To the top with Temple Run: Imangi Studios, a studio profile
How two newcomers became mobile masters
Imangi Studios's story is remarkable.
Founded by the husband and wife team Keith Shepherd and Natalia Luckyanova, it's a company that has reached the pinnacle of the industry from very humble beginnings in an incredibly short period of time.
Yet it has also endured its fair share of disasters along the way.
In our latest studio profile we talk to Keith Shepherd about Imangi's early days, its mistakes, and how it has achieved its ultimate position as one of the leading mobile games developers in the world.
Quitting the day job
Imangi Studios was born from Shepherd and Luckyanova's growing disappointment with their jobs programming apps for the health care industry.
"Natalia and I had been talking about starting a company for a long while," says Shepherd, "so we worked out a deal where she would continue to support us and I - because I was most frustrated with my job - would quit and figure out what I was going to do next."
"It happened to be perfect timing, because around that time Apple announced that they were creating this platform to allow anyone with a computer and some programming skills to make software to distribute to a global audience through iTunes and the App Store.
"Natalia and I thought it was really awesome. There really hadn't been a platform like this before, and we saw it as a huge opportunity. We decided to think of something that we could make and get up on the App Store as kind of a fun project."
That project was Imangi, the game from which the studio would take its name. Inspired by Shepherd and Luckyanova's regular Scrabble sessions, Imangi is a puzzle game in which players manipulate letters to form words.
Imangi for iOS
"So we had about a month to make this game," says Shepherd. "It was one of the first things that came to mind when we were thinking of something to make. And we knew we wanted to be there for the launch of the App Store, so we kinda just went with the first idea that came to mind.
"We built this little game, got it out, and it was a really fun experience."
Pleased that they had managed to release a game in time for the App Store's launch, Shepherd and Luckyanova were nevertheless in the dark about the game's initial performance.
"It's funny," says Shepherd. "Back then you didn't get this constant stream of data so you didn't know how you were doing until the end of the month. We had no idea.
"We were selling the thing for $3.99 and I don't think we were at the top of any of the charts, but nobody had any idea how many people were buying apps or how many phones were out there or any of that kind of thing.
"We could tell that some people were playing because we had some reviews and we had some emails, but we really had no idea until that first month sales report came in. When it did I think we made $5,000 and we were just ecstatic.
"It was something we had created from scratch and we didn't spend a ton of time making it and we made $5,000 in our first month, it was awesome!
"So we kinda did the math and said, well if we make a game a month we could make $60,000 a year. That's a salary. I could do this as my full-time job! It was naive, but we were so excited that we had made something and it was selling."
Initially it looked like Imangi Studios may live up to that promise, as their next game Word Squares took around a week to code and even outperformed their debut release. However, the company's first real taste of failure was looming.
"I grew up playing more like arcade type games and stuff," says Shepherd. "Word puzzles are fun but they weren't my passion in terms of actual games. I wanted to make more of a gamer's game, so we decided to make this 3D sledding game called Little Red Sled."
Little Red Sled saw players navigating their way down snowy mountains while dodging trees, catching air and performing tricks.
Little Red Sled
"I thought we could make it in like 3 months, in time for a Christmas release," says Shepherd. "And we thought that was perfect; a winter themed sledding game for kids, it'll be a perfect Christmas time app! But I way, way overestimated our capabilities.
"Ultimately we didn't get it out until the middle of February. Winter was coming to an end, nobody was interested in snow any more and everyone was ready for spring to come. It was a huge flop for us. We had spent six months doing it and it was our first taste of failure."
Rather than be dissuaded from their dream, however, Shepherd and Luckyanova redoubled their efforts.
"Right after Little Red Sled, that was when we made the decision to have Natalia quit her job and join me making games full-time. It was a big, risky time for us as a company," says Shepherd.
"So at this point we were both working at Imangi and living off of our measly income from these three games, none of which I would call a hit. It was a critical moment in the history of our company, deciding to go all in."
The gamble payed off. lmangi's next game would be Harbor Master, a riff on the popular line-drawing title Flight Control.
"It turned out to be a really big hit for us," says Shepherd. "It went to number three on the App Store, and people were loving it. So we just kept on working on it. We thought ‘Hey success is very rare' so we doubled down our efforts.
"We spent the next year or so making Harbor Master better because it had become our bread and butter. That's was what was paying our bills."
Foreshadowing their future success, the iPad version of Harbor Master - launched alongside the device itself - was to be Imangi's first experiment with free-to-play.
"Just as we had been a part of the App Store launch with the iPhone, we wanted to be a part of the iPad launch," says Shepherd. "The problem was that we didn't have time to make new content, so we made one map that took advantage of the larger screen and released it as a free app.
"We thought that by making a great game that was free, hopefully the competition wouldn't be as stiff. And we were right. When the iPad launched Harbor Master HD was the number one game on the platform.
"We didn't make much money from it, but it drew players to the iPhone version we ended up with a lot more fans. That was really good for us, it showed us the value of free and how in some cases it might be better just to have more people playing your games.
