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Casually Yours: A Conversation With Crossy Road Creator Matt Hall

Matt Hall

Unnecessary disclaimer: Matt and I have been friends ever since he made his first guest appearance on Unconsoleable.

Since then, we’ve continued to talk about what we’re playing, the state of mobile, and games in general. We have often argued and disagreed, but I truly value his input, ideas, and of course his many years of experience in the industry and the knowledge that comes with it.

Recently we sat down (over Skype) to talk about what has or hasn’t changed since Crossy Road’s release, what game he’s working on now, the challenges of working in a creative field, and yes, even the meaning of life. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

It has now been nearly 2 years since Crossy Road came out. As you get more distance from it, has anything changed? Have you changed?

I think I always change. It would be pretty weird if I didn’t. As new things come along or new ideas, I tend to roll with the punches. It’s why I’m not still listening to Smashing Pumpkins [chuckles]. I always try to adapt to new situations and just to be aware of what’s going on. It’s boring to be the same thing you were 10 years ago or even 2 years ago, as it were.

Do you really think you can change fundamental aspects of your personality?

Oh yeah, I have over time. I grew up in an environment where homophobia was the norm [for example]. It was a long time ago. It was a country town. We had a notorious pedophile who lived in our town and preyed on many people and it created a homophobic sentiment at the very core which still exists today. When you’re living in a town and essentially the only person you know who’s gay is doing that… Absolutely, core aspects of my personality have changed.

Or there’s shows like Friends. I adore Friends; I’m a huge Friends fan. I used to do Friends trivia online and win [laughs]. But there’s things in that show that are uhhh…. Ross is literally a homophobe at his core and it comes from his ex-wife, but still. They made gay people the butt of jokes a lot.

The success of the game has surely changed your life. Have they all been good changes or no?

As you know, I was quite busy for probably 18 months. I’m someone who can’t necessarily function as a creative person while I’m that busy. So although it was fantastic and there’s so many things I don’t have to worry about like feeding my family–I can essentially feed my family til the day I die even if I stop working–being that busy, it was a bit of a curse, because the part of me that wants to be creative, that wants to invent new things had died that whole time. I was barely able to come up with any new ideas, because it was all advertising networks and pushing the next update or taking phone calls from everywhere.

But since we hired Clara, she was able to take on a lot of those duties. Super important duties that although I can do them well, I just needed space. I can’t be creative if I’m doing those other things constantly. Minds needs to be bored in order to entertain themselves. If you can’t be bored, you have a very hard time doing [creative] work.

You and I have talked before about making games for the masses vs making games for yourself. Is the latter more enjoyable? Have you bought yourself the right to do that now?

Yeah, as we’ve talked about, my next game is self-indulgent that way. I’m doing my best to make a game that I would play which is actually really hard, because I don’t play very many games for a long time. I’ll play a lot of things and think they’re really awesome, but will I finish them? Probably not. I can appreciate what it is and really get into it, but for something to actually take my attention for 1,000 hours is really very rare. Even 100 hours.

Do you think you’re unique in that?

I think so. People who jump from game to game, I think that’s the rarity. I think a lot of people would like to find something they can get comfortable in. If you look at something like Big Fish, although people were fleeting from game to game each day, they were always within this very specific genre and when I tried to make a game for Big Fish that tried to break through elements of that genre–it’s a hidden object game, but it’s all these things–I was attacked for all the ways the game was different. People are like that. With music for example, I’m someone who likes to find new music and new sounds, but most people are very comfortable in the sound they love and it’s very rare for them to jump to a new genre.

People like to do something that they already enjoy; they don’t like new things.

Don’t you think you can do both? I have games I play every day, but I also keep trying new ones all the time.

People will jump at that new song on the radio that sounds different, but will they actually jump ship? Will they actually say, oh, I’m playing Candy Crush and all these other match-3 games, but you know what, I’ll give Crossy Road a go. So you play it and maybe you think, hey, that’s really cool! OK back to Candy Crush. I think that’s a common pattern of behavior.

