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Unemployment has not been easy for Paul Sherno. Since losing his job at WJLA-TV, the veteran TV executive has applied—with 60 other people—for a warehouse job (didn’t get it), considered selling insurance (money was crap), and attempted to enlist in the Army (too old).
“I speak two languages, I’ve won a bunch of Emmys, and I’m pretty much qualified to do a whole bunch of things,” Sherno, 50, says. “But all my contacts in the TV industry are searching for work as well.”
It’s enough to make a guy want to mete out some justice.
“‘Shoot a banker’ ran through my mind,” Sherno says. “I’m not an inherently violent kind of guy, but a lot of people were angry.”
Also, he had an iPhone.
So Assassin FPS, the first iPhone application from Sherno’s one-man company which he runs out of his Silver Spring home, Differentium LLC, was sort of inevitable. The first-person shooter game uses the iPhone’s built-in camera, but instead of shooting at computer-generated enemies, the target in Assassin FPS is whatever’s in front of you. Once you’ve selected from weapons like an AK-47, a bazooka, a laser blaster, or even Nerf darts, the weapon and its crosshair appear over the objects—-or people—-in your viewfinder, and you can commence blowing them into the next realm.
Sherno created an appropriately violent YouTube trailer to promote the game. “[I]t shows the user shooting Rush Limbaugh, Dick Cheney, and Nancy Pelosi,” he says. “I got in some hot water with [YouTube commenters] and took out Pelosi and Cheney—-but left in Rush. No one really cares about Rush.”
Apple initially rejected the app, not because of its content, Sherno says, but because it used the iPhone’s camera. “Apparently we were too far ahead of the curve,” Sherno says. So he and and coder Kris Zabala dumbed down the guts and pitched the game a second time, only to have Apple reject it again. It wasn’t until June, when Android, an open-source mobile operating system used by Google, began incorporating the camera into its apps to create “Augmented Reality,” that Apple was forced to follow suit. (Augmented reality is a technology that allows visual data to be projected over the image in a mobile phone’s camera.) The company released a new application programming guide last month, Sherno and Zabala re-applied, and bingo: They were in the Apple store.
Publicizing the game presented a whole other set of problems. Sherno tried pitching the app to TV stations around the District but couldn’t get anyone to cover it. His former employer Channel 7 didn’t say no, but “they just considered it a cheeseball story,” he says, and passed. He pitched the app to another station where a friend of his is an assignment director. The response wasn’t indignation, or even disinterest, but disgust: “C’mon. People shooting people?”
“There’s this squeamishness,” says Sherno. “I mean good God, what TV station wouldn’t want a chance to break out of the 65-to-dead crowd?”
Even TUAW, the Unofficial Apple Weblog, took a pass on reviewing the app. When Sherno wrote David Winograd, a writer for the site, to ask what he thought of Assassin FPS, Winograd wrote back in an e-mail that he had declined to write about the app because “the review would be 90% backpedalling to try and explain why you are not evil people and 10% reviewing it.”
Assassin FPS went on sale on Sept. 25. By the end of the week, it had 4,500 iPhone users in Japan, which Sherno attributes to having the description and directions for the game translated into Japanese, and 700 users in Italy. He also says that few app designers have embraced augmented reality on the iPhone, “so we stood out.” They’re not standing out quite as much in the United States, where just over 1,000 iPhone users have bought the app, a fact which Sherno attributes to the deluge of apps in the American iTunes store.
Brian X. Chen, a Wired reporter who covers Apple and the iPhone market, says those sales numbers suggest “a moderate success,” but that a cheap app that sells in the thousands is less noteworthy than a $20 app with the same sales numbers. “If it’s a $1 app,”—-the price of Assassin FPS—-“that’s $4500 minus 30 percent,” Chen says. While there’s a chance Sherno’s sales numbers could go up, Chen says it’s difficult to predict an app’s popularity. “Some apps only go popular for a week and drop off; others might stay popular for months.”
Perhaps to ward off such a slump, Sherno is planning a Christmas version of the app, that will allow users to employ Assassin FPS to fight back against the things that annoy them during the holiday season. “I’ve already got a lot of positive feedback from people who said they’ve used [Assassin FPS] when they’ve been stuck in an airport,” Sherno says. “They just turn down the volume on their phones, start blasting away at people.”
Differentium’s next app won’t let you kill anyone, unless you really can’t stop drinking: “We have an app called Oh Baby,” Sherno says, “which is a maternity app, coming out soon. It lets users follow the gestational weeks in pregnancy.”
And while a light-hearted pregnancy app may draw a more diverse group of users, Assassin FPS, Sherno says, has “already paid the mortgage for the next two months.”
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery