A few years ago, Matt Hall, the 39-year-old co-creator of the enormously successful Crossy Road, was a struggling, unprofitable video games developer living on an Australian sheep farm owned by his parents, chasing a dream of success that had come true for some friends but eluded him.
He'd formed a studio, named KlickTock, which he called a "one-man-band game development company dedicated to making games for everyone." It led to titles with names like Little Things, Doodle Find, Super Search 60 and Zonr. Before that, he worked at Big Ant Studios and Tantalus Interactive, both names in the Australian development scene.
After going indie, Hall put three titles atop the charts of the iTunes app store. Still, he says, there were "a lot of years where I earned absolutely nothing." And in his most difficult times, he and his wife had a daughter, while living on his parents' farm in far Western Victoria.
Today, in the whirlwind that followed an experimental release on Apple's iOS App Store, and later the Amazon App Store and Google Play, Hall can barely recognize the struggling version of himself. He found a new partner named Andy Sum, founded a new studio they called Hipster Whale, and together in 2014 they published something called Crossy Road.
It was an immediate hit.
The game is a simple and cute throwback to Frogger. With a cast of funny, unlockable characters, the user only has to tap to hop onward without getting smashed by cars, trains and trucks, or drowning in a river. Crossy Road also is free-to-play, but it avoids the pay-to-win hooks that have earned big-name freemium games a bad reputation in mobile gaming's gold rush. Players can pay to unlock a new blocky character to hop through the game, or they may watch short video ads to earn credit that unlocks the cast faster. Or they can simply play on without doing any of that.
Unlike many of its contemporaries, nothing about Crossy Road makes a player feel the need to pay to progress or win. Its design subdues its monetization, and that has cost its developers revenue. Crossy Road rarely — if ever — squeezes onto the top of the iOS App Store's list of highest grossing games, where titles like Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga are entrenched. Yet yesterday, Crossy Road was the 12th most popular free iPhone app without even appearing in the App Store's list of top 100 grossing iPhone apps.
This is not an accident. Crossy Road was an experiment in doing free-to-play differently, and that experiment has been wildly effective.
Today, at a Game Developers Conference 2015 session, Hall and Sum told the story of Crossy Road's creation and lifted the veil on its real success during the game's first three months. They revealed that, 90 days after its release, Crossy Road's combination of solid gameplay, unobtrusive in-app purchases, and optional in-app ads powered by the Unity engine, has earned $10 million from 50 million downloads.
Matt Hall admits he's "happily surprised" by those numbers, as if any once-broke games developer wouldn't be a little bewildered.
Crossy Road is the rare story of success at the intersection of art, commerce, design and marketing. It's about lessons learned in hard times and a games maker who thought he might never go back to GDC after one terrible year. It's about a pair of developers who, in fact, did set out to create a video gaming phenomenon — and succeeded.
And today, at GDC, it's a story about sharing the lessons of that success with others.
Indie games often aspire to be different, and Crossy Road did, too. Hall and Sum wanted to create a free-to-play game that would sell well at first and then drift away. To do that, Hall figured, it needed two things. First, Crossy Road needed "retention," which just means the game gave players several reasons to enjoy and play the game as long as possible. Free-to-play games tend to be good at that, offering incentives that reward players to come back. In lieu of a traditional narrative ending, for example, free-to-play games have a solid gameplay loop.
Done well, the incentives and gameplay would create what Hall calls "virality," to which the developers add elements that make payers want to share and talk about the game. If they were successful, Hall believed, everything would "come together like Voltron."
A template exists for games like these with hooks like these, but Hipster Whale didn't want to copy anything. They wanted to emulate the good — even Crossy Road's name is a tribute to another recent, easy-to-play, addictive mobile phenomenon, Flappy Bird — and exorcise the bad. And, the thinking went, if they made a popular game, they might also make some money, even if they didn't stress the money-making part.
The point is, Crossy Road's oddities were deliberate and focused.
"It wasn't like throwing darts at a dartboard and spinning around three times," Hall told Polygon with a laugh. "We took careful aim at a different dartboard. Everyone's playing with that one. We're going to go over here. We think that might work."
They spent months trying to combine the essences of Flappy Bird and Frogger, until Hall had what he calls a "shower moment" — an epiphany in a moment of dull routine — where he realized Hipster Whale could fuse art, commerce, design and marketing into something with heart.
"If you make a game that's only about business, you're going to get Candy Crush clones," he says. To make art, you need to do some mixing. If they made money, then so much the better. And that could fuel subsequent games.
"Crossy Road, I think, feels a lot like a premium game, in a weird way."
At the core of the experiment that became Crossy Road's design, the developers tried to figure out how to make a fun, free game that didn't behave like a free game. They wanted to embrace a new and potentially lucrative design, informed by older things they both enjoyed.
That's what gives Crossy Road its character. Nobody has to pay a dime to play. Any character they want to use still can be be earned quickly. Everyone has the option of buying a favorite character piecemeal, but it's not a requirement, and the in-game store doesn't intrude with reminders that money must be spent.
"Freemium was a surprise, right? I'm sure it caught everyone by surprise," Hall said. "But there's a lot of thought that went into it. There's a lot of my own wrestling with that concept. I really like games the way they were. Crossy Road, I think, feels a lot like a premium game, in a weird way."
