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Victorian developers hit the big time with mobile games Crossy Road and Disney Crossy Road

'We thought it might take off, but we didn't know until after release just how well it would connect,' says Andy Sum. 'We were blown away.'

Andy and his business partner Matt Hall launched a mobile game in November 2014 called Crossy Road. Within 90 days of its first release on iTunes, Crossy Road had hit the top of the download charts in every major territory around the globe, yielding $10 million in profits for its two Victorian developers. By July 2015, the game had received a million downloads; today the figure stands at over 120 million.

Characters from the game - Crossy Road

Characters from the game - Crossy Road

Reminiscent of the arcade game Frogger and inspired by the hit game Flappy Bird, Crossy Road is a game in which players must navigate their character across highways, train tracks and log-jammed rivers, all rendered in chunky, pixelated graphics. It is delightfully simple and highly addictive – a magic formula for mobile gaming success.

'We didn't put any barriers in place that meant you couldn't play again, so once you die, there are no pop ups and you don't have to pay to move to another level, it just keeps going. I think that the continuous play is what makes the game so addictive,' Andy explains.

Crossy Road was released under the moniker Hipster Whale, a newly formed business for Andy and Matt. It was the first project they developed together – over a 12 week period – after meeting at the Game Connect Asia Pacific conference in Melbourne, in 2013. Working from his Creswick home outside of Ballarat, Matt had already scored in the mobile gaming market with his one-man company Klicktock, releasing hit games such as ZONR, Little Things Forever and Doodle Find. Andy – fifteen years younger – was at an earlier stage of his career.

Prior to Crossy Road, Andy had been developing games for the PC platform, including a Steam-distributed game called Dungeon Dashers. In 2012, he received funding through Film Victoria which helped Andy to take Dungeon Dashers to the Game Developers' Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, the peak global event for the digital games industry. It was Andy's first excursion to GDC and he has returned every year since, most recently as part of a mission led by Creative Victoria.

'Film Victoria funding was essential in kicking off my career. I didn't know the industry was so big and there were so many opportunities out there before I went to GDC. Seeing your work in a global context is an important part of professional development, of making you competitive,' Andy says. 'We've got an amazing, growing scene here in Melbourne, but you're comparing your games against what other people are doing here and it's important to understand how you fit into an international ecosystem. When you see games as a global business of phenomenon, you start thinking differently, appealing to different audiences, and the potential market for your games expands.'

Andy Sum and Matt Hall from Hipster Whale

Matt Hall and Andy Sum

The response from both the local and international games sector has been equally impressive. Hipster Whale took out Studio of the Year at last year's Australian Game Developer Awards, and Andy was recently included in the Forbes '30 under 30' list, which features 600 of the world's most exciting young entrepreneurs and creative leaders, across 20 categories including games, music, sport, and science. 

Crossy Road is Andy's first mobile game and its unique 'monetisation' model is informed by his experience with PC Games. Most free-to-play mobile games generate income via invasive pop-up banners or require payments for players to advance to higher levels, where players trade real money for virtual currency. Crossy Road expenses are capped and very transparent – you can play endlessly for free or pay a dollar per character for each new character you choose to unlock.

'I was playing a PC game called Dota 2 and in that you can only buy cosmetic items like a costume or a hat, and I was particularly inspired by that,' Andy explains. 'Matt's experience came from mobile, but he didn't like virtual currency. He's got kids and finds that virtual currency creates a false perception of value.'

The runaway success of Crossy Road illustrates how happy end-users are with the model that Andy and Matt developed, and media commentators have been quick to add their applause.

'The fact that the developer, Hipster Whale, is that considerate makes me want to support them,' wrote Jenni Lader in Technology Tell. 'More free-to-play developers should be as considerate when creating their games.'

'We didn't think we would make a lot of money, we just hoped to have enough to fund the development of other games,' Andy says. 'But it turns out that players are happy to support Crossy Road, so our experiment has been a success. It's opened a lot of doors for us, creatively and commercially. We've got a model that makes our players happy and generates a massive return.'

That massive return looks set to be shared by global entertainment giant Disney, which recently joined forces with Hipster Whale, to create the mobile game Disney Crossy Road.  A fresh spin on Crossy Road, the new game features almost 150 Disney and Pixar characters in a never-ending 8-bit adventure, taking inspiration from popular animations such as Toy Story, Inside Out and Tangled

Tellingly, within 24 hours of being released on mobile devices, Disney Crossy Road was number one on the US iPad Chart, suggesting Andy and Matt have the makings of another global success on their hands.

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