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From Game Over to Home Makeover: How I Renovated My Life to Build the Perfect Home Design Game

My name is Alex Åhlund, and I’m the founder of Hometopia. I’ve been developing video games for nearly thirty years.


Alex Åhlund — Founder of Hometopia

I’m half Swedish, but I grew up in the U.S. (My father lives in Stockholm now.) I moved around a lot — Texas, Wisconsin, Florida, Georgia, then went to college in Boston, worked in San Francisco, and now I live in Richmond, Virginia.

Childhood Passion and Early Ventures

I’ve been building businesses since I was a child. I vividly remember selling things out of my briefcase at elementary school — specifically rocks like amethyst, tiger’s eye, and pyrite. I learned important lessons about customer acquisition and retention when my best customer’s mother put an end to his rock-buying spree.

My older brother has always been my most trusted collaborator. In school, we sold hand-drawn Trapper Keeper folder covers adorned with characters from the game Street Fighter (our mutual love of games has stood the test of time). Our bond has grown even stronger as our careers have crossed paths over the years in the game development industry, and we still work together closely today.

Early Experiences in Game Development

My fascination with computers and programming began as a child. In the early days, I programmed in QBasic and then in Visual Basic, and I also dabbled in game development engines like Klik N Play and Multimedia Fusion. I developed my first game in QBasic at age 8, and it was an ASCII text-based real-time strategy masterpiece. With limited visual capabilities, I embraced the challenge by utilizing ASCII art and MIDI music. At 10 years old, my talent caught the attention of the Palm Pilot company, where my mod pack for an RPG game was featured and included in the retail package.

Little did I know that these early experiences would shape the course of my entire career.

At 13 years old, I built out a fully remote, ten-person game development team, working with people all over the world. Our first project was a 3d first-person multiplayer shooter game, and a casino company approached us about funding it to use exclusively for in-room entertainment, but the deal fell apart when the casino company realized if people were in their rooms playing video games, they weren’t gambling. And thus began a lifelong pattern of early successes and minor career setbacks–that continue to galvanize my resolve and hone my craft.

At the same time that I was refining my game development skills, I also ran one of the earliest game development websites and forums called AmaDev, which featured user-contributed tutorials and guides for all aspects of game development, like level design, sound engineering, and production. It hosted one of the first online conferences for indie game devs, which wasn’t something that had ever existed prior. In this digital forum, I witnessed first-hand the power of collaboration and the profound impact it could have on the careers of aspiring game creators like me.

Shift to Mobile Gaming and Success with Design This Home

In the late 1990s, I got my first taste of financial success when I launched Weapon Studios. Propelled by shareware downloads and partnerships with popular platforms like CollegeHumor, millions of people played our game Dope Farmer. Riding this wave, I officially launched Injoy Games, which eventually evolved into the present-day Giant Junior (from which we launched Hometopia.) With a focus on downloadable casual games, we captured the hearts of a diverse audience and secured partnerships with major game portals and retail giants.

As the era of downloadable casual games plateaued, I found myself drawn to other jobs in the gaming industry. My journey began at Atari, where I worked as a producer on beloved titles such as Atari Anthology, Roller Coaster Tycoon 3, and Axis & Allies. After that, I joined Floodgate Entertainment, a Boston-based game studio founded by the legendary Paul Neurath, renowned for his work on Ultima Underworld and Thief under Looking Glass. But it was my final move to San Francisco and my involvement with PlayFirst, the company behind the hit game Diner Dash, that truly re-ignited my entrepreneurial spirit.

Around that time, I met my wife Heather who was working as a research immunologist in San Francisco, which is where we met. Eventually, she joined me in our video game development studio, and we’ve been working together ever since.


Alex Åhlund and his wife Heather Åhlund

“I even slept outside an Apple store in a rough area of San Francisco to be among the first to own an iPhone 3G on launch day.”

The 2008 launch of the iPhone 3G solidified my belief in mobile gaming. I even slept outside an Apple store in a rough area of San Francisco to be among the first to own an iPhone 3G on launch day.

That very same day, I started AppVee, a game and app media company, which the ex-Yahoo-led Appolicious would later acquire. AppVee eventually led to the establishment of App Minis, a mobile-focused game development company. Our early successes, including Talking Tubby, Talking Babies and Tasty Cookies, were profitable. At App Minis, we eventually created Design This Home in 2013 — a major turning point in my career.


App Minis popular game Design This Home

Design This Home surpassed all expectations. The game caught fire, swiftly climbing to the second spot on the Top Grossing US charts, even surpassing heavyweights of the time. With 20 million downloads, hundreds of thousands of five-star reviews, and a flurry of tweets every second, it attracted the attention of major players in the industry. We were on top of the world. Little did I know, this success would soon prove to be a deceptive warning sign…



Game-play images from Design This Home

Challenges in the Mobile Market

When you feel on top of the world, your perception gets distorted into thinking that feeling will continue. There’s a hubris that comes with it. Fortunately, reality is pretty good at humbling you when that happens. Competitors swooped in, cloning our game under the umbrella of a major mobile company. User acquisition costs soared, and player retention became difficult. Our code was stolen and repurposed in the Chinese market. Our custom-built game engine reached its limits, leaving us at an impasse.

We learned from these setbacks and started to build the sequel, Design This Castle, from scratch in a new engine. We implemented proper processes, created expandable tools, and established a physical office in downtown San Francisco, determined to do everything “the right way” this time. Oh, what a mistake that turned out to be…

One year turned into two, then three. What emerged was an extraordinary game, surpassing its predecessor in every way. With strong characters, a vibrant storyline, immersive gameplay, and a technical foundation capable of supporting live operations for decades, the game was poised to be a massive hit. And then, our launch was botched by red tape — unimaginable bugs in the Apple Game Center system.

