Imangi Studios has had a rare hit in Temple Run, whose various versions have now reached more than a billion downloads on mobile devices. That’s a stunning achievement for a game that is not quite three years old. And it’s all the more remarkable that it was created by a three-person team: husband and wife Keith Shepherd and Natalia Luckyanova and artist Kiril Tchangov.
Temple Run started the “endless runner” genre, where you swipe your mobile device’s screen to make a running character move and evade pursuing demonic monkeys or other baddies. Players have been tremendously loyal, playing for a total of 216,018 combined years. And 60 percent of them are women. All told, 50 trillion meters have been run.
Shepherd recently talked with us about Imangi’s great fortune and his own thoughts about how to stay true to the indie developer roots of the company. Now with 11 employees, Imangi is still feeding new content to Temple Run fans, and it’s still figuring out other types of games to make as well. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview with Shepherd.
GamesBeat: Can you bring me up to date? How big is Temple Run now?
Keith Shepherd: Obviously we’re announcing this milestone of a billion downloads for Temple Run across our franchise. It snuck up on us a bit. When we saw that it crossed that number of downloads, it was a good opportunity for us to reflect on how we got here and thinkabout where we’re going from here. We used the opportunity to gather some stats. We did an infographic a couple of years ago, for the one-year anniversary of Temple Run, and we thought it would be fun to follow up with another, some updated stats and things to share there.
It’s kind of crazy. Temple Run has been out a little over three years. We launched on August 3, 2011, I think? At the time, there were just two of us at the company. We were working with a freelance artist on the game. The three of us made the original Temple Run in about five months. We had no idea that it was going to become this huge hit and worldwide phenomenon and get a billion downloads. We were just a small team that loved to make games, working out of the bedroom in our apartment and doing what we loved. We’d been doing it a while — I think it was the tenth game that we released on the App Store — and it really blew up.
It’s changed so many things for us. It’s opened up cool opportunities. Over the past three years, we’ve spent a lot of effort on Temple Run. We created a sequel. We worked with Disney twice, doing Temple Run Brave and Temple Run Oz. We started this worldwide licensing and merchandise program. We have arcade machines and apparel and plush toys and board games. It’s been an amazing ride.
As we’ve been going along with this adventure, we’ve in the past year gotten to a point where we started to think about the future. We’re a tiny team. We have this huge success under our belt. What do we do next? One of the reasons we got into this industry was because we had a huge passion for games. We wanted to make games and explore new ideas. It was starting to feel like we were missing that from our day-to-day lives at Imangi. We had spent the past two years working on Temple Run at that point, doing updates and sequels and all that stuff, and we were itching to get back to making new games.
At the same time, we thought to ourselves, “What are our options? Do we stop working on Temple Run and the regular updates? Do we focus on doing something new?” We’re a small team. We don’t really have the bandwidth to do both. Or do we consider growing our team a bit?
That brings us to today. We decided we wanted to keep working on Temple Run and keep our fans engaged and keep doing more with that IP and continue to build Temple Run into a franchise that’ll be around for the long term. At the same time, we wanted to bring some of that new game development back into our lives.
We opened up a studio and started hiring people about a year ago. We moved into our new office in January. These days we’re 11 people, still a really tiny team. But we’ve gotten to the point where we can continue doing these regular updates to Temple Run and building on that franchise. At the same time, we’ve gotten back to our roots and started prototyping a lot of new game ideas. We’re starting to focus on creating what’s next. It’s really exciting.
We’re at a fun point in our studio’s life. We’re in the fortunate position of having such a huge success in Temple Run and the stability that brings to our company, but at the same time, we’re still grounded in the experience of wanting to be really creative and innovative and prototyping and messing around with what will ultimately become our next great product as well. It’s a cool time here at Imangi.
GamesBeat: Did you feel like you were more indie developers at heart? Did you want to stay indie in some way?
Shepherd: Absolutely. We bootstrapped this company. We don’t have any investors or folks backing us. We always identified, and still do identify, with the indie spirit and the indie movement. We want to maintain that.
