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Crossy Road: How Hipster Whale reinvented free-to-play

It’s sometimes easy to characterise all mobile games as money grabbing, shallow and greedy. Eschewing great gameplay in pursuit of the digital gold rush.

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Crossy Road

It’s sometimes easy to characterise all mobile games as money grabbing, shallow and greedy. Eschewing great gameplay in pursuit of the digital gold rush.

On first appearance it might be tempting to include Hipster Whale’s Crossy Road in that group. It certainly ticks all the boxes that make traditional gamers roll their eyes. It’s derivative of an old game, it’s monetised, and its name is a brazen call back to Flappy Bird – itself a magpie of old mechanics and assets.

Yet, Crossy Road has been well received and widely acclaimed for its addictive gameplay and considerate monetisation techniques. There is another way to free-to-play, it seems.

At GDC last month Hipster Whale’s Andy Sum and Matt Hall spoke about how they crafted the experience and how they wanted to make it a phenomenon.

Inspiration

The game began life as quick project that Sum and Hall deliberately wanted to develop over a short period. They started with a ground-up analysis of what makes a good mobile game work, both in terms of gameplay, plus the mechanics and triggers that make a game successful through recommendation and sharing.

“Matt had been meditating on this idea of why Flappy Bird was so popular?” says Sum.

“There’s a purity in Flappy Bird’s score system. You can tell exactly how good someone is just by hearing the score. And when people get a really good score, they want to share with friends and challenge them to beat the score.”

Cloning is rife in the mobile market. Every successful title, from Flappy Bird to Threes, has seen a raft of imitators nibble at their heels. For Hipster Whale it wasn’t a case of copying Flappy Bird but of capturing its spirit and attempting to emulate its success.

“Probably over a thousand other developers have tried their clone of Flappy Bird but we didn’t want to make the same game again. We wanted to make something in the spirit of Flappy Bird, rather than just recreate it,” says Sum

“When we said we wanted to make the next Flappy Bird we really wanted to make a phenomenon”.

After a period of planning Matt Hall settled on idea of updating the classic game Frogger into a one-touch game. Coincidentally, Sum had been working on something similar back in 2011.

“I got quite far with prototyping the game but I just never released it. It wasn’t good enough. It was called Chicken Dash,” he recalls.

To fit the new project in with their other commitments a development time of six weeks was planned. This helped the team (which also includes artist Ben Weatherall) focus on what was important and encouraged some bold choices.

“Because of the short time frame we were having to take big risks. Because if we failed it only meant we would waste a fraction of our lives and not years. This appetite for risk meant we could experiment with all areas of the game,“ says Sum.

“Since we didn’t care if we failed we had the opportunity to try new free-to-play concepts and make a game that we enjoyed.”

Hipster Whale

The game evolved from its Frogger roots very quickly. When development started the game had the somewhat less mainstream title, Road Kill Simulator 2014, name that is both direct and funny. In some respects it reflects the demeanour of Matt Hall and Andy Sum. They are both thoughtful and evidently committed to making high quality games, but they also display a ruthless efficiency with their craft.

There is plenty of mutual respect but it doesn’t feel like a band with a dream; it’s a business and creative partnership with a sharp focus.

“During the development process Matt and I actually never met up. Matt lives in the country and I live in the suburbs about two hours apart. So we talked on Skype every day and used version control to work together,” says Sum.

“We’re both pretty independent and we do everything ourselves on our projects and I’d done that for so long I was actually a little apprehensive about working with Andy at first, which is why the idea of a six-week project was a pretty good one. But it was actually a really positive experience once we’d started to work together and realised we were quite similar people. What also helped is that we both had equal stake in the game so one couldn’t necessarily overrule one another and we treated each other with a lot of respect throughout development, even though Andy is really a lot younger than me,” jokes Hall.

Development

Crossy Road’s inspiration was a single touch game and its success was in no small part due to that simplicity. An endless Frogger however required an extra layer of complexity which caused much debate during development.

Crossy Road started off as a one tap game like Flappy Bird. We couldn’t get it to work, it never felt quite right. You never felt like you were fully in control of the character. So we tried swipe controls next. And we designed the levels around swiping but it was really tiring. Swiping all the time was really fatiguing,” Hall explains.

With gameplay and design progressing Hall turned his attention ensuring the game would make money.

“At this stage we didn’t know how we wanted to monetize the game. We knew we wanted to make it free, that was really important. We wanted to make a phenomenon and you’re not going to make a paid-game phenomenon anymore. And we also wanted players to play over a long period of time, which is the antithesis of a throw-away arcade title. And we also wanted players share what they were doing with their friends,“ he says.

Crossy Road

Hall wanted the game to appeal to children and therefore wanted to avoid the exploitative monetisation techniques seen in many free-to-play games, which Hall believes creates a false perception of value.

“In order for your free-to-play game to succeed you have to be able to craft it so it makes enough money, per user, that you can afford to advertise. And that’s really scary. Money in minus money out is your profit,” says Hall.

“It’s not just scary, but it’s enormously restrictive on game design where every decision you make has to maximise revenue.”