The initial launch window is critical for any new mobile game. Yet, Apple’s Game Center system, upon which many freemium games relied, faltered, leaving the vast majority of our new users unable to log in or even open the game. By the time the issue was resolved, our marketing window had closed, and frustrated players had moved on. I was devastated.

At that point, the mobile market had undergone a transformation. Our game continued to limp along, while competition consolidated into a handful of major players. The cost of entry, just to attempt to compete, skyrocketed to millions per month for the marketing budget alone. Our five-person team simply couldn’t keep up. It was time to bring this chapter to a close.

And so, my wife and I packed our belongings, left San Francisco, and sought refuge in Bali.

Rediscovering PC Gaming and the Search for a Home

After nursing our wounds and reassessing the video game market for several months, two realizations dawned upon us. First, while mobile may no longer be a blue ocean, our old friend, the PC gaming space, was experiencing a resurgence. Fewer gatekeepers, no pressure of a one-shot launch, and no need to appease the Apple Games Team.

The second realization was our intrinsic need for a real home — a true sanctuary. Not just any home, but the project of a lifetime. A place where we could build our own utopia.

We scoured the country, exploring houses in Los Angeles, Portland, and Austin, but none resonated with us. Hope dwindling, we found ourselves attending a wedding in a place I barely knew existed: Richmond, Virginia. To our surprise, we discovered quaint cobblestone streets, breathtaking landscapes, warm-hearted people, and, most significantly, grand, historic homes. This was our place, the place we’d been looking for.


The Åhlund’s home in Richmond, Virginia

We set out to find the perfect home in Richmond, but nothing we saw had the charm or character we wanted. All the homes were all too ordinary, too move-in-ready. During a tour of a perfectly renovated home, we made it clear to our realtor that we were in search of a substantial project–a real fixer-upper. Reluctantly, she presented a listing that ticked all the boxes, but before she showed it to us, she warned us about how much work it needed.

Built in 1895, the 7-bedroom, 3.5-bath, 4,400 square-foot home was a frat house where eight college students were squatting. The house stood in such a state of disrepair that, after the tour, our realtor turned to us and said, “I need to go disinfect my hands.”

We knew it sounded crazy, but the house was exactly what we were looking for. Within a week, we had bought the house and were ready to make it our own. There was just one small problem — neither of us had ever so much as hung a painting, let alone renovated an entire house. Thankfully, YouTube came to the rescue. (But that’s a story for another time.)

“Take a hammer and create a hole in your wall. Embrace the unknown.”

Armed with little more than determination, we dove into the work of home renovation. We learned new skills and breathed life into our old home. My wife Heather emerged as the driving force behind our project. One of the most profound lessons I learned from her is that our self-imposed limitations are what hold us back. All too often, we dismiss certain things as being beyond our grasp, simply because we have not yet done them before. This leads us to underestimate our own ability to install a light switch, level a floor, or construct a shower. Yet, as Steve Jobs astutely remarked, “Everything was made up by people that were no smarter than you.”

For anyone in need of encouragement to tackle big home projects, Heather offers a simple yet transformative suggestion:

Take a hammer and create a hole in your wall. Embrace the unknown. Arm yourself with the resources available on platforms like YouTube, conduct your research, and follow the instructions.

This small act of courage will start a snowball effect, building the confidence to conquer any challenge that lies before you.

“Borne from our (rekindled) love for home design and renovation, Hometopia became the embodiment of our lifelong vision.”

Merging Home Design and Game Development

My renovation journey with Heather served as a profound inspiration for our latest venture — Hometopia.

Borne from our (rekindled) love for home design and renovation, Hometopia became the embodiment of our lifelong vision. Building on the successes of our previous games, we were determined to create the best renovation and design simulation game ever.

We’re a small, tight-knit team at Hometopia led by me, my brother Carl, and my wife Heather alongside an extremely talented team of game developers and designers. We all wear multiple hats. Together, we merged our collective expertise in game development, artistry, and passion for creating extraordinary experiences.

Carl and I share a passion for the video game industry. He worked at Electronic Arts, where he designed for high-profile franchises like NASCAR and Superman. He also worked on Dungeons & Dragons. Like me, Carl has also pursued his own entrepreneurial ambitions, establishing Monad Games. But we came back together at App Minis, where my brother assumed the crucial roles of Studio Head and co-owner. It was there that we conceived of the iconic titles Design This Home and Design This Castle, captivating players with immersive virtual experiences. Now at Hometopia, my brother assumes the roles of both Creative Director and Art Director, guiding the creative vision for Hometopia.

Fulfilling the Grand Vision

Drawing upon my previous work and an early vision for games like Design This Home, Design This Castle, and Circ (a multiplayer home builder game in VR), I felt a calling to fulfill a grander vision — an expansive 3D renovation and design game on a larger, more ambitious scale. It was the path I had always envisioned for the Design This series, but with a slightly different spin. My addiction to home design shows on HGTV and Bravo became another wellspring of inspiration.

“My passion has always been creating games that give people an outlet to express their full creativity…”

My passion has always been creating games that give people an outlet to express their full creativity, an experience that blends the joy of home design with accessibility.

After several years of work, Hometopia is ready for players to experience my life’s work. I hope that they can feel the care that my team and I have baked into this project.

As I reflect on the lessons learned, I am reminded that the path to success is very rarely a straight line. My journey through the world of video game development and home renovation has been one of ups and downs, triumphs and setbacks. But it has all converged right here, in Hometopia.

Excited for the release of Hometopia? Wishlist on Steam now!

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