Whale Trail: The Inside Story

Whale Trail: The Inside Story
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

December 20th 2011 at 11:00AM

Having never made a game before, design studio Ustwo spent £150,000 making a 69p app called Whale Trail. What were they thinking?

When London-based design studio Ustwo set out to make iOS game Whale Trail, it took a big risk.
How big? The game’s budget hit £150,000.

And the gamble didn’t stop with a daring financial plan for a title that would, like so many other drops in the App Store ocean, retail for 69p. Ustwo, which typically works on branded apps and user experiences for high profile clients like Sony and Intel, devoted an astonishing 4,500 man-hours and a sizeable chunk of its studio headcount to developing Whale Trail, in spite of the fact that it isn’t a game developer by trade.

What’s more, at least 300,000 sales will be needed for the game to edge into profitability; no easy feat in the unpredictable App Store. At time of writing, it is well on the way, having been festooned with positive feedback, but Whale Trail is not guaranteed success to the point that it will return on its investment.

In fact, the cheerful side-scroller is the third production from an internal collective of ten Ustwo staff that go under the enigmatic name of CWA. Established and led by the Ustwo co-founder primarily known as Mills, CWA was granted £650,000 to make three titles over a year, with Whale Trail serving as the final, most high profile project.

“CWA stands for ‘Content With Attitude’. I mean, that’s just so bad,” admits Mills, who is the kind of character who could easily mean  ‘good’ when he says ‘bad’.

“We were coming up with the worst name we could, and when we got to that we decided we had to have it as our name. I mean, come on; Content With Attitude? It’s just dreadful.”

That kind of playful, self-deprecating remark is typical of Mills, and of Ustwo as a company. As an organisation, it is also hugely transparent, happily making sales figures public, be they good or bad. Mills doesn’t appear to mind ruffling feathers with remarkably frank opinions, and inside the walls of Ustwo’s hip East London home in the Tea building – which also houses Moshi Monsters outfit Mind Candy – a hugely talented team project a sense of eccentricity that somewhat contradicts their austere work ethic.

CONTENT WITHOUT PRESSURE

The CWA’s enviable annual budget was written off from the start. There is no need for the collective’s output to turn a profit, and it is free from the confines of client-based work. Quite simply, if the games and apps it makes flop commercially, it really doesn’t matter.
So what’s the point? Why pour so much money, time and talent into what cynics might well suggest is a self-indulgent vanity project?

“There’s never been that pressure on us to make money,” confirms Ustwo ‘idea engineer’ Neil McFarland, in an attempt to answer that most pressing question.

“The whole thing was set up on the premise, which is true, that if we don’t make any money, it’s not going to break the business. That gave us a real chance to make the best quality releases we can, free from that kind of constraint of having to make money back on it.

“If you’re a small studio that’s a big worry, and if it was about making a profit, we wouldn’t have taken this chance. The CWA work has been a real eye-opener too, and I don’t think we would have been able to put in the quality in that we did, because we’d have less ability to take risks if it was about making money.”

So Whale Trail and its forbearers have given Ustwo a chance to flex its creative muscle, learn important lessons about owned IP, and flesh out ideas that may be hard to realise in a client work context. But that’s just the beginning of the CWA’s task. Their real goal is to serve the wider company.

If successful, Whale Trail could provide significant exposure for Ustwo, securing more client work, and making more money in the long term than even generous app sales alone could do over many months.

Mojang Specifications and Rovio are establishing themselves as perhaps the coolest companies of the technological elite, and have undoubtedly earned the luxury of turning down biz dev offers that most creative organisations can only dream of.

If Whale Trail can propel Ustwo into that kind of league, suddenly £150,000 doesn’t seem like all that much to pay.

ONCE UPON A TIME

The CWA story actually starts with two different apps; Nursery Rhymes and Papercut. The former, which cost £60,000 to make, allows users to read stories to loved ones remotely. Despite critical acclaim, it only made £32,390 in revenue. Papercut, meanwhile, offers a suite of interactive short stories. Again, it was praised a momentous amount, but didn’t sell as well as its creators feel it deserved.

