The Game That Saved Halfbrick

It’s easy to think of them as an overnight success: a studio that burst forth fully-formed with the single goal of dominating the iOS market with a series of fruit-slicing, jetpack joyriding, monster dashing games they’d prepared earlier. It’s also easy to be wrong. While many believe Halfbrick only came to exist after the release of the critical and commercial iOS hit Fruit Ninja, the Brisbane studio has been quietly working on games for almost ten years. This is a story about how everyone now knows who they are.

In early 2010, Halfbrick released a PSP mini called Rocket Racing. After years working on licensed titles for the GameBoy Advance and DS, they were finally working on their own IP. Rocket Racing received a lukewarm critical reception. It was abstract, sleek, complicated, and challenging. It was also a commercial failure. The studio had poured six months into developing the game — it was a heavy investment for a small studio — and it didn’t need a commercial flop at a time when things weren’t looking good for the Australian games industry.

“Like everyone, we were doing it tough,” says Luke Muscat, an executive producer and game designer at Halfbrick.

“That was the case for pretty much everyone around that time, but things were definitely pretty tough after Rocket Racing. Luckily, Fruit Ninja came along.”

Muscat almost makes it sound too easy. Fruit Ninja didn’t accidentally wander into the Halfbrick offices and decide to stay and make them a lot of money. Rather, it came at a time when the studio needed to do something different because what they had been doing clearly was not working. Halfbrick were feeling the pinch — a lot of licensed work in Australia was drying up and the original IPs they’d developed for Xbox Live weren’t enough to keep the company running. They needed a saviour — a Fruit Ninja — but that game wouldn’t just magically appear. Like all their games, the Halfbrick team thought long and hard about the games they’d worked on, identifying what worked and what didn’t. Taking lessons from their failures, they began work on a game built on everything they’d learned.

“We learned a whole heap from Rocket Racing about what not to do,” says Muscat.

“We learned things like don’t make your game difficult to control, don’t use an abstract theme, and don’t make it tremendously difficult to play. We learned a lot about branding and marketing in terms of having something that people can grasp onto, something bright and colourful, a concept that can be explained in three to four words.

“A common recurring concept we have for Fruit Ninja is ‘Slice fruit with finger’, whereas with Rocket Racing it was always a bit of a complicated task to explain what was going on. ‘It’s this abstract top-down racing game where you use a rocket and you can boost off walls’ doesn’t come off quite as elegantly as ‘Slice fruit with finger’ and ‘Avoid bombs’,” he says.

Muscat says that some of the top-tier iOS games at the time also directly influenced Fruit Ninja, specifically Canabalt, Doodle Jump, and Flight Control. Elements like simple and intuitive inputs (line-drawing in Flight Control, tilting in Doodle Jump), short-session times, tight retry loops and the way the games dealt with scoring and failure gave Muscat ideas on ways to craft Fruit Ninja. Having worked extensively with DS games also influenced the slicing mechanic that has become the core of Fruit Ninja.

“Working with the DS, one of the things I really liked was the whole slicing across the screen mechanic,” says Muscat.

“The thing that popped into my head as I was slicing was the old Miracle Blade 3000 advertisements on late night TV … I think the guy’s name was Chef Tony. He used to throw a pineapple in the air and slice it mid-air to demonstrate how sharp the knives are. A few years later when my partner and I bought our first set of really sharp knives, that was logically how we tested how sharp the knives were in the kitchen by throwing tomatoes around… like extremely responsible adults.”

With the slicing mechanic decided on, next came the subject itself. Muscat had decided that it should be something bright and colourful — something easy to grasp without needing extensive explanation — so why fruit? Why not balloons or cute animals?

“I really wanted to make Fruit Nina viscerally satisfying,” he says.

“I wanted it to have all those other elements that Canabalt, Doodle Jump and Flight Control had — those games are really brilliant, but I always felt that what those games were lacking was visceral, exciting feedback.”

In Muscat’s first concept for Fruit Ninja was a watermelon.

“I figured watermelons are nice and juicy and when you slice them you can imagine all the juice splattering around and it’s gory. I wanted it to be really gory, but G-rated gore, not actual gore. So fruit just fit with that and the other requirements, which was to be colourful and easy to understand. We certainly wouldn’t want to use animals because that wouldn’t be a good direction… it would be a very, very different game.”

With the basic idea down on paper, the team began tweaking and fine-turning the game. The original Fruit Ninja 1.0 was completed from start to finish in six weeks flat with a core team of only three people working on it full-time, including Muscat himself. It only had Classic Mode and didn’t have combos. Muscat says that since the release of version 1.0, the team have not stopped updating and tweaking the game to ensure that it’s the strongest that it can be, especially in a market where there are so many imitations and copies.

Eight months have passed since the release of Fruit Ninja on the iPod and iPhone. During this time Halfbrick has transformed itself from a relatively unknown studio to one of the world’s leading iOS game developers. The studio has 50 employees, internally divided into smaller teams that work on their own games. So what was the transition like for the developers? How did it feel to go from working on complex PSP and Xbox Live games to back-to-basics iOS titles?

“It was so, so, so refreshing,” says Muscat.

Refreshing... like a delicious piece of fruit? This is a question we refrain from asking him.

Muscat is clearly enjoying working in the mobile game space.

“Once we started working on it, it just felt amazing. One of the things we were doing was taking the iPhones and iPods home and getting our friends, families and partners to play the games. For the first time in the whole time we’ve been developing games, they were responding and they were genuinely interested and actually playing the games,” he says.

