Since its release a couple of weeks ago, ustwo's iPhone game Whale Trail has created quite a buzz in the mobile world.
Its addictive blend of vibrant graphics and straightforward gameplay has catapulted it to the top of the App Store chart, and after Apple's Game of the Week promotion, the title has had plenty of exposure.
About time we secured some quality time with ustwo's charismatic mills, aka CHIEF WONKA, the creative force behind the game.
Pocket Gamer: Whale Trail has been out for 11 days, so what's the reaction been like?
mills: We always try to manage our own expectations and never expect anything as we’ve succailed™ far too often over the last few years with our previous app releases.
We never expected to be made Game of the Week by Apple - that’s for sure. But, we knew we had made something beautiful that at least had a chance to be loved by people out there.
Did you ever feel like you weren't onto a formula that would sell?
The only formula we ever had was… make something that feels right, plays right, and looks right. We wanted it to be coolmercial™ through and through. It had to be special, but it also had to appeal to a huge audience: to kids, to adults, to grandparents.
There was a constant industry pressure to go freemium, as it’s now the de facto monetisation strategy, but we never considered it for a second. We only had one simple laser focus and that was to bring the joy of flying to the masses.
What were the main inspirations behind Whale Trail?
The one-touch mechanic truly went mainstream after Tiny Wings debuted, 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.
Whale Trail resulted from a two-month experimental prototyping phase. The idea was to explore as many different directions as possible and to see what ultimately turned us on.
We knew that we could polish anything we came up with, but what we wanted was to make sure that we had an engine this time that could drive us all the way to the top.
In the end, the idea of a simple loop-the-loop mechanic was something we decided to move forward with. The simplicity of the gaming mechanic is crucial, and it doesn’t get more simple that moving the character up and down by pressing and releasing your finger on the touchscreen.
It just felt right, and so we continued to develop the idea of a character travelling through a never-ending world of psychedelia and wonder. We wanted to create a game that would be all about the joys of flying - nothing more and nothing less.
We chose a whale since the idea of a huge blubbery mammal flying gracefully through the air seemed so wrong in the real world, yet so wonderfully right in the virtual world. We named him Willow in homage to our favourite film of the same name and the general fighting spirit the lead character emits whilst in battle.
Which developers and games do you particularly admire on the App Store?
I love any indie developer and especially love talking over Twitter, sharing ideas and knowledge. It’s the community that drives the passion.
Seeing the success of Matt Rix with Trainyard makes me believe there is a chance for the indie dev to break though into the hard world of iOS game development.
How important was the beta phase? Did you end up changing any aspects of Whale Trail?
The game went out to over 300 play testers during the development cycle. This was crucial in two ways.
The feedback from players who had no part to play in the development meant we got to read unbiased views, which pushed us to develop further. A key addition to the final game was the turbo power-up, for example, which was requested by many of the beta users.
They also helped to build buzz. This proved to be a massive part of the launch success, since their enthusiasm helped to take #whaletrail to the top-trending list on Twitter in London on launch day.
You have already announced that you need 300,000 sales of Whale Trail to break even. Has the game been a financial risk?
We invest £650,000 a year into a team we call CWA (Content With Attitude). The whole point of the team is to conceive, design, build, and release products on the App Store.
CWA is not about making money, it’s about experimenting and learning, showing the industries we work in that we care. If we happen to make money, it’s a bonus.
Saying that, Whale Trail is the first release that actually has a chance of making money.
Is there anything you'd do differently if you had to create the game again?
We wanted to create goodwill and joy, to let users appreciate the feeling of flying Willow through the skies, and to put a smile on users' faces.
We’ve had a thousand 5-star reviews in the first week, and from this, we can see there’s a lot of love for the game. But, there is also a demand for more goals and achievements.
The game takes practice in order to get the higher scores, and in many ways, we overestimated the amount of time people are willing to play games. They want an in-and-out experience.
Have you found creating the game an emotional journey? What tips would you give for budding designers?
It’s been a very long journey, but we wanted to show that non-game makers could make a hit game. We wanted to show that all you needed was a dedicated team wanting to make something that they themselves wanted to play. I feel we have succeeded in doing that no matter how many downloads we get.
It’s very easy for a team to get too focussed on its own game, and to fall heavily in love without taking a step back and looking with fresh eyes.
We had a huge army of play testers who gave constructive feedback along the way, and it was this feedback that made us feel confident we were making the right decisions.
What does the future hold for Whale Trail, and, indeed, for the company?
For CWA, it’s full focus now on the updates, as we need to listen to the players and feed them with fresh content, giving them more joy for their 69p or 99c.
We’ve only just begun on this journey and the hard work is now to come with the decisions we make over the next three months dictating its ultimate success.
In the next three weeks, we are adding a ‘playground’ area for players to dip in and out of, which will consist of 15 unlockable special levels with a favourite for everyone. These will be designed to give users a quick and satisfying whale fix.
Are you looking to launch Whale Trail on Android devices? Do you have any extravagant plans to one day adapt the game for Kinect or PlayStation Move?
Initially, the focus was on launching Whale Trail on iOS, because as a platform it offered the most explosive exposure.
We always said that if it did well on iOS, then we would take it to Android. After attracting 75,000 downloads on iPhone in the 11 days since launch, we're ready to go full steam ahead on Android.
We're looking forward to bringing the joy of flying to Android, and if it does well, the options will only be more plentiful. We're in Whale Trail for the long term.
It's clear to me that the App Store is now one of the most competitive spaces to be in for business, and it's cut-throat. We know that we need to invest heavily to reach the masses.
The combination of updates, an Android release, and the desire to take the story of Willow, the Thunder Bros, and the evil Baron von Barry onto new digital platforms and into physical channels will be the making of this IP.Many thanks to mills for his time.