“After Nursery Rhymes and after Papercut – which both got great critical acclaim and lots of love from Apple – we had to look at things carefully,” says Mills. “The actual reach was something like 30,000 people for Nursery Rhymes. That’s a bit disappointing when you’ve put so much effort into something. The problem there was that the amount of people that actually want to buy apps for their children is pretty small. Games in general though; that’s a huge market.”

And so, in spite of Ustwo’s complete inexperience in game development, it was decided that work would begin on a game. The focus from day one was on something casual and accessible, and the core concept was conceived using techniques familiar to the studio’s staff who worked on animation, design and story writing. Quickly the look and character was established, and Whale Trail’s protagonist Willow – who it can’t help be noticed happens to be perfectly formed for plush toys and merchandise – emerged.

“Out naivety about making games is what made it so fun,” insists Mills. “We’d never made a game before. Personally speaking, looking at all the games coming out on the App Store, I didn’t see that much quality in terms of games, and they weren’t really exciting me.

“A lot of developers have been off chasing that hunt for freemium bullshit, and I think they lost their minds a bit. While they were devoting themselves to that, we were just concentrating on making something nice. We’re not games makers and we’re not going to go with some fad like 8-bit pixel art bullshit; we’re just going to make something truly special using our guys who make incredible stories.”

A WHALE OF A TIME

And apparently, a lack of game development experience isn’t a major hurdle. On its first day, after months of promoting and stimulating word-of-mouth hype on Twitter and other social networks, Whale Trail shifted an impressive 6,500 units. The same week, Willow took her place in Apple’s Game of the Week slots in 87 countries.

Mills is keen to highlight the extent of promotional effort, but like so many before him, he subscribes to the school of thought that the secret of success in the iOS market comes down, first and foremost, to the quality of your game.

“If the product was crap, it wouldn’t have done well,” offers the man whose job title reads ‘Chief Wonka’. “It’s hard not to sound like a twat here, but people genuinely seem to like it. And not just mates and people who have to be nice. Wherever we’ve taken it or sent it, people like Whale Trail. It is pretty good, we reckon.”

Despite that confidence in Ustwo’s latest project, Mills is quick to recognise the huge risk in devoting £150,000 – written off or otherwise – to an idea for a game: “If we just wanted to make money straight up we wouldn’t have developed a game.”

The efforts of CWA took a significant percentage of Ustwo staff away from the company’s more commercial endeavours. Time was sunk into declining the advances of large-scale publishers hungry for a bite of the Whale Trail pie, and an obsession with polish soaked up hundreds of those infamous 1,500 man-hours.

Mills admits it was hard for those at Ustwo who worked outside the inner circle of creativity that CWA was becoming. After all, how were the rank-and-file Ustwo staff supposed to feel about a select ten freed from commercial pressure?

However, the reality of the CWA work was far tougher than it may have seemed from those not intimate with the development of Whale Trail.

“I don’t think we ever got near the point of thinking ‘fuck this’ and giving up, but there was enormous pressure from us and from the rest of the studio for the game to be a hit,” admits McFarland. “Everyone else at Ustwo was working hard making the money for the studio, and that was really quite stressful, even if we’re confident as a small team. And the rest of the company don’t really know what we’re doing in the CWA. They could have thought we were just having a laugh.”

NOTHING SUCCEEDS LIKE SUCCESS

Stressful it may have been, but Whale Trail is starting to do very well indeed. Mills’ dream of selling the game one million times by this Christmas is looking increasingly like it could happen, and the hype continues to mount. Making a profit is looking like a certainty, which in turn is good news for all at Ustwo, because all the extra cash Whale Trail raises will be invested back into the studio. In fact, much of it looks destined to be used to create a bigger, better, more attitude-filled CWA.

“If Whale Trail doesn’t do well financially, that’s OK. We’re fine with that. But if it does do well financially, next year we’ll spend even more money,” states a clearly confident Mills.

“I’d like to spend a million on the CWA next year, which would mean doubling its size and maybe having 20 people on it. That’s where the innovation lies. Whale Trail might just do pretty well, but if it does ‘millions well’, then potentially I guess we could break that out. I’d love it to blossom into something far more substantial than raising awareness.”

Some will have written off Ustwo as chancers with too much cash and confidence, but the fact is that every day Whale Trail is gaining momentum and sales, and at the current rate, Mills might just have the chance to realise his ambition.

“There’s only one thing,” he jokes. “We still don’t know how to make games.”