Slide To Play Q and A: Halfbrick Studios

Halfbrick Studios is quickly becoming one of the App Store’s biggest success stories. Their breakout hit Fruit Ninja is sitting pretty at about 1.6 million downloads and was recently featured in an Apple iPad advertisement, while their new release Monster Dash is running up the charts. We spoke to Marketing Manager Phil Larsen about the company’s origins, how they came up with the idea for Fruit Ninja, and what’s next for Halfbrick.

Can you tell us how Halfbrick got its start?

Phil: Halfbrick started in 2001 when a number of game college graduates in Brisbane, Australia began a development studio together. After starting with smaller contract work and games for the Game Boy Advance, we eventually moved on the creating high profile licensed games for the DS and PSP.

Several years ago we wanted to move into independent development with our own IP, and with the introduction of digital distribution channels like XBLA, PSN and now the iPhone, we branched out and managed to have a number of successful games on a diverse range of devices and consoles.

What were your first games for the iPhone? Was it difficult to develop?

Phil: Our very first iPhone game was Blast Off, which was a port of an earlier Playstation Mini title. The Mini was very well-received and became a hit, whereas the iPhone version was lacking somewhat due the controls and screen size.

It’s still a solid game, but as the core experience wasn’t developed from the ground up to work on the iPhone, it didn’t reach the kind of success we’ve since managed to achieve.

What did you learn from the early experience of developing for the iPhone?

Phil: The iPhone is unlike any other platform we’ve developed for in the past, and offers a huge range of totally unique challenges. We spent literally weeks researching, studying, playing and discussing how the iPhone works, why some games are successful and what we can do to stand out.

The core development cycles are relatively smooth, there’s nothing we can’t handle on the technical side of things. It’s the design and philosophy of the iPhone market that one really needs to understand, and that probably formed more work for us than the actual creation of the game!

How did Fruit Ninja come about?

Phil: Fruit Ninja was the brainchild of Luke Muscat, who pitched the idea in one of our regular brainstorming sessions. The idea was to create a simple, visceral and satisfying one screen iPhone game. We immediately knew that Fruit Ninja was something special, and it was pretty much fast-tracked through the development cycle to become our first original iPhone title.

When did you begin to realize that Fruit Ninja was catching on in a big way?

Phil: Probably just two days after release. Knowing what we knew about Apple’s review process and the iPhone press coverage, I managed to coordinate a pretty solid launch day campaign, so many Halfbrick fans would know about it as soon as it came out. With that in force, we watched the game rise in the Australian charts like a speeding bullet, and reached #2 (below you-know-what) within a day. Then, we started receiving emails from interested gamers and other developers. Apple took notice, pretty much everyone took notice. Within a week, it was full steam ahead and it hasn’t slowed down since then!

How have you tried to keep Fruit Ninja relevant and interesting through updates?

Phil: Updates formed a key part of Fruit Ninja’s success, to keep people talking and playing. There’s plenty of games on other consoles that do updates and patches, but they usually fly under the radar. Apple’s system for updates is pretty handy, as it gives players full descriptions and notifications every time they open the App store. We utilized that to the best of our ability and made sure our customers received continued content updates.

As we support the game, we get more followers and fans who tell their friends about it, and we are more than happy to keep giving them more great stuff like extra modes and Dojo content. The community interaction and discussions, and the emails we receive from players thanking us for a great game is really awesome, and we hope to live up to everyone’s expectations.

How did you want to follow-up Fruit Ninja? How did Monster Dash begin development?

Phil: Fruit Ninja was a very original game and testament to the fact that we could create something unique for the iPhone. Monster Dash was a safer bet, not in terms of scope but simply because it is part of an existing genre and gamers would instantly recognize how it plays. At the same time it also gave us full creative freedom to go nuts with all the cool things we want to have.

It started as a simple flash prototype, and when we realized we could take it to the next level we knew it was a game we would be proud to have in our studio lineup. We could be as creative as we want– levels, monsters, weapons, upgrades– it’s basically a celebration of exciting videogame concepts!

What are your future plans for Halfbrick?

Phil: More iPhone games will be on the way for sure. We’re basically expanding into the whole mobile space and looking to see what we can achieve in other areas. The iPhone has basically set a fire under every other mobile provider looking to create new and exciting products, and we want to be there making sure we have the best games available for the appropriate devices. And you’ll be seeing much more of Barry Steakfries!

10. What is your advice to developers who are trying to get noticed or strike it rich on the App Store?

Phil: Research, learn, study and then research some more. The development is critical, but you must keep things under control. There’s no sense blowing out a budget with months of misguided development time, because if your game isn’t appealing to the iPhone market at its base level, it probably never will be. Find the right game and get it working, then intelligently choose the areas to polish and become unique! When you have something special, with enough experience you’ll be able to sense it!