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Interview: Ustwo’s Mills on Whale Trail, the rise of freemium and the death of 69p gaming

iPhone app Whale Trail, from Shoreditch-based studio Ustwo is the latest App Store buzz title, with 100,000 downloads in its first two weeks on sale. Backed by a soundtrack from Super Furry Animals singer Gruff Rhys, it’s a gently psychedelic airborne adventure which sees you guide Willow the whale through waves of dark clouds, gobbling bubbles to remain above the clouds and out of the reach of giant squid Baron von Barry lurking menacingly below. Recombu spoke to the studio’s creative leader, self-proclaimed ‘Chief Wonka’ Matt Mills, for his thoughts on game development and the struggle for success on the App Store.


Recombu: Tell us a little bit about what you were doing before Whale Trail.

Mills: Our studio formed seven years ago, originally focusing on UI/UX stuff, and for the last three years my division has basically been experimenting and having fun in the App Store. Over that time we’ve produced around 16 different iPhone and iPad apps, with varying success. We coined this word “succailure” – to mean half-success, half-failure – in that we haven’t ever had a number one as such. We produced a number one interactive children’s book Nurse Rhymes with Storytime, that got App of the Week in the US and UK by Apple. Two months ago, we made an interactive storytelling platform called Papercut, which again made App of the Week, and was picked up by the nationals – The Guardian and Telegraph. What we learned from making these products was if you’re going to build niche products, you’re going to get niche sales. So although we’d had success in getting critical acclaim for iPhone products, what we wanted as a user experience studio was to reach more users.


Recombu: And that’s the point where you came up with Whale Trail. Where did the idea come from and how did you realise it?

Mills: The concept of doing it came from our experimentation. We were building these little games, some of which were App of the Week again, but there wasn’t really much soul to them. We wanted to create something that was truly engaging. And the games market allowed us to resharpen our skills at storytelling. You see games like Tiny Wings, which came out a year or so back, and it gives you renewed hope that the App Store isn’t just getting completely overtaken by massive brands, that a bedroom developer can produce something simple that can become a massive hit.
Now we’re not a games studio, we’re an experience studio, but we knew what we liked on the App Store, and we knew that mobiles were a good home for casual gaming, so we though at that time we’d create something. We prototyped for two months, playing around with loads of experiments and we came up with these loop-the-loop mechanics that simply felt really good. Back then it was a bumblebee that just went round and round when you pressed the screen. We got to thinking up a backstory about the joy of flying, and we thought “let’s get a whale” because whales don’t fly, and that sounded oddly perfect in the mad world of mobile gaming. We didn’t want to overthink it – we just hoped to create something a bit surreal, a bit psychedelic, and something that made you feel good. It wasn’t about making money – half of me wanted to prove that there was still a market for 69p games. I didn’t want to think about how to make users pay more money, me and the team just wanted to make something that was great fun to play.


Recombu: How did the collaboration with Gruff Rhys come about?

Mills:What we learned over our three years of App Store experience is that you’ve got to do anything you can to give yourselves every chance if we ever wanted to break the charts, and to make Apple excited about what we’d created. Sound was something that in the past had always been a little bit of an afterthought; we never really built it from the ground up. So we went to a few different people, and one of the art directors happened to have worked with Gruff on music videos years and years back, so one day he just phoned him up and said “we’re making this game, do you fancy making some sound effects for it?” and he said “yeah, why not?” so we sent him the game. And within a few days, in which he’d been playing it non-stop, his management talked to our guys and said “look, we really like this but we want to take it further: Gruff wants to write a music track for it.” So he created Whale Trail, which is the music you get in the game. We went over to the studio in Bristol for three days, and Gruff got these little toy instruments out and it was wonderful seeing this soundtrack emerging in front of our very eyes. Then he said “I love this game, I’m going to put this out as a single” and we said “well, we’re releasing on the 20th, why don’t we try to release at the same time?” and it all married together so perfectly. We were very conscious about getting someone big. If we’d got someone like R. Kelly…


Recombu: I Believe I Can Fly…

Mills: That wouldn’t have been a bad one! We didn’t want to get a mega-celebrity who would overpower the game. The game wasn’t there to sell the single, and the single wasn’t there to sell the game, it was just a perfect marriage across two industries: gaming and music. One of the things that gets picked up the most is Gruff saying “I can see my house from here”, which plays when you loop the loop. People really love that. Yet that wasn’t really designed, it just came from sitting in the studio for three days creating together.


