Small gaming studios’ fruitful endeavour

A look at the rise of the mobile gaming platform and the success of Brisbane based Half Brick Studios.

A screen shot of Fruit Ninja

A screen shot of Fruit Ninja, Half Bricks’ worldwide success.

Remember that video game Pong? Well In 1975 it was the pinnacle of gaming technology. Then came Space Invaders, Asteroids and Pac Man. A ‘golden age’ of gaming followed which lead to the Nintendo, the Sega, the Xbox, the PlayStation, Mario, Donkey Kong, Sonic, Halo and Call of Duty.

But something else happened along the way. In 1997 phone giant Nokia released its’ first version of Snake; a game that could be played on your mobile phone. The same device used to talk and text on now allowed users to curb their boredom by navigating a snake around a tiny screen.

Jump forward fifteen years to todays’ $8 billion dollar (and counting) a year mobile gaming industry. Forget everything you thought you knew about the traditional console game experience. It’s time to start thinking smaller, thinking smarter and thinking mobile. Everyone else is. Click here to view the figures.

The last few years have seen the rise of some innovative and very successful mobile gaming companies right here in Brisbane. One in particular has been an exception. In April 2010 Halfbrick Studios, based in Kelvin Grove, released a game called Fruit Ninja. In May this year it reached 300 million downloads, and was on one third of all US IPhones.

James Shultz is the Community Co-ordinator at Half Brick Studios and has been involved with them since their humble beginnings.

“We actually started off doing other people’s IT stuff before developing our own games,” he explained.

He believes that its Half Bricks dedication to producing quality mobile gaming experiences has been a large part of their success.

Jet Pack Joy Ride [one of the company’s other successful games] was only supposed to take one month to finish but in the end it took nine. But we would rather take that extra time to produce a really good game then to just pump them out one by one.”

A clever marketing strategy has also been a key factor in Half Bricks’ remarkable sales.

“Before it [Fruit Ninja] came out our chief marketing officer flew over to the States and had a lot of meetings with people in the industry. He really plugged the game so by the time it came out people knew about it and luckily it lived up to the hype,” he said.

Guy ‘Yug’ Bloomberg has over a decade of experience working in the gaming industry. He is the founder of one of the oldest independent gaming websites (now merged into the Gameplanet network), and is the creator of the world’s first video game cocktail bars — The Mana Bar — based in Brisbane and Melbourne, Australia. He attributes Halfbricks’ huge success to the game design itself.

“Most important of course is the game itself; make sure you have a fun gaming mechanic tied around an interface that appeals to your target demographic,” Mr Bloomberg said.

In the instance of Fruit Ninja, the concept couldn’t be simpler; the player slices fruit with a blade controlled via a touch pad. As the fruit is thrown onto the screen, the player swipes their finger across the screen to create a slicing motion, attempting to slice the fruit in half. This basic, addictive game design seems to have a lot to do with mobile gaming’s’ success in general according to Mr Bloomberg.

“They are simple games presented on non specific gaming devices. It took a lot of the gamer stigma out of the way for people that wouldn’t consider themselves as ‘gamers’.”

A sentiment shared by Mr Shultz.

“It [Fruit Ninja] was a simple idea and can be played by anyone no matter how young or old. It’s easy to play and doesn’t have any violent [in terms of human violence] sort of themes which makes it family friendly,” he said.

Although the success of Fruit Ninja was larger than Half Brick could have imagined, the fact that they are not satisfied with simply resting on their laurels seems to have cemented their place as a world-class mobile game studio.

“It [Fruit Ninja] definitely provided us with a bit of a comfort blanket but the reason it’s still selling so well is that we didn’t let it fizzle. We are giving the game constant updates based around people’s feedback. There’s always room for improvement.”

In contrast to traditional console game studios that require large production costs and hundreds of staff, mobile game studios are much more viable. Games such as Fruit Ninja can be purchased and downloaded at the touch of a screen. The cheapness and convenience of the mobile platform along with lower production costs for its’ studios seem to be another contributing factor towards the genres’ massive popularity rise.

“We [Half Brick] only have around 60 staff and the studio is pretty small but that’s all you need. Every one here is passionate about producing quality games. The big studios have a lot of overheads, which also brings added pressure to sell lots of games. But here we can produce something like Fruit Ninja or Jetpack Joy Ride at a small cost and then millions of people will pay say $2 for it in the app store. I think in todays market that seems a lot more justifiable than paying $70 or $80 for a game you might only use for a month,” Mr Shultz said.

And then there is luck: “A lot of it comes down to luck,” Mr Bloomberg said.

“Luck played a part to, we just happened to bring out Fruit Ninja at exactly the right time,” Agreed Mr Shultz.

So where to from here? As smart phone technology improves by the minute surely the mobile gaming platforms’ popularity will increase accordingly. Considering ones self a ‘gamer’ has never been so easy or convenient and unlike the traditional console game experience, users aren’t required to sit in front of a television screen for an hour at a time. The numbers reflect what can only be seen as the beginning of gamings’ next ‘golden age’. Mr Bloomberg offered an experts’ insight into the possible future for mobile gaming.

“I see mobile game developers looking at new features and devices in phones and figuring out ways to implement them into a game mechanic. Perhaps the obvious eventual leap will be the phones’ capabilities of reaching the quality of dedicated portable gaming systems (Nintendo 3DS, Sony VITA). And for the serious gamers out there we no longer have to carry our mobile in one pocket and our DS in the other.”

 Images courtesy of Half Brick Studios.