Matt Hall is, by almost every definition of the word, 'successful'. 50 million downloads and $10 million later, Crossy Road is probably his most high profile success, but it's one of many. Of the seven games Matt has released on iOS a mind-boggling five have made it to the number one spot.
How does he do it? Well, he has a few rules and he follows them to the letter.
In development circles there’s a story about Matthew Hall. Think of it like a game development fairy-tale.
Hall was working at Tantalus in Melbourne, on a game that no-one particularly wanted to work on. Pony Friends: a game about Ponies. Back when games about ponies were a running joke.
Here they were, a group of adult men (mostly men) working on a video game about ponies. They didn’t care about ponies. They didn’t understand ponies. And they went about the task like you might expect of a group of men who didn’t care about or understand ponies.
They started talking about embedded skill trees, they started talking about complex video game mechanics. Matthew Hall, one of the development leads, had seen enough.
He went into a girl’s catalogue, or a magazine -- no-one quite remembers where -- he cut out a picture of a random 10 year-old-girl and he stuck it on the wall.
“This is Amanda. Meet Amanda.
“Amanda doesn’t care about embedded skill trees. She cares about her Pony and she wants to feed it sugar and pat it every day.”
From that moment onward if there was ever a difficult decision to be made -- about design, art, direction, anything -- Matt would just point to that picture stuck on the wall.
Does Amanda want upgradeable horse armour for her pony? No. No she doesn’t.
I ask Matt about the story. It’s mostly true he says, but the details are skewed. The girl in the picture didn’t have a name. Or maybe she did but Matt can’t remember. He claims the team didn’t want to build an embedded skill tree, but they did want to do a bunch of silly things, things that a young girl who loves ponies had no interest in doing.
The picture exercise, he believes, was pretty useful.
And it was a prototypical experience; one that helped birth Matthew Hall’s first rule of game development. If you can’t make a video game that one person -- just one -- will absolutely fall in love with, what’s the point? Shouldn’t you be capable of that? If you can’t make one person love your video game, does it deserve to exist?
Shouldn’t you be making your video game for that one single person you desperately want to love it. Isn’t that important?
Matthew Hall has a lot of rules about making video games. That’s just one of them. And if you want to make video games and you’re smart, you should probably listen.
Rule #1: Make Your Game For One Person
Matthew Hall is the lanky, soft-spoken co-creator of Crossy Road.
And Crossy Road is one of those video games. You know the kind.
The Angry Birds kind. The Fruit Ninja kind. Flight Control, Cut The Rope, Ski Safari, Doodle Jump. Games that hit the iOS lotto.
If iOS success is a lotto, Matthew Hall is the luckiest man alive.
Of the seven games that Matthew Hall has released on the iOS store, five have hit the number one spot. Five. That’s a 71% strike-rate.
Matthew Hall. He isn’t a man who talks about metrics. Or marketing. Matthew Hall is just one person. One of two who were responsible for Crossy Road. That core team and a few more were responsible for Pac-Man 256, Hall’s most recent number one.
For someone who has made an incredible habit of making games that appeal to millions, his first rule is baffling: make your game for one person.
One person. Not a demographic. Not a group. One single person. An actual person who exists. Choose someone. Choose one.Think about that person. What would he or she like? What would he or she hate?
“I made Pac-Man 256 for Toru Iwatani,” says Hall.
Toru Iwatani, the creator of the original Pac-Man. Good choice.
When you create a video game for one specific person, believes Hall, when you apply all your thinking towards one goal, you usually end up creating something that a lot of people like.
“After I make that game for one person I try and broaden it a little bit. And as long as I don’t destroy what that one person loves, I’m happy.”
Matt finds himself talking to a lot of young developers. He checks out their game. First question he always asks: “who is this for?”
“If they give me some sort of fuzzy answer, well…”
Well, your video game might not be worth playing.
Matthew Hall has made video games for Nick Suttner, a champion for indie games who works at Sony. He’s made video games for Toru Iwatani. He once made a video game for his favourite artist. He makes every single game with someone in mind.
“I would really like to make a game for Notch one day. That’s on my bucket list. I know he likes these complicated systems. I know he really likes Dungeon keeper. You can see that in Minecraft and in the other games he’s made.
“Maybe I’ll do that.”
