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Buffalo company launches ‘Emoji with Me,’ a free, charades-like game

Six months after a friend suggested the idea in a text message, Kurt Wojda and Mark Zorn have launched a video game that lets users of smartphones and other mobile devices challenge their friends to guess the names of movies, TV shows or different phrases using emojis to communicate.

Their game, “Emoji with Me,” is an updated version of charades or “Wheel of Fortune” that leverages the popularity among young people of emojis – the smiley faces and numerous other images that add personality and punctuation to electronic messages.

And it follows in the footsteps of trendy mobile games such as “Words with Friends,” a Scrabble knockoff, and “Draw Something,” which casual gamers play on their phones for a few minutes at a time.

Since “Emoji with Me launched Thursday, nearly 1,000 people had downloaded the game as of noon Monday, and users had spent an average of 45 minutes playing the game over the weekend, Wojda said.

“So far, it’s been really good,” said Wojda, who founded the Buffalo company Eat Brain LLC with Zorn to produce “Emoji with Me.”

Wojda and Zorn are 32-year-old University at Buffalo graduates who work together at a startup on the edge of the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. They’ve been interested in gaming for a long time, but they hadn’t yet come up with an idea for the right game to bring to Apple’s App Store and to Google Play.

Last August, their friend, Brent Garner, a Canisius College graduate who is a year younger, suggested in an text message that they try to design a game that uses a playing language of emojis. For his inspiration, Wojda and Zorn gave Garner a 10 percent ownership stake.

The partners spent the last months developing the game, which allows players to select the title of a movie, TV show or another common phrase – there are 8,500 options included in the basic version of the game – and then to select the emoji that will represent the words in the title or phrase you want your playing partner to guess. “It’s very accessible,” Wojda said.

If you don’t know what emojis are – and you don’t have a teenage child or grandchild to ask – they are images that started out as variations on the yellow smiley face but exploded to include hundreds of varieties of hand gestures, food items, animals, modes of transportation, scenes and widgets that brighten up a text or tweet. Emojis make a statement, indicate a mood and otherwise communicate without any words at all.

As a sign of emojis’ growing use, the Oxford Dictionaries last year named the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji their Word of the Year.

There are other emoji-based games in Apple’s App Store and the Google Play store for Android device owners, but they are one-player games in which the game generates the emoji messages for the player to guess, Wojda said.

What sets “Emoji with Me” apart, he said, is it is a multiplayer game that lets the players come up with their own emoji translations – there are 1,619 emojis to chose from – of the phrases to challenge their friends.

In the “Emoji with Me” game, for example, if you pick the movie “The Lion King,” as your phrase, you could chose an emoji of a lion and an emoji of a crown and send that picture message off to your playing partner.

The game is free to download. The creators earn money from ads that appear in the game, from players willing to pay $2.99 for an ad-free version of the game or from people willing to pay 99 cents for forthcoming additions to the game that will include names of video games and songs.

As of about noon Monday, 965 people had downloaded the game, with Wojda expecting downloads to reach 1,000 by the end of the day. Players had taken 10,000 total turns with the game over the holiday weekend, with a 90 percent retention rate. That means, he said, that 9 in 10 players had used the game a second time instead of just trying it out once and never returning to the app.

“We thought that was great,” Wojda said.

While the game was targeted to high school-age users, he said, the highest usage over the first weekend was among 22- to 28-year-olds.

Wojda and Zorn are focused on fine-tuning “Emoji with Me,” but they have their eyes set on building future games. “We have a lot of ideas that we’re kicking around,” Wojda said.