Amid recession, developer finds hope in App Store

Dennis Hescox has been around the games industry for years. Now, as the economy founders, he is trying to turn to iPhone games as a way to make a living. The challenges are huge.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read

Editor's note: This is part of a series of stories about the recession's effect on the tech industry.

Not long ago, during an evening of hanging out with friends, five of us sat in my living room, staring at and holding tight to our iPhones or iPod Touches.

This wasn't the anti-social behavior you might think, though. Actually, we were having a great time, banging our fingers furiously on the touch screens of the five devices, trying to kill each other (and not be killed ourselves) in the utterly addictive multiplayer shooting game Maze Wars Revisited.

'Maze Wars Revisited,' by Dennis Hescox, is a new iPhone game. Hescox is hoping that the game--and other apps he hopes to create--will allow him to make a living without needing a full-time job. Dennis Hescox

The game, which tasks multiple players on a single Wi-Fi network with hunting each other down in a dense maze, was newly available that week on Apple's App Store for the iPhone and iPod Touch. It is the brainchild of Dennis Hescox, one of the friends in the room, and this was the first time more than three people had used it at once. And much to Hescox's satisfaction, those of us who had never played before, after some initial skepticism, were now feverishly navigating the game's winding alleys, hunting our prey, shouting out suggestions for the next version, and screaming out obscenities when someone ambushed us for the kill.

For Hescox, this scene could well turn out to be the genesis of something big. Or, it could be a cautionary tale in undelivered potential and promise.

With the economic skies getting darker by the day, and the prospects for jobs in the games industry worsening with each new set of layoffs, Hescox finds himself in a place that is at once immensely exciting and fraught with danger. It's also very familiar.

Like many in technology, he's suffered through the professional consequences of a recession before. Unlike many, he's been through it twice.

Hescox isn't twentysomething or thirtysomething like many game designers. At 54, game design is, and has long been, in his DNA. After graduating from UCLA in 1981, his first jobs were some of the earliest the then-young industry had to offer.

After a stint at Mattel, he took a programming gig at Sega USA, where he worked on coin-op games like Shooting Gallery 2 and Duck Hunt 2.

"Unfortunately, the...machines I worked on never saw the light of day," Hescox remembers, "This was the Reagan recession (of the early 1980s and) Sega withdrew from the U.S."

Dennis Hescox created 'Maze Wars Revisited.' A veteran of companies like Sega USA and Apple, and institutions like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Hescox is facing a tough time selling his iPhone game. This is the third major recession he's had to navigate as a professional. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

Laid off, he returned home to Los Angeles, and began teaching Macintosh programming. Many of his students worked at Jet Propulsion Laboratory and after inquiring about teaching some classes there, he instead was invited to be JPL's Mac consultant.

That was the joke, Hescox said. "I moved (from Sega) to JPL, the ultimate video game."

In 1988, leveraging his Mac experience, Hescox got a job at Apple, in developer technical support. And after five years there, his stock was worth enough to leave for more personal pursuits. He bought a new Subaru with cash, and spent years mainly traveling, investigating America's back roads, its hot springs, and many of the things most never have time to see.

As happens without steady employment, however, his resources dwindled, and right around the end of the dot-com boom, Hescox began hunting for work.

He landed at an Internet company in San Francisco, but with awful timing: that downturn was kicking in and he was once again laid off.

Unable to find anything else and needing money to live, he settled at a ranch near Sacramento, Calif., working as an in-residence engineer/carpenter/handyman, hunkering down for several years, while still looking for a way back into technology.

He applied for job after job, but the responses were uniform: His skills were outdated. He was overqualified. He didn't know enough about Web technology, and so on.

Enter the iPhone
Then along came the iPhone. For Hescox, the veteran game designer and Apple alumnus, this seemed like a solution sent from above: he saw a way, finally, to use the skills he'd built over the years to make money, ideally without needing to get an actual job.

In 'Maze Wars Revisited,' a group of players on a single Wi-Fi network prowl a maze, trying to find and shoot each other. The game is addictive, but faces challenges on Apple's App Store. Dennis Hescox

"It was really exciting to see this much power in a phone," he said. "Looking at the development tools was just a dream. So I spent the first six months of this year educating myself on the current technologies."

He pondered a number of different ideas, and settled finally on Maze Wars Revisited, an homage to a famous public domain game, Maze War.

But once again, the economic tides were turning. Even as he got going on programming Maze Wars Revisited, thinking that at last, he might have found his way to financial stability, the financial world around him was collapsing.

"As I started the project, it wasn't clear that we were going to be in a recession," Hescox said. "I'm a programmer, not an economist."

Since it came out, Hescox has struggled to find traction with Maze Wars Revisited. He launched the game at a price of $2.99, thinking that it was better than some of the games available for 99 cents or $1.99.

His goal was to find critical mass at universities or large companies, where large numbers of people might buy the game and play together. Evidence of the fun groups could have playing Maze Wars Revisited was right there in my living room.

Those were good ideas, we told him that night, but we urged him to drop the price to 99 cents, and fast. There were countless iPhone games that cost that much, or were free, and given the fact that the game only works when there's a group of players on one Wi-Fi network, $2.99 seemed too costly to attract individual buyers in advance of buzz about the game.

One measure of an application's sales is the number of reviews it has on the App Store. The more reviews, the more sales. For Maze Wars Revisited, there are just three, one of which I wrote that night at my house, full of enthusiasm. But another, clearly written by someone who tried to play by him or herself, gets right to the core of Hescox's challenge: "This game is not fun at all," Dandy3333 wrote.

Last Friday, however, Hescox dropped the price to 99 cents, and he says he will most likely put out a free version that will allow people to play for 5 or 10 minutes, hopefully to get them hooked, and get people playing it together.

I asked how important the game is to his path back to solvency.

"It's very important," Hescox said, adding, "but it has not generated the kind of income I had hoped right away."

A one in 10,000 chance?
Certainly, he hasn't put all his eggs in this one basket, and he's already beginning work on his next iPhone app project.

But the truth is that it's very hard to get noticed in the app ecosystem, what with more than 10,000 currently available, and the odds of success for apps that don't get featured by Apple are long.

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So Hescox is aware that even if Maze Wars Revisited doesn't sell well, he can still point to it as a portfolio piece.

Having been around the tech world for more than a few years, he recognizes that while the early days of the iPhone app era may reward individuals and small teams, that might not remain the case.

"Whenever there's a new computer platform, there's lots of little" development, he said. "Then you start seeing the big innovation. (That) requires bigger teams and investments, and the recession could have a big effect on that."

And that's why for Hescox, the pressure is on to make a go of it right now. Because if the backup plan is to end up getting hired by someone putting together a team of highly-skilled developers, the economy may well not cooperate.

In truth, Hescox, having been through this twice before, is probably better suited to weathering an economic storm than most. At the same time, though, at 54, it's getting harder and harder for him to start over.

So for now, he's hoping for many more scenes like the one in my living room. But if not?

"I'm continuing to move forward with the next project and the next project after that," Hescox said. "Plan B is a continuation of Plan A."

Next in the series: A successful Web 2.0 entrepreneur counts his lucky stars