Even back in 2015, Alto’s Adventure was one of a dying breed: a truly new, premium, mobile-native hit.
You might even argue it was the last paid mobile game to break through before Apple Arcade (and to a lesser degree Google Play Pass) arrived to keep premium games alive.
Even Snowman CEO Ryan Cash says Alto’s Adventure would likely not succeed in the current climate, in fact. “I kind of equate luck with timing,” he tells us. “We are lucky that Alto’s Adventure came out when it did. If we were making Alto’s Adventure right now it might be a failure, and certainly would not have had the success it had.”
“The landscape has shifted so much…to make a paid-up-front game with a team of a few people is not something that I would really bet on right now,” Cash continues. “I think it’s still possible but I really think paid games are kind of reserved only for really strong IP like Minecraft, or if, like, Jonathan Blow makes a premium mobile game.”
“If you’re a solo developer and you make something really cool it’s still possible to succeed, but I think the biggest problem is you’re not just up against other games, free games like Fortnite and services like Apple Arcade and Netflix games – you’re up against social media. If someone has five minutes to kill, what’s going to make them open up a game instead of opening up TikTok?”
Lucky for Cash and his team, then, that Apple Arcade and then Netflix came along. After releasing an Alto’s Adventure sequel, Alto’s Odyssey, Snowman was one of the studios handpicked by Apple to be part of the Arcade launch line-up with Skate City. It also published puzzle adventure Where Cards Fall when the service launched in September 2019. The two Altos games have since arrived on Arcade too.
Since then, Apple’s service has become much more focused on family titles and reworked classics, so Netflix has effectively become Snowman’s new home, like many other game companies of its ilk – including Ustwo Games, Nerial, Frosty Pop, Rogue and more.
It released pixel art platformer Lucky Luna through Netflix in September, but Cash insists there’s been no big switch of allegiances.
“Anytime a platform comes out, or has an interesting opportunity, we’re always listening,” says Cash, diplomatically. “We’ve done Switch, Xbox, PlayStation, Steam and we had a kind of collaboration with Epic – so we’re not just like an Apple developer. When we found out Netflix was getting into games, it was very exciting to us.”
“I wouldn’t necessarily say like we’ve ‘made the switch’ or anything,” Cash continues. “We’re interested in just making cool experiences that we feel do something unique and valuable. For the most part that’s been, like, very premium Apple-first focused games, but I think it’s widening a bit as our studio grows.”
The studio’s second Netflix game, Laya’s Horizon, has been in development for five years. It’s a wingsuit game that’s partly inspired by games like Journey and Breath of the Wild, says Cash.
“It’s our biggest internal game project and most ambitious title,” he tells us. “It’s been quite the journey, especially building up the team over COVID, working remotely….it’s a pretty challenging game to build for mobile for a variety of reasons.”
It’s certainly a leap beyond the side-scrolling snowboarding of the Alto’s games – an open 3D world that encourages exploration, allied with controls designed to replicate the feeling of flight.
Appropriately, it seems Netflix really wants this one to take off; The Verge covered Laya’s Horizon recently, calling it “one of the best games to hit Netflix’s fledgling gaming service to date”, which will help.
Next, there’s Distant, a game first announced six years ago – “We showed that one way too early,” Cash says with a smile – which looks likely to end up on Netflix at some point too, though Cash wouldn’t confirm as much.
It’s another game about the “elegance of movement”, says Cash, and fits into what is becoming Snowman’s signature style: “We like to deal with players getting into a good rhythm and a good flow,” he says. “Games that let you escape out into nature and feel a moment of calm.” There are other, more experimental games in their early stages at Snowman too.
With the support of two industry giants in Apple and Netflix, Snowman is in a unique position – it’s able to make mobile games without worrying about things like retention and monetisation at all.
It could have all been so different, though: Snowman’s debut hit Alto’s Adventure was nearly a free-to-play game.
“We were making our dream game that we wanted to play,” adds Cash. “And [the free-to-play model] was the one part that never sat right with us. But it seemed like that was the only way to do it.”
“Then Monument Valley came out and we were like, okay, that’s enough proof that you can still make a premium game and people will pay for it. That gave us the confidence to stick with our gut.”