As Fruit Ninja celebrates its second anniversary, the creator of the game, Luke Muscat, talks to Polygon about how far the studio has come and what it's like making a game that still tops iOS charts.
In a Japanese restaurant overlooking the water in Sydney's Darling Harbour, all the tables and chairs have been replaced with oriental-themed Fruit Ninja stations. Each station contains iPads that are hooked up to wide-screen televisions. To one side of the room, a Fruit Ninja competition to find the best player in Australia is taking place. To the other, a giant Fruit Ninja cake waits to be eaten.
If you had asked the creator of the game, Luke Muscat, two years ago if he could ever imagine people playing his game at a competitive level or devoting their culinary skills to recreate his game in cake-form, he probably would have laughed so hard he'd struggle to breathe. Two years ago Halfbrick was a relatively unknown studio in Brisbane that worked on licensed titles for handheld consoles. They made Ty the Tasmanian Tiger 2 and 3 for Game Boy Advance, they worked on Avatar: The Last Airbender, and they also made the Game Boy Advance port for Barnyard. Today, thanks to the likes of Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride, they are one of the most successful game development studios in the country.
"I remember thinking back to when we first came up with the concept ... a lot of people were like ‘What? That's it? Slicing fruit?'"
"It seriously just blows my mind and I can't really wrap my head around it," Muscat tells Polygon as the Fruit Ninja competition kicks off in the background.
"I remember thinking back to when we first came up with the concept, when I first pitched it to the company, when I was first trying to find people to work on it and a lot of people were like ‘What? That's it? Slicing fruit?' When I think about all that stuff from the past and I walk in and see a crazy food set up and a giant cake and a competition, it blows me away, it just makes no sense in my head at all."
Halfbrick has come a long way since Barnyard. Both Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride have sold millions of copies and made millions more through in-game purchases. Halfbrick titles continue to dominate the iOS App Store, refusing to budge from top 10 lists. But despite having had two years to get used to the studio's success, Muscat's mind is still frequently blown by the response his games receive.
"I remember the very first time I went to PAX," he says. "We'd sold about a million copies at that point, but a million copies on paper is just a number. We had our booth set up and people were coming up to us and saying 'Oh my god, I have Fruit Ninja and I play it all the time!', and it was the same thing, I was like 'What? You actually play the game that we made?' It's just incredible."
"My big ethos for the game has always been it has to be a fruit that people know and it has to be delicious"
The team is also overwhelmed by the number of fruit suggestions they receive in iTunes reviews. Muscat says every now and again a producer on the team will trawl through every iTunes review of the game – often tens of thousands of them – and put every suggestion and request in a table. The list of fruit requests is enormous, and Muscat admits he hasn't even heard of 90% of them.
"Our CEO Shainiel [Deo] is huge on the durians," Muscat says. "He really wants durians in there, but my big ethos for the game has always been it has to be a fruit that people know and it has to be delicious so that when you see the splatters you can kind of imagine the smell and the taste. I think that's really important.
"Also, I've never had a durian before, so it's not in there."
Muscat's all-time favorite fruit that isn't in the game is the lychee. He explains that as delicious as they are, they do not make for good gameplay because they're too small to slice and they often look brown and ugly on the outside.
Someday, perhaps all the ugly fruits of the world will unite for a special Fruit Ninja update, but for now the team is happy with its selection of fruits.
"I have no idea where Fruit Ninja will go or how much bigger it could get," says Muscat, who no longer works on Fruit Ninja full-time. The game has been handed to a new team of developers within the studio so that fresh perspectives are constantly brought to the game.
"Two years ago I couldn't have possibly imagined anything like what we have today, so who knows in another two years what it could possibly be."