I think it’s a common pattern if you try something new and it doesn’t give you the same happy feelings, but if you try something new that’s as good or better and it’s different somehow then maybe you’ll start playing that game too or start listening to that band also.

Yeah, that’s true. The first thing that has to happen is a new sound has to come along. Monument Valley is a great example of that. People who are playing Candy Crush might jump across and think that’s really amazing and play it for two hours and say wow, I want to play more stuff like that! But they’re screwed, because Monument Valley is completely unique and people have tried to imitate its art or its graphics or the game itself and no one has. So then it’s oh well, Candy Crush again.

Do you think that’s unique to mobile? Since what happens all the time is there’s a successful game and then everyone copies it.

Well, the crazy success of Flappy Bird did that, sure. Everyone made a Flappy Bird clone. But it was the people like us who attempted to recapture the spirit of it and then build that genre of really quick, small play games. Like Ketchapp as well; they’re attempting to create their own genre or play in that genre until there’s lots of games in that style or lots of bands with that Seattle sound.

Tell me more about the game you’re working on now.

It’s kind of a mix between World of Warcraft and Terraria. We’ve been working on it for 4 months now. It’s a multiplayer game. I’m working on it with Rob Walkley. I used to work with him about 10 years ago at Tantalus. He’s been working in the US for a while, in Seattle, but his family wanted to come back home. He was really enjoying his job, but the family is all here. But there’s not massive amounts of work in Australia for someone as talented as Rob. I needed someone to help build this game that I had in my head for ages so it was a good opportunity, a natural synergy. So it’s mainly Rob and I working on it. We have a few guest artists, but it’s early in the concept art phase.

The other challenge I set for myself is I wanted a game with a much more vast lore or world. I really like games and properties like Adventure Time for example where the world is quite established and interesting. But I never attempted to create a world like that myself. So it has actually been quite scary and I don’t know if I’m doing a very good job.

I had the idea for the genre of game for a while, but not necessarily the world. I really love this author, Walter Moers who’s kind of like Terry Pratchett. He’s a German comic book artist and author. I’ve loved him ever since I picked up one of his books and I’ve read everything. What I love is that he celebrates imagination and everything is sort of zany and crazy and unlike anything you’ve read before. The world in his early books is very undefined, but then subsequent books sort of stack on top of one another and the lore builds and it becomes a very real place.

I’ve also been listening to this podcast. They improvise everything and it has been really interesting to see the way they’ve built their world. But it works so it gives me confidence that you can just come up with a crazy idea and make sure it fits within an explanation and then stick to it.

Yeah, games are a great place to build a world. We had a guest on Unconsoleable once describe it by saying that games are a possibility space. That’s seems like a very apt description.

Yeah. Minecraft is the ultimate example of that. It’s the most free game. I was really scratching my head when that came out. I was like, why are people playing this? There are no goals. After watching people play, I realized they were playing it exactly because there aren’t any goals. Even Notch didn’t understand that, because he kept wanting to build in things like bosses. I like to build, but I like to also have a reason. So that’s what’ll happen in our game. You’re building up a little base to keep people happy.

I know you said it’s early, but do you have any idea what platform(s) this game will launch on?

We are looking at Steam this time. Again, following the paradigm or trying to make a game that I would play. I do play a lot of games on Steam. I’m largely a Steam gamer, believe it or not, more than a mobile gamer. But that’s not to say I don’t play a lot of mobile games. This game could well go to mobile, but just not at launch.

Yeah, the Steam audience hates mobile ports so you have to go to Steam first, right?

To be fair, there are a lot of bad ports. But you look at games like Terraria and Minecraft which launched on PC, but the pocket versions of them have done very, very well and continue to do well today.

I’ve always appreciated that about you, that you play a lot of mobile games. Not everyone who makes games on the platform plays any themselves.

Yeah. It’s pretty hard to make a good mobile game if you don’t understand the platform. And same with casual, mobile games being brought to Steam if you don’t understand what you’re doing. Something like Stardew Valley was perfectly pitched for Steam. They understood exactly the audience they were making the game for. Which again was probably himself [chuckles]. [Eric Barone] loved Harvest Moon and wanted to recreate it and shave off all the things that frustrated him.

