Mobile gamer behind Crossy Road explains why overnight success took him 30 years

Road to success

Hipster Whale’s Matt Hall has hit the jackpot, thanks to a cast of virtual characters playing in traffic.

On 20 November 2014, the mobile game Crossy Road was launched on iTunes. In the first 90 days of release, the free game was downloaded 50 million times, accumulating US$10 million in revenue through timely promotion and the shrewd use of unobtrusive in-app purchases and ads. Fast forward to today and the game has been downloaded more than 120 million times.

Matt Hall and his company, Hipster Whale, are responsible for the Crossy Road extravaganza. Raised on a Victorian sheep farm, Hall started programming at the age of eight, tapping away on a Commodore 64. Today, his list of development credits includes Doodle Find, Little Things and PAC-MAN 256.

“It’s taken me over 30 years to become an overnight success, but in some ways it was an accidental success,” he says.

Hall and business partner Andy Sum set aside six weeks to design and develop Crossy Road. The original six weeks turned into 12, remarkably taking place solely online with Hall based in Creswick, a small Victorian town near Ballarat, and Sum in Melbourne. Friend Ben Weatherall then completed the voxel (cube-like) artwork in a matter of weeks.
So, what exactly is Crossy Road?

“It’s taken me over 30 years to become an overnight success.”

A mix of classic 1981 arcade game Frogger and 2013’s Flappy Bird, the aim is to score high while your character crosses roads, rails and rivers. Like all the best games, it’s easy to learn, but difficult to master.

“The Flappy Bird guy [developer Dong Nguyen] was earning US$50,000 a day for that app through advertising alone,” says Hall, adding that Flappy Bird was his single greatest motivation. “That got me thinking, ‘Imagine if he’d done better ads.’”

Professional Development: Business execution: crafting a business strategy that executes

In mobile gaming, monetisation presents a challenge. Crossy Road’s use of transparent and capped expenses was a conscious decision by Hipster Whale to not shove ads in faces. The “freemium” game has been structured to play endlessly for free, but gamers can also watch a sponsored ad or pay to unlock a new character.

“We took a fairly benign approach to monetisation,” says Hall.

“By making things simple and clear, we believe we made a more family-friendly game. People were happy to tell their friends about Crossy Road, because we didn’t have our hands in their wallets.”

Word of mouth was one part of a creative promotional strategy. Such was the case with PewDiePie, the world’s most popular YouTuber. When Hipster Whale cast his pug dog Maya as a Crossy Road character, PewDiePie couldn’t resist playing the game in one of his regular updates – the result was a spike in downloads.

Crossy Road is now its own industry in a mobile gaming marketplace that is predicted to grow in revenue from US$29 billion in 2015 to US$45 billion by 2018. A recent and successful collaboration with Disney, which was initiated by a mutual friend, took 12 months to create – not 12 weeks – with just as many Hipster Whale staff as Disney staff providing support.

For the time being, Hall is cautiously adjusting to his new-found wealth, his only significant purchase being a new Tesla Model S.

Crossy Road has exceeded our expectations 10 times over at least, and it will keep us busy for a long time with new opportunities,” he says. “We’re certainly not done yet.” 

Hipster Whale was a finalist in the 2015 Australian Export Awards, co-presented by CPA Australia.

One piece of advice

“It’s way too easy to build a product for yourself, so put yourself in other people’s shoes. My seven-year-old daughter, Holly, has grown up with the iPad, and seeing how she uses it is the secret to Hipster Whale’s success!”

Read next: Video game pioneer Nolan Bushnell focuses on education


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