Friday, 15 February 2013

Indie Dev Insight: Imangi Studios

If you haven't heard of Temple Run series then you must have been living under a rock for the last couple of years. Temple Run 2 has broken records for being the fastest game to 50 million downloads and there are certainly no signs of this slowing.

Despite this phenomenal success, Keith Shepherd, one half of Imangi Studios, remains one of the nicest, helpful and down to earth people you should every meet. In my journey to date he has been kind enough to share emails and tweets with advice and continues that support with some invaluable learnings as to how Imangi and the Temple Run series has become such an unstoppable juggernaut.

What got you into writing games?
I got interested in making games as a kid. Mostly because I was playing a lot of video games and I wanted to know how they worked so I could make my own. That led me down the path of learning how to program. I tinkered with it a bit when I was a kid but never really knew enough to make games. It wasn't really until high school when I took my first programming class in Pascal that I really started to learn enough to make games. I tinkered on and off with making games all the way through college, but never really ever finished of released anything. When I graduated from college with a computer science degree I wanted to get into the games industry, but it was the height of the dot com boom and I ended up getting a job with an e-commerce startup instead. It wasn't until Natalia and I founded Imangi that I was able to get back to my childhood dreams of writing games and actually publish my first game.

What's good and bad about what you do?
I love making games. It's such a creative field and is a combination of so many things I love, art, programming, music, sound, game design, storytelling, etc. I truly feel lucky to be able to make games for a living. I guess the only bad thing about what I do is that sometimes it's hard to just sit back and enjoy playing games sometimes because you end up picking them apart to try and analyze what is working and what isn't.

How many people are involved in writing games at Imangi Studios. What roles do they take on? How has this changed with the success of TR?
Well it started out as just Natalia and I. The first person we started working with was an artist, because Natalia and I can't draw at all! Kiril, Natalia, and I made the original Temple Run in about 5 months. Natalia and I did the programming and sound fx, Kiril did the art, and Natalia composed the music. Support became a big challenge for us with the success of Temple Run, we started getting hundreds and sometimes thousands of emails a day. We've always liked being a small company, but that was the first indication that we might need to start working with some additional people. So we ended up getting my brother to help out with support and social media. From there we've still stayed relatively small and really instead of hiring a staff we've mostly leveraged outside contractors and made strategic partnerships where necessary. Temple Run 2 was made by a core team of 5 people, so we're still very small to this day.

What would you do differently now given what you know from projects completed and experience from the gaming and app market?
I think the biggest lesson we've learned over the years is to focus on projects with a reasonable scope for our small team. Whenever we've tried to make level based games with a lot of unique content we've always failed. I think that's mostly just because it's really hard to create a huge volume of content with a small team. So we've found most of our success with quick pick up and play games based on "arcade" style gameplay.

What tools do you use. By this I mean software development kits/engines (Cocos2d, Corona, Unity3D etc), audio packages, art packages.
We've used lots of tools over the years. The original Temple Run was made in our own in house 3d engine that we build over the years. Temple Run 2 was built fully in Unity3d.

What made you choose these tools over others?
The main reason we went with Unity3D is because it supports 3D graphics and because it's cross platform.

What marketing tactics do you employ? Forums, twitter, paid PR etc
There is no silver bullet. We've tried everything we can thing of over the years. We used to take more of a grassroots guerrilla marketing approach by posting in all the forums etc. These days we work with a PR firm to help us.

What effect do you think free to play has had upon your game design? Little know that TR was a paid game to start with so did you purposely create IAP when you decided to go free?
I don't think we let the business model define our game design. We always approach the game design first and then after we have something fun we try to figure out the best business model that fits. Even though Temple Run launched as a paid game, we already had all of the upgrades and in game coin currency and the ability to buy more coins with IAP. So it was already a natural fit for freemium. The only thing we changed when going from paid to free was the price.

What resources do you swear by for learning new techniques, getting more from the packages you mentioned above, news etc. e.g Books (specific titles would be appreciated), forums / websites, social media
I mostly learn by tinkering around with things and maybe following a tutorial here and there. Twitter has also been incredibly valuable for me as an indie game developer. There are so many other indie devs on twitter that you can interact with an ask questions. I've gotten so much great advice and learned so much from others that way.

There has been a lot in the press recently that app development is going through a gold rush and that the bubble will burst soon. Do you see it like this? You guys more than most seem to be bucking the trend :)
People have been saying the App Store is a gold rush ever since it opened. I try not to look at it that way, because I think people are being more successful every year and the scale of success just keeps going up too. It's still a tough market though, but I don't think that's really changed. When the App Store first opened there were only 500 apps, and it was still fiercely competitive and hard to make it. Now there are hundreds of thousands of apps and it definitely feels like the market it much more crowded, but in reality there are so many more people with mobile devices now so the market has also grown much larger. The reality is that video games are very much a hit driven market, so it's brutally tough to make it.

Do you think app games will eventually kill off AAA titles as we know them?
I hope not! I love big epic games with tons of content, and I think there are other people that do too. What I think has happened though is that mobile gaming has opened up games to a whole new segment of the market. There are tons of people that never really considered themselves gamers now playing a ton of mobile games. That's great for the industry and I think that there is room for both.

What does 2013 have in store for Imangi Studios?
Well, we have a lot more in store for Temple Run, that's for sure! I'd also like to work on some new games at some point, but right our focus is on Temple Run.

Any additional advice you would give for up and coming indie developers?
Start small, take on projects you know you can complete in a reasonable amount of time, get lots of feedback from others, and make the games you want to play, not the games you think others will want to play.

Download Temple Run 2 for iOS and Android.


Mark Johnson said...

re "Whenever we've tried to make level based games with a lot of unique content we've always failed. I think that's mostly just because it's really hard to create a huge volume of content with a small team."

There's a great essay about this from Tony Downey:

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