Recombu: You’ve been quite vocal on Twitter about the 69p market seemingly being at death’s door, though you’ve sold quite a few copies of Whale Trail so far…

Mills: The game needs to sell 300,000 copies to break even. It’s done nearly 100,000 now within 16 days, so that’s pretty good, but you’ve got to take into account the fact that we’re a fairly big studio with big overheads. That’s not to say that a smaller studio with smaller costs could have done it a lot cheaper, though, but we took a long time to make it. We got Game of the Week in 87 countries, a thousand 5-star reviews in the first week. A lot of games push you to rate them – we don’t, but people generally want to rate it highly. But the App Store is so much harder now, the market is so competitive. When we launched, we were getting 12,000 downloads a day, the week after we were down to 3,000 and then the week after down to 2,000. And obviously that’s just going to keep dropping: all of a sudden the long tail’s gone after two weeks, and if you’re trying to sustain yourself as a studio, there’s no way you can do that on 69p because 69p is dying. So what we’re doing next week is we’re going to have an update with 15 unlockable special levels.


Recombu: With hindsight, would you price the game differently?

Mills: Well, we knew we had this really high-quality game, and we were going for a mass market audience, who potentially won’t pay more than 69p, but with the acclaim we got from websites, we could have probably gone more expensive. But we’ve had that before – it’s a scary place to be coming out at a higher price because all of a sudden you’re reducing that chance of someone just buying it on a whim. I still don’t think we’d have gone freemium because it didn’t ever seem like that kind of game. Maybe still keep it at 69p but boost that with paid extras for customisation, for example.

Recombu: What kind of additions were you thinking of? Different avatars, perhaps?

Mills: Not really, because people really love the whale. They love the game, they just want more of it, and I think they’re willing to pay more. I think we’re going to have a bit more of a story now, introduce these unlockable levels that should give it more longevity, so they’ll play it more times. You never know.


Recombu: Have you considered porting Whale Trail to other formats?

Mills: We always release on iOS first, as it’s the easiest way to get it out to the mass market. But it’s on Android in about two weeks – [that version is] done now, we’re just optimising it. And we’ll also be porting it over to Windows Phone 7. I think we’ve got something that’s great, that will create really big interest on those formats. That will take us up until Christmas. We’ve put a lot into Whale Trail, we believe in it and we’re not going to give up on it yet.


Recombu: With the benefit of this experience, are you going to try to cut the costs of making future games, so it’s less of a risk?

Mills: Definitely. I mean, our area is definitely still to experiment, to play around with ideas. It’s not about chasing money, it’s about putting interesting products out. Now we’ve made something that’s put us on the gaming map, and that’s fantastic. However, the App Store is such a gamble. You can’t afford to spend £150,000 on a game. Maybe you can if you’re a big company with a huge outreach, but we’re not that big yet, we’ve got to increase our network, to look at cross-promotion. It’s all about finding that balance, like making a game in four months as opposed to seven. But it’s all about finding our feet, and that’s why we experiment, to learn.
The beauty of the world we live in is that thanks to things like Twitter, all the leading indie devs and game makers are able to put themselves out there. What saddens me is that Whale Trail is very much an experiment where I really wanted to prove that there was a market for small teams and indie devs, but I think the power that used to come from app promotion, which was once like the Holy Grail…while it still allows you to reach more users, it’s not giving us that power that it used to. If you got an Apple Game of the Week recommendation, it used to mean you’d be number one. But here we got to number 25 in the US and 7 in the UK, and that wasn’t the plan. And we’re seeing with that a lot of games now.


Recombu: Is that purely down to the competitive environment of the App Store, the rise of freemium, or something else?

Mills: I think the rise of freemium has got to have made a big impact. I don’t know whether or not our future’s going to be in the freemium market, but, like it or hate it, users just don’t want to pay for content at the moment. Word-of-mouth is much bigger now; people don’t necessarily go for what the big companies are selling. In the olden days it was more “Apple’s promoting it – wow, it’s got to be brilliantBut there’s just so much quality out there now that I think people shut off from that, so although it was great to be App of the Week and we got so many downloads because of that promotion, games have got to work that bit harder to really hit that mass market.
It’s kind of difficult, but it’s also exciting. Hence you have collaborations with people like Gruff, or, in this case, a 10-minute documentary about the making of Whale Trail which got 10,000 hits. You’ve got to communicate with users outside the game itself. It’s really fantastic for the future because if you get it right, you’ve got this huge, incredible market. But you’ve got to be careful, because these days it’s such a professional market; the App Store is not the amateur playground it used to be.

Download: Whale Trail


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