You’re sitting in the back of maths class, iPod touch glowing under the desk. Your eyes are darting between the whiteboard and the screen, as you frantically swipe up, down, left and right to avoid cracks in bridges and arches made of flames. It is 2011, and you have just downloaded Temple Run.
If you’re not responsible for one of the game’s 2 billion downloads, here’s the premise: you’re an Indiana Jones type who’s stolen an unspecified precious artefact that a load of “demon monkeys” really don’t want you to have. The aim is to run away from them, as fast as possible, through an old crumbling temple.
The game reached number one in the App Store charts soon after its release, and its sequel is still riding high a decade on. To mark Temple Run’s tenth birthday this week, I spoke to the North Carolina-based husband and wife duo behind the original game, Keith Shepherd and Natalia Luckyanova, along with other members of the creative team.
Natalia Luckyanova, co-creator, Imangi Studios: We actually met working in a software company that made software for hospitals and stuff like that, and we were looking to do something a little more creative and independent. Keith has always been a big Apple fan, and an early adopter. When the iPhone came out, he was first in line to get it. He’s always really been into making games too, but that was always just a side thing.
Keith Shepherd, co-creator, Imangi Studios: The first thing we made was a little word puzzle we called Imangi. It was there the very first day the App Store opened. That game was not a success at all – nobody's heard of it – but we made about ten games before Temple Run came out.
Luckyanova: Our previous game [just before Temple Run] was about a little kid defending his little suburban world from alien invasion. It was a dual stick shooter, so you had to control where he was walking and control where he was shooting at the same time. It was very complex, and most people didn’t get how to play it. After that, we specifically set out thinking about how can we make it simple and straightforward. That's basically where Temple Run came from.
CREATING ‘TEMPLE RUN’
Kiril Tchangov, original artist: At that time, I was doing basic graphic design work for some government contracting in the DC area. A co-worker showed me a post on Twitter from Natalia, saying they were organising a meet-up right in my neighbourhood. I went along because I was really hungry to get into games. Keith and I met up a little bit afterwards, and there’d been this one piece of work I’d done at the time which was evocative and had more storytelling elements to it, so he gave me a shot.
Shepherd: We always approached games by making prototypes, so usually it’s without a theme in mind or nice art to it. It's just a bunch of boxes and a little character running on the screen. We’d been playing around with this prototype for Temple Run, which was this infinite maze that just kept generating in every direction, and then we started working with Kiril, who was the artist on the original Temple Run, and it just sort of took on that adventure life on its own.
Tchangov: I took inspiration from an old [Werner] Herzog film, Aguirre, the Wrath of God. It's got the whole man versus nature thing, and the conquistadors in the middle of the Amazon trying to spread religion. So it’s got this big existential dread sense about it. [Keith, Natalia and I] decided we needed imminent danger that's making you run forward. It couldn't just be, like, a giant boulder. I think it was Natalia that said, ‘We’ll just add some monkeys, or whatever, and call it a day.’ That’s kind of how it came about, and I did the sketch.
Shepherd: We call them demon monkeys; they’ve got these skull-like faces and glowing eyes. Kiril has such a vivid imagination, and his art style always lends itself very well to those dark, mysterious and kind of creepy creatures. So we just let him sort of run wild with creating a scary monster that's going to be chasing you. It had to look like they were scary enough that you couldn't just turn around and fight them – you really were running for your life and being terrified. That was the goal.
Walter Devins, CEO, Imangi Studios: We have the ten commandments of the Temple Run world. First, it has to possibly exist on Earth, and we have no guns or modern technology. That's partly because of our philosophy – we just don’t like guns and violence.
Luckyanova: You’ve got to test your games on people too – just hand it to somebody with no explanation and see what they do with it. If people are stumbling around at first, that tells you a lot. Temple Run was definitely the thing where people got into it right away and didn’t want to give your phone back. My sister used to call it “Swishy McSwipey”, but we were like, “OK, people actually like this.”
Luckyanova: We initially launched it for 99 cents. It did kind of OK for the first couple of months – it climbed the charts a little bit, but then it started going down. Once it starts going down, that’s the death spiral. So we made it free, just to see what would happen. That’s when it really started spreading and going viral. A couple of months later, it had hit number one and it was number one for months and months.