We could go so many directions with the success we’ve had. We could have tried to grow the team into 150 people and do all sorts of things and eventually try to sell the company for a zillion dollars. But that’s never been our goal. We’re just a group of people who are passionate about making games. Whether we’re starving or we’ve gotten rich, we still want to do the same thing. It’s a lot of fun making games. We love to be a part of that.
That’s what the indie spirit is about. Not everything is driven by the bottom line. We’re focused more on the creative aspects of what we’re doing. There’s a huge sense of community, too, that goes along with being indie. We’re very active in that community and supportive of that community. We interact a lot with our other friends who are indie developers. Some of them have been very successful and others haven’t been as successful, but we share a lot of information and strategy. We talk about our successes and our failures with each other. We also help each other out. If someone launches a new game, we all rally and help cross-promote and cross-market it. That hasn’t changed for us, with our without the success of Temple Run. Now we just have a bigger megaphone to help our friends out when we cross-promote things.
I very much identify with that. As we grow the team and start to turn from this mom-and-pop company into a legitimate small studio with actual office space and employees, that’s something I want to hold on to and not lose sight of, our focus on that indie feeling.
That’s also one of the reasons we’ve chosen not to just grow explosively. It’s something I want to get right. I want to grow at the right pace, so we don’t lose sight of what we started this company for.
Shepherd: We’re 11 people, counting Natalia and I. We have a couple of open positions. We’ll probably grow a bit slowly over the next year or two. We’re still in Raleigh, North Carolina.
GamesBeat: Do you consider that to be one team, or are you able to divide that effort now?
Shepherd: The way we have things structured, we’re all part of one team. We split our time between doing things for the Temple Run franchise, and then also, as a team, working on the new and creative and next-step prototypes. We do a lot of team prototyping activities and internal game jams, where we’re focused on coming together and rallying to come up with new great ideas. At the same time, we all chip in and work on supporting Temple Run. That’s the thing that funds the studio and everything we’re working on. We don’t want to find ourselves in a situation where half the team is focused on Temple Run and the other half is focused on these new things. I feel like we all chip in a little bit here and there on all of these things.
GamesBeat: When you think about how much work you’ve done on the live operations, do you know the number of updates you’ve done for Temple Run and Temple Run 2?
Shepherd: I don’t know an exact number. Temple Run 2, we’ve done a lot more updates than we did with Temple Run. Temple Run was built so quickly, it wasn’t really built around this idea of being able to run it as a live operation. We weren’t in a good place to update that game constantly and add more content to it.
When we started working on Temple Run 2, that was one of the goals. Temple Run had been this hugely successful thing, and once we had the luxury of time to spend on developing the sequel, we wanted to explore some of those ideas that we didn’t get to explore in the first one. We wanted to lay the foundation for expanding on it and running it like a live operation.
With Temple Run 2, we’ve done about 11 or 12 updates. We tend to hit a cadence of new content, new updates, new releases every six to eight weeks. That’s what we strive for. We’ve been making a good go of it. We’ve had a lot of cool new stuff added to the game since the initial release, which was more than a year ago.
GamesBeat: What’s your best means of monetization? Did that change from Temple Run to Temple Run 2?
Shepherd: Temple Run and Temple Run 2 are set up pretty similarly as far as monetization. Both are freemium titles. We monetize through a lot of different ways. There are ads in the games. There are in-app purchases that you make to buy coins in addition to earning them. The structure is pretty similar as far as the actual monetization.
Shepherd: It’s one of those things that evolves. Business models are always shifting and creating different ways to monetize. As a company, you experiment a bit. To give an example, when we originally launched Temple Run, it was paid. It was 99 cents, and it had in-app purchases. We had a great launch and it was doing well, but it wasn’t until we made it free that it really took off. That’s when it hit that viral critical mass.
That’s something we always have our eyes on a bit. We’re always trying to think about how we can monetize, how we can make this product support itself on the financial side. We do experiment with those things. When it got to this viral success, we had this built-in channel to cross-promote other games. It’s like an ad funnel. We didn’t have any ads in the game other than, once a week or so, we would do a little pop-up and cross-promote a friend’s app or one of our other apps. Then, one day, we said, “Well, we have this huge audience. This is kind of like an ad network. We could take that spot and offer that as something we could sell to advertisers.”
