Confession: when Snowman initially announced Alto’s Odyssey, a follow-up to their 2015 masterwork Alto’s Adventure, I immediately started to worry about hypotheticals, like “What if it’s not as good?” or worse, “What if it lacks the heart and soul that madethe original feel so uniquelyspecial?”I needn’t have sweated it. Odyssey hit the App Store recently, and it’s a mesmerizing, impeccably crafted thing of beauty that does complete justice to its predecessor while building on that game’s formula in a multitude of clever, engaging, and exciting ways.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with various members of Team Alto about Odyssey and its conception and development. It ended up being a fascinating and very in-depth chat. Check it out below.
I’m a huge Snowman fan, so thanks for doing me the honor of joining me for this interview. Can I start by asking you to quickly introduce your studio and its history?
Ryan Cash, Founder of Snowman: First and foremost, thanks so much for the warm words! It’s always wonderful to be able to chat about our studio and the things we’re involved in, so we’re happy to have the chance to talk.
Snowman was founded in 2012, initially based on an idea I had for a productivity app! At the time, I left my job at Toronto-based software developer Marketcircle to strike out on my own, not knowing exactly what lay ahead. All I knew for certain then was that I had an idea I was incredibly passionate about — and a product that I needed to build. So, along with my friend Jordan Rosenberg, we put aside some money and set to work. That idea would become Checkmark, and in shipping it, we would become Snowman.
In the years that followed, we launched a few more apps, and even a couple of early games — Circles and Super Squares — before partnering with Harry Nesbitt to create Alto’s Adventure. Adventure’s release set us on a wonderful new trajectory that’s given us the chance to grow to a team of six, and the opportunity to collaborate with talented teams from all over the world. We’ve been so lucky to partner with some of these developers on upcoming projects like Where Cards Fall, Skate City, and DISTANT.
What is Snowman’s key philosophy or mission statement as a company?
Eli Cymet, Lead Producer: This is something we’ve thought a lot about as a team recently. Ultimately, we like to say that we are a small studio at the center of artful experiences. We strive to create and help bring to life things that you may sit with for a short time, but that have a powerful and lasting effect on you long after you’ve put them down.
Alto’s Adventure won a slew of awards and is widely hailed as one of the best, most beautiful iOS games ever. Were you at all daunted by the prospect of making a worthy sequel to such a beloved title, or were you confident from the word go that you would be able to match (or even top) the quality of the original?
Harry Nesbitt, Lead Artist & Programmer: Something I think I’d want to communicate is that it’s not a sequel — none of the way we’ve thought about making it are as a sequel. We’re not seeking to one-up the first game. We’re trying to create another game set in the same world that taps into a different set of emotions.
A lot of things about the first game happened quite naturally, or came about as a solution to a particular problem. So by the time your finished, you’ve got these rules, and you don’t know if they can be applied to other things. The art style for Adventure came about over a bunch of iterations; it didn’t spring into being with a full understanding of what works and what doesn’t. It had to be chipped away at slowly. So when you try to then take that rule-set and apply it to new things, there’s no guarantee that it’s going to work. The first game was a sort of lightning in a bottle scenario, and now you’re trying to recapture that all over again. It was definitely a challenge.
When we started designing the game, we tried not to take anything for granted. We deliberately stripped out a number of core components from the first game and challenged ourselves to come up with new and exciting mechanics in their place. Some things eventually found their way back in one form or another, but it definitely forced us to think more carefully about what was integral to the experience, and what we could improve and iterate on. We actually spent several weeks early on in development prototyping a bunch of different mechanics to try and see what would stick. It became pretty clear that anything overly complex, particularly anything that required more than one touch input, didn’t really feel right. The things that did eventually make it into the game, such as wall-riding and water mechanics, felt immediately at home — they hopefully challenge the player to try new things, without compromising the underlying vocabulary of the way you play the game.
Adventure’s iconic snowy mountains have been replaced by a vibrant desert landscape in Odyssey. Why did you decide to set the game in a desert, and did you consider or experiment with any other locations during brainstorming and development?
Eli Cymet: As with the first game, it was very important with this followup to capture a specific feeling. We spent a lot of time talking together and thinking about what emotions we might want to stir in players before really committing to development. We didn’t want to treat another Alto game like a foregone conclusion because of the success of the first title.
Things really clicked when we reflected as a group on how much our lives had changed since the release of Alto’s Adventure. The team had grown, some of us had moved away from the homes we knew to live in other places, and we had all experienced big personal upheaval in different ways. What we arrived at was a desire to capture the feeling of going outside your comfort zone, exploring the unfamiliar, and accepting that the concept of “home” is related to the people close to you, not any one place. In many ways, this is what led us to grandeur of Alto’s Odyssey’s setting. This idea of a fantastical place far from what you know as home, where you learn to see the beauty in embracing the unknown.
Alto and his friends have picked up quite a few new skills since their last outing. Can you chat a bit about Odyssey’s fresh gameplay abilities and mechanics and how they distinguish the game from its predecessor? Also, were there any other features that you wanted to include but that didn’t make the final cut?
Ryan Cash: Once we set down to playing around in the new desert space, we spent a month or so in what we called an “Alto Jam,” experimenting with new mechanics and features. Many — like the idea of Alto having a grappling hook — ended up on the cutting room floor, but we were drawn to those which reinforced this sense of of exploration: the ability to ride rock walls, multiple natural biomes to discover, and brand new wildlife to interact with. Ultimately, what we established for ourselves was a sort of golden rule around exploring as many new mechanics as made sense without adding any new required controls.
