The Story Behind Alto’s Adventure

With Snowman Founder Ryan Cash

The following story from Snowman Founder Ryan Cash is about the making of the smash hit Alto’s Adventure. See where they drew inspiration and how they developed and released the game. Thanks to Ryan for allowing us to share his inspiring story.

The Backstory

It all started in 1991, when I met Jordan Rosenberg (the guy I started Snowman with).

(I’m on the right)

Jordan and I have been friends for over 24 years. Growing up, we did almost everything together (and still do). We both got into skateboarding when we were about 10 years old, and continued for for several years, until snowboarding grabbed our attention. We’re still into both board sports, although I haven’t been able to get out much in the last few years.

About 8 years ago I dislocated my left shoulder for the first time, heavily hindering my ability to do things like snowboard and skateboard. Since then, I’ve popped it out about 10 times; more recently, the right shoulder as well. The last time I dislocated was while cliff jumping at a remote fishing lodge in Northern Ontario. This was by far the worst dislocation I’ve ever experienced. All-in-all, my shoulder was out for about five hours. You can see in the x-ray what it looked like when it was out (left), and how it’s supposed to look (the right).

I’ll still go out boarding a few times a year, but it’s always a big risk, and I’m constantly nervous the whole time. So now I limit my snowboarding to when I’m visiting friends in Alberta and BC, where the mountains are much bigger than they are here in Ontario. The reward for the risk is much greater, so it feels more worthwhile.

I’ve missed out on doing more of something I love. If only there were a way to compensate for that…

Enter “Tiny Wings”

In the fall of 2012 Jordan became infatuated with Tiny Wings. He wouldn’t stop talking about the game. It was particularly interesting to me, because Jordan wasn’t really into video games anymore. I had remembered a lot of people at the Marketcircle office raving about the game when it came out, so I decided to take a look for myself.

I was immediately blown away by the artistic nature of the game. The music, the visuals, the sound effects – all of it was so well put together. This was the first time I realized that mobile video games could be beautiful.

Nevertheless, I always found Tiny Wings a little frustrating. I just don’t have the patience for it. It’s a great game – just not for me.

Ski Safari

Shortly after Tiny Wings, Jordan got me into Ski Safari. This was the second iOS game I really got into (aside from Letterpress). I was sick in bed for a few days in December 2012, and played it for hours. I really liked it, but I couldn’t help but wonder how the game might look if we had made it, from a snowboarder’s perspective.

Jordan and I began talking about how we could make something with a similar mechanic to Ski Safari’s, but with a totally different vibe – and along the way try out a bunch of interesting ideas inspired by our real world boarding experience.

One thing we felt that was really missing from Ski Safari was really awesome terrain. The game starts to feel pretty repetitive after you play it for a while, and the terrain (namely the jumps) just didn’t feel as fun as they could be. As boarders we had tons of ideas for different terrain that we wished were in the game.

Another thing we weren’t huge fans of is the cartoon-y look and feel the game has. Ski Safari’s art style is great (don’t get me wrong) and it all comes together really nicely – but it’s just not how we would have done it. At least not since we got our hands on Tiny Wings.

December 2012

While all of this was going on, I was still engrossed in the business/productivity market (after working at Marketcircle for 5 years, and then leaving to build Checkmark). I grew up playing video games, but had long since left them behind to “grow up”.

Jordan and I spent countless hours as kids playing games like Goldeneye, the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater franchise, Halo 1, and then lastly, Counter-Strike. But both of us had abandoned video games to focus on real life. At the time, it would have been pretty unrealistic to say “I want to make video games when I grow up”. That just wasn’t something people said when I was younger – and the one or two people who said it were always told by their parents or teachers that it was “not realistic”. The words “not realistic” can be some of the most devastating words that a parent or teacher can use with their kids or students.

With the way the App Store was moving, it seemed like mobile games were the place to be. Jordan and I decided it’d be fun to build a snowboarding game. We were already working on Circles, but we wanted to do something bigger.

