Monkeybin is a very special and, some might argue, very lucky studio. While some developers spend the best part of their lives trying to launch a hit game worldwide, the Oslo-based outfit – which only made its debut in 2010 – has managed to see both releases of the timing-based puzzler Hyspherical, and the Runway refined follow up Hyspherical 2, smash the app store charts this month, with the latter achieving Top 10 in the US App Store Free Games chart last week.
Downloads for the successor have been through the roof, over 900,000 installs in its first 10 days, no doubt thanks in part to Apple’s decision to push the game in key territories, though the very fact its been promoted by the Cupertino giant in such a manner not only signals success for Monkeybin, but also stands as an example of a relatively fresh indie able to make moves up the App Store hierarchy thanks to the quality of its games… and with a little help from Runway, of course.
“I was working as a contractor, and in one of the places I was working I met Kim Ruben,” Monkeybin co-founder Haakon Langaas Lageng tells us, detailing the studio’s first steps. “He really wanted to do something on his own, and he is a hardcore gamer. Myself, I don’t actually like games much, but I have a passion for solid and lightning fast back end APIs. We found the perfect middle ground – a multiplayer, server backed mobile game. This was back in 2010, and we formed Monkeybin later that year.” That aforementioned multiplayer game, Lageng revealed, actually took a back seat while the two guys set about learning about the mobile games business.
“Our first game took a few months and was an endless sideways scroller. It was called JumpShip Thrust Control – it was a spaceship flying in a cave with a floor and a ceiling,” continues Lageng, noting that in his view, the game’s mechanics were later nabbed by the ever-infamous Flappy Bird. “You had to tap to thrust the ship upwards, and you had to time the taps not to make the ship crash in the ceiling or fall to the ground. The game was a disaster and never made a dime – if only we had put a bird in it instead of a ship, eh?!” The team has since expanded to six and, though Oslo might be Lageng’s base, Monkeybin actually benefits from fingers in many different international pies. “We are based all around the world actually – in Canada, Serbia, the Philippines and in Norway. I am in charge of all our actions and tell everyone what to do and how to prioritise. We used to have an office in Oslo, but not right now – everyone works from their homes.”
So, what’s it like to develop in Norway? Is it as vibrant as the rest of the development scene across the Nordics? “We’re not good at socialising so we don’t always know what’s going on in the Oslo dev scene,” Lageng laughs, “but every year we visit the Game Expo outside of Oslo, and I’ve noticed that it grows bigger every year and there are more and more Norwegian companies displaying their games and upcoming titles. It is mostly console, though.” Lageng may be unaware of how many of his fellow Norwegians are fairing in the development scene, but he and the rest of Monkeybin have experience aplenty when it comes to dealing with the problems the mobile industry throws in a developer’s direction. “Monetisation is hard on mobile and it’s been getting harder and harder every quarter since we started out,” he admits candidly. “Getting noticed and acquiring users is another obstacle. We have focused mainly on creating rock solid, good looking titles, and sort of hoped to be picked up by a publisher.”
With Monkeybin working with Runway, the studio certainly achieved its latter aim, but what did Lageng learn specifically from the launch of the first Hyspherical that had an impact on its follow up? “We almost tossed Hyspherical at the very start. Kim had an idea about a game with circles and spheres where the idea was not to crash, so we made a quick prototype. When I tested it I found it to be a little bit stupid and it wasn’t actually fun to play,” offers Lageng, before noting that he later had a change of heart. “Kim insisted it would be fun, however, and he spent a little more time on it. The next time I played it I was sold – the potential was obvious.” Hyspherical was born, though Apple’s decision to feature the game on the App Store was devalued a touch given Lageng admits Monkeybin “had the monetisation completely wrong and we made almost nothing from it.” He continues, “We were a bit discouraged, but nevertheless we decided to give it another try, and started to make Hyspherical 2.” In Hyspherical, we had a simple level selector with five worlds and 20 levels each, plus the whole game was about circles. In Hyspherical 2, however, we moved the levels to a map to make it feel more important to reach the end – so the player could achieve something.
“Also, with a map, we were able to integrate a lightweight server back end to collect user scores. We use it to show players where their friends are in the map if they log in with Facebook. Also, we made a bunch of different shapes, obstacles and timed levels, moving shapes and more to bring in more value for the players when compared to the original Hyspherical.”
As we’ve detailed previously on this blog, Hyspherical 2 is a classic ‘easy to grasp, difficult to master’ puzzler, where the aim is to time touches on the screen to drop spheres onto simple shapes. The difficulty comes as the shapes begin to move, spikes begin to appear and timers start to count down. It’s a game that takes a number of steps forward from its predecessor, including Monkeybin’s decision to partner with Runway. With Hyspherical 2, GameAnalytics has been able to use its handle on numbers to help direct smart changes designed to both improve gameplay and its performance with players. “We actually signed a publishing deal with Runway a while a go for another title that we aim to release next year,” he adds. “They were kind enough to give us some guidance and feedback on Hyspherical 2 when I asked for some help, and in the end they saw the potential and decided to work with this title as well.”
It’s to Monkeybin’s credit that Hyspherical 2 serves as the perfect example of a game taking off with Runway, with the game employing ads in order to generate revenue rather than forcing restrictive timers on players. It’s a move that reflects the changing nature of free games on mobile – changes that soft launching games like Hyspherical 2 in key territories makes all the more evident. So, with Hyspherical 2 riding high in the charts, what else does Monkeybin have up its collective sleeves? “We are working on a new game which will be released by Runway sometime in the spring of 2016, plus we’re also working on a Steam version of Hyspherical 2, which in turn will lead to an Apple TV version. These days we are creating a bunch of new levels for Hyspherical 2 for a Christmas update and an Android release and a Windows Phone release. So yeah, we have our hands full!”