There are some parallels between what they’re doing with Stardew Valley and what I’m attempting to do. Except hopefully I don’t take five years. We’re thinking one year. It might take a bit longer since we’re thinking of making it free and if we do that, it’s far more complex since we have to figure out how to make a free game and not starve. I’m in a comfortable position, but Rob is not. So I have to make sure it works for him.

It was recently announced that Hipster Whale is getting into the publishing business. Have you already gotten a lot of games/game ideas from devs? Have you found any you want to publish?

Yeah, there are a few in the pipe.

It’s less about wanting to be in the publishing business and more about wanting to help [developers]. There were a couple games and some friends who benefited from our advice and we figured, if we’re doing these, why don’t we let people know that we’re doing this work?

What type of help are you offering them?

All sorts. We have knowledge and experience, but obviously also IP and money to fund things. There are various ways that people need help. It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing, this isn’t a Chillingo type of situation [laughs]. There has to be a suitable way that they can help us and we can help them. So we aren’t taking too many people on board, this isn’t a volume play. We look at whether there’s a mutual benefit to us working together.

Shooty SkiesColin Lane asked on Twitter: how do you feel about having started the Verby Noun game title joke that just won’t die? 🙂

[jokes] How do I feel about the joke backfiring? It wasn’t just Flappy Bird that started it of course. There were all these other ones like Angry Birds, Tiny Wings. We thought: all these games are popular; is it the name? OK so we’ll name our game with the same paradigm and then we’ll definitely have a successful app. That’s the joke. And of course we kept it going too with Shooty Skies (iOS & Android), which I did not name. For the record, I did not want to call it that, but I was outvoted. I liked Cuddle Wing Zero. That was the name I wanted.

 

Do you groan whenever a new Verby Noun game comes out?

No, I chuckle a lot. I laugh. Most of them are sort of funny. But I also don’t think people really understand the format. It’s not Verby Noun exactly. It’s sort of three syllables that sit nicely together. Whether it’s Twinky Twink or whatever, it’s a rhythm. It’s like a little poem, like a haiku [laughs] but way smaller. Haiky Koo.

Along the same lines, you’ve talked a lot about how you hoped to show with Crossy Road that free to play games could be done in an ethical manner and still make money. Now that your monetization model and game design has been endlessly copied, do you think other mobile developers learned the right lessons from it or no?

Yeah, our little coins appear everywhere. But we also cribbed UI elements from Soccer Physics. I really liked how they had their buttons.

But the banner system was completely new. I had never seen that anywhere before. Interstitial advertising is really popular and that’s great, but it’s in the f***ing way and I wanted to have a way of having that kind of advertising that isn’t really interstitial. I could see that when you play a game and an ad pops up and you close it and then play and an ad pops up and you close it, you get into a pattern. And I knew that mixing it up works much better. It’s not every third game, it’s just random. And so there’s no close button. And you mix it up with little reminders and celebrations of what you just did. Do you need more coins? Or maybe you want to try out a new character? Just mix it up. This is what I had never seen before and no one has really copied that properly. Everyone thinks that the more ads you play or the more opportunities you give people to watch ads, the better it is. But it isn’t at all. It’s about variety and surprise.

Crossy Road

Yeah, now everyone makes a game with lots of characters to unlock and while there are some standouts like Looty Dungeon (iOS & Android), they don’t seem to be hitting the right note in most cases. That being the case, do you still feel that Crossy Road was instructive?  

The goal was to provide a paradigm where new games could be delivered. A perfect example is Agar.io. It was this huge hit that set the paradigm and now there’s these .io games that fit the paradigm, but people have actually learned some lessons. So they take the paradigm, but they say, I’m going to put something completely different in there. So that’s a great example of people understanding the framework and adapting to it. With Crossy Road, yeah, now there are lots of games where you unlock characters. But the joy from unlocking characters comes from the ohhh, it’s so cute! and oh my god, it changed the world. It’s those surprises that people love. It’s nothing if it’s just reskins. Who gives a s**t? It needs to be some sort of substantial thing. It’s the ones that stood out that are the reason people kept chasing [collecting] the characters I think. And there are other ways to do this. I’d like to see more people pursue this and understand that a reskin isn’t really that exciting.