We figured it’d be so much more enjoyable building something we were truly passionate about (and had real-world experience doing). After tossing around a few different ideas, we were excited to get started on making our own snowboarding game. Jordan and I began sketching out some rough ideas for terrain and some of the key gameplay mechanics.

(Some early concept sketches Jordan and I made)

Harry Nesbitt immediately came to mind when we started talking about the project. In fact, I think his art style may have been half the reason we got into talking about a snowboarding game in the first place. Harry wasn’t aware of it at this point, but I was hoping he’d be interested in the project. Luckily, he was.

Let’s Get Started

I reached out to Harry to see if he was interested in working on a snowboarding game with us. I could imagine his art style working harmoniously with our ideas, and was really hoping he’d say yes. We agreed to start working with Harry on some concept art, and decided it would be best to give Harry complete creative control (after sending over some inspiration ideas, referring to what we liked about his other work, etc.).

Ryan Cash email to Harry Nesbitt

We originally set a targeted release date of September 15th, 2013 – and this was already based on our experience shipping software. You know – nothing ever ships on time, right? So we added a few extra months to our estimated release date. Turns out we missed the mark by about 17 months. But it was all so worth it.

Harry goes into quite a bit of detail about how the game was made in his “The Making of Alto’s Adventure” blog post, so check that out for another side of the story.

Sticking to Our Guts

When we set out to build this snowboarding game, we had a bunch of “truths” that we knew we wanted to stick to.

We wanted the game to be fun for us. This sounds like an obvious thing, but it’s not always so. For example, when we built Circles, we thought it’d be a fun UI experiment. It was a simple enough game we could tackle in a short time (as a team that hadn’t made a game before). Truth be told, it was never a game I personally played much.

With Alto’s Adventure, we wanted to make something we’d be addicted to ourselves. Something we wouldn’t be able to put down. I’m happy to say that the plan worked. Sometimes I’d be playing Alto more than working on it – probably to my own detriment.

One of our main goals was to capture the essence of snowboarding. That feeling of a great flow. Something fluid, fun, and natural.

We were never crazy about those full-3D snowboarding games on the App Store, and it never seemed like anyone else was either. They never seemed to dominate the charts – whereas a simple game like Tiny Wings felt much more “at home” on a mobile device. We knew we wanted to focus more on the emotion of snowboarding rather than the super technical side of it.

While we knew we were making a runner, we had a few core principles we wanted to stick to, to avoid doing things that other runners do that annoy us. One of the most important things to us was ensuring that there’d never be any “negative objectives” in the game. A lot of runners have uninteresting and repetitive goals that you have to beat, and a lot of the time they’re negative. When I say negative, I’m referring to goals such as, “Die between 700-800m”, or goals that require you to spend money (in-game currency, often with the need to grind for a long time or face spending real money). I think we mostly succeeded, even if there are a few goals in Alto that may rely a little too heavily on luck and random chance.

We wanted to build a casual endless runner style game that didn’t have any of the usual junk in it. No ads, no in-app purchases – no ways to cheat. We wanted to go back to that old-school gaming feeling, where you can only get the highest score if you’re the best – not by spending money, by grinding (spending a lot of time), or by complete luck.

It’s been great to see a lot of games prove this “old-school difficulty” mentality is still alive and well – games that launched after we started making Alto, but before we completed it. Games like Ridiculous Fishing, Flappy Bird, Crossy Road, etc. The example I always refer to for this is Goldeneye for N64.

I grew up playing Goldeneye, and I was pretty good. But pretty good wasn’t good enough to unlock some of the cheats. We had a friend named Bruno, who people would invite over just to beat certain cheats for them. This is the old-school difficulty that I’m talking about. Bruno was the best, and not because he played the longest or spent the most money – but because he was the best.

