Halfbrick And Firemint: Making Lightning Strike Twice

Both Fruit Ninja and Flight Control were huge success stories from Australian developers – but how do you replicate that success in the constantly evolving iOS marketplace? We spoke to both Halfbrick and Firemint and asked them one simple question – how do you make lightning strike twice?

Lightning never strikes twice. It’s a common urban myth, but exactly that – a myth. Nothing could be further from the truth. Lightning can, and frequently will, strike twice – in the precise same spot. The Empire State Building is struck roughly 25 times a year. Roy Sullivan, an ex-US Park Ranger was hit by lightning seven times and survived… before killing himself years later via a self inflicted gunshot wound.

Precisely how and why lightning strikes twice is a more interesting question – it’s an imprecise science, difficult to measure. Manufacturing the circumstances necessary to make it happen is even more difficult.

But that’s precisely what Halfbrick and Firemint, creators of iOS megahits Fruit Ninja and Flight Control respectively, are attempting to do – recreate the rapid success of two unique phenomenon.

So as an Australian developer, with one massive success under your belt, how do you proceed? How do you make lightning strike twice?

“Fundamentally one of the first things you do is start exploring every game idea possible. Every idea that comes up in the studio,” claims Robert Murray, CEO and founder of Firemint, the team responsible for Flight Control.

Murray, despite his success, is quietly spoken – extremely humble – and willing to admit that the success of Flight Control was a complete surprise, a side development that exploded beyond his or anyone’s control. After the grand success of the game, it’s now his responsibility to make sure Firemint can repeat it.

“We’ve been through a long period of experimentation,” he continues. “And I think the most important thing to do is throw all those experiments away! You’ve got to spend the time and the effort if you want to make another hit.

“Discovering Flight Control was a combination of experience in the industry, thought and planning. It was a small project for me, and I guess you could say it was like a lightning strike. But what we’ve done afterwards is try to get the whole studio to be prototyping and thinking about customers what want from a game.”

Prototyping – the act of creating a bare bones, functioning concept of how a game will work – appears to be paramount when it comes to game design. Particularly in iOS development -particularly when you’re actively attempting to search for the next big thing.

“So you go through that process,” continues Murray, “then you go through the investment process. You lock something down that you think has potential – then you take it further, and then you throw half of that away again! You have to get past that!
“Now we’re a year into production with a finished game that’s the charming experience that we want it to be. For us, the answer is simple: don’t short change yourself and invest wisely.”

Speaking to Phil Larsen, Marketing Director at Halfbrick, that word comes up again. Prototype.

“This is how Fruit Ninja came about,” he begins, with an iPod touch clutched between his paws. “We have a thing called ‘Halfbrick Prototype Fridays’. Where we try and brainstorm ideas. Every time we do that, which is every two weeks, we come back with about ten games – ten playable prototypes. So we can quickly go through these ideas and get a rough idea of what is going to work.”

According to Phil there are moments when you simply know when one of these prototypes is going to work as a fully fledged video games. That’s when lightning strikes.

“For Fruit Ninja, we knew that was going to work when it was just a pitch,” he claims, “before it was even a game, we knew it would be awesome.”

Whereas Firemint’s process appears to be more methodical, working stringently through different prototypes, investing in ideas that may never come to fruition, Halfbrick are happy to give multiple rapidly developed ideas a shot, grabbing mechanics seen in other games, polishing them and adding their own unique twist. Monster Dash was an example of that, as is their latest effort – Machine Gun Jetpack.

“We’ve been able to diversify our teams a bit,” says Phil. “What we’ve done is taken ideas that we’ve seen around, and taken them to the next level. Like one button games, which we’ve tried to evolve with Machine Gun Jetpack. That’s part of our strength – plenty of top games take inspiration from other games.”

But originality – and finding a unique niche within an increasingly crowded, competitive marketplace – remains key, even if finding that new concept is next to impossible.

“We’re always instinctively trying to come up with the next idea for a big hit – it’s hard! It’s interesting – we can’t always make the next huge, phenomenal hit – no one can! You can’t be super original every time.”

“We go through phases,” says Murray quietly. “A lot of the time the guys are just working their guts out on finishing Real Racing 2, or whatever project we are working on – so once you’ve locked something down it’s all systems go.”

