Imangi Studios’ Natalia Luckyanova (pictured left, with husband and business partner, Keith Shepherd) was gracious enough to spend a little bit of time this past weekend answering our questions about their runaway hit, Temple Run. With a combination of a smart development cycle and an ability to take advantage of the App Store Market, they’ve created a juggernaut of a game app.

Temple Run falls into the endless runner genre, with a top down third person point of view. The main character, and Indiana Jones type, is running from some scary monkeys from the moment the game is launched. Players swipe left, right, up, and down to turn, jump and slide, and tilt their iPhone or iPad to collect coins along the way. It’s all great fun, and very much a mobile game. The title is now getting about 500,000 downloads per day. A lot of games that are considered hits get that in a year.

Here’s what Natalia had to say.

GamesBeat: Tell us a little about your company – how is it funded, how and why did you get started as iOS developers?

NL: We are a company of three people. My husband, Keith Shepherd (above right, on the right), myself, and our amazing artist, Kiril Tchangov. We are completely self-funded.

Keith and I were both software developers and we always wanted to start our own business. When the App Store opened, we saw that it could be an amazing opportunity, so we jumped on it. Keith quit his full-time job to develop our first game, Imangi, a word game, while I continued working at my day job to support us. Imangi was in the App Store when it opened in July 2008, and it did well enough that we realized this could really be a business. We continued working on games, putting out Word Squares and Little Red Sled, and by spring of 2009 we were doing well enough that I quit my day job as well to focus on making games full-time. We soon added Kiril to the team to make our games look awesome. That summer, we released Harbor Master, our biggest hit, which went to the No. 3 Top Paid App.

Since then, we’ve released 4 more games – geoSpark, Hippo High Dive, Max Adventure and Temple Run. Temple Run is pretty much a runaway hit. Definitely a dream come true!

GB: Tell us a little about yourselves – where are you from, what age demographic do you fall into, and where do you live and work now?

NL: Keith and I live and work out of our apartment in Washington, DC, while Kiril works remotely from his home in Richmond, Va. Keith and I are in our 30’s and Kiril is in his 20s.

GB: You’ve created many high quality apps, and have had some good success along the way, with titles like Harbor Master and Max Adventure. Before the runaway success of Temple Run, what was your highest grossing app?

NL: Harbor Master was by far our highest grossing app before Temple Run.

GB: Did you set out to make a hit when making Temple Run? Tell us a little about the process of development. How did the theme, the gameplay mechanics, and other elements develop?

NL: First and foremost, we focus on making fun games, and we of course we always hope they will be a hit.

Temple Run came directly out of our previous game Max Adventure. Max Adventure is a dual stick shooter where you’re a little kid saving the Earth from aliens. It has a story, it has levels, and it took us a year to make, making it our biggest project. It got great feedback from critics and players, but it was definitely a financial flop. After that, we wanted to make something more quick and casual. We also wanted to have more natural and intuitive controls, since we were never quite satisfied with the dual stick controls on Max Adventure.

We started prototyping different control schemes using Max Adventure. In Max Adventure, the main character walks around on the screen and the world around him is fixed. So we thought – what if made the character always walk forward, but you could turn the world around him like a record? It was pretty fun to drive him around this way, but it made you extremely dizzy to have the world rotate at will. So we put in constraints – the player could only make 90 degree turns and can’t stop. That was actually really fun, and the 90 degree turns allowed us to use a simple swipe mechanic for turning.

At this point, we knew we wanted to use swipe-to-turn controls with 90-degree turns, so we started thinking of how to theme this game. We thought about navigating some kind of a maze and drew up some abstract mazes floating in the sky, and they kept reminding us of the old screensaver with the pipes. So the idea was born – what if you were a character running along those pipes as they grew in front of you? That was really abstract, so the next idea was running on top of something like the Great Wall of China or an Aztec Temple, which is ultimately what we ran with (haha).

After that, it was a matter of tweaking, refining and polishing. We worked a lot with the controls. We definitely loved the very intuitive swipe-to-turn mechanic. But the coins went through lots of evolutions, as well as how to collect them. Do you swipe to collect? That was confusing with the swipe-to-turn mechanic. We tried tilt to collect coins, which is what we ultimately went with, but then we had to do a lot of tweaking to get tilt and swipe to work right together. When you swipe while you’re tilting, the angle of the swipe changes, so we had to work very hard to get that to feel right and intuitive.

The coins also evolved a lot. At first they were different colored gems that you had to collect in certain combinations in order to get bonuses. But that was way too hard to do when you are running so fast, so you ended up getting frustrated and ignoring the gems completely. At some point we got so frustrated with the coins/gems that we got rid of them completely. But then we missed them, so we let them back in the game. They definitely added a lot.