Rule #2: Watch How People Are Playing
Matt Hall is making a game for his daughter Penny. It is unfinished. It might be his most challenging project yet.
Penny has been playing games from an early age. In Hall’s words, “she learned to swipe to unlock before she could walk”. Once upon a time Matthew Hall had to stick a photograph of a girl to a wall and say, “this is Amanda”. Now he had a real-life Amanda. That has informed much of his design mentality over the last five years. When it comes to his daughter, says Hall, he never stops learning.
With Penny, Hall gave himself the ultimate challenge. Create a card game Penny would like. The end result of that is Deck Wars. Deck Wars is a work in progress.
Hall loves card games and would like to share that love with his daughter. There’s only one problem: card games normally require a loser and Penny hates to lose.
“With Deck Wars, I was really trying to make a game where Penny would feel good about losing.”
Penny’s hatred of losing is legendary in the Hall household. Every time there was a possibility of her losing a game, she’d close the app and toss the phone away. Every time a game threatened to kill her she would quit. Immediately.
Penny is older now, six years old, but nothing has changed. He brought home a copy of Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. for the Wii U. Penny lasted roughly an hour with each game.
“But she has 600 hours with Pocket Creatures,” says an exasperated Hall. Pocket Creatures, a pet simulator that’s like a refined, modern Tamagotchi.
It’s a generational thing, he believes. The majority of younger players don’t necessarily value challenge like we do, and like to play one video game for a long, uninterrupted time.
“Pac-Man in the arcades, if you played for 90 seconds you were very lucky,” laughs Hall.
“I remember completing a game and being really mad that it was easy enough for me to complete it. Which is such a weird feeling in this day and age.
Audiences are in the midst of a paradigm shift. Watching his daughter play helped Hall understand this.
“In 2012 I had emails from people who had completed games I made and they would write and complain. Why does this game end? I’m in the middle of enjoying it!
“That’s how people think these days. Why should it be over? Why would the song end when I’m listening to it? It’s this idea of endless entertainment.”
This feeds directly into Hall’s development process. Pac-Man 256 – a new version of Pac-Man that, if you’re good enough, literally never ends. Pac-Man as an endless runner. Or Crossy Road, an endless version of Frogger. In both games you are never punished for dying. Often you are rewarded.
In fact death isn’t mentioned at all. Neither is failure. Death in the traditional video game sense is absent. I tell Hall the story of my own son – two and a half years old -- obsessed with Crossy Road. He’s never managed more than 10 hops. He calls it the ‘Birdie Game’. He thinks the objective is to crash into cars and jump into the water as quickly as possible. He thinks the objective is death.
Hall laughs, politely I think. I suspect he’s heard this story before.
Rule #3: Always Be Prepared To Change
“The biggest thing is that I always change,” says Matt. He pauses.
“There has to be a better way of putting that…”
Matthew Hall doesn't like to use buzzwords, but he does use one. Quite frequently in fact. Paradigm shift.
He remembers working at Tantalus, a studio that created its own intellectual property, but focused primarily on work-for-hire projects. It was at Tantalus where Matt worked on Pony Friends. At Tantalus where he discovered ‘Amanda’.
Matt was also working at Tantalus when he discovered ‘casual games’.
“I got into casual games really early,” says Matt.
“I used to play a lot of complicated games like Dungeon Keeper but when Popcap came around I jumped on that very early.”
Matt showed these new ‘casual’ games to his colleagues at Tantalus, but sensed a reluctance. Tantalus had its model. It would continue with that model. Tantalus has continued with that model to this day.
Hall tries his very best to embrace change, even when he doesn’t necessarily approve of it.
“Then free-to-play came along. That’s probably the biggest paradigm shift we've seen in a very long time.
“I was fairly hostile to free-to-play in the beginning. Because I like consuming games, I like going to the store, picking up a game, playing it for 12 hours and putting it away. I like owning it. But it’s really important for developers to understand that when big shifts happen like that, it’s going to change the perspective of the game audience.”
When Crossy Road launched, it launched as a free-to-play game, but it was a different kind of free-to-play game. Pay-to-win mechanics were completely absent, that was important to Hall, he was proud of that. He didn’t want to exploit players, he wasn’t in the business of stalking white whales and bleeding them dry.
