[UPDATE] Whale Trail has gone live today - download it at the App Store UK: http://bit.ly/pYTTxf and US: http://bit.ly/pOrV1q or just search for it on your local App Store. It's only 69p and is well worth a go (it might just keep Mills in a job).
[UPDATE 17.01.12 Whale Trail is now available for Android here.
And here's a nice behind the scenes video... Read our full story below and see our own documentary on the studio at the bottom of the page.
"We've spent the last three years experimenting, creating and more importantly actually releasing a range of targeted and niche applications that have all helped to build our profile in the design and development industry," says the flamboyant, unmistakable Mills – co-founder, creative director and 'Chief Wonka' at UI studio ustwo. "They've showcased our passion and willingness to invest heavily in an area we care about."
For the first time, the studio is releasing what it considers to be a mainstream game - the lifeblood of the App Store - and Mills is refreshingly honest about the reason for this: "We recently launched Nursery Rhymes with Storytime. It gained huge press attention, the best Apple promotion on both sides of the Atlantic, and was recognised by the publishing industry and fans throughout the world," he begins. "However, even after scaling its way to the top grossing book chart for two weeks in the US and the UK, all that effort - 1,400 hours - culminated in only 26,000 downloads. Lack of money was not the disappointment, but lack of audience was. As designers with egos, we want our work to be admired by as many people as possible and gaming gives us that opportunity."
Continuing, Mills rounds up the agency's apps so far, building a picture of the studio and its output. "We've produced novelty with MouthOff - £55,000 in sales - and Happy Snapper, which has 500,000 free downloads to date. There's Utility with PositionApp - which to date has made £25,000 in sales. We've also had collaborative experimental apps with our dear friend Jon Burgerman with Inkstrumental - £8,000 in sales and 125,000 in free downloads - and an app for the 'pure designer' with Granimator, collaborating with over 50 of the world's best creatives, whilst putting the power of creation in the hands of the users. To date, Granimator has had 158,000 downloads and over 300,000 artist pack downloads. We've also done graphical fantastical with the highly respected but limited edition . series. These are highly coolectable [sic] and made in 48 hours with £11,000 in sales and over 350,000 free downloads."
Mills goes on to say that the agency's biggest learning curve after all these releases has been a lesson in how to sell direct to users, not clients. "It's taught us about the harsh realities of the app world, and helped to better mould download expectations," he says. "Just because you can sell to the whole world, doesn't mean the whole world necessarily wants to buy your app."
So, with the 20 October release of Whale Trail, Mills and the agency hopes that it will bring some of the undoubted ustwo charm to the already packed Games genre on the App Store. "We see an awful lot of tired and depressing game design releases with no real personality or style," he smiles. "We needed to make sure that wasn't the case with Whale Trail. The key was creating a character, which turned out to be Willow, who could carry the game all the way over the rainbow."
Whale Trial graphically mixes the styles of the . (dot) and Granimator designer, Andy Lafferty, with the character genius of Neil McFarland of Inkstrumental and Nursery Rhymes. "We wanted to blend them like a tuna slam-down and make a shake so fruity, yet so juicy," says Mills in one of his now trademark-style quotes. "It's this mix that has created the unique look of Willow, Baron Von Barry and the Evil Thunder Bros."
Whale Trail itself is a simple game - tap and hold the screen to make the lead character Willow ascend, and release to make him swoop (see footage below). The idea is to collect as many bubbles as possible - thus keeping your 'trail' - whilst avoiding being electrocuted by evil clouds (the Thunder Bros.) and being captured by Baron Von Barry. It also features a horribly addictive soundtrack penned by none other than Gruff Rhys (who is releasing the single of the same name at the same time as the game). [UPDATE See video below]
Willow himself is a loveable, yet relatively simple character. Neil McFarland, creative director at ustwo, recalls the brief when designing him: "We knew we wanted to make a flying game early on and initially we prototyped a game about a bee, but during an early creative conversation we decided we wanted the game to have a whimsical and surreal element to it. We then started thinking about animals that weren't made to fly and, based on a random, off-the-cuff suggestion about a whale that could fly, the direction of the game was agreed," he says.
McFarland continues: "The main design issue we faced with the game was all due to the size of Willow the Whale on screen, as he's often quite small and this made it difficult to add too much detail to the design other than a simple outline. The scale of Willow meant we couldn't open his mouth, as it made him look like a little fish or something that had a horn on its head. We went through dozens and dozens of designs before we finally settled on the in-game design. The character was designed on paper, then modelled in Illustrator before having final colour treatment added in Photoshop. It was then exported as PNG files and animated in Maya."
Andy Lafferty (aka Lafferdog) continues, further discussing the restrictions when designing Willow: "The main restriction was that we knew the character would have to be quite small on the screen," he explains. "So this meant we had to keep the detail to a minimum, and also make sure the shape and features were exaggerated so they stood out. We also had to play with the shape of the character so that he looked like he was flying and was aero-dynamic. We went for a flat back and had the body drooping down to add a visual weight to the character, so when flying and swooping it felt a lot more realistic."
The background graphics also proved quite a challenge, as Lafferty explains: "We went through quite a few versions before we found a style that worked. We wanted loads of detail in there, but needed to make sure it wasn't too distracting from what was in the foreground. All in all we have seven colour zones, each corresponding to a colour in the rainbow. We have different graphics for each of these zones, so it's been quite a mission to make sure they all stand out and have a unique character of their own."
Whale Trail is released on 20 October. To celebrate the splash down, we've made our Studio Life short film, which discusses the project in more detail, free. See it below and tell us what you think in the comments and find out more about ustwo at www.ustwo.co.uk
Studio Life is free on the Computer Arts Creative DVD every issue, and is produced in association with Adobe.