How Retro Bowl went from a simple RPG to a number one sports game

New Star Games' Simon Read talks the making of a touchdown mobile game

How Retro Bowl went from a simple RPG to a number one sports game

No matter the size of the game or how long it ultimately takes to make, each new title involves a lot of hard work, tough decisions, and a little bit of luck before it even gets out the door and onto devices.

And that's only the first step to making the title succeed.

To highlight the extensive work that goes unseen in the background, is reaching out to developers to learn more about the process of releasing a video game, with our 'Making Of' series.

This week, we spoke with New Star Games founder and CEO Simon Read about Retro Bowl went from an RPG to a leading retro sports game that reached number one in the US charts - with zero spend on user acquisition! Where did the initial idea for Retro Bowl come from?

Simon Read: It actually started out life as a simple RPG. You were going to be a high school kid with friend and family relationships to manage, whilst maintaining good grades and staying healthy.

I included a mini-game that had you throwing a football to a friend and then you could get selected for the school team and play regular football games.

It actually started out life as a simple RPG
Simon Read

I intended to include three sports in the game, the other two being basketball and baseball, but as the RPG side of things wasn’t really going anywhere I gave up on the original idea and started expanding the football part of the game.

As soon as I saw the eight-bit style players making tackles in proper NFL uniform colours I knew exactly what game I needed to make.

How long did development take, and how many people worked on the game?

I think development on Retro Bowl began in earnest around July 2019 and from that point on it was full steam ahead.

Things started coming together very quickly thanks to the lo-fi nature of the game, and by January 2020 it was ready for release.

It was just me working on the game initially but after spotting John Savage’s pixel art on twitter (@pixelnfl) I contacted him about doing the game art. His player animations and character designs took the visuals to a whole new level.

What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome during development?

Learning American Football!

Honestly, I’d watched a handful of Super Bowls over the years and I had a handle on the basics but my knowledge of the sport was severely lacking.

I was learning the deeper aspects and rules of the game on the fly. When the season started in September 2019 I would have full replays of that week’s games on one monitor whilst coding in GameMaker on another.

It was pretty much like that every day until release. I would often see something happen in the real-life game or catch a story from one of the commentators and think, 'yes, that needs to go in the game!'

At what stage in development did you feel you had a game that you were happy with?

By Christmas I knew that the game was fun and it was a case of tying up all the loose ends to get it released before the Superbowl in February.

Things started coming together very quickly thanks to the lo-fi nature of the game
Simon Read

I had started out just wanting to make a fun game and whilst I felt I had achieved that it was only when the feedback started coming in and was so positive that I realised I had something special.

How happy are you with the game's launch so far?

The launch went far better than expected. I released the game without any fanfare but Apple picked it up very quickly and featured it just before the Superbowl, so the initial download numbers were great. It continued to do well but it wasn’t until September 2021 that things really took off.

An Apple feature at the start of the season, followed by a couple of updates saw a huge spike in downloads. Somehow it got picked up by school aged players and became a bit of a TikTok sensation.

Without doing any user acquisition or advertising it peaked at number one in downloads for all apps on the US App Store which is just incredible.

What can you tell us about your plans in terms of updates?

I have updated the game countless times since launch and with the recent influx of new players I’m motivated to continue to do so for a while longer. Saying that, I feel that the game is at a point where adding major new features risks upsetting the balance of the game and the simplicity that has brought it success.

Every day I get asked for online play, defensive action, full rosters, college teams…
Simon Read

Every day I get asked for online play, defensive action, full rosters, college teams… but some of these will change the core of the game too much, so anything like that will likely come in a sequel.

What can you tell us about your future mobile projects?

As I’ve mentioned, I’m keen to keep the updates to Retro Bowl coming for a while and there are a couple of things in the pipeline that will be announced in due time.

I will say that I get asked to do a retro take on basketball or baseball every day, but these sports are very much outside my comfort zone so that isn’t happening any time soon!

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