Temple Run team at Imangi Studios

Above: The Temple Run team at Imangi Studios.

Image Credit: Imangi Studios

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.

temple run braveGamesBeat: Playing the game, it seemed to me that the most obvious way this would make money would be through ads.

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.

temple run oz 2GamesBeat: You should find out how many endless runners there are now, and how many dollars they generate for the industry.

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.