a big source of revenue for most people who do this," he said. "You want the game to be popular and free or low-cost so you get the biggest audiences."

Sometimes the simplest games go viral. For example, a Vietnamese developer recently produced a game called "Flappy Bird" that gained headlines because it was earning as much as $50,000 a day. Such success can be a cautionary tale, however, as the developer later removed the game because, he told reporters, it was ruining his simple life.

Hanson likely won't have to worry about that but "Shuffling Sheep" has developed a strong following. In little more than its first month, the game was played more than 10,000 times. It was downloaded in North America, Africa, Asia, Europe, Central America and the Middle East. It was been downloaded more than 150 times in the Philippines and developed a following in Kyrgyzstan, Ukraine, Australia, Russia and Egypt.

Some of its more hardcore players are closer to home. Adam Stang, a 28-year-old sheet metal worker who lives in Sartell, is one. He has known Hanson since they were in grade school together and he was one of the first to try "Shuffling Sheep."

"It is awesomely addictive and can be played quickly when there is a little bit of free time," said Stang, who is married and has an infant daughter.

Stang typically plays action games like "Assassin's Creed," ''Prince of Persia" and "Resident Evil" on an Xbox 360.

"I do not typically play games like 'Shuffling Sheep,' so I was very surprised how into the game I got," Stang said. "I like how you have to be thinking a move or two ahead, otherwise the higher-level opponents will use your moves against you ... I can play on my iPad while I rock my daughter to sleep. I haven't touched my Xbox since she was born and this definitely helps me get my gaming fix."

By contrast, Casey Allar doesn't classify himself as a gamer. He also went to school with Hanson and now lives in Woodbury and is a manager for Target. He learned about "Shuffling Sheep" through a Facebook post.

"It is fun because you have to strategically plan out each of your moves in order to not allow the computer to rack up points," Allar said. "Knowing someone who has created a cellphone game that has amassed downloads in 40 countries is quite rare. Accomplishing this in his spare time is a testament to how intelligent and how in-tune he is with this niche."

Developing the designerHanson graduated from high school in 2004 and went to the University of Minnesota, where he met his future wife, Jackie Anderson, when they both lived in Bailey Hall on the St. Paul campus.

"In my head, when you think of people who develop these games, it's usually the type of person who took their computer apart in middle school," said Anderson, who is from rural Northfield and earned a degree in global studies followed by a master's in education. "David learned a lot of what he's doing in college and it's encouraging that there's a path to do this sort of thing for someone who didn't grow up knowing it all."

They were among a group of friends who played a lot of video games in the dorms. Hanson graduated from the university in 2008.

"The iPhone wasn't out yet and, of course, they have classes on developing apps now," Hanson said. "But my education taught me languages and structures, how to create blocks (of coding) and build on it."

He learned about graphics and artificial intelligence and served an internship where he was responsible for a coding project with Epic Health Care.

Hanson and Anderson were married in 2011 and eventually moved to Prior Lake. Anderson taught for several years before their daughter, Nora, was born six months ago.

They launched Frigid Turtle last year. The name draws inspiration from Minnesota's winter weather and the couple's humorous interest in turtles. Hanson handles the software development, Anderson handles the business end and Tara Iannarelli, whom they found through the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, created the graphics for "Shuffling Sheep."

By 2017, the global mobile gaming business is expected to be worth more than $60 billion, according to a recent Global Games Investment Review from Digi-Capital. The research firm estimates it could expand at a compound annual growth rate of more than 23 percent. A gaming boom in Asia drove mergers and acquisitions in the industry up 29 percent from 2012 to a record $5.6 billion in 2013. Investments in companies that specialize in mobile technology and gamification topped $1 billion last year.

"I'm amazed at the business side of it," said David's father, Scott Hanson, who lives in Sartell with his wife, Carol. "It's really interesting to see how you can make money off a mobile game. But I'm not surprised David did this because it's something he's always wanted to do."

David Hanson said the research and development process was like a wave. They would dream about a game they wanted to create, then get realistic and shrink the plan to fit their logistics. They plan to use some of the same coding on future games, however.

"Our goal was to get it out before the winter break, when a lot of people would have time on their hands to play a game like this," Hanson said. "The process dealing with Apple was slow, but the great thing is they want to make sure anything they put out is a quality product and we're glad we made the grade."

Though still in its early stages, the app has allowed Anderson to develop a home-based business while she cares for her daughter. She said their hope is to use profits to pay her and her husband for their time and cash investment and then build an advance so they can develop other games.

"Mainly, we're in it because we enjoy it," she said.

An AP Member Exchange Feature shared by St. Cloud Times

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