Earlier this year three Australian devs decided to launch Prettygreat, which they initially operated out of their basements and back patios in Brisbane. Despite these humble origins, Prettygreat has been picking up some pretty great buzz in the press, and for good reason: its founding team includes key long-time personnel from the high-profile studio Halfbrick. Prettygreat founders include former Halfbrick CMO Phil Larsen, ex-Halfbrick art director Hugh Walters and former Halfbrick CCO Luke Muscat, who is best known for designing Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride.
Muscat’s game design efforts helped make Halfbrick’s fortunes, especially his work on Fruit Ninja, which has spread since its initial 2010 iOS release to Facebook, home consoles, arcade machines, and basically any device you could feasibly reproduce touchscreen controls. (Techcrunch reported a staggering 300 millions downloads, and that was way back in 2012.)
But when I asked him this week about whether his tremendous success as a game designer has made him happy, the answer I got was a firm “I don’t know.”
“It’s...interesting; I think that a lot of the time, what people think will make them happy doesn't actually make them happy,” Muscat tells me.
He’s in San Francisco this week to attend Apple’s WWDC developer conference, and over coffee he acknowledges that even if the success of games like Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride didn’t necessarily make him feel fulfilled, the opportunities that success afforded him did. “Certainly, I feel extremely privileged that, because of the success of those games, I was eventually in a position where I was able to leave and start my own business, and now people have enough faith in me that they’ll invest in the company,” says Muscat. “That makes me really happy, definitely.”
That investment -- $500,000 AUS from Crossy Road co-creators (and fellow Australians) Matt Hall and Andrew Sum, who also joined Prettygreat as advisors -- is going to be put towards funding Prettygreat’s development of new mobile games.
Launching a new startup focused on mobile seems like an odd move in 2015. Not only is it harder than ever for new mobile games to get discovered, but these guys walked away from the biggest mobile game company in Australia. Aren’t they concerned about directly competing with their former employer, not to mention heavyweights like Supercell and King?
"If a kid who can't read can figure out how to play your game, and is doing well and enjoying it...then you've got something."
“I guess I don't really see it as competing, because the mobile game market is so big; it's not like we're vying for the same one hundred thousand customers. There's potentially like a billion customers you can reach through different platforms,” says Muscat. “If I see an Australian game dev do well, we're cheering along with them, you know? We're really happy and excited that the Australian industry is progressing and moving forward that way. It's not like, ‘God damn, those guys have done well, that's gonna make things harder for us.’”
The Queensland University of Technology grad says his upbeat, collaborative spirit mirrors the evolution of the Australian game industry, which he sees as having grown much more convivial in the “indie uprising” of the past five or ten years. “In earlier days, when it was primarily work-for-hire, you could potentially be competing for the same contracts and things like that,” says Muscat. “You didn't have much indie development. You just had a few really large studios like Krome, which was like 300 people at one point. They tended to be a bit more inward-facing, and a bit more insular.”
But now, things are different, in part because all of Australia’s big-budget studios have closed or relocated -- 2K Australia was the last real “AAA” outfit in the country, and it shut down for good back in April. In their absence, Australian developers have come to rely on each other more.
“It's all very collaborative. There's often quite a few of us just on GChat, chatting back and forth when we have problems with Unity or whatever,” says Muscat. “Everyone that I know that is making a game right now, they'll send me builds and I'll play it; I'll send them feedback, and give advice. I do the same, too -- I send my game to them, they check it out and give us advice.”
And as far as the problem of discoverability goes, well...Muscat admits that Prettygreat is concerned about getting lost in the shuffle “You'd be insane or irresponsible not to be. It's hard. There's just so much noise out there,” he says. “I think one of the only sure-fire ways to cut through it is to make sure that you have something sharp enough to do so. Your game should be the most interesting thing that comes out that week; the thing that’s most worth talking about should be yours.”
So how do you design a mobile game that everyone will talk about? Muscat has some relatively straightforward design tenets: every gameplay session should offer frenetic action, zero waiting (“quick retry loops are key”) and last three minutes or less.
“The reason that most of my games are that way is because it’s just a really good fit for the hardware,” he tells me. “A lot of that philosophy evolved out of my work at Halfbrick. Early on I was definitely making kinda hardcore game experiences, but they were just never successful. My friends and family couldn’t play them, and they didn’t like them.”
The way Muscat tells it, he was inspired to explore more casual mobile game design (which eventually led to his breakout success, Fruit Ninja) because he wanted to create something that his mom could like.
“The game I made before Fruit Ninja was this like, really hardcore space racing game. At that point I'd been making games for maybe four or five years professionally, and I was sick of telling my mum about the game I was working on,’” says Muscat. “I'd show her my game and she'd say ‘Oh, that's nice; you must have worked really hard!’ But it was never something she could ever connect with. Same with my friends.”
It’s a cute story, and it also ties into another piece of mobile game development advice from Muscat: show your game to lots of people who don’t know or care about games. He says that he playtested Fruit Ninja by taking a build of it down the street and asking random people at a bus stop to play it.
“In terms of raw game feedback, a lot of the time I really trust people who know nothing about games more than game developers and designers,” says Muscat. “I often get five-year-olds to playtest my games, because that's the best test for how intuitive something is. If a kid who can't read can figure out how to play your game, and is doing well and enjoying it...then you've got something.”
“At the same, I had my game designers telling me to like, add power-ups, and complaining that there wasn’t enough strategy to the game,” adds Muscat. “I was like ‘Well, yeah, for you there isn’t, but you’re 0.0001 percent of the market.’”
He admits this approach to making games doesn’t always feel natural -- ignoring input from people who love games is hard, especially when they’re your fellow developers. Muscat credits it as a big reason for his success as a designer.
“The ethos that I’ve adopted is that I blame myself for everything; everything is the designer’s fault,” says Muscat. “When someone is having a bad experience it’s my fault, not theirs -- so what can I do to fix it? It’s hard; you’ve got to have thick skin.”
Years of design work at Halfbrick seem to have helped Muscat cultivate that resilience; the guy I spoke to this week seemed more confident and assured than the guy who took the stage at GDC 2012 to talk about designing Jetpack Joyride. Look back at the GDC Vault video of his talk and you'll see a designer who appears nervous, a bit unsure; when I ask him whether he was secretly terrified, "oh, yeah; shit yeah," is the reply I get. But as Prettygreat continues to work towards releasing their first game later this year, Muscat seems upbeat about his future as a mobile game maker.
“Growing up I was definitely shy, and making games was a way to find my voice. It's hard to know if it's because of making games or just because I'm getting older, but I definitely feel more confident these days,” he says, finishing his coffee. “If you'd asked me three years ago if I’d ever start my own company, I’d probably have said no way. Never. It's way too scary. But people change! And now I'm really glad that I have.”