Mobile gaming is already a billion pound industry, so it’s tough to make it without a big studio and a minted publisher bankrolling your endeavours.
But last month, something remarkable happened, ushering us back to the early days of the iPhone App Store: a two-man team from Sweden beat the likes of Angry Birds creators Rovio to the top of the games download charts on iPhone and Android, with their platformer Granny Smith.
It was an unlikely subject, too. A game about a granny rollerblading through windows and over ramps to collect apples doesn’t exactly scream viral sensation, or present much opportunity for merchandise in the same way as Rovio’s irate avian stars.
And yet Granny Smith hit the top of Google’s Android paid game charts - despite only going on sale four weeks ago. How did they do it?
Lethal Weapon OAP
The elevator pitch for Granny Smith might not sound like much, but dig a little deeper, and it’s not hard to see why the game has proven a hit. There’s an anachronistic charm to the styling of Granny Smith: the mahogany of an old lady’s living room mixed with Sonic-style loop-the-loops and the slow-mo glass shattering stunts of Lethal Weapon.
“In Granny Smith we wanted to make a game that was all about a clumsy character crashing into things in all kinds of random environments,” says Henrik Johansson of two-man code team Mediocre Games.
“As crazy as it may sound, the main inspiration was actually the title sequence from the movie ‘The Naked Gun’, where a police car is driving through everything from malls to amusement parks to the ladies locker room.”
Johansson, 33, from Stockholm, and the artist on the team, decided to mix this idea with inspiration from a holiday to California earlier this year.
“When working on Granny Smith I tried to look for ideas in nature and in all kinds of old things like those beautiful antique radios with wood casings,” he says.
“I always carry a tiny sketchbook and I was constantly looking for the perfect trees, shrubs and old buildings for our game. So I made sketches whenever I saw something I liked and a lot of that had a direct impact on the style of the graphics.”
Early, exclusive design sketches for Granny Smith, straight from Johansson's notebook
“We wanted to make something that had the charm and style of an old gramophone - we even considered having the TV in the menu screen lose its reception when you tilt the device.”
A sprinkle of success
Granny Smith is the second game from Johansson and co-founder Dennis Gustafsson. Last year’s Sprinkle, a puzzle game requiring you to use jets of water to put out fires, has been downloaded millions of times on iPhone and Android. (Mediocre Games has seen six million downloads for all of its games on all platforms so far.)
In fact, the game, with the artistic styling of retro classics such as Lemmings and Cannon Fodder, was such a hit that the duo decided to quit their day jobs after its opening weekend to work on Mediocre Games full time. Johansson was a graphic designer and Gustafsson developed physics software for games.
It’s this theme of physics that underpins both games, and likely forms part of the game’s broad appeal. Much like Angry Birds, you already know the rules of engagement: it’s just gravity. Johansson and Gustafsson both eagerly confess to being obsessed with physics - the latter has even worked on software for planetariums in the past.
“I've loved science ever since I was a child, just reading about things or watching documentaries,” says Johansson. “Trying to understand the world and the excitement of exploration, how can you not love science?”
Couple it with the pair’s aversion to violence in games - a lazy fallback, thinks Johansson - and you’ve got an innocent charm that’s proving irresistible.
“We're not moralists but after seeing the level of violence in games today we feel that it’s sometimes overwhelming,” he says. “We'd like to go back to the playful and goofy kind of games that we played ourselves back when we were kids.”
The big boys have since regained their top spots, with Rovio’s new Bad Piggies worming its way to the top of the iTunes App Store, and Angry Birds Space on Android, while EA’s FIFA 13 has shot back in there too.
But Mediocre’s success is a remarkable reminder of the power of nothing more than a smart idea and artistic flair, and proof that the days of the bedroom developer and overnight app store millionaires aren’t quite over yet.
“It’s a wonderful experience and we've very proud of what we have achieved. However, we're still no match for the big boys so we try to remain humble,” says Johansson.
“It is one thing to bump down a few big names for a couple of weeks, but to remain in the top ten in the long run is extremely difficult. Mobile gaming is changing rapidly and there’s a lot we can learn from our fellow developers.”
Up next, the pair are working on new levels for Granny Smith and sharper Retina Display graphics for the third generation Apple iPad. Expect more work on Android too: Johansson says the Android versions of its games are now generating almost as much revenue as the iPhone versions. Oh, and we’ve confirmed a third game is in the making too. But Johansson’s keeping mum about that for now.
Despite all this, Johansson says there are no plans to expand the team just yet.
“We enjoy the ability of making rapid decisions and the creative process is so powerful with a small team. We'd much rather do the work ourselves than to tell someone else what to do.”
In other words, even if Granny Smith is the next Angry Birds, don’t expect the pair to become the next Rovio.
Read more stories