The Casual Games Association paid for Daniel Crawley’s trip to Casual Connect Europe, where he moderated two sessions. Our coverage remains objective.

Yosef Safi Harb is one of the most amiable game developers you’ll meet. He’s also an ex-aerospace engineer who’s created a mobile game that you control with your heart — the first of its kind.

Safi Harb is based in Amsterdam, where his small company, Happitech, is gaining notice with its first iOS release, Skip a Beat. I met up with three of the team at Casual Connect Europe on the day their game — two years in the making — released on the iOS App Store. It was a pretty big moment for them all, and their joy at seeing their passion project finally hit the market was kind of infectious.

When Julie Christine Wolsak, who joined Happitech as operations manager five months ago, told me her mother was heading to the Apple store to buy an iPhone just so she could play the game, it brought home how much the development process means to young companies — and how hard it can be at times.

Keep your finger over the camera to read your pulse rate.

Above: Keep your finger over the iPhone camera to read your pulse rate.

Image Credit: Happitech

Some darn clever tech

Safi Harb showed me how the technology behind Skip a Beat works. It uses the camera and flash on your iPhone to measure the blood flow moving through your finger. The tiny red pixel changes on the resulting video stream are nearly undetectable to the human eye (trust me, I tried to see them on the test screen that Safi Harb showed me), but they’re enough to measure your heartbeat accurately to within 3 to 5 beats per minute when done correctly.

It plays like a zen version of Flappy Bird, with you keeping your frog floating through a combination of staying calm and tapping the display. Seeing your own heartbeat displayed in the corner of the screen is strange at first, and the gradual realization that you can control it to a certain degree, with the way you sit, breath, and think, is pretty mind-blowing.

But Getting Skip a Beat to its launch state hasn’t been easy.

Sorry, you’re baby’s not that beautiful

Initial playtesting was with friends and family, which proved more or less useless, said Wolsak: “Friends are always, ‘Oh, it’s so nice,’ and we’re like, ‘OK, that doesn’t help.’” Even hitting the streets of Amsterdam wasn’t that helpful, as the people giving feedback still had to do it face-to-face and were far too “nice.”

Happitech turned to an anonymous testing service, PlaytestCloud, to get some better feedback. What they heard was tough to take.

Skip makes a pretty cute hero.

Above: Skip makes a pretty cute hero.

Image Credit: Happitech

“It was really hard for Yosef,” said Wolsak.

“We got bashed,” said Safi Harb. “You have no clue. They did the reviews, and they were saying it’s terrible.”

PlaytestCloud sends gameplay video that tracks player actions on the touchscreen, and this was a real eye-opener. “There was one person who was just staring at the screen. They didn’t even know what to do, right?”

The game was Safi Harb’s baby, and Wolsak likened hearing the feedback to that cruel moment when misty-eyed parents realize their baby isn’t actually the most beautiful child in the world. “Your baby is really nice, but it’s not the most beautiful baby ever,” she said.

But the team took the feedback on board and improved their game as a result, realizing along the way that they’d been targeting the wrong audience.

“We kept improving, improving, improving,” said Safi Harb, “and we realized, ‘Wait a second, we shouldn’t be in the game section; we should be in health.’ The people we want to reach are people who are interested in their health.”

One of the key changes they made was to the difficulty — specifically the ways you can die (or not). I looked at some early stats, and a whole lot of people were dying from hitting the bottom of the screen. Now you can ride along there without fear of failure, and it makes for a more stress-free experience — something that’s pretty key for a game promoting health awareness.

“What we’ve heard is that people who are interested in the heart, they’re not interested in getting more frustrated because they’re dying,” said Safi Harb. “So give them a simple game experience which is kind of challenging.”

“It’s about the heart,” added Wolsak. “It’s not about how hard it is! It’s one of the first games where you need to calm down instead of stressing yourself out.”

With less focus on providing a hardcore gaming experience and more on the heart-rate functionality, Happitech has created a game that is now turning heads for the right reasons.

“Now it’s a really, really beautiful baby,” said Wolsak. “We’re really proud.”