Indie game duo Hipster Whale didn't officially form until a few weeks before their debut game Crossy Roadhit the App Store.
Before taking on the quirky moniker, they were just Andy Sum and Matt Hall, two Australian game developers with a few free web games, jam projects, and other works-in-progress under their belts.
According to Sum, the two made the decision to collaborate after Game Connect: Asia Pacific 2013, and spent some time after bouncing ideas around online until something particularly bouncy (hoppy, even) took root.
"It all began with Flappy Bird," says Hall, when asked about Crossy Road's similarities to the notoriously challenging reflex game.
"I not only really enjoyed [Flappy Bird], but enjoyed what it did to the store afterwards."
According to Hall, Flappy Bird allowed similarly challenging games like Dextris to gain visibility without being outright clones.
"We wanted to create a title that shared the same DNA, but was very different," he says
Leap of faith
Crossy Road does indeed stray from Flappy Bird, which is far more frustrating and two dimensional, both literally and figuratively.
If Crossy Road resembles anything, it's Frogger, Konami's classic arcade game from 1981, rendered here in an endless voxel landscape of busy roadways, open fields, and log-jammed rivers.
In Crossy Road, you control an animal or human character - there are dozens to unlock - trying to cross the mayhem one hop at a time. Your high score reflects how many lanes you've traversed before inevitably getting flattened by a car, hit by a train, or swept upstream.
The core fun element of Crossy Road is similar to that in Flappy BirdAndy Sum
"I think the core fun element of Crossy Road is similar to that in Flappy Bird," says Sum. "It's that 'one more time' feeling that you get when you die, followed by the strong need to beat your previous high score - or your friend's high score!"
The strategy of Crossy Road is in the pacing. Just tapping away will get you killed quickly, but stand still too long or try to retrace your steps too far to find a better workaround, and an eagle will swoop down to take you away. Game over.
These are the kinds of constraints that make Crossy Road so engaging, without sacrificing depth or simplicity.
"The difficulty curve of Crossy Road is also a factor in long term play as the game is quite hard to master at the higher score brackets, when the world is moving a lot faster," explains Sun.
Indeed, Crossy Road exists in that sweetspot where challenge and simplicity overlap, which is perhaps its strongest connection to a game like Flappy Bird.
"I wanted to keep the game very 'pure,'" says Sum.
"I wanted to have really obvious hit boxes and sharp edges so that you could play the game in a precise way and easily judge whether or not you could make the right hop."
Crossing in style
While Sum was hard at work prototyping the core design of Crossy Road in its earliest stages, Hall was in the process of deciding the game's visual style.
Ben Weatherall, who worked with Hall on his upcoming collectible card game Deck War, was brought on to do art for Crossy Road using Qubicle, a 3D voxel editing program that he had "mastered" within a year of picking up the tool.
While the art of Crossy Road has become one of its most distinctive qualities, Sum says that settling on a style that could work with the core gameplay elements was a particular challenge.
"[Matt] told me that he wanted to rotate the camera because voxels look better at an angle," Sum explains. "I thought this sounded like a bad idea that would ruin the gameplay and lose some of that movement precision."
We wanted the game to be played by as many people as possible, and so it had to be free.Matt Hall
Hall went ahead and implemented the rotated camera into an early Crossy Road prototype anyway, and according to Sum, "there was no denying that it looked 100 times better."
In fact, just this simple visual adjustment had changed the actual feel of the game.
"It was a different game," says Sum, "but it made the experience better overall."
Sum describes this as one of the pivotal moments of the game's development that ended up defining it for the better, the other being the implementation of its procedural level generation.
"With each little moment like this, the game just kept growing and getting better," remembers Sum. "When we eventually showed it to some of our friends face-to-face, we couldn't get our phones back off them.
"That was a pretty strong signal that we were on to something."
Crossy Road is free-to-play, but it lacks paywalls, timers, and pay-to-win features.
"We basically never considered a paid 'premium' model," says Hall. "We wanted the game to be played by as many people as possible, and so it had to be free."
Instead, all in-app purchases in Crossy Road come in the form of new characters, which are purely aesthetic. Besides changing your playable sprite, some of the characters have unique visual or audio quirks, or bring environmental effects to the game's world.
For instance, the Mad Wizard zaps random trees with his staff, the Wolf changes the game from day to night, and the Hipster Whale snaps photos with his vintage camera.
"The option to collect new characters is one element of the game that players can enjoy over a long period of time," Sum explains.
We thought we had a very strong game, but we didn’t expect it to stay in the top charts for so long.Matt Hall
"There's definitely a drive to try and collect as many as you can, or at least to unlock your favourite."
You can collect characters through free gifts granted every six hours, unlocking them with in-game coins (which can be picked up within the game), or purchasing them with real money.
According to Hall, Hipster Whale plans on adding more characters, including some secret ones "that can be unlocked in interesting ways.
"There are over 50 to unlock just from the start.
When asked about Crossy Road's success, Sum and Hall spoke of their surprise.
"By release we thought we had a very strong game, but I don't think we expected it to stay in the top charts for so long," says Hall.
"We were also surprised by the reaction from some of our peers, including other developers. It was really rewarding to see our friends enjoy the game as well."
Hipster Whale recently revealed the financial success of Crossy Road as well, which has grossed over $1 million solely from Unity video ads.
"Matt had heard about ads doing well in other mobile games but they were an experimental part of our game and so we didn't know what was going to happen," says Sum.
"But it turns out that they've been successful and they're definitely a viable addition to buying characters in-game, especially for those who are unable to."
Hipster Whale currently has "books filled with ideas" for future projects, which Hall says they plan on working on alongside future updates for Crossy Road.
As far as monetization of future projects goes: "If we do a mobile game, it's likely that we'll use ads again."