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Fruit Ninja house Halfbrick counts on a series of small gambles

Halfbrick went from a minor player in the console space to a mobile games leader with Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride. CMO Phil Larsen tells Gamasutra how the studio survived the transition.
While Zynga and Omgpop may be grabbing the lion's share of the headlines in the social and casual gaming space these days, the mobile empire built by Halfbrick Studios is hardly one to overlook. The Australian company behind Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride may not be a Wall Street darling, but its evolution from a minor player in the console space to a casual gaming leader is a lesson in quickly adjusting to the times as the video game industry has changed rapidly over the past several years. Halfbrick's success, actually came as a result of a gamble, says Phil Larsen, the company's chief marketing officer. In 2007, it noticed that digital distribution was on the rise, while demand for work-for-hire from Australian studios was waning fast. Rather than fight the tide, Halfbrick opted to move into self-publishing. It first tried its hand with small "Minis" games on the PlayStation Network, where it saw reasonable success with Age of Zombies. That helped the company's reputation, but it wasn't until two years later that it really broke through. "In 2009, we wanted to try iOS because we were seeing huge successes," says Larsen. "With the App Store, there's a lot of luck involved and we wanted to eliminate [risk]. We did that by saying 'Lets make simple, casual one screen games.' A lot of ideas came around and one of those was Fruit Ninja." The game mechanics were up and running within three days, but Halfbrick spent the next two months polishing and tweaking the title, determining everything from what sounds would be heard to how much juice would come out of the fruit. It was a gamble, but Halfbrick wasn't willing, at the time, to bet the company on the platform. "We saw a lot of games that were big budget that people put a lot of money into and they weren't going anywhere," says Larsen. "We wanted to be smart. If it had just completely tanked, then it wouldn't have been a massive two-year project that some [console] games are." Fruit Ninja, of course, became an iOS staple - and eventually was ported to the console world with the gesture-based Fruit Ninja Kinect for Xbox 360. The game has been downloaded over 20 million times across iOS, Android and Windows Phone as of March last year. The follow-up, Jetpack Joyride, was another gamble, but one the company was willing to wager a bit more on. Halfbrick spent nine months building that game before it was released to the App Store. That game has been downloaded over 14 million times. These days, in between readying a big content add-on for Jetpack Joyride, Halfbrick continues to determine its next gamble. Between Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride, Larsen says the company prototyped upwards to 50 games, but have yet to greenlight them. "We are creatively satisfied with the amount of new stuff we can make," he says. "We're really good at rapid prototyping and nuggeting. ... Some products we make because they're completely stupid and make no sense but we wanted to do it - but they could spawn another idea. Some products we make because they're completely stupid and make no sense but we wanted to do it - but they could spawn another idea." Having an established name in the mobile space helps Halfbrick with discoverability in the chaos that is the app store, but the company is already looking forward. Looming tech advances in the mobile space - and the increased availability of internet-connected television sets - both have the company excited, says Larsen. One area of particular interest is asynchronous multiplayer. As the technology in that field improves, Larsen says the company is considering a multiplayer only game. "There's a lot of opportunities that will come about - 4G connectivity, airplay, Apple TV - that stuff is exciting," he says. "As long as that keeps increasing, there will be opportunities for us. It's up to us to keep the gameplay design and theme relevant."

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