Hall focused on the aspects that he determined were essential for any free-to-play game to be successful: retention, virality and re-engagement.

“I spent at least a third to a half of my time on Crossy Road optimising these three things,” he reveals.

“Retention is having the player play for as long as they can and they still want to come back tomorrow. Virality is having players share the game with their friends for a whole number of reasons. We wanted our players to advertise it for us essentially.”

The team were conscious that despite the need to create revenue it was of utmost importance that the player was never frustrated or distracted enough to quit the game. Even failure should be fun.

“The last place you want a player to feel bad is when they’ve just lost a game. So maybe a player feels frustrated with their own skills, or worse, that the game feels unfair. And the result is that they’ll quit and they won’t come back,” says Hall.

“So instead of making people upset at the end of the game we tried to make it funny.”

It was Sum’s grandma who confirmed that their instincts were correct.

“I showed her the game, she tapped the screen twice and jumped straight into the side of a car but she lit up and laughed as hard as I have ever seen her laugh. That was a really special moment as we had crafted that experience.”

It was the end screen banner that perhaps held the key to Crossy Road’s success. Each game over banner displays an ever-changing number of options.

“That’s actually the most important system in the game, outside of the game itself,” says Hall.

“The system is slowly introduced to the player but it’s actually quite heavily randomised. I found that if you show the same thing to the player all the time your brain tends to ignore it. Mixing it up and getting people to react to these systems in a positive way was absolutely crucial for retention and virality.”

One indicator of its success can be found in Crossy Road’s high review scores. We are all used to games constantly asking us to endorse them but Hall astutely realised that there was a wrong and right time to ask.

“That ‘Rate Us’ banner only pops up after you have played the game for a little while. So once you have collected three or four characters and you just won a cool character, so you’re feeling really good about the game, rate us! And what that means is that we have one of the best and most highly reviewed apps on the App Store. Our reviews are way above anyone else’s,” says Hall.

“Anyone looking to make a Crossy Road clone, should look here.”

This commitment to retaining the player’s attention meant that traditional interstitial ads were off the table, as they gave players the perfect opportunity to leave the game. Video advertising proved to be the answer but care was taken to make the experience as rewarding as possible.

“The key thing is to ensure that the time the player spends watching that ad, 15 to 30 seconds, you reward them with something that would take them much longer than that. And then they are happy to click and watch and save time,” explains Hall.

Release

Buying characters was also a key revenue stream, with its inspiration coming some the likes of DoTA 2 and Heroes of the Storm – games Sum was playing in his spare time.

“We decided on this as our model. Every character in the app costs a dollar, it’s transparent and people know what they are getting when they buy,” he says.

The game was submitted in October 2014. Hall and Sum were nervous about launching at such a crowded time but were lucky when Apple highlighted the game, giving it early momentum. Hall is remarkably open regarding the game’s financial achievements. The game proved instantly successful, pulling in $600,000 from the App store, mostly from advertising. After a brief trail-off the game took another upswing, this time attributed to returning school kids. And then, in late November, PewDiePie played the game using the PewDiePug character as the hook.

“With PewDiePug we were just giving a nod to YouTube culture,” says Hall. “It wasn’t cynical at all but it worked really well.”

Crossy Road continued to grow but Hall wanted to find out why character purchases were performing so poorly in comparison to advertising revenues? It was a problem of clarity and choice.

“How could players work out what a character did before they  unlocked it? We had originally hoped this would happen through word of mouth. We needed to make the bond stronger,” says Sum.

They made a change to how the new characters are presented to the player, adding a try option and the incentive of bonus coins. The effect was a change in the ratio between in-app purchases and advertising from 1:6 to 1:2. With a successful Christmas – the game generated $125,000 on Christmas day – and the release on Google Play, Crossy Road was officially a massive hit. But there was still more to come.

“Our Australia day update featured 16 new characters”. says Hall.

This updated resulted in the game’s biggest ever revenue day and it soon reached $6.4 million generated from the App Store alone.

If Hipster Whale aimed to make Crossy Road a phenomenon it’s true to say they succeeded. The numbers speak for themselves. In 90 days the game was downloaded 50 millions times and was number one in 39 countries. So far the game has generated over $10m in revenue across the App Store, Google Play and Amazon. This is all the more remarkable when you consider Hipster Whale’s investment in user acquisition.

Absolutely nothing. Zero dollars.

It’s all too easy to be critical of success, particularly in the mobile space, but the truth is that the team at Hipster Whale are as smart as they are creative. They analysed how the free-to-play market works, they made sure they had a tight game mechanic that was accessible and addictive, and they monetized the game in a non-aggressive way.

Hall finishes with a call to experiment and step away from the usual techniques.

“We encourage you to mess with Free-to-play a little bit. Our tiny team can take on the App store giants, not beat them in terms of revenue, but give them a fright. Just remember that people do love to try new things.”

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Thumbsticks editor, and connoisseur of Belgian buns. Currently playing: Okami HD, Hollow Knight, and WarioWare Gold.