2015’s Alto’s Adventure was a surprise hit. It launched on iOS as a premium game with no microtransactions, and it landed at the top of App Store charts all over the world. It was developed by Team Alto, a collaboration between a Canadian company called Snowman and artist Harry Nesbitt, which had not previously published a game. Its sequel, Alto’s Odyssey, launched this week to positive reception once again—the game has a 91 on Metacritic.
On iOS, Adventure has no in-app purchases (IAP) other than a physical gear store that is unrelated to gameplay. On a platform loaded with free-to-play games that aren’t actually so free-to-play thanks to complex microtransaction schemes, only a few games achieve the kind of success Adventure has without IAP. Odyssey doesn’t have any IAP either, though the Android version of Adventure does.
Ars spoke with three key members Team Alto—creative director Ryan Cash, producer Eli Cymet, and designer/developer Jason Medeiros—about what’s new in Odyssey, what iOS game development looks like right now, what implementing Metal support for the first time was like, how Android distribution differs, and more.
About the game
Alto’s Odyssey is an example of the endless runner genre at its most basic level—but also at its most sublime. You play as a snowboarder riding sandy hills of the desert (Alto’s Adventure was actually set in a snowy environment), grinding on ancient ruins, and leaping over chasms to rack up trick points and achieve various objectives to unlock more gear and characters to play with.
Beautiful art, simple but tight controls, and some of the best, most subtle audio design we’ve heard in a mobile game come together to make Odyssey a relaxing experience. That’s driven home by the presence of zen mode, which takes much of the pressure of crashes off and lets you ride without any set objectives.
Odyssey expands on what Adventure offered with a bunch of new features, beyond the change in setting. You can now wall ride, which opens up a new category of tricks. The game’s procedurally generated levels now transition between three different biomes, with more obstacles and background decorations.
In general, there are some themes behind the changes. “There’s a lot more kind of verticalness to the game,” Cash told us. He explained:
So riding up on the walls and reaching grinding rails that you weren’t previously able to reach, that I think is probably the biggest one to me. But there’s also quite a few other elements that kind of tie in, which is all sort of about this feeling of getting vertical and adding verticality to the game. So we have the hot air balloons that hold together bunting lines that actually move the grindable surface, where in the past, in Alto’s Adventure, they’re all static. And then the ability to actually balance on balloons makes them kind of fun and enjoyable to interact with.
Of the addition of biomes, Cymet said:
In tying to the theme of exploring and going outside your comfort zone and discovering places anew around every bend, we really wanted to amplify the amount of spaces players could see and the vistas they could take in as they moved through the landscape. So Biomes are these natural faces that are not just visual in nature, they’re not simple sort of skins for the world you’re moving through, they’re not just nice things to see; they’re these distinct, mechanically segmented spaces that feel like you’re doing something different in each one.
Cash and Cymet told us that a sequel to Adventure was not a foregone conclusion because they wanted to make sure they could add something to the first game. With those two things, they’ve succeeded. But when making a follow-up to a game for which minimalism was an appeal, it was important to have a smart philosophy about why to add some features but keep others out.
On this, Cash named the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater franchise as inspiration.
I remember, growing up—I’m a skateboarder myself—the first game [came] out, and I was super excited about it. and it kind of felt like the perfect game. Then the next version came out, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2, and aside from new levels and new characters and challenges and stuff like that, the only real addition was the addition of being able to go manual in the game. But that let you link together combos, and it kind of opened up the opportunity for way crazier tricks. But it was such a simple addition that it didn’t get in the way of what made Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 very fun.
That iterative philosophy is clear when you play Alto’s Odyssey—the simplicity is still there, but it has just enough more going on to be fresh.
How to make a premium mobile game that’s good
Gamers and mobile game players don’t always cross over. The core gaming audience can sometimes be dismissive of mobile games, partly because there are some terrible games that are essentially gambling schemes and not much else. Cash said dismissing mobile games as a category is a bit like dismissing Breaking Bad because it’s a TV show and Pawn Stars or Storage Wars are also on TV.
Maybe people primarily focus on playing PC games or console games. I’ve seen it in the industry where they may frown upon mobile, and I think also vice-versa; there’s stigma around free-to-play games. Even free-to-play can be done super, super well and super honestly, like something like Crossy Road or Two Dots, or Supercell’s games. for example. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do anything, and there’s good and bad in pretty much any industry. It’d be like calling all news on the Internet “fake news.” There’s good sites and there’s bad sites.
Cash himself didn’t consider himself a gamer when Adventure launched, though he played games when he was young and has resumed since Adventure. “I played video games when I was growing up, and then I took probably about a 10-year hiatus to focus on business and tech and start-ups and that kind of stuff with my previous job,” he said.
He has finally played Journey, for example, which was a major influence on Adventure artist Harry Nesbitt. He sees mobile as offering a unique opportunity:
What’s so exciting to us about mobile is that now, for the first time in human history, almost everybody on this planet owns a device that’s capable of playing games. So it’s kind of a time where you can reach people who wouldn’t otherwise play games. If someone buys a PS4, they’re clearly showing intent to get into gaming, but if you buy an iPhone it doesn’t mean you bought it to play games, and usually it’s probably quite the opposite.
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