Turning around a 4-year old game: How Halfbrick resurrected Age of Zombies

What do you do when your game's past its prime? If you’re Fruit Ninja developer Halfbrick Studios, you keep your team on the project and push updates that reinvigorate the game with fresh content.
What do you do when your game's past its prime? If you’re Fruit Ninja developer Halfbrick Studios, you keep your team on the project and take your game’s declining profile as an opportunity to push updates that reinvigorate the game with fresh content and (ideally) net you a prime spot on the front page of your chosen marketplace. Speaking at GDC Next in Los Angeles today, Halfbrick chief product officer Ramine Darabiha explained how the Brisbane, Australia-based company has radically shifted the way it approaches game development after watching some of its top titles (Fruit Ninja, Jetpack Joyride and Age of Zombies) earn great success before sliding down the charts as player interest falls off. “The relationship people have with our games is, they like them but they don’t come back to them,” said Darabiha. “They grow out of them.”

"In the industry, we have a tendency to pull the plug on projects way too early"

The trouble, says Darabiha, is that Halfbrick saw this behavior and didn’t know whether if it was best to pull the plug on games that were past their prime or try and invest resources into them in the hopes of bringing lapsed players back. Ultimately, the studio chose to take a shot at pushing radical updates to a moribund title like Age of Zombies in a bid to see if it could be revitalized. “In the industry, we have a tendency to pull the plug on projects way too early,” said Darabiha. He noted that even a bad game can be a good foundation for something great; the trick is optimizing your studio’s workflow to quickly respond to player data and push out fresh updates. Age of Zombies is currently Halfbrick’s oldest live game; it started life as a Nintendo DS game, then came to the PSP before debuting on iOS. “The codebase was a disaster; there was GBA code in there from the DS version, there was PSP code in there. It was a mess,” said Darabiha, with a laugh. It launched on mobile in 2010, and saw its last meaningful update in 2011. As you might expect, sales declined significantly over the game’s four-year lifespan; Darabiha says Halfbrick didn’t pull the plug on the mobile version of Age of Zombies “because hey, free money!” but it saw unfulfilled potential in the game as a “good foundation” for something great. So Halfbrick set about updating it last June by adding fresh content and new features seen to be in the zeitgeist of mobile development at the time — Bluetooth controller support, ports to emerging platforms like the Fire TV and the Nvidia Shield, etc.

From dead to "Best New Game" feature slot

After the studio shipped that big update, Age of Zombies garnered a bit of positive press attention, earned a spot on the front page of the Apple App Store as a “Best New Game” and saw a significant boost in sales. “From this we learned that people are happy to play an old game, as long as it’s well-crafted,” said Darabiha. “If you’re on the front page, they often don’t know or care that your game is old.” However, he cautioned that “marketability is prime; you’ve got to get featured,” and thus you’ve got to make sure your game’s update is notable enough that it warrants consideration for a spot on the front page of your marketplace. After Halfbrick saw the big boost in Age of Zombies sales that came with getting the updated version featured on the App Store, it rapidly began work on a second update in an effort to get featured again. It worked, but Halfbrick realized that keeping up that update pace with their established workflow was impossible. “We realized we had a lot of bottlenecks, especially art bottlenecks,” said Darabiha. Age of Zombies relies on sprite sheets, and that meant Halfbrick artists had a time-intensive workflow to produce art for fresh updates. “We managed to test our limits, and the limits of how fast we could ship to the App Store,” said Darabiha, noting that Halfbrick had most recently shipped six significant updates to Age of Zombies in a month. The game has climbed the paid mobile charts, and stayed there. “The paid charts have a lot more movement,” said Darabiha. “Our game would have collapsed in the free-to-play market,” which is dominated by heavyweights like King and Rovio, “but on the paid charts it did just fine.”

"If you want to do something like this, you need to make sure your technology stack is extremely robust"

Speaking to his fellow mobile developers, Darabiha took pains to point out that most studios will need to heavily rethink their workflow if they want to try a similar approach to rapid-fire mobile game updates. “If you want to do something like this, you need to make sure your technology stack is extremely robust,” said Darabiha. “You don’t want to run into bugs from five-year-old code, and you don’t want to have overlaps between QA and dev time.” Also, there’s a nice side benefit to optimizing your workflow for rapid updates: it empowers you to react to player feedback much more effectively. “We also saw that having these continuous updates helps us learn a lot faster, because we have continuous data input from players,” said Darabiha. “We’ve had live data all the time for the past six months, and it helps us do better.” Now Halfbrick is taking what it learned from the revivification of Age of Zombies and employing it to revamp development of Fruit Ninja and other games in its catalog. “This is a process we’re using to transform all of Halfbrick,” said Darabiha, with a smile. You can catch up on Gamasutra's GDC Next coverage all in one location. GDC and Gamasutra are sibling organizations under parent UBM Tech.

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