Making a splash: The making of Fish Out of Water!
Inspired by chief creative officer Luke Muscat's favourite hobby, the follow-up to Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride began life as a vastly different prospect to the fish flinging title that hit the App Store in April.
In our latest 'making of', we speak to Muscat about that evolution, Halfbrick's dramatically shifting expectations for the game, and the pressures of following up two massive mobile hits.
"Originally, the inspiration for Fish Out of Water! came from surfing, of all places," says Muscat of his initial vision of the game.
"I had always wanted to make a surfing game that had dynamic weather, and encouraged you to come back and check the waves every day.
"Turns out, making a surfing game is pretty tough, so we decided to do a simple stone skipping game as a kind of prototype for the dynamic weather idea."
Halfbrick's Luke Muscat
It was from that prototype, says Muscat, that the core gameplay of what would eventually become Fish Out of Water! emerged.
"It had some really interesting and unique concepts that we hadn't seen in other games before," he explains. "Not just the dynamic weather, but also the passive, almost relaxing gameplay.
"We really wanted to give it a try and see what would happen!"
Rock and a hard place
It wasn't long before development hit a snag, however.
"Originally, the game was literally just a single stone that you would skip across the water, and that's it," says Muscat.
"I remember showing it to my partner at one stage and her impression was basically I'm playing with a rock? Really?'
"After this, we spent some time giving it a rethink, and ended up coming up with the six fishy characters, as well as the crabs for the judging panel."
The game's judging panel helped add character to play
While the fish and crabs would add depth to the gameplay - each one attributed unique characteristics - they also solved the crucial problem of adding some much-needed visual charm.
"We worked hard to inject as much personality as we could into a game that was basically about a rock," says Muscat.
Settling on the precise visual style and character designs for the game wasn't easy, as Halfbrick experimented with numerous approaches before finding the right fit.
Indeed, Muscat says that the game went through "hundreds of visual revisions, with new characters, new branding and new everything."
The most difficult aspect of development, however, came in deciding on the correct level of depth.
"Finding the balance between the active and passive gameplay was a huge challenge," says Muscat. "Originally, the game didn't have any kind of interaction after the initial throw."
The result was a game where a large chunk of the experience was marked by inactivity. And that was a problem.
"So we spent weeks playing around with different ideas that made the game require much higher dexterity, more focus, or more interaction in general," says Muscat, "before we settled on the current boost bar mechanic."
The final piece of the jigsaw complete, the game was ready too launch.
A team of just four worked on Fish Out of Water!, only increasing in size as the project neared completion, and while the finished product is a long way from the initial surfing and stone-throwing concepts, Muscat believes the journey was worth it.
"It's pretty different to what we imagined when we started," he says. "But that's the nature of an iterative approach, and Fish Out of Water! is undoubtedly better for it."
Indeed, Halfbrick was so pleased with the game's evolution, that its aspirations for the game shifted dramatically.
"Fish Out of Water! was originally going to be released as just a free toy," explains Muscat. "But the scope kept on increasing and the game got better and better, to the point that we decided we should get behind the game and release it as a full blown Halfbrick release."
This in turn affected Fish Out of Water!'s pricing. It had been expected that Halfbrick's next game would be free-to-play, following Jetpack Joyride's shift to the model last year. But its origins prevented that from happening.
"Because it started as this kind of toy, we didn't design it as a free-to-play game, and didn't feel it would be a good fit for the model in its current state," says Muscat. "That left paid as our primary option."
After nine months in development, Fish Out of Water! launched on the App Store in April for 69p/99c with IAP, quickly shooting up into the higher reaches of the paid chart.
"Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride certainly set up some massive expectations for what our next game was going to be," says Muscat.
"On the one hand, we have less pressure because we're not relying on our next game to be a mega-global hit in order for the studio to survive," he says.
"But on the other, our fans have huge expectations for us to deliver the next big thing, so that's always tough."
Fish Out of Water! isn't a mega-global hit or the next big thing, but it has performed respectably, picking up some warm reviews from critics and enjoying decent if unspectacular chart positions.
Already on the slide, however, Halfbrick is hoping to reverse the title's fortunes with strong post-release support.
One more throw
"Our main focus right now is how to improve the game with updates to give players more to do and more content to play through," says Muscat.
"I'm chomping at the bit to get more updates out there to address the feedback we have been getting since launch."
Part of this will be enhance the Top Leagues leaderboards, which much to Muscat's surprise have gone down a storm with the game's fans.
The game's leaderboards have been a surprise hit
"We honestly added that on a whim, thinking it would act as a neat bit of trivia," he says.
"There's lots I want to do to make that system way better now, based on how many people have been passionate about maintaining a top position."
Beyond that, Muscat says, "We have an update in the works which will bring lots of new stuff for players to aim for, unlock, and a new scoring system for hardcore players who want to get super competitive, above just a 10!"
From a surfing game, to a free stone skimming toy, to the full-blown follow-up to two of mobile's biggest hits, Fish Out of Water! already has quite a story. It will be interesting if Halfbrick's post-release support will ensure it continues to make a splash.