After a protracted spell supporting Harbor Master, Imangi got back to creating new games, releasing Hippo High Dive and geoSpark (a collaboration with geoDefense creator Critical Thought Games) towards the end of 2009.
While neither title was particularly successful, they helped keep Imangi ticking over. The Studio's next release, however, was to have far more profound effect, something that Shepherd has described as an "epic failure."
"We set out to make Max Adventure at a time when the App Store was getting much more crowded and a lot of the major publishers were starting to dominate," says Shepherd.
"People like Electronic Arts, Zynga and Gameloft were making all these epic games and we thought how are we going to compete? Ultimately we decided to make the type of game that these guys would make, a big epic game that had a lot of content, and a lot of levels.
"Max Adventure was a classic mistake of biting off more than we could chew. We just made this huge game that took us a year to develop and by the time we released it the market had changed so much.
"We launched it at Christmas, but it was the first Christmas where EA dropped all of their games to 99c and they just totally crushed the charts. We just drowned and got no attention.
"We were proud of the game, but it didn't resonate. It never became a hit for us."
On the run
Beyond the marketplace problems that hindered Max Adventure's success, Shepherd also identifies other issues.
"The biggest frustration we had was that we strayed from making these pick-up-and-play casual games and made something more content driven. And it had dual-stick controls and it didn't really feel like a game that belonged on the iPhone with a touch screen.
"That was what led us to coming up with the control scheme for Temple Run," says Shepherd, as the studio experimented with various methods that felt native to touch screen devices.
Shepherd and Luckyanova settled upon using swipe-based gestures to have an avatar turn corners along a linear route. Pleased with the results, the rest of the game just fell into place.
"With these 90 degree turns, it felt right to have a maze-like environment. It felt really good. So we themed it out so that you're running on some kind of temple wall. That's really what evolved into what Temple Run became."
Launched in the summer of 2011, Temple Run initially cost 99c. Well received, it wasn't until Imangi flipped the switch to make the game free that it really took off, enjoying a temporary stay at number three in the free charts.
"Then it started falling again, as we had kinda expected," says Shepherd. "But something strange happened. It stopped falling.
"What happened over the next couple of months was magical. It slowly started climbing back up the charts. It was at 100, then a couple of days later it was at 98, then 97, then 95. It just had this really kinda slow rise, and it actually went all the way up the charts to the number one free game.
"This whole time it was climbing on the downloads side, on the free charts, it was also climbing in the top grossing charts. We hit the number one in both charts right around the same time in January of 2012. And what we had witnessed was that essentially the game had gone viral.
"We weren't advertising it, we weren't paying for any marketing. People just latched onto it."
Just four years prior to Temple Run's success, both Shepherd and Luckyanova had not even made a game. Now they were among the world's leading mobile game developers.
Indeed, such was Temple Run's popularity that in 2012 Disney approached the studio to create a spin-off title to help promote their upcoming Pixar movie, Brave. Similarly popular, Temple Run: Brave became the number one ranking iOS game in no less than 111 countries.
Temple Run and Temple Run: Brave
Imangi has proved adept at capitalising on the franchise's success, with a range of merchandising and transmedia opportunities providing lucrative revenue streams and a further Disney themed Temple Run spin-off, based around Oz: The Great and Powerful, due to launch this month.
All of this has fed back into the popularity of the original Temple Run, which has now been downloaded over 170 million times.
This huge player base allowed Imangi to surprise everyone in January 2013 with the unheralded release of Temple Run 2.
"It kinda came out of necessity," says Shepherd. "We just had our heads down and we were so focused on getting the game out and finished that as we got closer to release we hadn't spun up the marketing side of the house to kinda get the news out there.
"We just hoped that because so many people had enjoyed the original, that if we were to release it people would get excited about it."
They did. In its first 13 days of availability on iOS, Android and Kindle devices, Temple Run 2 was downloaded over 50 million times, making it the fastest growing mobile title in history.
"The game has performed beyond our wildest dreams," said Shepherd at the time.
Despite boasting the kind of success of which giant corporations would be proud, Shepherd and Luckyanova still work from home and Imangi Studios has remained deliberately small.
Even Temple Run 2 was developed by just five people.
Temple Run 2
"We like making and developing games," says Shepherd. "And if we were to grow it would really change the dynamic of the company and Natalia and I would end up managing the company instead of doing what we love.
"We don't have investors, Natalia and I bootstrapped, funded the company ourselves. We don't have any of this outside pressure, or venture capital, or anything like that where the goal is to ultimately sell the company.
"I think we have the flexibility to go where we want to go. For now it suits our lifestyle to stay small."
As for the future, Shepherd talks with the ease of a man who has already realised his dream.
"I think we're going to continue to focus on Temple Run," he says. "We've got some cool updates on the way, a lot of neat stuff. We'll continue to focus on that for a while and at some point we'd like to make some more games. We may grow a bit more to help manage the franchise.
"I dunno, we're kinda taking one day at a time. We're just very fortunate that we can continue down whatever path we want to."
You can read our exclusive making of Temple Run 2 feature here.
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