In the mobile game "Temple Run," players make Indiana Jones-like characters run for as long as they can in a junglelike maze while scooping up golden coins as they're being chased by a band of evil, screaming apes. Miss a turn or run into a tree and, poof, you're dead. "Hard to run without a head," says the game.
Imangi Studio is one of the hottest mobile-game makers, and responsible for the popular 'Temple Run' game. Spencer Ante discusses his recent visit to Imangi on digits.
Released last summer, this simple-yet-addictive gameâmade by a company with three employeesâbecame the App Store's No. 1 free app over Christmas, and its top-grossing app as well. The blockbuster hit is a reminder that in the world of gaming apps, the little guy can compete with giants of the entertainment world. Sixteen million people play "Temple Run" every day, according to its maker Imangi Studios. That compares with the 21 million people who played one of several mobile games made by top game maker Zynga at least once a day in the first quarter of 2012.
"It is win-the-lottery money," said Natalia Luckyanova, 30, who co-founded Raleigh, N.C.-based Imangi with her husband about four years ago after both quit their corporate jobs. The game's proceeds, which run into the millions of dollars, will fund Imangi for the next few years.
Imangi started to develop "Temple Run" in early 2011 after their seventh game, "Max Adventure," flopped. The studio realized that "Max" was better suited for consoles than the small interface of smartphones. Stung by failure, the studio vowed to make a more intuitive game.
MONKEYING AROUND | An early sketch: "You can't underestimate the importance of the Evil Demon Monkeys," said Natalia Luckyanova. Imangi Studios
The Imangi team sees the creation of games as an iterative and collaborative process that often starts out with little more than a vague idea. In this case the couple transferred the idea for picking up coins from "Max." Then they came up with the idea for making the character run through a maze of obstacles, like rings of fire or hulking tree roots.
Temple Run Game
Ms. Luckyanova and her husband and co-founder, Keith Shepherd, 32, wanted the character to walk, but concluded it was easier to make it move through swiping the touch-screen surface of the iPhone. "So much time when you are making a game goes into the little details," she said. "Getting the swipe controls took a ton of effort. If it doesn't work it breaks the illusion of you having control over the character."
The key, and the hardest part, is to find the fun elements. "Games have to be fun," said Mr. Shepherd. "But there is no specific formula for fun."
The success of "Temple Run" also comes from the way it was conceived. Since most people play wireless games during in-between moments, Imangi designed "Temple Run" so a session lasted a few minutes and could be played with one hand, a convenience for its many users who take trains and buses.
This sketch illustrates how the monkeys chase the main character through the game. Designers constantly tweak the design to make it better. After building the bare bones, the team spent five months polishing it up. Imangi Studios
Yet while the sessions are brief, the game is designed to offer a sense of progress by tracking the distance players have run and the number of coins they've picked up. And there is also the rush of the game's speed, which accelerates. That keeps people motivated to return and continue playing.
Ms. Luckyanova handles all of the music and sound. She likes to play around with her keyboard, which connects to the Garage Band sound-editing software. The couple often use their own voices for certain effects, like when a character grunts. "We usually tweak the pitch or shorten them," she said.
Another draw for "Temple Run" is its colorful imagery. Kiril Tchangov, 28, who joined the company full-time last August, said he was inspired by the pulp-fantasy art he was looking at during the time of the game's development. The moss-covered cobblestone path, skull-lined wooden boardwalk and swampy forested landscape all lend an air of adventure to the game.
Then there's the business model. Initially the game cost 99 cents. But when it started sliding down the charts in September the duo decided to make it a "freemium" app, which instead relies on players purchasing in-game coins and special powers with real money.
The success of "Temple Run" has taken over Imangi. An Android version was released in March. The studio has cut merchandise deals a la "Angry Birds." And a few weeks ago, Imangi rolled out "Temple Run: Brave," a version of the app that features the red-haired princess from the new Pixar movie. The 99-cent app already has become the No. 1 paid app in the Apple store.