We experimented with that for a while, running a little ad network on our own within the game. Time went on and the whole industry changed to be more of a user acquisition-driven market, where everyone’s looking for ways to buy users and track them, from the point of clicking an add all the way to installing an app. That’s something our little ad-hoc ad network didn’t have the capability for. Not being an ad company, we didn’t want to spend all our time working on that technology for our game, so that revenue stream dried up.
At that point we thought, “Okay, what’s a way we can replace that?” We started looking at some of the ad networks that were out there. Maybe, instead of trying to sell ads ourselves, we could incorporate those types of ads in our game. It’s one of those things that always evolves over time, as the landscape changes and different technologies become available.
GamesBeat: Going back to the beginning, I didn’t remember whether you guys were the very first endless runner, or if you were inspired by something else.
Shepherd: We were the first 3D-type endless running game that used that slide mechanic to control your character. Essentially, we were the ones that created the genre, which is now filled with countless other examples doing similar things, or doing a twist on a similar idea. I think that’s one of the reasons Temple Run was so successful in the first place. It was novel and new at the time. That’s what people latched on to.
GamesBeat: Do you remember how you guys came up with that idea, the spark for that idea?
Shepherd: What it really started from was the mechanic of those controls. The game we released prior to Temple Run was called Max Adventure. It was this dual-stick action-adventure game where you were a little kid trying to save your neighborhood from an alien invasion.
We were using those on-screen virtual controls, which was something we were always really frustrated with. We thought we’d made a fun game, but it didn’t do very well. Using the virtual controls always felt like a cop-out on mobile devices. In our postmortem of that game, we were looking at it and saying, “What if we spent some time noodling on that and thinking about other ways to control a character in a 3D environment?”
As we started playing around with it, we zeroed in on using the swipe up to jump the character, swipe down for a slide, and swipe left or right to turn the character 90 degrees, as he’s always walking around. We built out this prototype inside of that last game, Max Adventure, as an alternate way to control the character, and while it didn’t really work with that specific game, it gave us some ideas. It felt like a neat way to control a character, an innovative control scheme.
Next we thought about how to build a game around that control scheme. If your character’s always walking, and he can only turn left or right and maybe jump, what kind of environment would be fun or challenging to run in? With a lot of right and left turns? A maze was the first thing we hit on. We set out to build this environment of an endless maze. The more and more we went down that path, the more and more it looked like a temple wall or something like that. The environment and theme and a lot of that stuff clicked into place as we were going along. It really started with that mechanic, though, the swipes to move the character around.
Shepherd: That would be interesting. I lost count a long time ago. There’s everything from completely blatant clones to games that have really taken it in different new directions. It’s cool. In some ways it’s frustrating that there’s always so much cloning going on, but at the same time, it’s flattering that we’ve spawned all these other games and created a genre. But I’ve never really counted them all. There have been plenty of successful ones. It’s probably become a pretty large money generator if you looked at the genre as a whole.
GamesBeat: Did you ever start to see it peak and go down? Or has it consistently grown this whole time?
Shepherd: Games always have their peaks and valleys. It’s seasonal. You generally spike at launch and slowly taper off. With a game like Temple Run, I think one of the things that allows us to hit something like a billion worldwide downloads is the incredible longevity of it. Temple Run has established itself as one of thse go-to games that everyone seems to have played. Everybody that gets a new phone, it’s one of the first games they get. It adds a lot of stability in terms of its chart position.
When we first launched the game, of course, there were probably more people playing it in terms of daily active users in that first couple of weeks, or whenever it hit that viral peak. But at the same time, nowadays it’s gotten into this nice, stable place where we have a steady revenue stream, a steady influx of new users, a pretty predictable amount of time that people spend in the game. It’s had a nice long tail to it. It seems like it’s going to stick around.
Last year Apple did their top downloaded apps of the year, like they do every year. I think Temple Run 2 was the number three top downloaded free app of 2013. Temple Run was still in the top 100 list, even though it’s three years old now. Oz, Brave, those were both in similar positions on the paid charts. Mobile games, especially games that can be operated as a service in the long term, you can have a really engaged player base for a long time.