This isn’t to say all games with ads are evil, or IAPs are wrong (just look at Crossy Road). We just wanted to build something that didn’t rely on any of this. Will Alto’s Adventure ever have any IAPs? It could, but it’d be along the same lines as Monument Valley’s “Forgotten Shores”. Speaking of Monument Valley, it was incredibly exciting for us to see this game came out and prove that premium is still a viable option. It gave us the confidence to move forward with our decisions (so did Threes!).

More about Inspiration

In terms of the actual gameplay mechanics in Alto’s Adventure, we were definitely inspired by one-button control games like Ski Safari, Tiny Wings, Jetpack Joyride, etc., but we also ended up drawing inspiration from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. We actually picked up an old PS2 along with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3 and 4 during the development of Alto. We really wanted to capture the whole trick/combo feeling that Tony Hawk did such a great job with (Jordan and I grew up playing Tony Hawk into the wee hours of the night at sleepovers, while our parents thought we were sleeping). The combo system in Alto is heavily inspired by our experience playing Tony Hawk, as is the grinding mechanic in general.

Tony Hawks Playstation 2 box

The wingsuit inspiration came from my love (and fear) of the sport, along with my brief stint playing SSX for PS3. I fell in love with that thing the second I found out it was in the game (before even using it). Wingsuitting seems like the most fun you can have as a human – and it’s almost depressing to know I’ll never do it. We watched a few wingsuit documentaries for inspiration before getting started on it, most notably “BIRDMEN: The Original Dream of Flight”. I thought it would be a really cool addition to the game, and it could really enhance the ability to pull off crazy combos – something we knew we wanted to focus on in the game.

Each of us drew inspiration for the project from different places – sometimes not even from gaming. Red Bull’s “The Art Of Flight” really inspired me. It’s an incredible snowboarding film that anyone can enjoy – regardless of whether they’re into the sport. The level of detail and work that went into that production was truly inspiring to me.

I’ve also always been obsessed with is “Into The Wild”. I can’t say it inspired the gameplay mechanics of the game (or even the art style), but, I really like the whole idea of being alone in nature. It’s just you and the world around you – and nothing else. I really wanted to convey that emotion in Alto’s Adventure, in some sort of smaller-scale, strange kind of way.

Jordan was hugely inspired by his traveling (he’s been all around the world), and by his love of snowboarding itself.

I won’t talk too much about the visual inspiration for the game (that’s mostly for Harry to talk about), but if there’s one game I’d say we drew the most visual inspiration from, it’d be Journey.

The Final Trailer

Eight days before Alto’s Adventure went live in the App Store, we posted our final trailer on YouTube. We had posted a little teaser video back in September 2014 which had sparked some new interest, but it was this main trailer that was our crown jewel.

I have to admit I was a little worried after the first day. We had about 20k views – not bad – but nothing crazy for the internet in 2015. After finally feeling pretty confident about everything, it was a little depressing (and scary). It wasn’t until the next day that the momentum really started picking up, and the view count was climbing. I think we had hit about 75k views by the time we launched the game the following week on Thursday, February 19, 2015.

The Launch

On launch days, I’m normally up at about 7:00 A.M. I have breakfast, then head over to my desk to finish up all the last bit of preparation for the launch. I’ll usually push the app live in the store around 8:00 A.M., so that it’s ready by the time we announce (usually 12/1pm EST). We do our announcements around this time so that the west coast (California) is awake, and so that it’s early enough that Europe is still around. It’s always worked quite well for us, but for Alto I had planned to launch a little earlier (at 9:00 A.M. EST), as I knew I had a lot more work cut out for me this time.

I woke up at 5:30 A.M. on February 19th. Hopped in the shower, had a quick bite to eat, then headed over to my desk. I have a personal rule not to check my iPhone before finishing breakfast, so that I can start my day with a clear head.

