A handful of heavyweight developers consistently dominate the games section on the App Store. Rovio and its Angry Birds franchise, Halfbrick with Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride, and Popcap’s Bejeweled are rarely usurped on the podium. Every so often a new game will make an appearance, fueled by positive word of mouth, a successful marketing strategy, or – more often than not – luck.
Ski Safari by Defiant Development is the latest game to not just rank highly, but also to successfully retain its position. In the three weeks since launch Ski Safari has sold over 500,000 units, hit the number one spot in four countries, and claim the number three position in the States.
Not bad for a game developed by two Aussie boys and distributed by a Brisbane-based studio.
The game is best described as a mix between Tiny Wings and auto runner games such as Jetpack Joyride. It’s a side-scroller with a skier is followed closely by a deadly snow avalanche. Players tap and hold the screen to jump, spin, build combos and avoid obstacles. A variety of animals and vehicles offer more advantages, as well as entertainment value.
Gameplanet Australia spoke with Brendan Watts to learn about the process he and co-creator Shawn Eustace went through to create Ski Safari.
Gameplanet: Where did the idea for Ski Safari come from?
Brendan Watts: Ski Safari came out of a few basic unity prototypes I was playing around with for fun on the side. I was trying out a side-scrolling flying mechanic, where you touch the screen to pull up while trying to collect things in the air as a paper airplane. It was the "Paper" prototype. The next one was inspired by Tiny Wings, and I made some procedural terrain tech for rock rolling and jumping down some smooth hills. It was the "Rock" prototype. I'd only just started with the "Scissors" prototype, which was going to be some sort of runner game with a terribly irresponsible kid running with scissors.
I've always been a fan of the Tribes series where you "ski" down slopes. It also has some fine adjustments in the air (with a jetpack) that provides a rewarding skill curve to master the movement. I ended up merging the gliding from Paper with the custom terrain generation and physics from Rock.
I was showing the latest prototype around the office, and Shawn picked it up and wouldn't put it down. There was almost no gameplay to speak of, except trying not to land on your head and a score that increased the further you went. I was thinking of going with the Paper prototype in some form or other, so really it was Shawn that pushed me to see where we could take the little skiing prototype.
Once the fundamentals are fun at the core you can go crazy. So we did! It didn't take long for the game to have rideable penguins, yetis and all the other whacky stuff.
Gameplanet: Both of you have come from backgrounds working for large publisher owned studios - how different did you find it working on a project with just the two of you?
Watts: Shawn and I worked together before on Rocket Bunnies, which was launched first at the end of 2010 on Android. We've worked together since I was just a game dev noobie at Pandemic, where I was working on the user interface for Destroy All Humans 2. Shawn and I complement each other pretty well - he brings an awesome range of art skills that can make a mobile or a next gen game look great, I enjoy the gameplay and programming side of things, and we both tend to pitch in on design and audio to various degrees.
Larger studios offer a different sense of satisfaction to small teams. There's something to be said about playing a part in a larger collection of brains, each with their own talents, and developing something that one person couldn't dream of doing. It's great to be on a team where everyone is valued and respected, and has their own unique perspective.
On the other hand, it's liberating to come up with ideas and just… make them real. At most there's only one other person you need to convince that it's a good idea. The iteration times on a two-person team can be super fast, with less wasted cycles on meetings and broken builds and more cycles making stuff more awesome.
Gameplanet: How much did other iOS games such as Jetpack Joyride and Tiny Wings shape Ski Safari?
Watts: As I mentioned before, Tiny Wings was the inspiration for one of the prototypes that made Ski Safari. The rolling slopes and the neat movement mechanic had me hooked. Jetpack Joyride has also made an obvious contribution with the "mission" mechanic that helps keep players coming back for more. I recall one of the guys at the office, Liam, mentioning something about throwing money at us if we implemented something like it. Who were we to disagree?
I was originally looking at taking the score multiplier for leveling-up your nest in Tiny Wings, but settled on the combo system we shipped Ski Safari with. It seemed to help add to the sense of progression without just handing ridiculously high scores to the player on a platter (although they can still get those). Instead of a flat score multiplier, the maximum combo you can get increases as you level-up.
Those two games were actually the primary source of inspiration outside of just throwing stuff into the game (skiing on penguins? Ridiculous!) and seeing what works.
Gameplanet: Can we expect to see a version on Android anytime soon?
Watts: Absolutely! We're focused on the iOS version for now, but we'll be looking at launching an Android version in the coming months. We need to ensure that everything runs smoothly on the range of devices out there now.
Gameplanet: [i]What were your initial hopes and expectations when Ski Safari launched on the iOS?
Watts: About a six out of ten; hopeful, but we weren't relying on it to pay more than a few bills and maybe go towards a holiday or two. I moved all the way to the UK with my partner, with the intention of working full time again at a large game studio and travelling around Europe in our holidays. That was couple of months before we hit the button for it to release on the App Store.
Gameplanet: What advice can you give to other small startup iOS developers?
Watts: Use an existing engine like Unity rather than trying to make your own. Making your own tech can be rewarding but it's a black hole that will always suck you back in as a means of procrastinating. I know the feeling all too well. Starting with a game framework lets you get stuck straight into making the fun stuff is the right approach.
Polish and take pride in the games you create, but make sure to ship them! It's easy to prototype something and then underestimate how long it will actually take to finish. There’s a quote by Tom Cargill of Bell Labs that’s is uncannily accurate:
"The first 90 percent of the code accounts for the first 90 percent of the development time. The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts for the other 90 percent of the development time."
Finally, keep your financial expectations realistic and try not to count on the games as your primary source of income initially. There are some good articles out there on what to expect, notably one from The Game Bakers.
Gameplanet: Post-release, how does it feel with the game ranking highly and being critically well-received?
Watts: Absolutely blown away! It's a surreal feeling to be walking around Belgium, on holiday, eating waffles, with the crazy sales figures ticking past every day and the reviews streaming in.
It's awesome to have made something purely for fun that turned out to be something that seems to stick in people’s hands.
Gameplanet: What's next for Ski Safari? Kinect? Facebook? Ski Safari 2?
Watts: A few weeks ago I would have called you crazy but who knows now! We're looking into a few avenues and we're extremely excited by the potential of the game to grow.
Gameplanet: And what's next for you guys?
Watts: Shawn and I are working on the first update for Ski Safari, the first of many we hope. We've got some flexibility now and would love to just keep making great games!