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“A lot of people say the mobile market is impossible, but you just have to be smart”

Prettygreat discusses life after Halfbrick and why survival in the smartphone games market isn't as hard as you think

There's something quite noble about Phil Larsen, Luke Muscat and Hugh Walters, and their reasons for turning their collective backs on Halfbrick.

The trio had been partly responsible for some of the biggest games in the smartphone space, including Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride, but they felt they had nothing left to learn working at the developer, so took the gamble to go it alone.

"There weren't too many more challenges, and the challenge of starting something new and being small and agile seemed like a smart idea," says Phil Larsen, who is the MD at the studio. "And we are all basically in our early 30s, and we thought that maybe we wouldn't get another chance. So we decided to go for it."

The team left Halfbrick at the start of 2015 and attended GDC with "no money, no game, no nothing". Although Larsen felt the newly formed team, named Prettygreat, had the capacity to pull in some big investors, they instead decided to aim a little lower, and accept funding from the founders of Crossy Road makers Hipster Whale.

"Matt [Hall] and Andy [Sum], being so successful with Crossy Road at the time, wanted to put some investment into other studios, and they were the perfect fit for us," Larsen explains. "They were other developers who understand what we do, they trust in us as a team because we've done it all before, and it just helped us get everything off the ground. It has basically been the best possible decision we could have made."

Prettygreat has only been going for 18 months, but it's already created two games, with a third deep in development. The firm initially made the modestly popular smartphone title Landsliders, a casual collect 'em up project that it managed to pull together in just four months.

Land Sliders has been downloaded more than 5m times

"Although we'd worked together before, working on our first game is always going to be tricky, you'll be understanding each other and finding a new approach," Larsen explains. "The way we did that was to try and create something a little bit unique, a bit weird, with some control innovation... as a game, it was profitable, which is good. It wasn't the mega hit of the year or anything like that, it wouldn't have reached any Top Ten charts in terms of downloads, but we made that game in four months, and we supported it for six months after launch, which we wouldn't have done if there wasn't profit to be made. The game has about 5m downloads so far, which is not bad. We've come from a place where 200m or 300m downloads were the norm, so we're scaling back, which is fine. But Landsliders is a first game that says: 'hey, this is what we can do. Make a game fast and make it successful'."

It may seem like a rapid turnaround, but Prettygreat managed to outpace that with its second game, Slide the Shakes, which was designed and released in just six weeks.

"Basically, we had about three weeks left at the end of last year, because we'd done everything for Land Sliders. So we just decided to make a game. It also made a profit and had 3 or 4m downloads already. That was also a game where we understood its scope and potential, so we invested the appropriate amount of time - which was six weeks, but I think our quality level for that was quite high.

"We are game strategy agnostic, for want of a better way of expressing that. We are not sitting here saying we're going to make triple-A games on mobile, or make six months projects every time. We are going to pick projects that we like and we are going to develop it to the level that we think it will be successful - and if that means it is six weeks, fine, if it is six months, which is our current project, then we will do that. We just want to make all sorts of crazy ideas. We don't have any specific business model or genre."

The Prettygreat team seem to know a thing or two about building sustainable smartphone games, which is difficult in a market where discoverability is difficult and the competition is plentiful. Even some of the world's biggest mobile developers struggle to enjoy repeat success in this space. It's a fact that's not lost on Larsen, but he says if developers are smart, plan carefully and make sure the projects are in tune with the team's talents, then success is not necessarily that hard to come by.

"A misconception that a lot of people have is that you have to be making Clash Royale money."

Phil Larsen, Prettygreat

"A lot of people talk about how competitive it is, which is true. And they talk about how hard it is to make a whole bunch of money, which is true. But a misconception that a lot of people have is that you have to be making Clash Royale money, or you need to be spending loads of money, or you need to take years making the games," Larsen begins.

"There is a lot of competing factors as to what makes a business successful. For a while it was Angry Birds, and building a brand, and merchandise. Then it was all about free-to-play. We have been through all of that at Halfbrick. Our perspective is, it is competitive but you need to pick the right business model for your team, and you need to pick the right approach for you. With three dudes at the start of a company, we weren't saying: 'Let's do a Candy Crush and make $1m a day.' No. We will pick something that we know we can get out there in a short amount of time, know generally what monetisation trends that are happening, and what is the easiest way of getting some revenue going for our games.

Slide The Shakes was built in just six weeks

"Yes it is hard, but it is not impossible. A lot of people say it's impossible, but no, you just need to be smart about how you approach it for your team specifically. If we had taken AUS$2m in funding when we started, or attacked it in a bigger way, then people would be expecting us to make a Candy Crush. But we didn't want to do that.

"Our biggest strength as a company is scoping products right, and making them for the right people at the right time. It is very easy for an indie team to say mobile is hard, but that's possibly because they've spent 18 months making the game - that might be hard to recoup as an investment. We would sooner spend four months on a game.

"Having a team that works together really well, and approaching it with a clear focus, then you can make money. We haven't made millions of dollars yet, but that's ok, you don't need millions to pay three people."

We are aiming big, but we won't compromise quality or our studio culture to get there."

Phil Larsen, Prettygreat

Prettygreat's next product is currently not announced, although Larsen says it is an online multiplayer project that will be unveiled soon. This title has a much bigger scope and has already been in the works longer than its previous projects. However, Larsen is reluctant to suggest the team will continue to make bigger, more ambitious projects. He tells us that the following game could take six weeks again, or four months.

Yet don't take this to mean there is a lack of ambition on the part of the former Fruit Ninja makers.

Larsen concludes: "I don't want to be perceived as just three guys making stuff for the hell of it, and it's all crazy and whatever happens, happens. That's true to an extent, and day-to-day things are very fun and casual. But we are very serious about success financially, and our reputation is very high and we want to keep that going. The path we take is sometimes a bit unconventional, and it doesn't necessarily have a simple six month or 12 month goal, which is what the bigger investors want to see. But we still have our eyes on the prize. We are probably not going to become a 100-person studio anytime soon, but the idea that we can create some of the biggest games in mobile and strategically scale to support them, then that's fine. If that happens, then we will make that happen.

"We have come from a place where we were working on Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride, which were some of the biggest mobile games ever for a few years. We are not strangers to that environment. We haven't started a studio to figure out how to do mobile, we absolutely already know how to do that. We've been through the highs and lows of some of the biggest things out there. We know what to expect and we are definitely aiming for it, but we are not going to compromise quality or our studio culture to get there."

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Christopher Dring avatar

Christopher Dring

Head of Games B2B

Chris is a 15-year games business veteran. He spent nine years at UK business weekly MCV, including five years as editor. He joined GI in 2016 and oversees editorial, sales and events worldwide. He is the architect behind Best Places To Work Awards and GI Live. And is a tiny bit obsessed with market data. He also writes for Doctor Who Magazine. Because Doctor Who is awesome.

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