As proof, he offers the Piggy Bank, an item in Crossy Road that is only unlocked by paying for it. To the people who continue to write him asking if there's any way they can pay for the game, the $3.99 Piggy Bank character effectively serves as the game's price. It is the game's most popular character.
All of these thoughts and experiments were academic until Crossy Road was released and became popular beyond Hall's wildest expectations. Yes, he designed it to be popular. He didn't realize how popular it would be. Yes, he figured he'd make some money. He had no sense of how much money it would make. He thinks he and Sum underestimated how much players' love for a game can help it.
It's easy to see why players gravitate to Crossy Road. Not only does it look simple. It looks good, thanks to artist Ben Weatherall's designs. It's fun. And it's funny. Each new character brings a new spin to the formula, from the wizard who saps oncoming traffic, to the flea, composed of one tiny voxel, who hops along to a sound effect pulled from the Hanna-Barbera archives. It's endearing, and making people laugh is Crossy Road's way of inviting them back. Also, Hall jokes, "funny deaths are the key to success."
"That's way, way, way, way, way more than we thought we would get."
But for most of Crossy Road players — at least based on the raw earnings figures — the game plays as its authors intended: without obligation. Those who choose to pay to play, either with real money through in-app purchases or with the time by watching a video, are the minority. That's fine with Hipster Whale. Hall says that 10 times more players will play a free game. He didn't need to turn them all into paying customers, but he had to find balance where at least some would.
"We knew it wasn't going to make a large amount of money per user," he says. "Obviously, $10 million is fantastic. That's way, way, way, way, way more than we thought we would get. But someone on the free-to-play business would look at those numbers and think we could make a lot more per user. But, if we changed it … if we followed some of those best practices … if we sold coins and had a 'save-me' button and it felt like the other games, would anyone have cared?"
How much of Crossy Road's success is due to the game and how much of it is due to the developer's unique take on monetization? "There's no way to know without a time machine," Hall says.
Several times a week, Hall says, he receives unsolicited emails from companies hoping to help Hipster Whale with things like monetization and user acquisition and all of the marketing terms that permeate the freemium gaming sector. Hall isn't interested, even if he suspects they'd be effective, because there's one term they use that alienates him: "Whales." Players who spend inordinate amounts of money in free-to-play games, often despite themselves.
"Once you realize you don't have to hunt whales, and you can make money in this way, then hopefully people will give it a shot, and we'll get lots of cool stuff on the app store," he says."
Matt Hall skipped GDC 2014 because of GDC 2013.
He'll return this year as a success. Two years ago, when he was still struggling, he arrived in San Francisco to meet developers. He did, but it often didn't go well.
"I had experiences with people where I would introduce myself, and they'd be like, 'Yeah. OK. See ya,'" said Hall, the man who has made $10 million in 90 days.
He left that GDC dejected and disillusioned and uncertain about the future.
"By the end of it, I was a nervous wreck, from having introduced myself to people and not getting anything back, because I didn't have games that anyone would know or recognize or appreciate. My games were sort of casual, accessible, fun experiences, but the people that I look up to are probably — the two biggest inspirations for me in video gaming at the moment are Edmund McMillen and Jan Willem Nijman."
"I was a nervous wreck."
McMillen made The Binding of Isaac and Super Meat Boy. Nijman's resume includes Nuclear Throne and Ridiculous Fishing. Both are A-list names in independent video games development.
"When I think about what I want to be," Hall says and breaks into laughter, "I look at those two guys … By the end of that week, I was like, 'I don't think I ever want to do this again.'"
Thanks to Crossy Road's success, Hall is living comfortably, if mindful to avoid the kind mistakes that squander an overnight fortune overnight. He's back at GDC — where people now recognize him. And he's got a story to tell about success.
But success isn't the end of the story. He's in the middle of it, living it now. So what's next?
First is paying his success forward. Opening the books isn't about bragging, he says. To Hall, it's about sharing the secrets of his success with other developers. He wants to help those who were once like him, struggling, nearly anonymous GDC attendees.
And, of course, Crossy Road is still in development. That's part of the game's foundation. A steady stream of updates introduce new and silly characters to hop through traffic. The next batches include themes based on British and Korean culture. Those aren't random. They're attempts to create retention and virality by targeting geography.
That's what keeps the game alive for new and returning players alike, and Hipster Whale designed Crossy Road to be extensible and present within pop culture. Today, this minute, it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine a couple of llamas on the loose or or a dress of indeterminate colors to appear in future updates, alongside upcoming bagpipe characters, a leprechaun or a Doge, who's already in the game.
These updates please players and earn developers money. Hipster Whale saw an enormous jump in revenue that coincided with the game's Australia Day update, where they earned more than $200,000 two days in a row. People love updates and collecting stuff. Hipster Whale loves making updates and collectibles.
Hall's continued success means that, in some sense, he can relax. He's taken care of his family. He's sincere about passing his knowledge to other developers. But his development future is still up for grabs. After all, his heroes still make games that he doesn't, and he makes the kinds of games that he doesn't tend to play much.
Maybe Crossy Road's success will give him the confidence to make a more hardcore game, like those that live closest to his heart. Hall says he has "books and books" filled with ideas. He just has to figure out what to do next. Now that Crossy Road has provided for his family, and could help others like him, maybe its success will help Matt Hall help himself.
"We wanted to make a phenomenon," he says. "We we wanted it to be popular, and we worked really hard at that. And then, go figure. It worked."