Halfbrick Studios’ CEO, Shaniel Deo disscusses the success they have had with their runaway hit Fruit Ninja, what strategies they use to come up with their latest game designs, and what their future plans are for the Chinese market.
Halfbrick’s CEO Knows It’s A GG When His Wife Starts Grinning
In case you not up to speed on your video gaming lingo, “GG” is short for “Good Game”.
One of the most commonly asked questions for any game developer would probably be “So what made you decide that this game is THE game?”
For Shaniel Deo, CEO of Halfbrick Studios (developers of the game Fruit Ninja), he knew that he had the right game when he watched his wife, who never liked playing games, get hooked on playing Fruit Ninja.
Of course, there are other factors that must be taken into consideration when it comes to launching a game. So that raises two general questions:
- What makes Fruit Ninja such a hit that even an audience member’s 80-year-old grandmother is obsessed with the game?
- How can those traits be transferred over into developing similarly grandmotherly friend?
The answers to these questions were exactly what Shaniel attempted to address at mobiTalk, a new speaker series created by The Great Wall Club (mobiSights’ parent company) for the developer community.
Fruit Ninja’s Steps-To-Success – Halfbrick Fridays
Shaniel shared with the audience of developers that he adopts the “Google Method” at Halfbrick Studios, spending around 20% of their resources to work on their ideas outside of their core job scope. That means anyone can come up with an idea, not just the product managers, and share them at their weekly “Halfbrick Fridays” work sessions.
A “Halfbrick Fridays” work session typically involves rounds of idea brainstorming and validating. Over the course of six weeks an idea can travel though the various stages of pitching, developing, and ultimately showcasing the idea as a working prototype. The pitch would involve a basic design of the game idea, which demonstrates the concept of the game as well as the theme. For a proposal to move beyond the pitch stages, the employee with the concept needs to convince at least 1 other team member that the idea is worth working on. The entire pitch process takes around 15 – 20 minutes per concept and they try to limit the team size to 4 or 5 employees.
Once the teams are established, development begins and will continue for the next 4 – 5 “Halfbrick Fridays” work sessions.
Teams will then showcase their games to the company with the hope of earning the commitment of the entire studio’s support. One interesting thing about Halfbrick is they embrace failure – if development fails on a particular proposal, the proposal’s creator could still walk away with the “Best Pitch Delivery” award for convincing others to follow them on his or hers doomed adventure – all in good fun, of course. In my opinion, it is an excellent way to encourage people that trial and error is a necessary stepping stone to success. Besides, ideas are cheap, execution is the crucial part. “It is extremely difficult to tell whether a solid concept is a hit game or a failure from the 6 slides (idea). The team would need to develop it to know whether it really works (execution).”
So what makes Fruit Ninja so enjoyable?
Secret #01 – Fast Play Sessions
Typically for mobile gamers, the time spent playing a mobile game is when he or she is waiting in line, in a taxi, or the like. Hence, the playtime has to be quick. Halfbrick believes the longest amount of time to reach an enjoyable experience within the game must be around 2 minutes. Any longer than that and the train will arrive leaving your game behind.
Secret #02 – Anyone can play Fruit Ninja
Halfbrick believes that a game should never be frustrating. In essence the game needs to be easy enough for a new gamer to start and understand how to play without outside help. To determine this, Halfbrick uses focus groups to test the game. They study how the testers attempt to play the game and their level of enjoyment, and then the developers determine what they can do to fix any perceived problems.
One tip from Shaniel to game developers: Avoid putting in long text – Include more subtle hints or visual explanations.
Secret #03 – Visceral Satisfaction
Shaniel highlighted that visceral satisfaction is their eventual aim. He emphasized on tweaking the tiniest design details, like adding special graphics to actions to make the entire game play experience feel rewarding. He drew parallels to how one would feel killing virtual enemies while playing massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) – people like seeing critical hits, but they love seeing flashy critical hits. It is the emotional satisfaction from playing games that keeps gamers coming back.
Secret #04 – Marketing
Halfbrick believes smart marketing is essential. I couldn’t agree more with this (Editor’s note: Vanessa is a social media marketing addict. Clearly, her conclusion bears no bias or need to self-justify her career choice). A good product needs good marketing or only the creator will know it exists. The Fruit Ninja team knew they needed to get the marketing right on the first day they launched the game to the public to avoid drowning in the endless sea of apps featured in the Apple App Store. By the way Halfbrick Studios’ marketing team consists of two people – the CMO and an assistant.
But what is a company with little in the way of marketing resources to do? Do exactly what the internet age has made extremely viable – go viral. After bringing Phil Larson, Halfbrick’s CMO, on board they made sure Phil built up quality relationships with the press. This allowed their press releases to have a higher chance of getting picked up by journalists. But that’s where the traditional marketing ended for the most part, because they knew they were just a little known software studio from Australia.
Armed with a curiosity-invoking tagline of “Ninjas Hate Fruit!” and a video camera, the biggest marketing ploy came in the form of a video advertisement they did that spread across the net like wildfire. It was silly – a couple of guys dress up as fruit being chanced around a park by another guy dressed up as a ninja – but it struck a chord. The costumes were the cheap Halloween kind you can pick up at a thrift store and the actors were a few of the coders that work at Halfbrick. This is certainly the stuff of viral advertising legend in this new digital age.
On Slicing the Chinese Market
Shaniel attributes Halfbricks current success in the Chinese market to the universal appeal of the game as well as the advertising used in the western markets. However, he also shared that he is aware of a need to localize your marketing too, and this will begin with replacing Facebook and Twitter with Chinese social media platforms to cater to the Chinese audience, such as Sina Weibo and RenRen.
When asked if in-game advertising would be used in China since it is a market notoriously known not to purchase apps? He suggested that there would be a version available that used in-game advertising, but he quickly countered that he was well aware of the degrading effect in-game advertising has on the overall gaming experience. He assured the audience that Halfbrick would find a way not to be too aggressive with advertisements, fitting them in appropriately and constantly improving to give users the best gaming experience.
With the Chinese market in mind, HalfBrick is currently working with iDreamSky and Domob (both members of The Great Wall Club) to help increase their game and brand presence in the Chinese market. When asked if we would see other Fruit Ninja themed products besides the video game, Shaniel indicated that Halfbrick was looking into the idea given China’s insatiable desire themed items like plushies, mouse pads, and other assorted trinkets.
The evening was loaded with very insightful information, but Shaniel got the biggest response from the audience when a young lady asked what his highest score was in Fruit Ninja’s 60 second mode.
Without blinking Shaniel said, “1,056. Yup, I’m a ninja.”
Ninjas may hate fruit, but they love China.