GamesBeat: Of those four games, can you say which one was the most financially successful for you?
Shepherd: I can’t really comment on the ones that we did as a collaboration with Disney. But they’ve both been pretty similar, Temple Run and Temple Run 2, in terms of pure dollars brought into the company. They’ve both been very successful.
We didn’t break down, in the infographic, between each title. Everything there is sort of holistic. We didn’t want to break down too many individual things. But in terms of total download numbers, it’s pretty split between Temple Run and Temple Run 2, those billion worldwide downloads. Temple Run 2 has had more than Temple Run. A lot of that’s due to the explosive growth we’ve seen in Asia over the past year. More of that focused on Temple Run 2. But the split is pretty comparable.
GamesBeat: Can you talk about anything postmortem-wise on your projects with Disney?
Shepherd: They were both very successful. If you look at 2013’s top downloaded apps on the paid charts, I think Temple Run Oz was at number three. Temple Run Brave was in the top 50. Both were huge successes, both financially and critically. They were well-received by the fans.
What I loved about doing those games is, we’re a small team, even at 11 people now. Most people think of a company that has a big success like Temple Run and assume we must have hundreds of people. One of the things we always get asked for, especially from our fans, they’re always looking for more content. They always want us to add new things to the game. We do that as quickly as we can, given the team we are. We make substantial updates every time they come out. But at the same time, sometimes the fans are insatiable. Being able to do something like Temple Run Oz or Temple Run Brave, it’s a great way to give the fans a new experience, but still more of what they love about Temple Run. It’s a cool opportunity for us as a small team.
GamesBeat: That’s still not too many licensing deals. Are you being careful about not overexposing the franchise?
Shepherd: Two factors come into play. The reason we did the games with Disney is because we felt they were a great fit for the brand, for Temple Run. I felt like the universe of Brave and the universe of Oz lent themselves to the gameplay and the kind of spirit of our game. We were careful about it. Trust me, we had a lot of different offers on the table from other properties that were interested in doing a collaboration like that. It came down us finding what was a good fit, spiritually and brand-wise, with Temple Run.
Also, yeah, you can definitely wear out a series like that if you do too many of them. I feel like, right now, for each version of Temple Run, there’s a branded version out there. That’s a pretty fair balance. It’s not too much and not too few. We could do another one, and we may do another one if it works out well for all involved.
The other part is just a matter of bandwidth. We’re a small team. We have to pick the things that we think are beneficial for us to do and that we’re most excited about doing. Sometimes we’re limited in what we can accomplish by the size of the team, so we’re picky and choosy about what we do.
Shepherd: It’s still a lot of work. With Disney, they do a lot of the development, but we were also very involved in those projects. We had a lot of creative input into what went on there, and a lot of technical input as well. Sometimes you think that you can take something like that and hand it off and have it just be done that way, but it always takes a lot of time and effort to make partnerships work.
GamesBeat: How soon can you promise something new to your fans, whether it’s more Temple Run or something completely new?
Shepherd: At this point we don’t have any solid plans for anything that’ll be ready any time soon. We’re thinking about the future a lot. We don’t want to necessarily do another Temple Run unless we have a really compelling reason to do one. If we have something exciting and different that we think we can bring to the table with the game, then we’ll do that.
Right now I feel like we’re mostly focused on Temple Run 2 and continuing to work on our updates and adding new content. There’s a lot left that we have in mind for Temple Run 2 that we can accomplish within that game, without having to do a sequel or anything like that.
GamesBeat: What is your own opinion as far as what has succeeded out there in the endless runner genre, as opposed to some things that just don’t work?
Shepherd: It’s hard to say. At the core of it, it’s providing a game that’s simple enough for everyone to pick up, but then also has some sort of a reason for you to come back to it. A game like Temple Run is kind of about how long you can survive. Can you beat your high score? That’s a very simplistic take on the game. It’s still fun at that basic level. But then you add all these systems around it, whether it’s achievements, power-ups to unlock, upgrades, things to find, ways to play against your friends. Whatever it might be, there are all these other things that you can surround that core fun mechanic with and add that replayability to it. That’s what keeps people coming back in the long term.
