Blackbox's puzzles can be solved by rotating a phone, flipping its switches and plugging in inputs. | Courtesy of Ryan McLeod

Cal Poly computer science alumnus Ryan McLeod has redefined the way to play puzzles after launching his free puzzle app, Blackbox, last Thursday.

McLeod started developing Blackbox last February after being frustrated with existing puzzle apps, which he felt were “unstimulating and boring.” McLeod decided to come up with a creative approach to playing a puzzle by creating his collection of artful puzzles that are all solvable by using outside-the-box thinking skills, such as rotating the phone, flipping its switches and plugging in inputs. 

Audio Challenge
A puzzle is solved by clapping for this audio based challenge. | Courtesy of Ryan McLeod

“Our phones are brimming with advanced sensors and they’re crying out to be used for something other than simulating a steering wheel or rotating a YouTube video,” McLeod said. “Games should shine with these new inputs, but they’re usually left unused.”

Courtesy of Ryan McLeod | Mustang News

McLeod developed and marketed the app all on his own. As a computer science student at Cal Poly, McLeod developed an interest in mobile apps after taking associate professor John Bellardo’s iOS class. McLeod found himself with a background in front-end web development after interning at Apple and Airbnb after he graduated in 2014. He did some soul-searching while he stayed in San Luis Obispo and started freelance work. He decided to develop Blackbox full-time, using only his savings as a way of improving his iOS skills.

“I always wanted to do mobile stuff,” McLeod said.

Early on during the development process, McLeod began beta testing initial versions of what became Blackbox to perfect his product. At one point, he had 500 beta testers.

“I’m surprised my beta testers don’t hate me,” McLeod said. “I sent out a lot of updates.”

One of his beta testers was computer science and software engineering assistant professor Zachary Peterson.

“After graduation, we stayed in touch and he asked me to beta test a game he’d been working on,” Peterson said. “It’s probably been over a year since I played the first version, and it was immediately apparent to me that Ryan had something unique. I’m very proud of Ryan and Blackbox. It was truly a labor of love, and I’m always very pleased to see a Cal Poly computer scientist having such tremendous success.”

Since Blackbox’s launch, the app has garnered 200,000 downloads and 2,000 reviews with a 5.0 average, which McLeod says is an extreme rarity. Blackbox is currently the 22nd most-downloaded free puzzle app in the U.S., surpassing popular games such as Angry Birds 2 and Two Dots.

The game has even found popularity outside of the country.

“Blackbox is currently the #1 free puzzle game in Australia and U.K.,” McLeod said. “It’s beating out three Candy Crush titles.”

According to Blackbox early adopter and liberal arts and engineering studies alumnus Tyler Dietz, part of Blackbox’s appeal is its unique game playing experience where finger swipes mean nothing. 

“Blackbox isn’t just a puzzle that you play on your phone, it turns your phone into the puzzle,” Dietz said.  “It’s exciting to think how the dead simple user interface of an iPhone could be reworked into an insanely hard game.”

Audio buttons are part of the game playing experience for some of the challenges. | Courtesy of Ryan McLeod

Peterson had the same comment.

“Ryan has found the right balance of challenging and satisfying in his puzzles — if they were too easy, or too obvious, the reward of solving them would be minimal; if they were too difficult, then a player would become frustrated and wouldn’t return to the game,” Peterson said. “I think Ryan, through his design and his methodical play testing, has struck that perfect balance.”

McLeod hopes to share his success during a technical talk at Cal Poly’s Mobile App Development Club on Tuesday, March 29 at 7 p.m. But McLeod said his ventures into iOS development won’t stop with Blackbox.

“I’d really like to do — or give back to the world — more than a puzzle game, but I have a friend that always says ‘this is like your PayPal for Elon Musk,’ so hopefully it can just be a start for something else,” McLeod said.

For now, McLeod said he is hoping that more people will find Blackbox as a more stimulating alternative to your average puzzle app.

“It’s my hope that Blackbox can be both a conduit for strengthening outside-the-box, creative muscle and just a fun game,” McLeod said.

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