Whale Trail

A psychedelic, surreal and charming flying game.

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Story

Whale Trail is based on three things, Peter Pashley's attempt to capture the joy of bird flight, Andy Lafferty's passion to create the perfect one handed mobile experience and my aim of bringing a unique look and feel to a game. 

We began the journey with a huge amount of experimentation around finding the most satisfying flight mechanic. This took us through all kinds of speed issues and flight abilities but ultimately ended up with something simple, intuitive and fun.

Our central character passed through phases of being a bird, a bee, back to a bird but ultimately a whale as we realised the bird themed mobile game market had become saturated.

This avoidance of an avian protagonist was a huge blessing as it let us cut loose on the design of the project. With a flying whale as our hero anything can happen, right?

When designing the gameplay of Whale Trail we experimented with all kinds of picks-ups, fuel types, UI elements, world and character design. Pash also created an incredibly intuitive level builder tool that let us build the sections of the game on device, this was invaluable as it let myself and Andy instantly create and test sections of gameplay.

Whilst balancing gameplay we wanted to have a mechanism to allow the players to refuel, as our initial intention was to create a game that was fairly easy to do well at. During one creative session we threw up the concept of end-of-level-baddies (or bosses), a video game trope, but we quickly subverted the idea into end-of-level-goodies . This concept inspired me to create the pantheon of strangely lovable goofballs that intermittently help plucky little Willow the Whale on his way. 

During user testing it was discovered that people were kind of terrified of these characters so I set to work softening them up. This resulted in the final selection of goodies found in the game.

We now had a cute flying game with some cool backgrounds and fun characters but there was still something missing from the core gameplay. We spent some time looking at the problem and identified the fact that there was no real jeopardy in Whale Trail, there was no real punishment for failure. We realised that we needed to create tension for the player so they would strive to continue flying, in short we needed a bad-ass baddy to eat you if you messed up.

We created a toxically corrupted giant squid creature and hilariously named him 'Baron Von Barry'. Oh how we laughed, but to reflect for a moment, laughter is a key part of the Whale Trail story. We had fun almost every day when making the game (except when we had to do sprint planning) and it still feels, to me at least, like those good vibes made their way into the game.

With our baddy and our game mechanics hooked up we just needed to add a sprinkle of story to make the game presentable as an almost complete package. I worked on a series of increasingly bizarre back-stories but once we had Baron Von Barry in the mix we were able to present the player with a simple motivation.

One final and vital piece of the puzzle was the music and sound design for the game. I was lucky enough to have worked with Gruff Ryhs before so I asked him if he would be interested in creating the theme tune for the game, once he played Whale Trail and was hooked, he quickly agreed to write the theme. However the theme quickly became a song, which was then released as a double A side single and before we knew what was happening I'd created a video to accompany the song...

The inexplicable Whale Trail promo video 

So the game was done! We were very excited and started to plan for how huge it would be and how amazing people would think it was and how many millions of people would soon be buying it.

ustwo™ had nurtured a great relationship with Apple running up to release so when we finally hit the store we were over the moon to find we were featured as global game of the week on iTunes App Store!

However we never really quite made the impression on the app world we hoped we would. Our 69p price plan was based on the proven success of titles like Angry Birds but we never hit enough sales to sustain a top chart position, which creates exposure, which leads to enough sales  to make the project profitable. 

Despite our dreams of huge sales not materialising, within a few days of launch we were talking to Penguin books about turning Whale Trail into an IP beyond the game. We quickly signed a book deal and I began work on what was to be our ebook, published on Penguins Puffin label and released on Apples iBook store! It is still available by the way...

Back to the game. Despite poor sales we continued to support our beloved Whale Trail and added a whole lot more content in the shape of 'challenge levels'. These proved very popular and we went on to add a total of three packs.

But in the wider App world we were now witnessing the rise of the freemium model and so priced at 69p, Whale Trail was left in no-man's land.  We thought about the best way to help sustain the game and decided to reengineer it as a free-to-play title.

But not not being motivated to completely cripple our game in order to screw the highest possible amount of money out of players in exchange for a frustrating experience, we created a very 'light-touch' version of FTP for Whale Trail. To be fair we did our best to engineer it to stand the best chance of being profitable but turning a paid game into a FTP one is not straight forward.

 We knew some players would still be annoyed by this and it was a tough call, but we still really, really loved and believed in the game and hoped this would lift it out of the chart doldrums. We hoped this move would get it front of lot of new people who reckoned would like it if they played it.

This re-engineering meant we had to change Willow's abilities in order to make a meaningful skill upgrade but to offset that we gave players who had already purchased the game a bunch of free Krill to try and ease the transition. In the end we did get complaints but not too many and we gained a huge swathe of new Willow fans.

We did mange to keep the original game alive on Android as we felt that the ecosystem was more favourable to sustaining two versions. This meant on Android you can buy 'Whale Trail Classic' and the new FTP version 'Whale Trail Frenzy'

The game has continued to perform modestly and still pays for its upkeep and while I write this we're updating it to comply with new App Store standards.

Throughout the lifetime of the game one thing above all others has sustained us and kept our passion alive for the project and that's to tremendous feedback we've had from fans of the game. With over 12,000 #whaletrail on Instagram and daily emails of thanks from players Whale Trail remains a hugely important and beloved game for us here.

Thank you for playing.

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