Eli Cymet: I think the feelings we’re exploring this time around and the places they led us in design make this an experience that will absolutely feel fresh and exciting for returning players. The presence of biomes — these diverse natural spaces that transition seamlessly into one another — makes the game much vaster in scope than Alto’s Adventure. They bring a host of core new mechanics like wallriding, moving grind rails, multi-tiered grinds that snap and sway, tornados, and rushing water. All of these features lend themselves to a greater sense of exhilaration, and allow players to get up and into the air to pull off big combos. We’ve gone to great lengths to make sure none of them add any new control inputs, though, making the core plays experience as accessible as ever.
I know Odyssey hasn’t been out for all that long yet, but can I ask how happy you’ve been with the critical and commercial response to the game so far?
Ryan Cash: We prefer not to talk in terms of things like download numbers, but on the critical side, fan and critic response has totally blown us away. With a follow-up to a successful game, there’s always going to be expectations about quality, and we’re so relieved that both players and reviewers seem to really be enjoying the game. We’ve been blown away by all the kind words via email and social media, and there’s an overall sense that this is a game that gives people more of what they loved about Alto, while deepening the universe in ways people enjoy. For us, that’s a dream come true!
Do you see yourselves making a third game set in the Alto’s Adventure/Odyssey universe?
Eli Cymet: I think, as a team, we’re all still coming to terms with the fact that Alto’s Odyssey is real and out on the App Store. Our focus right now is definitely addressing a few quirks and bugs we’ve spotted, and making sure players are having the best experience possible with the game. We’re not quite ready to think about the prospect of another Alto title right now. With that said, I think we’re all very passionate about this universe and these characters, and if it feels right, I think we’ll always want to explore more stories with Alto and friends.
You’ve got quite a few more games in development at the moment, including Where Cards Fall and Skate City. What can you tell me about them, and which one do you think will be next out the gate?
Ryan Cash: So as Snowman, we have three major upcoming titles announced — Where Cards Fall, Skate City, and DISTANT. With each one, we’re aiming for something different, but all within that overall mission of creating artful experiences that sit with you after you’ve played them. In brief: Where Cards Fall is a narrative puzzle game where you reconstruct your memories of adolescent and reconcile where you’ve come in life by building houses of cards. Skate City is an expressive mobile skating game designed to capture the artistry and sport of skating in a way we remember as kids growing up. DISTANT, meanwhile, is a game about the elegance of movement — it’s a take on the platformer genre that focuses on making players feel small as they explore a grand world. With that said, those are all the simplest “elevator pitches” possible, and we encourage anyone interested to visit our main website, builtbysnowman.com, to find out more about each game!
I’m sure there are plenty of indie game developers out there who would give their left arm to be able to replicate even a fraction of your success. Do you have any words of advice for people who are trying to break into or succeed in this industry?
Ryan Cash: In terms of a “secret sauce,” I wish I could give a concrete answer. Another thing we often hear when we talk to peers is that to an extent, everyone feels like they’re making a lot of these rules up as they go. There’s always some new conventional wisdom about in-app purchases, premium vs. freemium, long marketing campaigns compared to surprise releases, and for every scenario, you’re going to find someone who says their strategy is the way to go.
From our perspective, we put a very strong emphasis on a couple of things. We like to say that “our standards have to be higher than our players’” which means that it isn’t enough to release a minimum viable product. We try to put thought and effort during development into adding flourishes that will delight people and put a smile on their face. Little touches that they might not realize are missing otherwise, but will enjoy having. This is a long way of saying “make something great.”
The other part of the equation — and perhaps this is the closest I have to a “secret” — is to be just as dedicated to telling people about the things you make as you are to making them. Think about marketing your games as telling their stories. From the day you start working on your project you need be thinking about how you’re going to ensure that press, fans, and prospective players know exactly why your game is special.
Today, it isn’t enough to just make something fun. It has to be unique enough to encourage people to play your game over the other games they already have on their devices, and the ones that are launching at the same time as yours.
I also have the firm belief that your game either has to either provide either a reason to come back and keep playing it, or it has to be really powerful and impactful. Something you might play for a short period of time from start to finish, but that will sit with you for a long time. Occasionally a game can be a little of both of these things, but often it seems to be one or the other.
The first kind of game (Crossy Road, TwoDots, Threes!) never truly ends. By design, it has a really long game progression arc, is constantly being updated with new content, or it features multiplayer, social high score sharing, etc. Things that bring you back time and time again.
The second kind of game (INSIDE, Gorogoa, Monument Valley) aren’t endless experiences — often they’re in the range of 1-4 hours. But after you’ve played the game, it’s all you can think about for weeks. Even months later, you find yourself asking people if they’ve played the game. It becomes your go-to recommendation for months or even years, and something you think back on fondly, reflecting on that magical time you spent with it.
I did want to add something to finish, though. At Snowman we host a little studio podcast called Art & Craft in which our producer, Eli, interviews developers and creatives about their stories. A recent episode with the Joel McDonald, the creator of Prune, struck me in particular. He talks in that article about the chess adage “white moves first,” in acknowledging the way that being the industry default — a white male — put him a position of privilege that allowed him to break out on his own and go independent in the first place.
To that end, I want to acknowledge upfront that finding success in an industry like games still comes with a lot of practical realities around whose voices are being heard and amplified; I consider myself very fortunate to have released a successful game, and think we can always be doing a better job at amplifying underrepresented voices with initiatives like Runaway Play’s recent “Girls Behind the Games” Twitter feed.
That’s a wrap! Thanks so, so much to you all for such a fascinating and illuminating interview. I wish you every success with Odyssey and your future endeavors. 🙂