Hutch is a studio with a deep and interesting history and after producing numerous small hits throughout their history, smash hit Top Drives proved to be the breakout hit that saved the day.
It’s safe to say that Top Drives gave Hutch a real boost and also kickstarted a period of growth that’s been ongoing for the UK-based developer. Now, with other titles like F1 Clash, Hutch seems to be making a name for itself as one of the big driving game developers on mobile.
Last month Hutch celebrated Top Drives’ fifth anniversary, and we got the chance to speak to chief creative officer Jonathan Alpine, chief product officer Tim Mannveille and game director Ian Griffiths about the creation of games and get the behind-the-scenes scoop on what makes Hutch tick.
What do you think made Top Drives so successful?
Tim Mannveille: I think it successfully taps into two areas of interest for car fans that no other games have done - the endless fascination of how different cars perform in different scenarios, and the desire to build a huge collection of the broadest possible range of cars.
Ian Griffiths: The game taps into a car enthusiast mindset by making it about knowledge of cars in unpredictable environments rather than learning some specific reaction based game mechanics. There's also the way the game manages to make every single one of the thousands of cars relevant in its own way. It's really about a celebration of cars.
Jonathan Alpine: A big part of it is its innovation. It really does let people play with the world of cars like no other title. And then there’s the strategic depth on offer. The core idea of the game is straightforward but as your collection grows, the combination of cars, challenges, upgrades and opponents means the routes to success are almost infinite.
It’s also worth mentioning that a successful launch is one thing but the team needs to take a huge amount of credit for growing and evolving Top Drives over the past five years. Without that relentless energy for the product, it would never have enjoyed the success it has.
How did Top Drives’ success affect Hutch as a studio?
T.M. Our previous games had been much more casual and would only be successful for a few years at the most. Top Drives showed us what long-term success on a games title could look like, how it allows us to go deeper and build on an idea for far longer. That’s the route we’re now much more interested in going with almost all of our titles.
I.G. It was our first big, server authoritative live game. We had a lot of experienced people in this area but it helped us develop those skills more broadly. The financial success of the game also allowed us to put more resources into it for the long run and gave us space to develop new and upcoming titles from there.
J.A. The commercial success let us grow the team, our studio premises and invest in new products like our F1 Clash title. But it was also the first title that really felt like a gaming service. And this meant a big shift in team structure, process and development mindset. As well as raising our ambitions to new heights!
How do you think the industry has changed in the five years since you launched Top Drives?
T.M. There have been the obvious changes, with the rise of battle-pass driven free-to-play cross-platform games, and more recently the challenges of marketing in a post-ATT world. But when it comes to Top Drives I’m fascinated by what hasn’t changed: I’ve not seen another game do what Top Drives is doing either directly, or even in an area outside of cars but with a similarly huge roster of collectible units.
I.G. The industry goes through these meta-patterns over time, we try to take what's useful and discard what isn't from those. Covid caused a clear spike of users across the industry, crypto was something we looked into early on but didn't fit our goals. ATT has been a big change. Finding the best talent has remained a challenge and has been a part of developing better work benefits, at Hutch we were one of the early companies to move to a 4 day, 30 hour working week.
J.A. The mobile market has matured a lot in those five years. It’s definitely harder to launch new products but the flip side of this is that having successful services is more important than ever before.
What lessons can be learnt from a business perspective about Top Drives’ success?
T.M. These days a lot of people test an early version of their game out in a few markets to get data on whether the game is promising. Top Drives showed us that the signs of potential success can be more subtle than you might expect. The other big part is that we created systems that would allow us to run all kinds of in-game events and offers, without any concrete plans on exactly how that should work - by trying experiments and following the player response, we were able to figure out what the game ‘needed’ far better than we could have from some closed-door design session.
I.G. I think the lessons are that with a solid base you can really build to success.
J.A. A lot of companies set benchmarks that a new game has to hit to proceed. This can work really well. But with Top Drives, it encouraged us to take a different approach. Taking a step back during testing and really looking at how the game was performing. Some of the common data points were awful but there were nuggets that pointed to something really exciting and these drove the decision to keep going.
A number of Hutch’s titles are racing or car-themed, so what’s with the obsession with automobiles?
T.M. The car theme was pretty much accidental at first, driven by a few members of the team that had a passion for it. By the time we were planning our fourth and fifth games, we realised it probably would be a good idea to keep that focus. There are straightforward production benefits, like being able to re-use assets in some cases, and build relationships with car brands for licensing purposes. But I think an even bigger benefit is that it’s the perfect constraint when it comes to new game ideation. If every new game could be anything at all, that choice can be paralysing, and we’d have to do all sorts of fresh research each time to understand any new genre. But within cars and racing, there’s still a lot of room for different kinds of games that never existed before - Top Drives being a good example - but we’re familiar enough with the audience and general challenges of the space that we can get to much better concepts more quickly.
I.G. There is a passion for cars and car culture but it's an inclusive one. I think the thing about cars is that even if you're not passionate about them as a car enthusiast there's an undoubted utility and beauty that we can see in them through design, engineering and tech - they really are a marvel. Car-themed games are very popular in the UK too, I suspect this is tied to the country's heritage in car manufacturing.
J.A. We have a number of car, motorsports and racing-game fans at the studio but it’s not a requirement to work here. The focus on cars and racing comes partly from the passion and partly from the early days of the business when we could see the strength of the theme to find an audience on the app stores.
Can you tell us about what Hutch has planned for the future?
T.M. The market is always moving and we do have to keep up with it - but without saying too much, I think people might be surprised at how we’re able to keep finding new ways to make car and racing games that people haven’t seen before!
J.A. While we can’t go into detail, there’s definitely new stuff that we’re very excited about. F1 Clash and Top Drives both have so much potential and there are some big additions coming to those games. But new titles are also important. We’ve got something quite different coming out later this year that puts a new spin on an area of car appreciation. And then we have another motorsports title ready to hit the track.