Shainiel Deo is one of the driving forces behind the new wave of so-called casual games: titles featuring relatively simple graphics and straightforward game play, which can be played a minute or two at a time on a mobile device or social website.
The 36-year-old CEO has built Australia’s Halfbrick Studios into one of the top casual-game publishers on the strength of Fruit Ninja, an addictive game in which players slice through a barrage of produce by swiping a finger across a touch screen, developing their skill as the fruit flies faster and thicker. Since the 99-cent game was released in April 2010, more than 10 million people have downloaded it.
Deo has seen casual games expand a once almost negligible market share to become a juggernaut: according to the Entertainment Software Association, 47 percent of the most frequently played online games are casual games, and they dominate the best-selling-app charts for both iPhones and Android devices.
Deo founded Halfbrick in 2001 in Brisbane, Australia, and started developing games for children that relied on content and characters licensed from TV shows and movies. These games were designed primarily for the video-game console market and were distributed online through the PlayStation Network, Xbox Live Arcade, and various websites. But the iPhone pushed casual games into the mainstream in 2007, prompting him to focus on original titles: in addition to Fruit Ninja, Halfbrick has a small stable of such games, including the popular Age of Zombies. “When mobile took off, the market aligned with our strengths,” he says, referring to Halfbrick’s experience with online distribution and simple game mechanics for children’s games.
Mobile-app stores also gave independent developers across the globe access to a worldwide audience, enabling a small outfit like Halfbrick to compete head-on with multinational entertainment conglomerates.
Halfbrick now designs games primarily for mobile devices. The formula is simple: focus on a core game mechanic (e.g., Fruit Ninja’s finger swipe), whittle the code to a tiny footprint suitable for the limited battery life and processing power of a mobile device, and polish the presentation to a high gloss. For Fruit Ninja, Deo says, “we wanted it to be very simple … We knew that we had something special when we started showing our friends and family. They wouldn’t want to hand the phones back.”
For now, Halfbrick releases its titles on the iPhone first and rolls them out to other platforms as momentum builds. Deo looks forward to simultaneous Android-iOS releases, and he expects to add other platforms before long, including promotional versions that can be played in a Web browser, either in Flash or in HTML5.