The indie handbook: How Halfbrick planned for, and executed on, Fruit Ninja’s “overnight” success
Halfbrick Studios is the Australian developer that created Fruit Ninja, Jetpack Joyride, Fish Out of Water, and the upcoming Colossatron. These games have been huge hits, and Fruit Ninja is nearly ubiquitous inside American retailers; you can find Fruit Ninja games, plush toys, fruit snacks, clothing, and the game can even be found as an arcade machine featuring an enormous touch screen.
I bumped into Halfbrick’s Chief Marketing Officer Phil Larson at PAX Australia and talked about the company’s work, and what it takes to run a company that has become this big, this quickly. It's not enough to be lucky, you have to plan for that overnight success.
When luck meets preparation
Talking to someone this successful is always fascinating; they’re living the dream of every small developer who is toiling away on high concept ideas. While the company's success has been enormous, Larson told me Halfbrick was never exactly surprised. The company always thought that Fruit Ninja could become this large and planned accordingly.
“We knew how big mobile apps and games are so we knew that this could get to that stage. What we needed to do was put everything in place so that if it happened, we’d have a plan for it,” Larson explained. “People ask if we ever thought that slicing fruit would become such a phenomena, and we hoped it would. We did as much as we could to prepare for it, to eliminate luck from the equation to make successful games.”
So they weren't surprised when that the company got this big? “I’m not really surprised, we knew it was a possibility, but I’m happy that it happened,” Larson said, smiling. This is also more proof that having a great game is only one part of becoming a profitable developer. You have to have a plan, and be ready to move on your ideas.
And creating that plan for what to do if one of their games took off wasn’t easy.
“It’s so much market research in so many industries,” Larson said. “We studied how licensing worked, how in-app purchases worked, different types of games, the modes that we were in these games, what the media was writing about at that time, what those trends were, how people are using social, how marketing techniques were being deployed… we just took everything in, and related it to that product, and created a unique plan for it. We don’t feel like we left many gaps.”
This sort of conversation begins to open your eyes about the size and power of Halfbrick, especially in Australia. The studio is the most successful Australian developer, and employs 80 people. The name “Halfbrick” was on the lips of almost every Australian dev I spoke with when they named the rare Australian developers to be successful without working on licensed properties.
The second, if you’re curious, was Alexander Bruce, who created Antichamber.
Halfbrick stands alone when it comes to large Australian studios working on their own IP, and Larson was quick to note that he in no way feels that the studio is an “indie.”
The power of planning
The difference between Halfbrick and almost every other developer that finds themselves sitting on a huge hit was that Halfbrick didn’t wait for that moment to create a plan; everything was locked in place well before they knew Fruit Ninja would take off. The moment the game did become huge? They didn’t miss a step, and put their plans for licensing and expansion in place.
Halfbrick Studios had an elaborate booth at PAX Australia, and they used the show to debut their latest game, Colossatron. I had a chance to try it out, and it’s fun. We’ll be writing that up as well very soon.
Like all of Halfbrick’s games, there is plenty of room for extra content, and a large amount of that content will be released for free, just to keep the interest of players. Halfbrick wants their games on your phones and tablets for as long as possible, and multiple, free content packs for each title are part of that plan.
Check out the latest update for Fish Out of Water, which contains extra costumes, scoring systems, and a new leaderboard. This is content that many companies would create as part of a for-pay expansion.
I congratulated him on the nice booth, near the front of the show, and how well the game had been received. “We’re the biggest developer in Australia,” he said. “The reality is, we’re the most successful, and we need to make sure we’re representing.”
Larson was also on multiple panels, and gave advice to other independent developers, telling them that it’s important to do something, and that success isn’t just a matter of one or two variables. That if there were a magic formula, everyone would be doing it.
“I love having that position to offer help and advice to Australians. All I give a shit about are games, and good games, that’s the honest truth from Halfbrick from all stages of our life as a company,” Larson said. “We care about games.”
The role of luck
While Larson was open about the amount of work, planning, research, and time that goes into each game, as well as the business around that game, he was also ready to admit that yes, some of this was luck. You can't force the market to fall in love with one of your games, but you can make sure you're 100 percent ready for good things to happen.
This is the truth of success at this level; yes, it takes a ton of hard work, but you have to be willing to talk about luck. Larson was candid about the perception of Fruit Ninja being an “overnight success.”
“I mean, there’s some truth to that, absolutely. It’s the same way that musicians struggle for years and suddenly they get a big hit,” he said.
“We worked on many games for many years, and we did the best we could to use those games to get recognition to the tipping point where we had the right product at the right time, and it just exploded,” he continued. “We are fortunate, there are plenty of people who work for years and years and just never make it. We’re aware of that, we’re not saying we didn’t get a smash hit game and it took off overnight, because it kind of did, but we did as much as we possibly could to make that happen, and things went our way. We try to do even more to prepare for every new game that we launch.”
I got my own taste of Halfbrick's brand recognition when I went back to the staff room at the show, and mentioned that I had played Halfbrick's new game. Everyone's head shot up. “How was it?” I was asked. I told Larson this story and he laughed. That's why the hard work continues.
“It’s our brand name,” he told the Report. “You’re only as good as your last game.”