And then, there were the monkeys. The endless runner is an ancient and revered video game genre. But we always wondered – why is the character running? Why not just stop and take a breather instead of running into a wall like an idiot? So we needed something chasing the guy. That’s how the monkeys were born. Kiril is always trying to sneak terrifying skulls into our happy casual games, so he loved this part.

We had so many fights about those monkeys. I thought they were terrifying and I really wanted them to get away from me. Keith and Kiril loved the monkeys though. In the end, they won, and they were right. People love those damn evil demon monkeys. And they do add a ton of immediacy and adrenaline to the game. You think you’re doing so great, and then you trip up, and there they are again, still hot on your heels. You better keep running!

GB: Temple Run came out in August of last year. Did it take off right away? How did making it Free affect downloads? What do you attribute the current success to?

NL: We think it did so well because people love the game, plain and simple. And they love to talk about it and tell their friends. We think it spread slowly through word of mouth, because as our daily users went up, our downloads kept going up, week over week. There are a ton of people talking about it on Twitter – I think there’s about a tweet/second about Temple Run at this point. Every time we go out now, we like to play Spot Temple Run. We’ve seen it in the airport, on the metro, out at a club, believe it or not. It’s just everywhere. We feel incredibly lucky that people have taken to something we love so much.

As to why they love it, that’s a more difficult question. It’s definitely very sticky and addictive. Once you start playing, you really want to play again to beat your high score. It’s also very well suited to the platform – you can play with one hand, which is great because it’s a mobile device and people like to play on the go. Also, every game lasts only a couple of minutes, which is also good for people playing to fill a couple spare seconds. It’s very fast paced and exciting, so people can get their quick adrenaline rush as they play for a couple of minutes. And even though it’s very quick, there are lots of objectives to achieve over time, which encourages people to keep coming back.

It definitely took Temple Run a while to gain momentum. When it first came out as a paid app in August, Temple Run got rave reviews from players and critics and went to about the No. 50 Paid App. It was definitely an amazing launch. However, after a couple of weeks in the Top 100, it started sliding down – the normal launch curve. At that point we decided to go free and see if we can (sic) make up the revenue in in-app purchase. It turned out to be a pretty great decision. It went to No. 2 Top Free App when it first went free, and after a few days settled at around No. 100 Top Free App.

Right before we switched it to free in September, we had a couple hundred downloads/day at 99 cents, with some in-app purchase sales. After switching it to free and settling at No. 100 Top Free app, we had about 50,000 daily downloads, and a whole lot more in-app purchases. In fact, revenue went up 10x immediately upon switching to free, so keeping it free was a no brainer.

After that, our daily users kept growing, downloads kept growing, and Temple Run was slowly rising up the charts. It finally hit No. 1 Top Free app on December 28, and has been No. 1 or No. 2 for the past month. At this point, we’re getting around 500,000 downloads/day. Revenue has also increased, with Temple Run becoming the No. 1 Top Grossing app on January 7 and staying at No. 1 or No. 2 ever since.

GB: Now Temple Run is free-to-play, has app purchases, and is headed to Android next month. How is the development cycle helped or hindered by the Android marketplace and famed “splintering” of the hardware across Android devices?

NL: Honestly, we’re not sure how much fragmentation is going to be an issue. It’s something we’re worried about and we should have a better grasp on that soon. It’s definitely not as easy as iOS, where you can simply buy every device type ever made, because there are only a handful. That’s just not possible on Android because there are hundreds of devices. We’re doing extensive testing on the major devices, but I’m sure we’ll find issues at launch.

Fortunately, we outsourced the Android development to our friend David Whatley, so we don’t have to deal with those headaches quite as directly :) Our time is still focused on iOS.

GB: What’s next for the company that started out with an incredibly brainy Word Squares app? How do you top Temple Run? Temple Run movie, perhaps?

NL: Temple Run is taking up 110 percent of our time right now, working on updates, support, answering emails from everyone interested in licensing the IP, working with the Android port, etc. Ultimately, we love making games. There will definitely be more games coming from Imangi Studios in the future.

GB: What would you recommend to new mobile gaming developers? If you could have known one thing when you started out that you know now, what would that be?

NL: You probably won’t succeed right away, but failure is good. Learn from it. Our game Max Adventure took us a year to make and was a financial flop. If we had given up and just sulked afterwards like we kind of wanted to do, we would never have made Temple Run. Same goes for pretty much all of our games. They were all a result of lots of sulking and navel-gazing, then learning our lessons and moving on.

Also, keep trying things and experimenting. This market moves very quickly, but as small developers, we are poised to move just as nimbly. We released Temple Run as paid and it did ok, but not that great. Only after taking the risk of setting it free did it really get a chance to get out to the masses and go viral.

Also, make great games. To have a success, you need a great game. But just making a great game is not enough. It takes a lot of marketing and strategizing. You need to think about how you’re going to get that game out to as many people as possible. We spend a great deal of time on this aspect of the business, which is almost as important as making great games.

[photo credit: The Washingtonian]

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