Firemint are best known for Flight Control, which is a low budget $1.19 game on iOS, so by that rationale you would expect it to be a small, indie-style studio with a handful of employees. But the fact is, Firemint has over 60 employees, and invests heavily in premium content.

“Real Racing was our second game and it was a hit,” he continues, “but it was a ten dollar hit, so it was never going to be on top of the charts – although it was number one when it came out on iPad. Real Racing 2 is a sequel which has been 18 months in development and had over two million dollars of investment.”

As Project Director at Blue Tongue, Nick Haggar works on console games exclusively – but he has a healthy respect for developers like Firemint and Blue Tongue. In his opinion, taking success on a small scale and attempting to build from that starting point is essential.
“I think the iOS thing is good at the moment,” claims Haggar, “but you’re even starting to see that transform. Look at games like Infinity Blade. That landscape is shifting. Once it becomes cheaper to produce games of that quality, all those disposable games – Dave Perry calls them Kleenex games – may not be as successful in the future.”

Robert Murray claimed that his experience in the games industry was paramount to the success of Flight Control. Haggar was also keen to emphasise the same point.

“Look at the games that have come out and been successful from this country – they have come from really longstanding studios with longstanding reputations, says Haggar. “It’s not as if it was someone who had a great idea in the last year of their design course and – bang – I’ve knocked it out.

“If your goal is to make a game and get it on the app store then, yes, you can get there, but if your goal is to succeed as a developer – which is a separate goal – which is to create a studio culture and a resource base that allows you to capitalise and make more games – and build from that – then, in my mind, the only way is up. You’re trying to build your studio so that you can continue to stay in business with multiple revenue streams. If you look at those guys who are successful in the iOS space, they are seasoned developers. They did not start by creating iOS games – they moved here because they have the experience and they know how to make games.”

Steven Fawkner, Firemint’s Design Director believes that while think big in terms of scope is necessary – focusing on the details is equally as important.

“I think as an Indie you’re encouraged to think small because you can’t make a big thing! You can only make a small thing, and that’s a good place to start. I don’t like think of it in terms of thinking big, I like to think of it as thinking quality. You can think big in scope – multiplayer, open world – but you also need to be thinking, ‘let’s polish it until it shines.’”

In search of the next big thing, both Firemint and Halfbrick have had to evolve their processes – as a result of increased expectations of quality, and internal motivations.

“I think that consumers will come to expect significant production values and significant content from simple games over time,” claims Murray. “Look at TV when it started – you would initially expect low production values because it was just TV, but now TV has comparable values to cinema.

“We actually want to blend it,” he continues, “we want premium casual content and I think that’s what we can deliver so well. Flight Control is a great amount of fun, and obviously a lot of the fun is derived from a simple mechanic, but we also feel that people still want that richer experience.

“You want something accessible, but something that’s going to grow well beyond your expectations. Our next title Agent Squeek is casual and accessible up front but it has surprising depth – that’s where we see ourselves.”

Phil Larsen from Halfbrick is a Marketing Director, so he’s focused on improving the various ways he can promote new iOS titles but, according to him, the quality of the game itself is all important.

“You have to make sure you have a good game,” he claims. You can’t put out a bad game and expect it to do well – not going to happen. You need to make sure it’s perfect for the platform – Fruit Ninja works perfectly on the iPhone, for example.”
That being said, he does have a few tricks up his sleeve.

“Marketing is definitely a technique that you have to refine,” he continues. “I have my ways! Like building in social networking functionality – that’s just something that everyone should be doing nowadays, because that’s easy. But in terms of marketing you have to make sure you have great screenshots, and trailers and organise coverage.”

For studios like Halfbrick and Firemint, the challenges that come with success are palpable. Fruit Ninja and Flight Control have enabled both studios the license to push forward and grow, but from that imperative comes a new set of challenges – lightning can strike twice, but you have to be prepared and ready to capture that lightning in a bottle.

But with success comes experience, and both studios – in their own unique ways – appear fully equipped for the challenge. Firemint’s Agent Squeek is the perfect example of premium casual content, whilst Halfbrick have polished the one-button iPhone game to a fine sheen.

In the iOS market nothing is certain – nothing is guaranteed. But it’s great to see Australian developers leading the charge.

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