In the Australian development scene, Matt Hall, one of the co-founders of Hipster Whale and creators of Crossy Road, has a particular reputation. He's an industry legend, one of the brainchilds behind perhaps the biggest Australian game since Fruit Ninja. When you consider the mark his games have left on the industry, he's a literal living titan.
But he also has a reputation for something else: he doesn't smile a lot. It's so renowned that one of the panels at the Australian game developers conference even made a joke about Hall's demeanour.
So playing Crossy Road Castle for the first time, it was impossible to ignore how much Hall actually smiled.
Hall was showing me his latest title, Crossy Road Castle, which will launch through Apple Arcade as an exclusive later this year. It's the first game since the Australian studio founded what's been called the "Verby Noun" genre — think Flappy Bird, Shooty Skies and so forth — and a departure from Hipster Whale's previous formula.
In a lot of ways, Crossy Road Castle is like a multiplayer session of Mario Maker (without the level editor). The game is based in a tall castle, with players working their way through super-short platforming levels. You can play solo or with up to four friends, but either way, you have three lives to climb as far as possible.
The easier levels are fairly straightforward. Time some jumps, avoid some spikes, and reach the door as fast as possible. There's even Mario-esque coins to collect, which you can use to unlock other characters and hats (because Apple Arcade games don't have in-app purchases). As things get harder, you have to deal with other birds and farm animals blocking the way, rotating blocks of spikes, switches that can turn on or disable certain platforms and blocks, and even a giant bald eagle that acts like a boss fight of sorts.
"With regard to accessability as well, it's sort of a little bit the Mario paradigm ... whoever gets through the door first, it's OK, as long as one person can play the game, everyone can have fun," Hall explained.
The multiplayer process is simple. While you can hook up multiple controllers and play on something like an Apple TV, you can also have multiple Apple devices connected on the same network. I played the game with Hall over two iPhones, and pressing a single button on the main screen threw us into a multiplayer lobby, where we started bouncing through levels together.
Movement is handled by two small buttons on the left side of the screen, with a jump button on the right. The game can be played in portrait or landscape mode, and all the levels I played were perfectly visible in both modes. Crossy Road Tower will ship with a single tower at launch, with a mix of handmade assets and partial procedural generation for replayability until the post-launch content starts dropping.
I asked Hall before what the benefits were of launching a game through Apple Arcade as opposed to a traditional launch, considering his and Hipster Whale's significant star power: Crossy Road has enjoyed hundreds of millions of downloads, and the studio's design chops and financial grounding would surely mean they would have the resources to get the word out as loudly as possible. But Hall told me that the Apple Arcade model helped free the game's design from the concerns around microtransactions.
"With Crossy Road, for example, that was modelled on Flappy Bird," Hall said. "Very quick sessions, people can die straight away, that provides opportunities to show ads, the way the character collection works. With this, we just played for quite a long time. That's a long session game. We don't have to worry about [whether] too long has passed before we can show an ad. It's helped free that design."
Another freeing element, and maybe a key factor in Hall's more frequent smiles, has been the bigger development crew. "This is a game mostly developed by the team," Hall explained. "It's been a very different development style for me personally."
But Crossy Road Castle is still very much a Hipster Whale game. The controls are tight, there's natural tension in the levels, and the aesthetic is super cute. It's basically Hipster Whale's trademark style applied to a multiplayer Mario experience, but in shorter, super digestible bursts. And that works just fine for me.
The author's accommodation throughout Melbourne International Games Week and PAX Australia was provided courtesy of Airbnb for Work.