“When we took Rocket Racing home, everyone would start playing it and they’d oh ‘Oh, it seems cool, but I don’t really get it… it’s not the sort of game I would play, but… good work anyway!’ But once we started doing Fruit Ninja, people like our parents, who knew that we developed games, who we told for years we make games, and they were always ‘Oh cool, you make games but that’s not for me’; for the first time they were playing something we’d made and actually getting it and enjoying it. They could experience what we spent our time crafting. It was an amazing realisation for us; it was so good being able to tell them what we do and show them and have them understand.”

Despite the company’s success, Muscat says that the studio culture has remained the same — it’s still laid-back, friendly, with a strong focus on creativity. The sudden influx of money hasn’t led to a corporate culture that focuses on remaking the financial success of Fruit Ninja. Rather, the success of Fruit Ninja has given them the independence to work on what they want to work on, to take their time and set their own deadlines, and to only ship games they’re 100% happy with. Muscat says that while Fruit Ninja was the game that saved Halfbrick and pushed it to the heights it’s at now, they won’t be kicking back and relaxing any time soon.

“We could knock out a Fruit Ninja 2 in a couple of months and it would probably sell gangbusters, but we wouldn’t be satisfied with that,” Muscat says.

“We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. Even when we were working on licensed titles we were determined to make the best games we could possibly make. We want to make really fantastic games and keep building Halfbrick as a company that people identify as making quality, interesting, unique titles.”


Comments

    Great piece.

    For the record, I have Fruit Ninja Kinect and it's AWESOME.

      Sometime this christmas I will be investing in a Kinect despite having about 1.5 metres of space from TV to couch. I've been playing games like FN at my nephew's and I know I have to find a way to beat him. So right now I'm looking at marionette training - I'm sure that won't be too hard to pull off.

      Agreed with Matthew K - I got it free with The Gunstringer but Fruit Ninja is actually Kinect's killer app - it's easy to jump into and very hard to walk away from

    Pretty sure when i finally get an Android phone, this will be the first game I download.

      That's what I did. Be warned though - doesnt have multiplayer.

    You know, Halfbrick and Fruit Ninja has really inspired me in an area of game design I have always been interested in, which is: super simple concept and game on the out side, but you can drive in to reveal more complexity if the player chooses to do so. In the case of fruit ninja, you can wave your finger around cutting fruit, but if you are looking to break that high score you would know to cut certain fruit in a row, and that you need to time it so if there is 2 on the screen you must wait until another one pops up for a 3 combo swipe, its may not be too much of complexity but its there and not enforced into the players face.

    Hope half brick continues to move ahead and become a great developer powerhouse this country needs with the likes of Firemint, Iron Monkey etc.

    I own Aeroracer (called rocket racer here) and I love it. It's difficult and unforgiving, but it's got an awesome retro vibe and is hard to master. I feel the game is hampered by lacking any decent means to compete with friends.

    There's something about Fruit Ninja that makes me think that Halfbrick really understand what makes games fun. Reading this, it's nice to see what they had to go through in order to really understand what works. What's even nicer is that they managed to have the right idea at the right time and find success.

    I've been meaning to pick up Jetpack Joyride and I think I might just go download it later today...

      You should.
      It's equally fun, simple to control, and entirely worth it.

        Downloading it now.

        Been a while since I bought anything from iTunes so it probably would have just been easier for me to go to Halfbrick's Brisbane office and give someone a dollar.

      They usually have a copy of their earlier XBLA game Raskulls on rotation at ManaBar in Melbourne. I probably would have never played it otherwise but its actually one of the best party games I think i've ever played. Competitive platforming with puzzle elements, racing, power ups and opportunities to troll your opponents. After a couple of beers, its perfect.

        It was available to play at the Mana Bar in Brisbane back when I went there (shortly after they opened). Had some fun but didn't really have much of a chance to get into things.

    The one serious gripe I have with Half Brick, and I've had this gripe with them since they first announced Raskulls, is that they are in Brisbane. And I am not. I am in Melbourne, and I love Melbourne.

    Moral: I would most likely move to Brisbane just to work for these guys.

      They're expanding and hiring in Sydney, so maybe they'll expand some more and head further south to Melbourne soon! Maybe. Don't you have Firemint down there?

        I do hope and pray for that to come true one day.

        And yeah, Firemint and Iron Monkey are great developers down here, but with the closure of a few local studios over the past year or two (eg. Visceral), there seems to be a lot of talent in Melbourne but not that many positions available. I just keep my eyes on the Tsumea job boards and hope something comes up soon enough!

      They're expanding into Sydney, so your commute just got halved. :P

        Have you ever applied? I know Firemint have had open positions for a long time. I always hear people complaining about how there are no jobs available in Melbourne, but when I ask if they've applied the answer is always 'no'.

          sorry that was @DanMazkin :)

            A late-ass reply, but yes, i do apply. Ive had a few interviews too and come damn close, but just missed out due to the other guy having more experience up on me. I'll just keep on trying though!

    Yeah, but they totally told out with the puss in boots version of fruit ninja on the iPad. Corporate whores. Pah.

    By the way, PIB fruit ninja is a fantastic game, less longevity than the original, perhaps, but in many ways superior. If you haven't tried it, get stuck in, it's brilliant. Buy buy buy. Kind of makes a mockery of my point above, no? :) good work guys, I look forward to what comes next!

      Yeah, what's going on there?
      1. Get a perfectly good asthetic/design happening
      2. Add unrelated element
      3. Profit!!!

      I mean a puss in boots knockoff would have been fine. As it is it stands out like the proverbial dog's tackle.

    Jetpack Joyride is the best iOS game ever. I will not accept any counter arguments. End communication.

    I'll make an out there prediction, next 3d realms maybe al a Duke Nukem :p

    No mention of warioware? I remember when fruit ninja came out my friends and I were all like "hey they stole that from warioware", guess it was just a coincidence?

      I wouldn't be surprised if most people forget about Warioware since it has inspired so many different games that have made those Warioware-esque elements their own.

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