Are there any predictions you have for mobile for the next few years? Are you noticing any trends that aren’t being discussed?

The big shift for us, and you’ll see this change quite rapidly I’d say, is that Phil Schiller has come on board [at the App Store] and one of his big changes is that if you already have an app installed on your phone, if it’s being re-featured because of an update, you will no longer see it in the feature list. That’s really going to change things. Games like Crossy Road and Subway Surfers rely on getting new players in through content updates. If you’ve got no way of telling players about new content, other than with notifications, newsletters, then we have to find some other way to tell people besides those and icon changes. So I think we’ll start updating Crossy Road less and same with the Prettygreat games.

But what it does is encourages you to make a new game instead of continuing to updating the old one. It also gives players who play a lot of games a chance to see a lot more games on the store and maybe they’ll be encouraged to visit the App Store more often. And then they won’t be annoyed; ugh, Crossy Road is being featured again.

I sometimes wish it was like Facebook ads where you could click something that would say “don’t show me any more games like this.”

It’s tough, because we’ve been talking about this in relation to Twitter as well. You and I are left leaning for example and the danger is if you don’t hear people on the other side, you start to think the world is OK. So with games, if you’re only recommended things you’ll like, you’ll never try anything new. Like with music again, Spotify is the worst for that. Oh, I see you’re listening to Smashing Pumpkins? Here’s Pearl Jam. And it’s like, give me a f***ing break. I just listened to Smashing Pumpkins once. Give me something I haven’t heard. It’s dangerous to prevent people from seeing new things.

I get it. There’s things you don’t want to see and there are things I wish I didn’t know existed [laughs].

We often say on our show that we wish there was a recommendation algorithm or something. Especially with Apple even knowing how long someone spends with an app or game.

Yeah, but it’s going to be like, I see you like Facebook. Try Instagram! Or how about Twitter? Have you heard of Twitter? [laughs]

Netflix does this in a good way. It tends to bubble things up to the top. It shows you things it thinks you’ll like, but it’s not afraid to show you new stuff as well.

The big problem is that any algorithm like this still requires the human angle. If you look at Google’s featuring, which is largely automated, they never would have featured Crossy Road ever if it wasn’t already huge on iOS. Like, how does an algorithm know that your game is funny? It doesn’t.

As a listener of Unconsoleable, you know we’re always pushing for mobile games to be greater and more (time-wasters are fun, but let’s have more ambition please) and better recognized alongside their console and PC counterparts. Do you think these achievable goals? What stands in the way of all this happening?

It’s a really big question. From my perspective, if I want to play a game for a longer time, I’m far more comfortable with a controller in my hand and a television. I don’t know if it’s just eye distance or what. Obviously consoles are more powerful than my mobile devices, even though those are top of the line. And I don’t seem to play many longform experiences on my iPad which is weird, because it’s perfect for that.

Civilization would be perfect on the iPad. So why isn’t it on mobile? Why can’t you sell it on mobile for $60? It would probably be a superior experience on mobile than on your computer.

You definitely can’t sell it for $60.

But why not? People pay that on Steam.

But on mobile people aren’t accustomed to paying that much. Some of those Square Enix games go for $25 or more, but they seem to be the only ones able to do that.

How about if it was cross-platform? Let’s say buying it for $60 unlocks it everywhere.

Well, that might work 🙂 

Game prices on iOS have been creeping up and up. And there’s a perception where ok., this game is $5 so it must be better than the $0.99 one. But yeah, at that point I’d probably read a review or ask someone about it before I jump in.

So how do we get more people interested in mobile games?

The control is the barrier. This is a fantastic touch screen device. There are tons of games where it’s much better to use your finger than a mouse. But you know how virtual controls do not work. There are games where you have to play with a controller and the controller has been around a rather long time. Pretending that the controller doesn’t exist… if Apple really wanted to make a dent in gaming, they had their chance with that first iteration of the Apple TV. If there was an official Apple controller and knowing that everyone out there has one, there’s no reason Destiny or other big games couldn’t have come to the Apple TV.