When I got to my desk, there were already over 500 new tweets about Alto showing in Tweetbot. The internet was going crazy about Alto’s Adventure. There were already a bunch of articles about the game up; someone had started a thread for us on TouchArcade (which now has over 77k views). I had about 80 new emails already too. I’d never experienced anything like this. It was crazy.

I started talking to Harry (who’s based in the UK, about five hours ahead of me), and we were both so bamboozled. We still had a bunch of things to finish up, including getting the final website up, finishing up our MailChimp blast, etc.

I think it was about 9:15 A.M. EST when Harry said something along the lines of, “I just realized we haven’t even announced the game yet!”. We were so inundated with chaos that we had forgotten to even announce the game ourselves! I think if he hadn’t mentioned that, I may have gone all day without publishing our blog post, tweets, Facebook posts, etc.

We were extremely pleased to see Alto featured in the App Store when it refreshed later that afternoon.

Apple also promoted the game on Twitter:

And posted our trailer on their Facebook page:

The first day went really well, and by the next day we had hit #1 in Canada, and in many other countries around the world, including the UK, Germany, France, The Netherlands, Russia, Australia, and more.

The Reception

It’s been incredibly rewarding to read what the press has written about Alto’s Adventure.

There’ve been articles written about the game in some big-name traditional media outlets such as WIRED, The New York Observer, TIME, The Washington Post, LA Times, and VICE.

Quite a few technology websites such as The Verge, TechCrunch, CNET, and The Next Web also wrote about the game.

It was cool to see the game being talked about on big gaming sites such as IGN, Eurogamer, Kotaku, Kill Screen, and Destructoid – and the mobile gaming websites like TouchArcade, PocketGamer, etc.

It was also great to see the Apple-focused websites talking about the game, from new start-ups like Apple World Today and Six Colors, to some of the older ones like Macworld.

The Toronto Star (one of the largest newspapers here in Canada) did a profile on us. You can see Jordan and I are all grown up – except I seemed to have forgotten the importance of wearing a winter jacket when it’s -20 out.

My favourite review was written by Eli Cymet for Gamezebo, entitled “Alto’s Adventure Review: Imaginary Somewhere”.

I was utterly blown away by his review.

While we were at GDC (which was an incredible experience) we saw that Alto had been chosen as the Best Game in Apple’s “Best of February 2015″.

All of this has culminated in a combined Metacritic rating of 92. Wow. I didn’t even really expect to be on there.

Something that came as a total shock to me was the fan art. I had never in a million years expected to see fan art for Alto’s Adventure. Every time a new one pops up it truly makes my day.

But probably the most heartwarming thing I’ve seen so far was a tweet from a father showing his two kids, aged 2 and 5, playing the game. That was so touching. I literally almost cried.

A Big Thanks

I’d like to finish up the post by thanking some of my friends and people in the industry who made Alto’s Adventure a reality.

First off, Harry Nesbitt. He’s been an absolutely pleasure to work with, and a great person to share this incredible journey with. I’m so glad we met.

Next up, I’d like that thank Marketcircle. Had I never taken that job back in early 2007, I’d never be where I am today. I had the chance to work alongside some brilliant people there and for that I’ll be forever grateful.

There are too many people to name everyone, but I’d really like to thank a few, in no particular order:

David Barnard (for all of the App Store advice), Ken, Dan, and Matt from Ustwo (for all of the industry advice), Sam Rosenthal (for the great feedback), Jason Medeiros and Fraser Kuyvenhoven from Marketcircle (for the detailed design feedback), Christopher Downer (for the incredibly detailed feedback on numerous occasions), and Matt Coombe (for putting up with all of my amateur questions). A huge thanks to everyone who helped (and is continuing to help) us beta test the game.

Last but not least, a big thanks to everyone who’s been playing the game. You’ve helped changed my life, and I’ll never forget it.

Thanks again to Ryan for allowing us to share his story. If you’d like to read more, visit Ryan’s blog, where there is also a link to “Art & Craft”, a truly insightful podcast featuring interviews with seasoned industry pros.

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