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Powder Play: The Making of ‘Alto’s Adventure’

Behind the scenes of the mobile game that's hit number one in over 20 countries.

It's one of the best-looking games on the App Store right now, and amongst its best sellers. Reaching number one on the UK's paid chart in its first week of release, and the same position in over 20 territories, endless side-scrolling snowboarder Alto's Adventure takes refined gameplay and a great art – evocative of Journey's barren world, but snow-covered and bursting with life to both chase after and flee from – and applies these qualities to a genre more associated with freemium titles, where in-app purchases abound.

But while the likes of Temple Run and Jetpack Joyride encourage the player to speed up their progress by paying for upgrades, Alto's Adventure asks only that you spend £1.49/$1.99, and that's it: no more charges, no further costs to unlock essential perks, nothing that'll have your kids running up a gigantic phone bill to stay competitive with their mates' high scores. You pay your money and you get Alto as your little man on the screen. Reach level 10 and you unlock another character, Maya, with differently balanced abilities – her backflips are completed quicker, but she's slower to build speed. Next up is the heavier, faster Paz, and so on – the point being that you're never invited to pay up front and over the odds for these powder players.

As the first fully realised video game from Canadian developers Snowman – founded in 2012 by keen snowboarders Ryan Cash and Jordan Rosenberg – you could forgive the young studio for following the expected route: to pump their game full of cash-in incentives for quicker levelling and score-bumping runs. But while the option of going freemium was discussed, ultimately it just didn't fit with how Cash and Rosenberg want mobile gaming to grow.

"We did see that freemium games were making good money, and knew that our game could be adapted for that market pretty easily," says Cash. "But it never felt right. If we'd gone freemium, and it'd been a huge success, sure, I'd have reaped the financial rewards, but it wouldn't have sat quite right with me. I wouldn't want that type of game myself. Threes and Monument Valley did well last year, and when that happened we really realised that you could make money from premium indie games. Those games gave us the confidence to stick with our gut instincts."

What the team wanted, and what they had, were two very different things until late in the development of Alto's Adventure. An original release date of September 2013 was missed by several months, but with good reason: all involved were desperate for the game to be perfect, to represent precisely what they envisioned. And with new ideas regularly entering the gestation process, the game's ever-changing form ensured the creative process lasted just as long as it needed to.

"The game changed a lot over the two years we were building it," says Cash. "But at the same time, it never really took a dramatic turn. It was always planned to be what it is today, but it took a long time to get there, and we did constantly get new ideas as we were making it. For the first year we didn't have any active weather, but luckily we were able to incorporate that. Back then there was no grinding, no wing suit (unlocked with in-game coins – you can't buy it with real money), no weather, no elders (which chase you when you pass them, and will knock you off your board if they catch up) – it was very basic. It worked as a game, but we took the time to add all these new ideas, and to tweak the whole thing. We really obsessed over every little last detail."

Cash and company – the pair was joined by artist Harry Nesbit, who worked tirelessly on the entrancing visuals – were right to take time, to see every last detail out to its very finest final state. There's a wealth of endless runners on the App Store, and though a good-looking game will serve its makers well in the short term, real success is measured in eyes-on-screens hours. And Cash knew that while he might think something's positively ripe with repeat-play addictiveness, it only takes one opposite perspective to muddy a once-clear mindset.

"My sister came over to mine two years ago, and I asked her to play the beta we had of Circles, a little puzzler we were working on at the time. I left her with my iPad and went for a shower. I must have been ten minutes, but when I got back to her she was playing Cut the Rope. She'd also played two other games and gone on the internet. So that was a little sad to see, but it was a great reality check: if my sister isn't going to play my game for ten minutes, why should I expect anyone else to?

"With Alto, it was different. People would come over and we'd ask them to play it, and they'd keep playing it until we said, 'Okay, that's enough... You have to leave now, it's four in the morning.' And the more we added to the game, the longer that people wanted to play it for. We wanted to try to make something approachable by everyone – even kids. We had a four year old and a seven year old beta testing the game with us, and 50 to 100 people at different times, too. And when it's not a chore to play your own game, that's also a good sign. Alto never felt like a chore, and I still enjoy playing it now."