There seems to be a constant struggle in the game industry (on all platforms) between the art and the business of making games. Do you think you’ve been able to strike a good balance there? What advice do you have for any developers struggling with this?

I think most people new to the industry have stars in their eyes and worry a lot less about money. They want to make a game that’s perfect and they believe it will sell because it’s perfect. That’s a bitter pill to swallow when the game doesn’t do well. And it’s badly offset by the stories of games like Undertale and Stardew Valley again where it’s not their first game maybe, but they do so well. There’s so many games that aren’t bad at all, but get zero attention, because they just weren’t what people wanted to play.

I think a lot about what Barry Meade talked about when we interviewed him. That there’s so much good, it’s almost criminal. But what succeeds is what’s exceptional, not just good.

Of course Barry’s success is quite scary. His approach was we’re going to make something that we want to play and hopefully other people will want to play it too. That’s a familiar story right there which generally has a very, very unhappy ending. But of course the core idea of The Room games is a strong idea and not everyone would be able to come up with an idea that strong and be able to execute it so well.

It’s also a hard conversation to have where some games are just not good. How does this feel, as a creative person, to come to terms with that?

How do you accept that the game you have made and spent years on and crazy amounts of self-belief and it didn’t turn out? Some people aren’t able to face that reality. It’s one of the reasons I’m reticent to give people advice on their games unless they’re really, really asking for it, because it wastes everyone’s time if people aren’t willing to hear that stuff.

What’s the meaning of life?

It’s a tough question. I think the people who are the happiest, who are the most successful, who seem to have their lives gifted to them are the ones that are able to make the things they were obsessed with as kids the thing they do forever. My two obsessions were video games and music; I was lucky I had more than one.

At some point I was wondering if I should be an optometrist [chuckles]. In year 12, I was really trying to figure out what to do with my life. I knew I liked video games, but there were no video game programs so I had a point where I picked all medical-type courses on the one side and technology courses (more suited for games) on the other. I wanted to delay my decision about what to do with my life. I did not get into optometry, but I was really close. I often wonder how my life would be different if I was poking around people’s eyes. Would I be happy? Very, very unlikely.

I’m not saying every kid at 5 years old wants to be an accountant. But whatever your passion is, maybe that could be your job. So, with my daughter Holly for example, we don’t restrict her screen time. If she wants to play games, we let her. She plays a lot of games, but she’s very well-adjusted. We see sometimes she gets addicted to a game and then I ban those and she gets upset and I explain to her why. So she’s learning when she needs to curtail her behavior if necessary. I think constantly applying restrictions to people just doesn’t work. Growing up, we rarely got to have Coca Cola and rarely got to watch movies. So when I left home, all I wanted to do was drink Coke and watch movies. I was unable to stop myself. It’s like trying to keep a lid on a pot that’s boiling.

Look at Jamie Oliver. His parents had a restaurant and he was cooking from a young age. Can you imagine if they had told him, ok., that’s enough. One hour of cooking is enough, off you go. How can anyone actually be good at anything unless they do it for hours and hours and hours a day? I think we are hamstringing a lot of our children and ourselves too.

So, yeah, the meaning of life is being able to throw ourselves into the things we love from an early age.

Anna Tarkov
Anna Tarkov is an émigré from the former USSR who has been taking America by storm since 1989, failing at or washing out of everything she’s ever tried. Most recently that included working in journalism which was fun, but paid slightly more than minimum wage. Currently Anna is a stay-at-home-not-by-choice mom to an adorable, little autistic preschooler, a casual gamer extraordinaire and the co-host of Unconsoleable.
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Anna Tarkov
Anna Tarkov is an émigré from the former USSR who has been taking America by storm since 1989, failing at or washing out of everything she’s ever tried. Most recently that included working in journalism which was fun, but paid slightly more than minimum wage. Currently Anna is a stay-at-home-not-by-choice mom to an adorable, little autistic preschooler, a casual gamer extraordinaire and the co-host of Unconsoleable.

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