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'Alto's Odyssey' took three years to make, and that's all right

'We're kind of just making it up as we go.'
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It's been three years since Snowman, a tiny independent studio based in Toronto, launched Alto's Adventure on iOS devices. Back then, the Alto crew was three people -- Ryan Cash, Harry Nesbitt and Jordan Rosenberg -- and Alto's Adventure was their first real game. They didn't know what to expect when they published it in the App Store for $2.99 in Feb. 2015, but the team hoped for the best.

That launch changed everything.

Alto's Adventure was a huge success. Players devoured the serene, soothing experience set on the slopes of a snowy mountain range -- it was an endless-runner snowboarding and llama-herding game, and its only mechanic involved tapping the screen to jump. Though gameplay was simple, the atmosphere and art told a larger story about comfort, risk and the warmth of home. Apple users ate it up, and the next year, Android players got a taste as well.

It's been three years since Alto's Adventure debuted on mobile devices, which means it's been about three years since players have been asking Snowman about a sequel. This week, they got their wish as Alto's Odyssey landed in the App Store for $4.99.

"The big elephant in the room is, this game's taking quite a long time to release since the first one came out," producer Eli Cymet said. "And that's because we really wanted to pursue a feeling that was more natural to us."

The Snowman team has flourished since 2015, and the studio now acts as a quasi-publisher for other independent developers, collaborating on projects like Where Cards Fall with Los Angeles studio The Game Band. Cymet joined Team Alto (the group within Snowman that's dedicated to this particular franchise) after the launch of Alto's Adventure but before Nesbitt and the crew added a consequence-free Zen Mode in June 2016.

This is one reason it took three years -- and one high-profile delay -- for Alto's Odyssey to see the light of day: Developers were busy supporting the game they had already launched. This meant bringing Alto's Adventure to Android and Windows, ensuring it was compatible with new hardware and software updates, and listening to player feedback to improve the game. That's how Zen Mode happened, after all.

"As much as there's been a focus on creating the right game, it's also about having the right workflow and the right process, and working with the right people," Nesbitt said. "So as the team has expanded to accommodate the new ambitions that we've got, then also there's a lot to learn for how to work in that way and essentially just find a stable rhythm so that it's not just a one-off situation. We want to keep on making games that people love and that excite us."

From the first line of code to the last, Team Alto has been actively working on Alto's Odyssey for just one and a half years rather than the full three. The rest of that time has been spent building a stable business and keeping existing players happy.

"Alto's Adventure is our first foray into gaming," Cash, the series director, said. "We're kind of figuring a lot of this out on the way. Alto's Odyssey will sort of only be our second step into this world. We were kind of, I don't want to say blindly, hoping for the best. We're kind of just making it up as we go. I think we're feeling pretty good about it now, but we're also pretty young in the industry."

Snowman might be a young studio, but developers are taking a measured approach to their post-Alto's Adventure projects. There's hustle but no rush. No one on the team wants to push out a soulless game just because players expect it or, even worse, just to make a quick buck.

"We would get a lot of letters and sometimes physical mail telling us that Alto helped people relax at night and cope with illness or loss of a loved one," Cymet said. "What that really taught us is that Alto as a series is strongest when it is about capturing these meaningful feelings and connecting with players on an emotional level."

Alto's Odyssey means a lot to Team Alto, and developers have poured their personal demons and triumphs into this deceptively emotional endless-running experience. Cymet, for instance, moved his family 2,000 miles from Vancouver to Toronto to join the Snowman team, and the feeling of displacement helped him develop a deeper relationship with the idea of "home" -- one of the major themes in the Alto series.

"I think what I've learned, and what Harry and I have talked a lot about personally as we've reminisced during development and late nights and things, is that home isn't necessarily a place," Cymet said. "It's the people you're with and the people that make you feel supported and loved."

The sequel also holds up a mirror to Snowman's growth as a studio. While Alto's Adventure encapsulated the comfort of home, Alto's Odyssey is about letting go of familiar things and exploring new worlds. Rather than being confined to the slopes of snow-capped mountains, Alto's Odyssey puts players in an array of desert biomes with dangerous new obstacles to conquer in gorgeous, sand-drenched settings.

"Odyssey, as the name suggests, is about going outside of that [comfort zone] and challenging yourself," Nesbitt said. "And I think that's sort of a parallel with a lot of our personal experiences, having made the game and then suddenly finding ourselves in this whole new world that we have to either grab it by the horns or let it steamroll over you. I think we can all relate to that."

Speaking of change, Alto's Odyssey is hitting a vastly different App Store than Alto's Adventure. Nowadays, there are options to pre-order iOS games, and Apple highlights developer stories in the Today tab -- two features that didn't exist in 2015. In three years, the mobile market has shifted from offering premium $10 games to having an influx of $0.99 titles to finally being overrun with free games packed with in-app purchases. Not that the industry is frozen in place today: There's been a recent newfound appreciation for premium titles as many players realize the actual cost of freemium games.

Cash says the premium mobile market is alive and well -- and it could have a major impact on the video game industry overall.

"If you make a game for PS4, you're making a game for people who play video games," he said. "And I think, with mobile, it's a sort of unique opportunity where you can reach almost everyone on the planet, so to speak, who has a phone. If you're able to make a game for that platform, you have the potential opportunity to reach someone who may not consider themselves a gamer. You have a chance to be someone's first foray into gaming."

With Alto's Odyssey, Snowman has this opportunity once again.

Jessica earned her BA in journalism from ASU's Walter Cronkite School in 2011, and she's written for online outlets since 2008, with four years as senior reporter at Joystiq. She specializes in covering independent video games and esports, and she strives to tell human stories within the broader tech industry. Jessica is also a sci-fi novelist with a completed manuscript floating through the mysterious ether of potential publishers.

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