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.
GamesBeat: Is that still a lot of work for you, or do you consider those kinds of projects off-loading?
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.
GamesBeat: Do you have any other thoughts on the state of mobile games, or the industry in general? Are you pleased with how things are?
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.