Our goal was coolmercial: ustwo's mills on the making of Whale Trail
The co-founder of UK studio ustwo has long talked up the importance of quality and creativity, but to-date none of its games or apps has experienced much commercial success.
99c game Whale Trail is the opportunity to change that.
Pocket Gamer: What was the inspiration for Whale Trail?
mills: To make something that has the potential to be loved by the entire iOS community; something that makes your heart beat, your elton weep, and something you'd take to your grandparents 60th wedding anniversary.
We wanted it to hit a chord on an aesthetic level but be highly addictive and playable. It had to be everything in order to appeal to the widest demographic possible, but cool enough to be loved by the design conscious. Quite simply ... it had to be coolmercial(tm).
You've hyped this figure of £100,000 for its budget. What does that actually mean and why invest such a large sum?
Apart from a few super speedy, simple ones, the average good iOS game will take in the region of 4-6 months of work for a quality team. In the case of Whale Trail, we have a team of six working full time.
The final figure will probably end up around £150,000, and this will continue to rise with the planned and strategic updates.
Quality costs. At ustwo, we've set aside a £650,000 fund made up of profits from the studio's client service work.
We believe it's crucial to invest each year in researching, developing and releasing our own IP products. Our focus is on making and more importantly releasing quality products directly to users.
Clearly freemium is now the dominant sector of profitable iOS gaming so why the desire to release at 99c?
Right now freemium is a buzzword touted and hyped as the saviour of gaming, and the golden ticket to riches in SuccessVille.
This consequently means the App Store is currently busting at the seams with low quality 'me too' games, that not only lack imagination, but also seem to be designed purely to extract, or should I say dupe, users into paying for something they don't really need in their lives.
We're happy to move into areas/categories of the App Store where we have absolutely no experience, but we aim to bring freshness of mind and voice.
Ultimately all we want to do is showcase what we're good at. Hopefully that's making Experiences that are well Executed, leaving the user feeling some form of Emotion. We call this triple-E gaming.
Our focus is on user experience (UX) and getting our products into as many users' hands as possible, not money. User enjoyment comes first, showcasing our skills as UX studio second, and it's up to the masses if it makes money.
When did you start to believe in the potential of Whale Trail?
With many of our first attempts at graphical toy making, we were always able to make them look truly wonderful, but they often lacked any real compulsion to continue playing. That compulsion loop is something we built into Whale Trail from the very beginning of the journey.
The 'loop the loop' flight mechanic was it ... designed to make you happy each time you used it. It was tested on users at an early stage where the only things that they had to look at visually were black and white shapes. Immediately we could see that the motion felt right, and users didn't want to hand it back.
We have, in the past, been the masters of shining shit, but this was different. Here it felt like we were shining the finest silverware and all it needed was a light buffing to get it looking just right.
How much 'inspiration' did you take from Tiny Wings, and/or other existing iPhone games?
The release of Tiny Wings was inspirational in that it taught me that very simple mechanics could go all the way to the top.
I still remember the first time I saw a tweet about the game, it said 'don't ask questions, just download this game'. The tweeter was right and word of mouth drove it to the top the charts.
The one-touch mechanic truly became mainstream and hopefully audiences are begging for more. It's inevitable that some people will compare flying animal games, but they are very different. There is room for both creatures on the store.
What's the story behind getting Gruff from Super Flurry Animals to sing the anthem, and how do think the single release will help the game?
Gruff is a mate of the studio. We wanted to give Whale Trail all the help it could get in terms of directing eyeballs to it, and as sound plays a key part in any successful game, we had to go direct to the best in the business. Gruff has always celebrated creative inventiveness and the marriage of the two made perfect sense.
The Whale Trail single is out on the same day as the game, downloadable from iTunes. It's already getting great radio play and it gave us another outlet for our creative juice in the form of indirect promotion.
Why a whale, and why is the whale called Willow?
We wanted the contrast of a massive, blubbery whale gracefully flying through a magical trippy skyscape. It's all about the wonder of flying and the immersion into a world way beyond the humdrum.
We wanted to put a smile on the faces of anyone playing, and so many people have already said they just feel good when playing it. It's that criteria that makes me happy.
Another interesting fact is Willow has always been one of our favourite films. It just felt right paying homage to the main character in a film that gave us so much during our youth. Willow the Whale also rolls off the tongue; key for that word of mouth stickiness.
One prerequisite in terms of Willow's design was cuteness! He needed to be loveable, but with a cheeky side and the small expression changes we've given him, truly make him special.
Has the game changed significantly during development?
It was during the prototyping stage that the idea for Whale Trail was born. Since that time it's constantly evolved through a countless number of iterations, as we needed to apply the same level of process we apply to our client services work, after the disaster that was inkstrumental.
We moved to Agile development with bi-weekly sprints that meant that after each sprint we always had a releasable product. We prioritised the features that were the 'need to haves', as opposed to the 'would like to haves'.
What's the highest score achieved by 1) the development team 2) mills?
Our chief tester has scored over 1 million, which takes some serious flying power. We've since increased the difficulty curve to ensure players have to really focus once they hit that sort of points total. It's pure storm clouds at that point. I've seen 800,000+ from some of the play testers since they started beta testing.
For me, I've only really had Whale Trail foreplay, not wanting to go to deep and hit that top spot straight away. But right before we changed the difficulty I was in the top 25 percentile. In the real world I am obviously top 5 percent, but that's another story.
Can you give a rough breakdown of the development time and any significant tools you used?
We spent around two months prototyping, which was crucial, and it's during this process we discovered the loop the loop mechanic that we built the foundations of the game on.
That mechanic was the seed that happened to grow into a beautiful Arabian stallion.
Once we knew Whale Trail had serious potential, we spent around five months constantly iterating and prioritising features for the launch. We have a backlog of ideas that we will commit to post launch. Right now the 'need to have' is in.
In terms of tools, we used Flash to prototype, Photoshop and Illustrator to design, and a bespoke flexible custom engine that the hit iOS game Aftermath was also powered on. Incidentally the Aftermath creator joined ustwo shortly after releasing his game.
What feedback - critical or commercial - would you require to treat Whale Trail as a success?
In many ways, we've already made it a success, as the buzz has been incredible. The game went out to over 300 play testers during the development cycle and they loved it. We had proved to ourselves that we could make a 'real' game that would make players play and smile.
On a financial level, we need to sell at least 300,000 copies in order to break even. Personally speaking I'd like to hit 500,000 by Christmas Day and if Santa delivers me one thing it would, of course, be a No 1.
What part of the game are you most happy with?
The whole package, the art, the control, the feel, the sound, the accompanying soundtrack from Gruff Rhys, and the fact that for once in our studio life, we have created something that has truly got the entire world excited. It feels like this is a community release, with so many people wishing it success.
I love the fact that it just feels right and it makes my heart beat faster. If I hadn't have made it, it's the type of game I would play and say 'I wish I had made this'.
Do you have any plans to encourage people to play Whale Trail beyond the high score itch?
Right now we have a loads of achievements in there, but this won't be enough for the true gamer. We feel we've created a game for the masses, for the non-gamer, and to help encourage pickup from the gaming world we will be adding bonus levels, with different tasks in each.
These will all come shortly after release. This game is about the joy of flying, it's about just loving something because it's that special!
What's next for Whale Trail and ustwo?
Thanks to mills for his time. Whale Trail is out now for iOS, priced 99c.