How a Washing Machine Led to a Top Free iPad App — Chrome Gekko’s Bowmaster HD

It was the unlikeliest of beginnings for what became the top free iPad app last week in nearly 40 countries — an archery game called Bowmaster HD by German studio Chrome Gekko.

Thirty-one year old artist James Qureitem had just moved from Australia to Berlin to join his younger sister and brother in 2008. On a cold November day, he was carrying a washing machine across the street with the help of his mom, who had flown in to make sure he was settled.

Another recent Berlin transplant, Polish programmer Tore Knabe, saw them from across the street. He offered to help, feeling that an older woman shouldn’t be carrying a washing machine. “We were struggling when suddenly came our knight in shining armor. He carried it up the stairs and we started chatting,” Qureitem said.

It was the start of an auspicious friendship. Knabe, who had started to dabble in iPhone and iPad development, showed them a mock-up for a rough archery game the following year. It was spare at first — essentially a vector representation with a couple of lines that you could pull apart to shoot an “arrow.” Qureitem was intrigued. While he had experience with some two- and three-dimensional animation, he had never designed a game.

He offered to do the artwork. Building the initial iPhone game took several months, during which Qureitem roped in his younger brother Alex and sister Stephanie to do user interface design and marketing. Nobody out of the group had ever built a proper game nor had any of them ever been to an archery range; (they’re, in fact, trying it for the first time this month after a fan offered to take them).

But they wanted to create as realistic an experience as possible. That meant making bow-and-arrow sounds, which they cobbled together out of recording knives being slammed into chopping boards, popped balloons and tables being knocked together.

“We scoured the Internet first to buy sounds but we couldn’t find what we were looking for,” said Alex Qureitem.

They launched Bowmaster on iPhone in May 2010 (shown below) after working on it for several months part-time. It quickly became the second most downloaded paid app in the U.S.

With the iPad freshly launched, they felt there was an opportunity to reinvent the game for the larger interface.

“We knew that the potential of the bigger screen was going to make it a different game,” James Qureitem said. “The iPhone version feels a little more distant and it’s difficult to simulate archery on a small screen.”

They took several months to rethink the game, design the levels and get the look and feel right. They also moved to a free-to-play model with a trial version that can be upgraded to the full game for $1.99 — a move that many developers are now making.

“We don’t see necessarily this as a business — it’s a project we’re really passionate about. We had lots of opportunities to release it sooner, but we wanted the frame-rates and the playability to be perfect,” said Alex Qureitem.

After launching less than two weeks ago, Bowmaster HD scaled the charts to number 1 in the U.S. and dozens of other countries. They also had a little help from being featured in the app store. At the top spot for free iPad apps, they were doing about 50,000 downloads a day. In a week, they saw about 250,000 downloads of the iPad app. They haven’t calculated the conversion rate to the paid app yet, except to say that it’s a “significant” percentage.

“We did minimal marketing. It was very amazing to see the speed at which it climbed the charts,” said Qureitem’s sister, Stephanie Koehrle.

The eldest Qureitem has now quit his job to work on Chrome Gekko full-time. And the family and Knabe already have a completely new game in the works.

“It’s going to be really cool. We had to put it aside for awhile to focus on Bowmaster, but this one is going to be so much better in every way,” James grinned.

If you have a top-ranked iOS or Android app or an intriguing HTML5 strategy, feel free to reach out to us here. We’re looking for interesting stories behind apps — how your company came together, how you came up with the concept, the trial and error process behind designing it and how you marketed it.