Developer Hipster Whale wasted little time making its followup to Crossy Road, but the studio now has to deal with splitting its attention and making something that it designed with a smaller audience in mind.
Pac-Man 256 is the latest mobile release from publisher Bandai Namco. The company enlisted the help of Hipster Whale, which is coming off the megahit Crossy Road. That game, a Frogger-style arcade app where you try to cross as many roads and rivers as possible, has surpassed 100 million downloads. But Hipster Whale and its founder, Matt Hall, has shifted focus in recent months to design and finish a new take on Namco’s beloved pellet-munching classic.
And giving up that focus on Crossy Road to start a new project was the first thing Hall mentioned to me when I spoke to him last week.
“We had really good advice from the guy who made [mobile hit] Subway Surfers,” said Hall. “He told us: ‘Don’t get distracted.’ And we thought that is great advice. ‘We won’t get distracted!’ Of course, that’s exactly what we’ve done.”
Mobile gaming uses a business model that’s different from you’ll see on the traditional platforms like PC and console. Because so many games are free to download, they can often have much longer tails, where they are generate a significant amount of money. For example, Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga have sat at the top of the grossing charts on both iOS and Android since 2012.
But the way those games maintain that level of success is by constantly releasing new content to keep older players engaged and to bring in new gamers for the first time.
Hipster Whale is trying to do that with Crossy Road, but it isn’t quite keeping up with the release schedule that it originally intended.
“We could’ve kept Crossy Road really up to date and always doing new builds, but we also wanted to try working on other things as well,” said Hall. “So we’ve done updates for Crossy Road every two months, and that’s not enough.”
Of course, that other thing is the aforementioned Pac-Man 256. Here’s me playing it on my Android tablet:
Put simply, Pac-Man 256 is an endless Pac-Man game where you are trying to get as high as score as possible before you die. Enemies include multiple ghosts and the titular level 256 bug that constantly creeps after you to keep you moving ahead.
A beautiful bug
That number 256 isn’t random. It is a reference to the bug that would cause colorful lines of code to appear in the original Pac-Man if you got to level 256. That’s because older computers could only count to No. 256 — it’s the same reason you can only collect 255 rupees in the original Legend of Zelda (zero through 255 is equal to 256 different numbers.
It’s an infamous glitch, and it also highlights one of the ways that Hipster Whale’s new game differs from Crossy Road.
“Pac-Man 256 isn’t like Crossy Road,” said Hall. “It won’t appeal to everyone. We made a game that anyone who has played Pac-Man will feel the nostalgia for.”
By embracing something that only Pac-Man enthusiasts and older gamers are aware of — like a glitch that only the best players ever see — Hall and his team immediately pegged Pac-Man 256 for a slightly smaller crowd (which isn’t hard to do when you’re comparing something to Crossy Road). But that’s not the only thing that sets this game apart from the road-crossing simulator.
“It’s harder,” said Hall. “It takes longer to play. It requires thought and the knowledge of the ghost behaviors. Where as Crossy Road is very instinctive and more about reacting.”
And so Hipster Whale is going into this knowing that it probably won’t have another Crossy Road-level hit, but that wasn’t the intention. It instead wanted to make Pac-Man fans happy.
“It wouldn’t be right if we made a Pac-Man that is lighter,” said Hall. “Pac-Man has a lot of depth.”
The sound of inspiration
With the goal of keeping classic Pac-Man fans happy, Hall and his team got to work on a mobile version of Pac-man that never has to end. And the first thing the studio wanted to get right was the look and feel.
“For example, we used the original arcade sounds throughout development,” said Hall. “We made some enhancements to them before launch, but that served as a reference that we used while making it.”
And Hall thinks it was trying to stay true to Pac-Man that actually gave him the idea to make the level 256 glitch a core gameplay mechanic.
Hipster Whale wanted something to push people forward — similar to the eagle that swoops down and carries your character off in Crossy Road if you aren’t quick enough. And while steeped in Pac-Man art and history, inspiration struck Hall.
“A few months into development — maybe April or May — I was just doing my research, and I suddenly came up with the idea for the glitch. And framing the game around level 256,” he said.
That’s when everything really came together.
Endless Pac-Man 256
So Pac-Man 256 is distracting Hipster Whale from Crossy Road, but now that the game is out, that’s all over, right?
Just like the studio has supported Crossy Road with new content on a regular basis, it plans to do the same for Pac-Man 256. While that took the form of new characters that players could buy or earn, Pac-Man already has its star. So the developer has come up with something else for this game.
“The two main things you’ll see is that we’ll be modifying maze layouts, and then we have the whole powerup system,” said Hall.
Beyond the bug, powerups are a major core element of Pac-Man 256. The developer has added a ton that players can equip and then use by collecting them in the maze. These include a freeze charm that slows down the ghosts and a laser that makes them instantly explode.
“We’ve got a few ideas that we left on the cutting room floor that we want to polish before putting them in the game,” said Hall.
And that’s what is maybe special about the kinds of mobile games that Hipster Whale is making. Yes, the company wants to give players new stuff so they’ll keep coming back for more. But the add-ons come from wanting to make the game better and not only to extract more money for players.
“With free-to-play game design, we’re really free to do anything,” said Hall. “If we have a great idea, there’s nothing stopping us from doing it.”
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