The Casual Games Association paid for Jeff Grubb’s trip to Casual Connect Asia, where he is presenting a lecture. Our coverage remains objective.
SINGAPORE — One of the most popular games — mobile or otherwise — in the world right now is Crossy Road. It seemingly came out of nowhere, but its creator says that it actually was born out of a philosophy he honed over a career making software for other people.
Matt Hall, the founder of indie studio Hipster Whale and creator of 2014’s mobile hit Crossy Road, used to want to make games for everybody, he explained during his talk at the Casual Connect Asia conference today (that’s Tuesday in Asia time, folks). That was his philosophy when he started his company, but it’s not the philosophy that he focused on. He realized that he could only truly make a great game if he picked his audience — especially in the ultracompetitive mobile market. And for Hall, this didn’t mean looking at demographics and analytics to see what people are playing. Instead, he looked to the gamers in his life and decided to make games for them.
That started back when he was making the Nintendo DS game Pony Friends for Eidos. When Hall started working on the horse-owning simulator, he tried to figure out who his team should target. He found a picture of a girl with a horse. The young woman didn’t look like the daughter of a rich family who owned horses and participated in equestrian sports. Instead, she just looked like every girl who loves horses, and that’s who Hall thought they should make the game for.
So Hall took the picture of the smiling girl and her horse and printed out dozens of copies and gave one to everyone on the development team to help them understand the target market. And it worked. Pony Friends was a huge hit, and it sold over a million copies worldwide.
Hall credits picking a precise audience for Pony Friends as a big reason for its success. And that led him to repeat that philosophy for his future games.
“When I make a game this way, I don’t have to get bogged down in demographics or store trends,” said Hall. “All I have to do is make a game that is everything for someone.”
Of course, this didn’t always lead to success. Hall gave two examples of games that didn’t perform well — at least at first — despite him sticking to “everything for someone” philosophy.
One is a card game that Hall is still making called Deck War and the other is a hidden-object game called Little Things. For Deck War, Hall decided to pick two people to focus on as his core audience: his daughter and Sony Computer Entertainment America indie-gaming guru Nick Suttner. For his daughter, he made a distinctive art style. For Suttner, a fan of deck-building games, Hall tried to make a deep battle system.
But Hall felt that Deck War didn’t work. The things that he put into it that Suttner would like were not things his daughter necessarily would enjoy. So Hall shelved it in favor of working on Crossy Road — although he said he’s started putting some work into Deck War once again and still plans to release it.
For Little Things, Hall decided to make a game for his mom. Hidden-objects games are extremely popular with women that are 50 or older, and this made her the perfect audience.
Only that actually wasn’t correct.
“These women that are hidden-object fans are just as hardcore about their games as 15 and 16 year olds are about Call of Duty,” said Hall. “They just want the same thing over and over.”
So, when Hall release Little Things on Big Fish Games, a web-based gaming portal, it didn’t do well. He worked on it for a year, but it only made $3,500 in the first month after it came out.
But Little Things got a second chance. When the iPad debuted in 2010, Hall decided to try to release his hidden-object game on that platform, and that worked. That audience was much more open to new takes on such an old style, and they were also hungry for games for their shiny new tablet.
All of those lessons led Hall to Crossy Road. After seeing Flappy Bird and its success, Hall tried to imagine a person who would enjoy that game and tried to make something new for them.
But this makes you wonder: After all these years making games for other people, when will Hall make a game for himself. Well, he’s thought about that, and he might finally have the freedom to do that.
“If I make a game that only appeals to me, that would take a really long time,” said Hall. “I love details. If I did that [earlier in my career], I wouldn’t have had enough money to eat. But now that Crossy Road is done, I hope to do that soon.”