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.”

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