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The decade-long journey of a single mother into the games industry

Kick Alley Soccer: The augmented reality app that was ten years too early

We've all heard the story of the intrepid indie developer who mortages their house in a desperate attempt to raise the capital to complete their magnum opus.

It's usually a young white male with a background in game design who left a safe job at a studio in order to make the next Journey or Braid. But the story of Jennifer Kapsch bucks that trend and, despite costing $30,000 over ten years, still has a long way to go.

Kapsch, a 58 year-old single mother from Canada, began her arduous journey into the games industry ten years ago, when watching her close friend, Loai Sahir Abdulla, sit and kick a ball down a hallway while he was recovering from anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) surgery. The concept for the app was to make an augmented reality version of that experience to aid recovery from similar surgeries; an idea so simple it's almost maddening.

On the surface, Kick Alley Soccer may not look like much but there is a potential there which isn't immediately obvious, as it taps into a very specific market; people with leg injuries who like football. With 270 million soccer players in the world, 3.5 billion fans, and 270,000 people a year having ACL surgery in the United States alone, Kapsch is confident it can succeed.

Jennifer with her two sons, Justin and Kristopher

Jennifer with her two sons, Justin and Kristopher

"We're humble, we've kept all our figures and projections on the low side, even in my business plan because we're not going to say that it will make millions or that we need millions," Kapsch tells GamesIndustry.biz.

"We don't. We've been doing this for ten years, we know we can do it. $150,000 would get both games [iOS and Android] on the stores and with a little advertising. We know, we're confident, we believe in the game and the health benefits of the game."

In 2017, when one of her sons was recovering from his second ACL surgery, his physiotherapist agreed to let him incorporate Kick Alley Soccer into his recovery. According to Kapsch, his healing process was noticeably expedited as he began to regularly work the injured knee using the app, along with keeping his other leg healthy during extended sedentary periods.

Combined with the recent upsurge in wearable tech like the Fitbit, the floodgates of possibility opened. Kapsch sees Kick Alley Soccer as the beginning of something much larger, and she is currently devising a host of new applications for AR tied into wearable tech.

“To be taken seriously, in my position as a woman of my age in this industry, it's extremely difficult”

"There's a huge lack of patient generated data right now," she says. "Physicians are encouraging the innovation of wearables, and how they can use wearables connected to mobile devices to transmit that patient data directly to the them... On strength, on muscles, on oxygen levels, on all kinds of medical data so that they can track their patients progress even when the patient isn't there."

Of course, when Kapsch had her lighbulb moment back in 2007, augmented reality primarily existed in the realm of military operations and high-concept performance art. Her idea was still years ahead of the capabilities of smartphone hardware. So, with no immediate path available for her to pursue the concept, Kapsch wrote it down, dated it, and stored it a safety deposit box at the bank.

The spark that would become Kick Alley Soccer lay dormant until 2008, when the global financial crisis hit and Kapsch lost her job. Seeing this as an opportunity, she sold her house and moved city to study event planning at university.

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"I was in this house, a single mum with two boys and no job," says Kapsch. "I decided, what am I going to do at my age, 49? I gotta bring myself up a bit because technology was really growing fast at that time. It was crazy. I had to bring myself up to the level of these youngsters coming out of school with all this education."

At school, Kapsch was by far the oldest member of the class, and even faced bullying and harassment from some of the the younger students.

"It was a very difficult journey, but I did not quit," she says. "My father instilled that in us at a very young age. He was a concentration camp survivor, so we learned very early on that you do not quit, and that life can get bad but you just keep going. There is a spark and you keep going."

The dogged determination that took Kapsch through school is what reignited Kick Alley Soccer. During this time, technology slowly began to catch up with her idea, and by 2011 smartphones had begun to proliferate.

"By that time I was thinking, 'I don't know, I'm getting older, who is going to listen to me?'" says Kapsch. "My idea didn't even have the technology available to develop it yet. Augmented reality wasn't even a word."

Up until that moment, Kapsch's idea was little more than just that: an idea. There was no tech behind it, no investment, and she had no knowledge of the games industry or how to safely navigate it. But the idea itself was something she believed in strongly enough to take the plunge. What little money she had left from the sale of her house and furniture became the capital she needed to begin pursuing it.

“My father... was a concentration camp survivor so we learned very early on that you do not quit”

Along with Abdulla, her partner in the Kick Alley Soccer venture, Kapsch began searching for developers who could help them bring their app to life.

"Around 75 per cent of the time I wouldn't get an answer back. I had questions, I needed guidance, I needed advice," she says. "Many times I was ignored, or just not taken seriously."

The rejections began to mount up even as technology began keeping pace with the idea.

"Each one was challenging to take, and there were many moments where I felt like I was on this ladder just hanging at the bottom, but the ladder is there and it's not going anywhere," says Kapsch.

"So that means your belief is strong... because that original vision was a health idea. My idea was to help people that are suffering from injuries and recuperating from surgeries. An entertaining game that they could play that health benefits at the same time."

The first breakthrough came in 2012 when Indian developer Softnotions cobbled together a rough prototype as a proof of concept. At the time Kapsch was working two or even three jobs to help cover the costs. But even then, augmented reality tech was miles from where it needed to be, and after getting the demo and releasing it onto Google Play, Kapsch's progress slowed once more to a crawl.

That was until 2016, with the release of Pokémon Go; the irrefutable proof that augmented reality had a future.

"When Pokémon Go comes out, I'm crying into my soup because I thought 'No! This is not fair,'" says Kapsch. "I had an idea for augmented reality years ago but I'm not a big company, I don't have millions of dollars. I'm a nobody, I'm not in the Silicon Valley.

“We're not going to say that it will make millions or that we need millions. We don't. We've been doing this for ten years, we know we can do it”

"But that idea, Pokémon Go, that excitement and growth, that was an amazing inspiration. It was that push to keep going because I could really see it happening. I knew if I stayed visible someone would see me. There are billions of people on this earth. There had to be someone."

And sure enough there was someone. In late 2016 Ukrainian developer AVRspot reached out to Kapsch and offered to help her with a new demo for iOS and Android. By this point she was out of pocket by $25,000 after paying multiple developers that failed to fulfil their promises over the years.

"That might not seem like a lot of money when you're speaking about games, but it was a lot for us," says Kapsch. "We're humble family people. We sold a lot of things to get there, and worked two or three jobs along the way. We had no more left to sell. There was nothing left of value."

With the two demos, and the proof that it can aid in post-surgery recovery, Kapsch now just needs the final push to fully realise her vision; unfortunately it has a price tag of around $150,000, and comes with a number of other hurdles.

"To be taken seriously, in my position as a woman of my age in this industry, it's extremely difficult," says Kapsch. "Even from other women, because it's such an unproven idea and concept, it's taking longer to progress and they want to see the future. What's going to happen one year from now, two years from now? That's what I need help with."

But Kapsch's chipper demeanour seems unshakeable and, after being invited to the UK for PocketGamer Connects and Gamesforum London, she still has belief in her idea and is committed to making it work.

"I got a lot of rejections, but those rejections are just tiny challenges," she says. "It's a lesson you learn. Every failure is a lesson, my father taught me, and you only succeed if you learn from those challenges. Never give up, and keep going."

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