How minimalist puzzler Blek turned two brothers into millionaires

Photo credit: Apple

Blek combines pop art stylings with super-addictive gameplay. Photo: Kunabi Brother

Brothers Denis and Davor Mikan make it look easy. They created a memorable and graphically beautiful puzzler called Blek that rocketed to the top of the paid game chart in the iOS App Store, making them millions in the process. Deceptively simple — with a nod to 60s pop art — the game caught the attention of Apple, too, which recently handed them a Design Award in recognition.

“It may sound simple, but it’s the Apple kind of simplicity that actually takes a lot of work,” Denis Mikan says of the game he co-created.

“It may sound simple, but it’s the Apple kind of simplicity that actually takes a lot of work.”

The idea behind Blek is ingeniously straightforward. At its simplest you draw a line on screen, and then this line repeats itself over and over until it encounters a black dot, or goes outside of the screen borders and resets. Draw the line slowly and it moves slowly, draw it fast and it moves fast. Your aim is to clear the screen of colored dots without accidentally touching a black one. But from small acorns grow mighty oaks, and since Blek arrived in the App Store a few months ago it has received close to a million downloads at $2.99 each.

Still reeling from their breakout success, Mikan told us about Blek‘s unlikely odyssey from the brothers’ hometown of Vienna, Austria, into the hearts of iOS gamers around the world. Befitting the game they brought into the world, their journey was hardly a straight line.

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Sometimes game designers will start a project with a clear view of where they’re going. Other times the journey becomes the reward — or at least its inspiration. This is exactly what happened with Blek, where an uninspired initial concept turned into one of 2014’s most original games.

Japanese brush paintings were one of the biggest inspirations for Blek

Japanese brush paintings were one of the biggest inspirations for Blek

Originally the plan was to translate the classic game Snake to a touchscreen device. The “eureka!” moment came when the brothers got talking about a book Davor was reading by the Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō, which contained prints of ink drawings and calligraphy. “My brother came up with the concept of a line representing an idea that springs to life after it has been drawn,” Denis Mikan says.

This proved to be the hyper-kinetic germ of an idea which became Blek. It fitted perfectly into both brothers’ ideal for the game, which was to create something which encouraged exploration on the part of the player, but needed minimal explanation.

Midway through its creation they received the biggest boost to their confidence when a friend, cajoled into playtesting, said to them, “Steve Jobs would have loved this thing!”

A 3-D rendering of one of Blek's puzzle.

A 3-D rendering of one of Blek‘s puzzles.

Despite having both studied computer programming at university, both brothers had very different skillsets. While Denis had become interested in writing — and written and published several short stories, in addition to a novel — Davor’s passion was for experimental sound design. His job involved creating software algorithms for composition and sound transformation. This came in useful when it came to assembling the game’s offbeat soundtrack, which utilizes sine waves and noise — which Denis Mikan describes as “the most simple and the most complex sound on earth.”

The sound made when the line hits a black dot is from an experimental piece of music by composer and vocalist Erin Gee, a composition professor at the University of Illinois.

Denis (Photo credit:

Denis Mikan is rightly proud of what he has achieved with Blek. Photo: Kunabi Brother

Blek arrived in the App Store a few months back and immediately struck a chord with players, spreading through word of mouth until it began racing up the App Store rankings. It wasn’t just bored iPhone gamers it appealed to, either. Next month Blek will be form part of a “Digital Revolution” exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London, England — celebrating art, design, film, music and video games from the 1970s to the present day. Not bad for a game that started life as a Snake clone.

“We have some crazy numbers,” Mikan says, when I ask about how successful the game has been. For the past six weeks it has been the most downloaded paid app in the U.S. “Angry Birds stayed on top for, I think, nine weeks back in 2011,” Mikan says. “I think that is the world record.” If that’s the case then he is counting down the days to see if Blek can beat it.

“We are too new to this to know exactly what to expect, but one thing seems evident — there’s no place like the App Store right now,” he concludes. “With all its great possibilities it’s a world of its own.”

Buy from: App Store

About the author

Luke DormehlLuke Dormehl is a UK-based journalist and author, with a background working in documentary film for Channel 4 and the BBC. He is the author of The Formula: How Algorithms Solve All Our Problems, And Create More and The Apple Revolution, both published by Penguin/Random House. His tech writing has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, Techmeme, and other publications. He'd like you a lot if you followed him on Twitter.

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