Aaron W. Prince is 42 years old. He lives in California with his two children. He is also the undisputed world record holder in a game 15 million people play every month. When it comes to the mega-popular mobile game Doodle Jump, Aaron is the undisputed king. This is how one man went from doodle chump to producing awe-inspiring scores that most human beings can't even comprehend.
"You want to talk about nerves? You want to hear your heart beat? Well, let me tell ya..."
Aaron Prince is heading upwards. Always upwards. He bops in rhythm, his jumps punctuate with a 'bloop'. A constant rhythmic beat, a pulse.
His stomach twists. His palms drizzle. His iPod screen scrolls skyward. Aaron will never reach the top, but he will keep on bopping, keep on blooping. For as long as his nerves can take it, till his heart explodes in the cavity in his chest he will continue to jump.
Bloop bloop bloop.
10 million. So close.
Bloop bloop bloop...
Doodle Jump: an infuriating jangle of jumps, balance and bloops. Released on iOS back in 2009, it was probably one of the first smartphone games you heard your friends talk about; a game so ubiquitous it barely warrants an introduction. Doodle Jump was the app you told your buddies to buy. Even if it was just for five minutes on the train, or during a particularly annoying ad break, everyone you know has played Doodle Jump. But no-one is better than Aaron W. Prince. Not even close.
But it wasn't a buddy that told Aaron Prince to download Doodle Jump in late 2010, it was his daughter. Stomping upstairs, phone in hand, she just knew her Daddy would love the game her babysitter showed her. Doodle Jump had a leaderboard — she knew that's all it would take.
"She showed me the scoreboard, and that was it" Aaron says, laughing. "She knows how competitive I am!"
Aaron Prince: a man burdened with a strange sense of curiosity. Combined with a need to compete, this tends to send his life tumbling in tangents. In a good way.
"I think nowadays the more you can do the better opportunities you have in your life. I always end up taking on crazy things."
After seven years in the military, stationed all over Europe as an engineer, Aaron moved back to his home state of California, running his own business, doing contract work. He also moonlights as a sports writer and finds himself constantly dabbling with fantasy sports leagues. Somehow Aaron still finds time to be the very best in the world at a game 15 million other human beings play every month.
Aaron thinks he is competitive because he is the youngest of nine brothers.
"Oh those pricks, let me tell ya!
"Whether it was playing basketball, or any sport, I was chosen last so many times. It really didn't matter what we did we had to beat each other. That's just in my spirit."
That spirit of competition transferred from sport to video games.
"Growing up in the arcades here, there were always those games and you had those scoreboards," he says. "Whether it was Centipede or Missile Command it didn't really matter, but I always wanted to beat my brother's scores. When I first saw the scoreboards on Doodle Jump I thought 'that's pretty cool, I'd love to put my name on that board'.
"That's how it all started."
"This thing has been through hell and back with me."
Aaron Prince holds up his iPod touch. There's a crack running through the entirety of the bottom edge. He smiles. It's a beaten-up piece of junk. He holds it closer to the screen. "Can you see the score?" It's currently paused at 8 million. A number that I, as a serious player of the game, can't even comprehend. "If I don't get to 10 million on this game I'm playing right now I'll be disappointed. That might sound egotistical, but it's true. I know it can be done because I've done it five times now."
Aaron was once a normal Doodle Jump player. Topping out at 100,000, pushing onto 200,000. Part of his evolution involved the aforementioned iPod touch, which allowed him to separate the game from everyday life: from the texts, the emails, the push notifications. Sooner that he expected, he hit the one million mark.
Then, bizarrely he took some time off.
"That was part of the breakthrough for me," he explains, "you know, steering clear of the game. Other guys play it so rapid fire, and I was the same, I thought I can do this! I can beat that score. You just get so competitive and anxious but you just can't play the game that way, I learned through continual failure that you just can't do it. You have to learn to pace yourself."
Then 3 million. Aaron distinctly remembers that game. That was the very same day his rival, and now friend Niklas Lohmann first hit 10 million. "There's a real camaraderie between us," explains Aaron. 75 per cent of the top players on the leaderboard I've had the chance to interact with."
Then, later, six million. At this point Aaron knew he could beat the world record. It was just a matter of time. "I just knew I had figured out the game and I was going to break the record," he says.
Bloop bloop bloop.
"Really it was my first serious try," says Aaron.
18 hours of accumulated bopping. 18 hours of balancing an iPod touch in an increasingly sweaty palm. The nerves. The paranoia. Aaron would notice a single speck of dust on his less than pristine screen and pause to wipe it off frantically. He could hear his heart pound. 10 million. A mere 700,000 points from the end goal.
"At that point I started getting close to the world record. I knew I might never get that far again."
An intense pressure built from the pit of his stomach and spread to every single muscle in his body.
"But I did it, I got past him. I kept going and I ended up setting the new world record. That was my proudest achievement in the game because it was my first 10 million score and it was the world record at the time.
"I did it all through the nerves. It was maddening. I nearly lost my mind."
As mere mortals playing to kill time on the train, it's difficult to comprehend the mindset, or the technique, involved in putting up a world record score on a game like Doodle Jump. It requires patience, commitment — an ability to stifle nerves. It requires control.
"The best way to learn to control it is to die," says Aaron. "That's the only way to do it.
"If you die you finally start to realise it's your nerves that kill you. It's not the game itself. Once you repeatedly die over and over again, at one point you just get numb to it."
But Aaron also has a set of rules for himself. He plays solely on his iPod Touch — that's the first rule. But the second is perhaps the most important, it's certainly the most pragmatic.
"The way I play is in blocks of 12 minutes," he explains. "I play for about 125,000 each block. Then I pause and I take 15-20 minutes and I come back to the game."
The iOS format is typically described as an outlet for short burst gaming, five minutes here and there. For Doodle Jump players at the highest level, it's a marathon, not a sprint.
But for Aaron W. Prince it's more like a boxing match, a gruelling, physical contest played over a series of rounds, a bout where mental strength and focus is paramount. Playing in 12-15 minute blocks gives Aaron the chance to regroup, but it's also his major weakness. Refocusing his efforts after a short break always places Aaron in a precarious position.
"Once I'm in that flow, after the first minute, I'm not going to die," he explains. "The only time I'm gonna die is within that first minute. Once I'm in there, it's not gonna get me."
Late last year. I check my mentions on my Twitter page. There's a message from Aaron Prince along with a twitpic. It's from a game of Doodle Jump in progress. I check the score in the top left corner: it's way, way over 20 million. More than double the previous record.
"You have to find new goals if you're going to keep playing the game," says Aaron. "If you're at this level you need to find new reasons."
Aaron's best score is now 24,210,720. An achievement that, at a rough estimate, probably took him 40 hours to complete — but that's being generous. Most likely it was closer to 45. 45 hours of focus. 45 hours of balance. 45 hours where a single solitary mistake could send you directly back to square one.
"I think anybody can do it," says Aaron, finally. "I'm not really a wizard at games or anything like that."
Aaron has a PlayStation 3, but he never turns it on.
"If I can do it anybody can do it."