When Imangi Studios launched the 3D endless runner game Temple Run on the Apple App Store, studio co-founder Keith Shepherd admits the game didn't have a lot of competition. There were about 500 games in the store. Imangi was the first studio to have an endless runner that used swipe controls. Being the first to market was a big deal for the indie developer.
Almost seven years and more than a billion downloads later, Shepherd says a lot has changed in mobile game development, but the key to finding success as an independent developer hasn't. Hundreds of new games are added to the App Store every day. The store is full of endless runners — both clones of Temple Run and games loosely inspired by it. Indies also have to now compete with bigger studios that have big teams and even bigger budgets. The thing that Shepherd says hasn't changed is the need for indies to play to their strengths.
Speaking to Polygon, Shepherd said while mobile app stores may now seem impenetrable for independent developers, especially as established studios like Zynga and King pour their resources into making and marketing games, indies can still succeed.
"I think the advantage that small indie teams have is we can afford to be much more creative and explore new mechanics," he said. "We can explore innovative game ideas and niche ideas and things that perhaps aren't as mainstream."
The original Temple Run was made with a core team of only two people and a few contractors. Imangi Studios has since grown to a team of 11 developers and, even with the huge success that is Temple Run under its belt, it still considers itself an indie studio.
Shepherd told Polygon he knows Imangi would not be able to compete with a big studios that have hundreds of employees and millions of dollars in resources. So rather than attempt to make a big game that would require a lot of content and a large team, the studio has chosen to focus on small projects with interesting mechanics. He believes this is something indies are good at and should take advantage of.
"I think we can afford to take more risks with the projects we work on, because the scale of success necessary to run an indie operation is different to what King or Zynga consider to be successes," he said. " As an indie, you have to play to your strengths. You can afford to be innovative and nimble, to try new things. I think you absolutely have to do that as an indie developer."