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A few years ago, Matt Hall, the 39-year-old co-creator of the enormously successful Crossy Road, was a struggling, unprofitable video games developer living on an Australian sheep farm owned by his parents, chasing a dream of success that had come true for some friends but eluded him.
He'd formed a studio, named KlickTock, which he called a "one-man-band game development company dedicated to making games for everyone." It led to titles with names like Little Things, Doodle Find, Super Search 60 and Zonr. Today, in the whirlwind that followed an experimental release on Apple's iOS App Store, and later the Amazon App Store and Google Play, Hall can barely recognize the struggling version of himself.
Unlike many of its contemporaries, nothing about Crossy Road makes a player feel the need to pay to progress or win. Today, at a Game Developers Conference 2015 session, Hall and Sum told the story of Crossy Road's creation and lifted the veil on its real success during the game's first three months. Matt Hall admits he's "happily surprised" by those numbers, as if any once-broke games developer wouldn't be a little bewildered. Crossy Road is the rare story of success at the intersection of art, commerce, design and marketing. Done well, the incentives and gameplay would create what Hall calls "virality," to which the developers add elements that make payers want to share and talk about the game.
A template exists for games like these with hooks like these, but Hipster Whale didn't want to copy anything.
They spent months trying to combine the essences of Flappy Bird and Frogger, until Hall had what he calls a "shower moment" — an epiphany in a moment of dull routine — where he realized Hipster Whale could fuse art, commerce, design and marketing into something with heart.
At the core of the experiment that became Crossy Road's design, the developers tried to figure out how to make a fun, free game that didn't behave like a free game. As proof, he offers the Piggy Bank, an item in Crossy Road that is only unlocked by paying for it. All of these thoughts and experiments were academic until Crossy Road was released and became popular beyond Hall's wildest expectations.
But for most of Crossy Road players — at least based on the raw earnings figures — the game plays as its authors intended: without obligation.
How much of Crossy Road's success is due to the game and how much of it is due to the developer's unique take on monetization?
Several times a week, Hall says, he receives unsolicited emails from companies hoping to help Hipster Whale with things like monetization and user acquisition and all of the marketing terms that permeate the freemium gaming sector.


Thanks to Crossy Road's success, Hall is living comfortably, if mindful to avoid the kind mistakes that squander an overnight fortune overnight.
That's what keeps the game alive for new and returning players alike, and Hipster Whale designed Crossy Road to be extensible and present within pop culture.
Maybe Crossy Road's success will give him the confidence to make a more hardcore game, like those that live closest to his heart. To do it, we will need to apply several strategies to cover simple to complicated transaction. Before that, he worked at Big Ant Studios and Tantalus Interactive, both names in the Australian development scene. Still, he says, there were "a lot of years where I earned absolutely nothing." And in his most difficult times, he and his wife had a daughter, while living on his parents' farm in far Western Victoria. He found a new partner named Andy Sum, founded a new studio they called Hipster Whale, and together in 2014 they published something called Crossy Road. With a cast of funny, unlockable characters, the user only has to tap to hop onward without getting smashed by cars, trains and trucks, or drowning in a river. Crossy Road was an experiment in doing free-to-play differently, and that experiment has been wildly effective.
They revealed that, 90 days after its release, Crossy Road's combination of solid gameplay, unobtrusive in-app purchases, and optional in-app ads powered by the Unity engine, has earned $10 million from 50 million downloads.
It's about lessons learned in hard times and a games maker who thought he might never go back to GDC after one terrible year. Hall and Sum wanted to create a free-to-play game that would sell well at first and then drift away. They wanted to emulate the good — even Crossy Road's name is a tribute to another recent, easy-to-play, addictive mobile phenomenon, Flappy Bird — and exorcise the bad. They wanted to embrace a new and potentially lucrative design, informed by older things they both enjoyed. To the people who continue to write him asking if there's any way they can pay for the game, the $3.99 Piggy Bank character effectively serves as the game's price. Those who choose to pay to play, either with real money through in-app purchases or with the time by watching a video, are the minority. Two years ago, when he was still struggling, he arrived in San Francisco to meet developers. Today, this minute, it wouldn't be a stretch to imagine a couple of llamas on the loose or or a dress of indeterminate colors to appear in future updates, alongside upcoming bagpipe characters, a leprechaun or a Doge, who's already in the game.


Hipster Whale saw an enormous jump in revenue that coincided with the game's Australia Day update, where they earned more than $200,000 two days in a row.
Crossy Road also is free-to-play, but it avoids the pay-to-win hooks that have earned big-name freemium games a bad reputation in mobile gaming's gold rush.
Crossy Road rarely — if ever — squeezes onto the top of the iOS App Store's list of highest grossing games, where titles like Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga are entrenched.
It's about a pair of developers who, in fact, did set out to create a video gaming phenomenon — and succeeded.
And, the thinking went, if they made a popular game, they might also make some money, even if they didn't stress the money-making part.
Players can pay to unlock a new blocky character to hop through the game, or they may watch short video ads to earn credit that unlocks the cast faster. Yet yesterday, Crossy Road was the 12th most popular free iPhone app without even appearing in the App Store's list of top 100 grossing iPhone apps.
First, Crossy Road needed "retention," which just means the game gave players several reasons to enjoy and play the game as long as possible.
Everyone has the option of buying a favorite character piecemeal, but it's not a requirement, and the in-game store doesn't intrude with reminders that money must be spent. Now that Crossy Road has provided for his family, and could help others like him, maybe its success will help Matt Hall help himself. Free-to-play games tend to be good at that, offering incentives that reward players to come back.
He didn't need to turn them all into paying customers, but he had to find balance where at least some would. After all, his heroes still make games that he doesn't, and he makes the kinds of games that he doesn't tend to play much. In lieu of a traditional narrative ending, for example, free-to-play games have a solid gameplay loop.
Each new character brings a new spin to the formula, from the wizard who saps oncoming traffic, to the flea, composed of one tiny voxel, who hops along to a sound effect pulled from the Hanna-Barbera archives.



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