Fruit Ninja Developer Dojo: trade secrets from a global casual gaming success

The casual and mobile gaming scene has exploded in recent years with the success of games such as Angry Birds and Draw Something being held up as shining examples for independent game developers to follow in a chance to make millions overnight. But few know the trade secrets behind such success.

In a rare opportunity, Singapore designers and developers were treated over the weekend to a visit from the team of Halfbrick, one of Australia’s largest game development studios. During the Developer Dojo, with networking and workshop sessions co-hosted by Microsoft and e27, the sold out event provided insight into the company’s background, integrated marketing strategy and framework for technical development.

Although best known for their global success with casual gaming hit Fruit Ninja, the studio has had anything but overnight success. Fruit Ninja may have had over 300 million downloads across multiple platforms but it was in fact the company’s 15th game. Founded in 2001 with just five guys, Halfbrick had very “small and humble beginnings”. However, CEO and Founder Shaniel Deo is confident that the company’s success can be attributed to three key factors.

Halfbrick team with fan: (L-R) Shaniel Deo, Richard McKinney and Phil Larsen.

Studio Vision

Firstly, there was a strong vision for the company from the outset. “When we started we really nailed what we were trying to do,” Deo says. ” Our key was we wanted to be the best at game design. Our peers and other companies at that time were focusing on graphics and technology…  But we thought if we focused on game design we could out compete those guys. People are always looking for something extraordinary… game design lets you to stand out from the crowd and our games certainly embody that”. Deo also notes that companies like PopCap and Nintendo have always been an inspiration.

This focus on design and innovation has been cemented with a non-hierarchal and collaborative management style as well as the introduction of “Halfbrick Fridays.” At this weekly event every employee has an opportunity to pitch and prototype game ideas. In fact Fruit Ninja was pitched during one of these very events.

A second factor of their success has been the ability of the team to learn from experience. Halfbrick got their start by developing games for larger studios such as Electronic Arts, Activision and THQ on various platforms including Game Boy Advance, Nintendo DS, Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network before moving on to their own intellectual property.

But Deo stresses that developing games is not enough – studios must actively learn from that experience. His advice to developers is to “make sure that with each product you release, you learn something, build on it and try to improve… When we started making our own games, we started with smaller titles like Blast Off and Age of Zombies and you can see the progress that we made and how each title gets better and better. In the app space you can do that really quickly… With each iteration you want to be improving.”

With over a decade of experience behind them Halfbrick has had slow but steady progress an approach that also applies to recruitment. “Carefully handpick your team,” says Deo. “Make sure the people you work with complement your skills and bring something to the table. We started with five guys and we didn’t always make the best choices at that stage… You want to choose your partners wisely. As we grew… each person we’ve added to the team goes through a rigorous recruitment process.”

In addition to a strong vision and focus on design, a creative and integrated marketing approach has been crucial in promoting not only individual game titles but also the Halfbrick brand itself.

Marketing Ninja Style

From literally no budget (acting, filming and editing for their first Fruit Ninja video was done entirely in-house) to the slick production values of more recent promotions, Phil Larsen, Head of Marketing gave some important insights to Halfbrick’s approach to marketing casual games, some of which may surprise game developers and marketing gurus alike.

Just as the Deo emphasised learning from development, so too does marketing benefit from analysing what has been done before. Moreover, marketing is not something that happens once the game is completed: quite the opposite. As Larsen states, “It starts with the game. Marketing is not about writing a press release or buying a hundred thousand users. I work with development teams as soon as they come up with the idea.” It’s an integrated approach that allows staff to collaborate on potential design features and seize promotional opportunities.

A lot of hard work also goes towards ongoing communication and maintaing good relationships with external parties such as publishers, stores, retail, media outlets and the end consumer. Moreover all marketing activities are executed under the light of promoting both the current game title as well as the overarching brand. “We want to be known for our game play and our awesome, fun games,” Larsen confirms adamently. This includes successful cross-marketing opportunities with companies such as Dreamworks to develop a version of Fruit Ninja with animated character Puss in Boots.

In a move that may surprise a lot of indie developers, Halfbrick has never had a user acquisition budget. Larsen says that “If [paid user acquisition] fits into your overall marketing strategy then great but be aware that marketing is not just about plugging money into an ad network.” Instead the team looks for innovative and complementary opportunities that deliver high-impact at low-cost. A prime example was the successful leveraging of Microsoft’s global multi-million dollar launch of Xbox Kinect by naming the resulting title: Fruit Ninja Kinect. To coincide with Fruit Ninja’s two year anniversary, the company ran a national competition with a travelling road show to find Australia’s Fruit Ninja Master.

Technical and Cross-platform Development

Just as Fruit Ninja was launched successfully in 2010 into the iOS environment, Deo notes that with the imminent release of Windows 8, “Its an amazing time in apps and mobile… It’s a blank slate and a real opportunity to come in and create a real hit… Sooner or later players crave new experiences and you can do that with Microsoft’s platforms”.

Richard McKinney, Halfbrick’s CTO, explains that Windows 8 provides game developers with a new frontier for gaming with a touch-centric environment, cross-form factors, and Xbox Live integration as well as access to multiple architectures through Metro APIs. “We’re really excited that pretty much everything is based around touch,” says McKinney. “And for the first time we have a store built into the operating system… so there’s greater visibility [for apps] than the desktop environment.”

And there haven’t been any “quick and dirty” ports from the other platforms to Windows. McKinney stresses, “Every platform has its own characteristics and user expectations. We’ve done a lot of work to make sure that each game is a great game for Windows 8.” The development team also highlighted opportunities in the enhanced ability to share across social networks through integrated applications.

The team has had obvious fun in experimenting with Windows 8 features such as live tiles and snapped views, pushing their creative boundaries to create some very innovative and fun game play that has increased the stickiness and re-engagement opportunities of games like Fruit Ninja and their latest release Jetpack Joyride.

Halfbrick’s success is probably best summarised by the team themselves.

Deo: “User experience and respecting the user is really important to us. I guess we’d rather make less money and still make sure the user is happy then crank all the levers and extract as much money as we can.”

McKinney: “When users are happy they tell their friends and we probably make even more money that way.”

Larsen: “We’re building long term solutions and long term relationships as much as we can.”

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