Everyone talks about mobile games’ retention being terrible. We had this experience too. Some of our older games had terrible retention, where we lost 60 percent of our users on day two. Temple Run isn’t a game like that. It has great retention over the lifetime of a player. That’s the reason why. That little nugget of gameplay, the core fun element is there. You can have fun playing Temple Run for five minutes, and every little five-minute session you play, you’re slowly chipping away at earning coins, unlocking characters, upgrading things, finishing achievements. That little bite-sized bit of fun is there, but you’re also working toward something bigger. That gives you a reason to come back.
That’s why it becomes a go-to game for people. They’re sitting around somewhere and they fire up their phone for a game of Temple Run, because they have that reason to play it. They build toward longer-term goals in the game.
Shepherd: Now, more than ever, there are so many more options for indie developers, so many distribution channels and ways for small teams to be successful. That’s exciting. You see people being successful in mobile, on Steam, selling things direct on their website, doing bundles. It’s a great state of affairs. Five or six years ago, there were not so many options for small teams to make games and get them in the hands of consumers.
Along with that comes a lot of competition. There are far more teams and games than there were out there. That’s one thing that remains very difficult – if you create a great game, how do you get people to notice it? That’s one of the biggest challenges for everyone these days, big or small. It’s more of a challenge for small developers, because they don’t have that budget for advertising or user acquisition or whatever you need to launch a title.
In general, being a game developer is sort of like being a movie producer. You create something and you don’t necessarily know if it’s going to be successful. It’s still a very hit-driven industry. You’ll make lots of games before you ever come up with a hit. Looking at Rovio, I think Angry Birds was their fiftieth game? It’s a pretty brutal market to try and be successful in. But I certainly think there are more opportunities out there than there were before.
GamesBeat: Have you had any favorite celebrity moments as far as people playing your game?
Shepherd: Yeah, we’ve had some cool ones. In the initial viral rise of Temple Run, when it hit number one on the U.S. top-grossing and most-downloaded charts, I believe it was New Year’s Eve of 2011. That was a really surreal moment. What a way to ring in the new year.
Another cool one, we started talking to Disney about doing a crossover and discussed different IPs that might be a good fit. This was before Brave came out. When we saw the trailer for Brave, we thought it looked like a great movie — I’ve always been a huge fan of everything that Pixar does – but there were so many parallels to Temple Run, too, in terms of the spirit and the environments, that would lend themselves very well to a game.
As we went down that path of exploring the crossover with them, they invited our team to Pixar’s headquarters. We got a private screening of the movie before it was released. We were sitting in this private theater at Pixar, two or three of us and the board of directors and the producer from Disney, watching an unfinished movie at Pixar. That was mind-blowing. It was like getting to finally meet someone you’d always looked up to.
This past year we got to work with Usain Bolt, helping him become a character in Temple Run. That was really cool too, because it was such a natural thing. He’d been a fan of the game since very early. He’d tweeted about the game and played it a lot. Of course we’d watched him win his first gold medal at the Olympics on live TV. We started thinking about it, and it seemed obvious that he’d be a good fit for starring in the game. Our team approached their team about maybe doing a crossover, having him do a guest appearance, and it was just a really cool experience to work with someone like that. It’s another one of those moments that I could never have imagined would happen.
GamesBeat: It sounds like the empire-building part isn’t in your future here, buying up a bunch of other companies or anything like that.
Shepherd: I do want to grow the empire of Temple Run and do more things with Temple Run. We have a lot of cool ideas that we’re thinking about for the future related to the story of Temple Run and expanding the franchise. That’s really exciting. But at the same time, when it comes to company-building, I’m not someone who thinks, “Yeah, we need to grow this into a 500-person team and buy Rovio or buy EA or have one of them buy us.” As long as I can continue to work on what I love and make great games, that’s more important to me.
I’d like to build a small team that can be around for the long term. We can be successful. We can continue to focus on making innovative games. That’s what I love doing and what I’d like to do. But I have no ambitions to be a 100-person or 500-person company. That’s just not what I’m interested in.