But then he started receiving emails. 'Why aren’t there more things to buy in Crossy Road?' 'Why can’t I buy more characters?' 'Why can’t I buy extra lives?' Perspectives change. Audiences change.
“Those who are reluctant to adapt will find themselves in trouble as the audience shifts,” says Matt. “When something new comes along I get excited by it.
“It’s good to be able to accept new things, even if you don’t really like them. You have to accept it and move with it.”
Rule #4: Love Your Failures
Of the last seven games Matt Hall made for the iOS marketplace, only two didn’t make it to number one.
One of those games was ZONR.
“ZONR didn’t do very well,” admits Matt.
In Matt’s words: “ZONR was an interesting game with a very strange learning curve.”
ZONR was about as abstract as it gets. It was a game about finding shapes, essentially, and finding those shapes as quickly as you could.
As always, Matt made ZONR for one specific person: an artist. An artist he admired but had never met. That led the game’s development in a number of different paths.
In hindsight, believes Matt, too much time was spent working on the art of ZONR. But that was the natural progression of making a video game specifically for an artist. Throughout its development, from an aesthetic perspective, ZONR became progressively stranger and Matt embraced that.
But he forgot to focus on how the game played.
“I was like, 'this is working this will do'.”
By Matt’s standard, ZONR was a commercial failure. It barely made enough money to cover the costs of creating it.
“But what’s interesting,” says Matt, “is that ZONR, even though it started off as a casual game, the people who liked it -- who championed it -- were indies.”
Years before the release of Crossy Road, Matt Hall was invited to a developer lunch. Tim Schafer was in Melbourne for the Game Masters exhibition at the ACMI and wanted to meet with all the local developers. Matt arrived wearing a ZONR t-shirt.
Tim Schafer pointed at Matt.
“Hey, I know that game, do you play it?” Asked Tim.
“I made it,” said Matt.
It turns out that everyone at Double Fine, including Tim, were playing ZONR. And competing against one another. ZONR found its audience, just not the one Matt expected.
“In the end I couldn’t even give away ZONR to the general public. It was free and barely made any money.
“But the people who liked it were the kind of people who liked to play different things. So it was actually a big success for me.”
Rule #5: Be World Class
“One of the pieces of advice I give to people making iOS games,” begins Matt, “is that if your game doesn’t look as good as say Alto’s Adventure -- why not?”
Making video games is tough. Making a successful video game that reaches a broad audience is even tougher. Matt Hall admits there has been an element of luck in every single one of his successes, but firmly believes that developers have to at least give themselves a shot at success.
That doesn’t mean having the greatest production values. That doesn’t mean spending more than you can afford. It simply means focusing your effort on making the best possible video game.
“Every single aspect of your game needs to be world class in order to survive. Whether it’s the art, the sound or the design.”
A common mistake young developers make, explains Hall, is looking to their friends, or the local development community and using that as their personal benchmark. The reality: games are sold on a global marketplace and if you want to succeed on a grand scale your product has the world class. You shouldn't be trying to make a better game than your friends. You should be looking to compete with the very best on a global scale.
“I think Australia has done that really well,” says Matt, and points to games like Hand of Fate and Ski Safari 2 as recent examples. “These people are just trying to make the best possible games they can.”
It’s a competitive marketplace. Particularly on Steam. Matt Hall makes another point: the days of small, underdog stories on a service like Steam are all but history. There are exceptions but, for the most part, success on that scale requires an incredible, near-unsustainable amount of resources and effort. Great video games that would have been runaway successes even five years ago are being lost.
In a world like that, you can’t afford to play in half measures.
Earlier this year I visited Defiant Development, the Brisbane-based creators of Hand of Fate. During a conversation studio founder Morgan Jaffitt told me that he believed Matthew Hall was the smartest game developer in Australia.
I tell Matt this story.
He laughs. I'd describe the laugh as 'gentle'.
But he laughs for a long time. A really long time. To the point where it almost feels uncomfortable. It's a flattered/embarrassed kind of laughter, tempered with a sense of the ludicrous. Being called the smartest game developer in Australia I think, by someone like Morgan, caught him by surprise.
But somewhere, in the back of my mind, I can't help but suspect: this can't be the first time he's been told he is the smartest game developer in Australia.
I suspect he's heard this story before.