Sweet story: The making of Pudding Monsters
Founded as a two-man operation by twin brothers Efim and Semyon Voinov, ZeptoLab now boasts over 50 employees spread across offices in Russia and San Francisco, with interests not just in games but transmedia products and merchandising too.
With this in mind, ZeptoLab's latest release is significant. The puzzle title Pudding Monsters isn't just the first game to come from the studio since it achieved international renown; it's the beginning of a new phase in the company's history.
In our latest making of we talk to Semyon Voinov about Pudding Monsters' origins as an in-house competition concept, its evolution, and its importance to ZeptoLab's future success.
Preparing the ingredients
In keeping with ZeptoLab's expansion the company holds regular "idea contests," encouraging everyone in the studio to present their game concepts to the rest of the team, with the very best ideas earmarked for eventual release.
"We've been arranging such contests since the very early days of the company," says Voinov. "It has been a great source for new ideas."
Indeed Pudding Monsters began life in one such competition, as a concept called Elevator Operator Versus Monsters.
"The initial idea was to fit different kinds of monsters in an elevator, with each monster's specific attributes making this task trickier and more interesting," says Voinov. "It looked wacky and fun enough for us to create a working gameplay prototype."
Early concept art for the project shows the titular monsters in a hotel foyer with a mustachioed elevator operator. A 4x3 grid denotes the lift itself, into which the monsters should be squeezed.
Elevator Operator Versus Monsters concept art
"Once the prototype was ready, a bunch of people gathered in the room, eager to give it a try," says Voinov. "It was clearly a good sign!"
"The neat thing about having 50-plus bright people around is that you have great potential for brainstorming and feedback, so we gathered detailed feedback on the internal ideas and tried to analyse what kind of game would make most sense for us to release at that time."
Elevator Operator Versus Monsters
With a bit of work, Pudding Monsters would fit the bill.
A dish for all palettes
The key for Voinov was to make the game as accessible as possible. "Eventually, the elevator and its operator were dropped to narrow the game's focus on sticking the monsters together," he says.
That decision came as a direct result of Zeptolab's design philosophy. "We design our games to resonate with children and their grandparents and everyone in between," says Voinov.
"To achieve this goal [with Pudding Monsters], we focused on creating a pick-up-and-play experience that was visually appealing and featured likeable characters that players would feel compelled to help out."
Indeed, although Voinov prioritises gameplay over all else, he also identifies ZeptoLab's visual style as central to this approach.
"We always give special attention to the character design," he says.
"Character is clearly one of the main reasons why Cut the Rope succeeded, and we tried our best to make the pudding monsters lively, cute and wacky creatures. The process involves lots of sketching, experimenting and brainstorming and it usually pays off."
As Voinov alludes, character design was of central importance to Cut the Rope, due in no small part to the merchandising it spawned, something Zeptolab hopes to recreate with Pudding Monsters.
"We have some pretty cool ideas for merch products," he says, "but of course we first need to check how the game will perform on a long-term.'
Bake until ready
Development of the game took around five months, with both twins taking a hands-on approach.
"Sitting in a separate room and doing just the general management stuff was never a goal for Efim and me," says Voinov. "We enjoy getting our hands on a product and it's also what we do best.
"For Pudding Monsters, we collaborated with the production team at every stage to provide input about art style, gameplay mechanics and story. Efim also participated in writing the game code and I created part of the game graphics."
Early Pudding Monsters storyboard
The most difficult aspect of the Pudding Monsters' development came in hitting the deadline for a potentially lucrative holiday release, something not helped by the extra work ZeptoLab engaged in behind the scenes.
"Since the early days of ZeptoLab, we spent a lot of time creating in-house tools to assist development and simplify complex routines," says Voinov.
"We continue to invest in it; for instance, during the development of Pudding Monsters, we added cross-platform capabilities to our internal framework, which allowed us to release the game both for iOS and Android simultaneously. We have also developed a neat tool that helps us to create better in-game animations and do it much faster.
"So, on a technical side, this project is much more important for us than it might appear from the outside, in that it will help us to boost the development speed and quality of our upcoming apps."
Released on December 20th, Pudding Monsters received warm reviews and what Voinov describes as a "satisfying" commercial response - helped along by the "huge impact" of in-game promotions within Cut the Rope and Cut the Rope: Experiments.
"The user ratings from both iOS and Android users are great and the overall feedback from the press has been positive," says Voinov. "The commercial side has been satisfying as well, but the true potential of the game will only become clear to us in the long run."
Not every aspect of the response was positive, however, with some critics taking issue with Pudding Monsters' simple design and low difficulty level. Voinov promises that this latter aspect, at least, will be addressed in future updates.
"Some reviewers pointed out that the game wasn't as challenging as Cut the Rope," he says, "but with new level packs coming soon, we'll be able to increase the level of difficulty as well as the length of the game to make the experience even more compelling.
"Cut the Rope has shown us that quality games can continue to engage fans long after they're released. We launched Cut the Rope more than two years ago and continue to see downloads and user engagement increase steadily.
"As we did with Cut the Rope and Cut the Rope: Experiments, we'll release extra levels and new content so long as players are eager to continue the experience of Pudding Monsters, and it makes sense business-wise."
As for the price point adopted by Pudding Monsters, the game was launched at 99c with IAP options, a concept that Voinov reflects would have "sounded ridiculous to users" just a few years ago.
However, he also says that the lure of freemium has become too strong to ignore and that ZeptoLab is thinking of experimenting with the model in an existing title, ahead of multiplatform freemium releases in the future.
"We decided to go $0.99 for the initial release of Pudding Monsters," he says, "but there's also an ad-supported free version of the game available for Android. We might still experiment with a proper freemium implementation for this game."
More broadly Voinov says that "Freemium games are driving the majority of revenue in the mobile gaming industry today. However, I think that the paid model is still the best choice for certain types of games.
"We don't limit ourselves to particular monetisation models or genres, so you will likely see freemium titles coming from ZeptoLab during the next year."
Cooking up the future
Indeed, Pudding Monsters looks to be the beginning of a busy period for ZeptoLab, with Voinov outlining a prolific future for the company.
"We'll be releasing fresh Cut the Rope-related content this year," he says. "We're also constantly developing new IP and experimenting with new gaming experiences that we hope will appeal to both new and existing fans.
"We aren't going into further details at this point, but there will be much more to look forward to in 2013."
And beyond that? "When it comes to our future, I see two options," says Voinov. "Either the zombie outbreak will happen and we will form a Zepto survival group, or we'll continue making great games."
"The second option seems much more probable, but we'll be stocking supplies in the office fridge, just in case."