Shepherd: We were living in Washington DC at the time and there was definitely a period of time where we would get on the subway and there would probably be a dozen people on that train car playing Temple Run. To see everybody, everywhere, playing something we had created was just such a magical, surreal feeling.
Luckyanova: Right? It was just something that we made in our tiny little apartment. Just the two of us, plus our artist, and suddenly everybody's playing it.
Tchangov: Temple Run’s success was pretty crazy. I still have a sighting every once in a while. It’s nice, because some people still appreciate the first one most. Although, I had some guilt and dread hearing how some people, at the time, had basically failed out of high school because they played too much Temple Run. It kind of weighed down on me.
Luckyanova: One of my favourite things to do since I got on Instagram has been following the Temple Run hashtag. It’s so cool to see the stuff fans come up with.
Devins: We have one player in China who had one continuous run that lasted over 24 hours. There are so many homemade, organic videos from fans in places like India or Mexico, or places where temples actually are. They’ll film themselves and put in graphics, and it’s like real-life Temple Run. The amount of creativity is awesome. People are green screening themselves into the game – they’ll do their daily workout in it.
Raghav, founder of YouTube channel Shutter Authority: I watched a video of someone playing the game, and there were people saying if someone made a [Temple Run] movie they would pay to watch. So we made a low-budget version of it. They’ve all been filmed in different locations. The first one was shot in a temple in India. It’s about 800 years old and was going through some renovation at the time, so there weren’t any people there. I went with a friend of mine really early in the morning and just shot this little thing.
They’re probably my most viewed videos now. It has a huge global fan base, mainly because of its simplicity and visual design, which is really beautiful. You wouldn't see this sort of thing for a bigger PC game or an Xbox game. A lot of game companies don’t interact so much with the content creators as much as Imangi has been doing, let alone sharing 3D models of their assets to help them make better stuff. They’re always really up for anything.
Devins: For fun, during the pandemic, as we were all quarantining last April, I made two of my own videos and put them on our website. It’s just interesting that fans can fantasise the physical aspect of it.
Shepherd: It’s hard to believe that it’s been ten years. That’s forever. Sometimes you meet people and you say, “We made this game called Temple Run,” and just seeing somebody’s eyes light up and say, like, “You guys made that? That's amazing.” It's still such a strange feeling.
Luckyanova: A lot of kids grew up playing it, and now most of them are grown up. It's kind of amazing to have been a part of their childhood, because anything from your childhood just has this magic and beauty in it.
Devins: Do you know why Usain Bolt is a character in our game? We found out he played Temple Run, and he would play it before his Olympic races to calm down. So we asked him if he wanted to be in the game and he said yeah. So, you know, fastest man in the world and fastest man in Temple Run.
Shepherd: [The calming element] wasn’t intentional, but I definitely think it’s important. When we were making a sequel we knew we couldn’t break what people liked about the original, and that was something we really identified that was important to the way the game feels.
Devins: But mainly Temple Run is simple. From my perspective, it kind of goes back to the 80s arcades where anybody could play and have a really fun session. You didn’t need to have a PlayStation or play for 60 hours and then finally get good at it; anybody can play. It’s very accessible to hardcore gamers, because it’s challenging when it gets hard, but to entry level gamers it really works because the mechanic is easy: just up, down, left, right. Some video games [are localised], but we didn’t do that. Whether you’re in China, Japan, Russia or Australia, everybody gets that you take the shiny object, you run and you try to survive. That simplicity is how you get 2 billion people.
THE FUTURE OF ‘TEMPLE RUN’
Shepherd: There’s so much inspiration we can pull from, from different cultures and places around the world. As we continue to extend Temple Run, over the years we’ve tried to draw inspiration from all that and bring it into the game, but kind of put our own twist on it by combining things or bringing them together. We’re always trying to make improvements, and a lot of that comes from requests from the fans.
Devins: We have a group called the super fan group. They tell us what they want, and we listen to them. So that’s been really cool – they help us with new maps and things we’ll be doing in the future. We really strove to create a diverse player group and a cast of runners. We have really strong women characters that are not video game characters, like scantily dressed in bikinis and that kind of thing, but real adventurers with real gear. And then as we expanded our different maps – we have a map based in South America, one in Siberia, one in the Middle East and one in the jungles of Asia – we have real characters from those areas, so people all around the world can have a character that they feel represents them.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.