Rigorous play testing has guaranteed the just-one-more-go factor for Alto's Adventure – it's a risky move starting a new run knowing that your stop on the train home is just a couple of miles away. Each fresh start from atop the mountain presents challenges to pass in order to advance through the game's levels, including successfully landing specific tricks – variations on grinds and backflips, mainly – navigating obstacles or chasing down a certain amount of llamas. There are power-ups as you slide endlessly down – a hover pick-up that does what it says on the tin and allows easier avoidance of run-ruining rocks, and a coin magnet that is, again, self-explanatory. How Alto's Adventure plays isn't anything new, really, expertly engineered though it is. It's the combination of hooky gameplay with those striking visuals that makes for a chart-topping proposition.

"Utterly beautiful" is how Pocket Gamer describes the game's environments. "The visuals are incredible," states Touch Arcade. And they're certainly a royal treat for the retinas, the game's day-night cycle and occasional outbreaks of torrential rain and crackling thunder and lightning giving the two-dimensional presentation a palpable sense of life, of nature. And that's what Cash was aiming for: a game that's more about cruising off-piste than hitting half-pipes, that shoots you through green trees instead of slalom gates.

"We wanted to create something that felt like you were outdoors. We wanted to focus on the nature side of things, and not make another X Games-style 'extreme' snowboarding game, with all these crazy tricks. We wanted the natural side of the sport, rather than the stuff you see on TV. I don't know if you've seen The Art of Flight, the snowboarding film, but even if you're not into snowboarding it's one of the most well shot and edited films I've ever seen, and its whole theme is being out there, amongst nature. And that was definitely a source of inspiration for us."

The game's trailer (below) was an important, press-piquing part of the pre-release routine, featuring music from Sigur Rós frontman Jónsi. The track in question, "Kolniður", was originally installed as a placeholder, but on seeing it matched with footage from the game, Cash simply had to have it.

"Harry put together a rough cut of the trailer, around May of 2014. He was looking for a song, and he was watching another video that had that music on it, so he used it on the Alto trailer. He put it in, sent it to me, and when I was watching it I had goose bumps. I was like, holy shit, and then Jordan had the same reaction. We showed it to a few people and it became clear that we had to use that song – under no circumstances could we use something else, even if we have to do it illegally and they sued us. It's too perfect."

No legal action was necessary as the track was approved. "We were pretty surprised, but we're super happy," says Cash. "Although, we've never actually found out if Jónsi knows his song is on there, or if he even likes the use." The music in the game itself isn't so dramatic, its synthesised strings, woodwind and recurring piano motif serving as more of a calming accompaniment to what can be some hectic downhill action. The bottom of the run will never be reached, although it's a thrill every time you pass your previous longest distance – not that metres covered represents the best way to accumulate points, as successfully linking tricks together produces multipliers to take your total sky high.

While it's iOS only at the moment, Alto's Adventure is coming to other devices and platforms. An Android port is in the pipeline – "I can't see that not happening, because there's such a big demand for it," says Cash – and Snowman have been contacted by several companies asking for their own versions: "My inbox is just overflowing, and Twitter is popping up all the time... loads of people want to meet with us." It's all gone better than anyone could have expected, but Cash is slightly bummed out by one result of the game's launch.

"It got to three in the US," he says, after rolling out an arm's-length list of where the game did reach the top spot, including Australia, the UK, Canada and Germany. "I'm still gunning for number one, though – it's not over yet. I think we still have the chance to do it." Right now, it's just one of myriad opportunities for this small team and their incredibly in-demand debut game proper.

@MikeDiver

Previously:

The Internet Has Responded to a Game About Rape as Only the Internet Can

In the Mouth of the Moon: A Personal Reading of 'Majora's Mask'

Video Game Guns Get Everything Wrong