Netflix's Newest Game, Lucky Luna, Surprise-Drops Today From Alto's Adventure Devs
The game is bringing a retro-futuristic flair to the streaming service's gaming wing.
Lucky Luna, the latest from Alto's Adventure developer Snowman, is dropping on iOS and Android today via Netflix's gaming service, as announced during GameSpot Swipe. A pixelated adventure of a young girl trying to navigate a labyrinth of obstacles, the game requires precision and patience in order to succeed.
We spoke to Andrew Schimmel, lead producer at Lucky Luna developer Snowman, and studio founder Ryan Cash about the game, including the approach to development and what lessons were learned from the endless Alto's Adventure.
Also discussed during the interview was the developer's partnership with Netflix, including the creative freedom allotted to them through it and how being included on the service could open them up to a wide new audience. Finally, we explored the concept of free-to-play gaming on mobile devices, and whether or not there's still a market for one-off premium games in the growing mobile landscape.
This interview was transcribed from a video interview and edited for clarity.
GameSpot: First question, a simple one: Why pixel art in 2022?
Andrew Schimmel: Yeah, it's a good question. With every game that we make at Snowman, we always try to step out and try out something a little bit new. A lot of people comment on our art styles and ask who the artist is, but each game always has a different artist, so we have a lot of through points that have a lot of similarities between our zen-like gameplay and what we're trying to do from the perspective of mobile games. We always want to try to do something a little bit new, so when we got the opportunity to work with [lead developer] Nacho on creating Lucky Luna, we were really excited about doing something that was in many ways a love letter to sort of the classic retro arcade experiences that we all grew up on, that's very near and dear to our hearts. It was a huge challenge, but it was exciting to try something new.
We also thought that there's something lost between those old-school classic games and a lot of the stuff on mobile devices now that players can play. We wanted to bring that feeling to a new generation, introducing players to something they haven't played. I'll give a big shout out to our art director, Anaïs Maamar, who handled all of the asset creation and created the look of Lucky Luna.
Ryan Cash: I think it's kind of cool to be working on something that looks a bit more like the games we played in our early days in childhood. Like my very first video game console was a Sega Genesis, I was like a huge Sonic the Hedgehog fan, and it's kind of interesting that in video games, for a long time, there was this race towards realism, saying "how realistic can this game look?" That still happens through studios like Naughty Dog and others, and I'm a huge fan of The Last Of Us and those types of games, but there was a point where a game might have been dismissed if it wasn't pushing the boundaries of what's graphically possible.
What's happening both with mobile games and indie game devs in general, is there are games that are hugely popular and successful by people who aren't pushing for photorealism. It's interesting how the industry was constantly progressing, but then there was this newfound love for games that are a kind of reimagination of games from the 1990s.
Regarding the story of Lucky Luna: The game seems to be inspired by the story of the bamboo cutter from Japanese folklore. What about that story drew you in and inspired you to make this game?
Schimmel: There are a lot of inspirations that led to the full finished character of Lucky Luna, and a big one relates to your last question about pixel art. We wanted to do something stylistic that felt different and invoked that feeling of stories we grew up with, while also setting it in the modern landscape of gaming. We tried new things in regards to a platformer, some of which created design constraints like removing the jump button, orienting our levels from top and bottom, and more we can get into later. Really though, we wanted to have that feeling of a retro experience, but have it also feel like new and different. I think players are really going to gravitate towards that feeling when they play the game. You'll instantly feel it once you start swiping through the levels.
In terms of the character and the lore, we wanted to create a silent, masked heroine, and we wanted players to be able to let their imaginations go wild and take what they wanted from the experience. To that end, we try not to be too heavy handed with the game overall, or tell you explicitly what's going on. It is inspired by the tale of the bamboo cutter, which is a story about a princess who must overcome a series of obstacles in the forms of would-be suitors, while starting to discover her destiny. While that's not the exact angle we took with this game--it is a loose interpretation--this is a story about a young girl who has to overcome a series of immense challenges after finding herself in an unfamiliar world.
That was really appealing to us, because I think everyone can relate to that, regardless of where you are from or what sort of background you have. We also drew a lot of inspiration from games like Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and other games with stories and experiences that really present you with an atmosphere that you feel as soon as you're in the world. You get to take a lot out of that without having a story presented or spoon-fed to you. We look at games like that as well as other Japanese tales; the works of Studio Ghibli are a huge inspiration as well, both in terms of storytelling and how they create spaces and identity for characters.
Let's discuss the differences between your previous game, the endless runner Alto's Adventure, and this game, which is a more campaign-driven experience. What facilitated that change? Is it simply because this game didn't make sense as an endless runner, or what is something else?
Schimmel: This is a great question. Any time we look at a game idea, we think, "Okay, how are we going to make it feel really at home on mobile, making it available to the widest audience, while also maintaining a really high skill setting for people to engage with?" Endless runners are great for that.
For this game we wanted to create a platformer, but when we looked at other games, in particular some of the classics, they work a little bit differently than something like an endless runner. The player is more engaged, more cautious, and you're actually better at the game in general if you're patient. Patience is something we really leaned into with Lucky Luna. If you try to rush through a level over and over again, you'll die every single time. The game's design asks you to be patient and to wait to be rewarded, and only then will you get the hang of things. We're hoping that idea puts our players into a zen-like flow, and then you'll really be able to dash around everything and really get in the zone.
To do that, the game needed a direct control over the character that isn't available with endless runners. We decided to get rid of virtual joysticks, as they didn't really have that tactile experience that you have with a controller on other platforms, so they wouldn't work with the game. Instead, we came up with a novel approach where you swipe back and forth with your thumb to control Luna, but you're actually moving the environment around Luna as she animates. It looks like you're running around through the environment, but by moving the space around the character we can let players be really fast and really precise with a simple input.
We discovered this idea very early on in the development process and thought, "Okay, that's it. That's what this game is going to be about; horizontal motion and a focus on falling." At that point we decided to reorient the levels from top to bottom and get rid of the jump button, and that opened up a lot of creativity for what we could do with the level design of the game.
You mentioned rewarding the player for being patient, but as we played we noticed faster times resulted in more prestigious awards. How do you balance the patience you want your players to have with the "time trial" concept?
Schimmel: That was a huge challenge. With each game we create, we want to make sure there's something for everyone. I think with a lot of mobile games, they either feel too simple or commercial or they're really hard right off the bat. They're both fun, but they both appeal to different demographics.
With our games, we want anyone to be able to pick this up and play it. Whether it's your mom, dad, grandma, or a stranger on the street, we want them to be able to play and get it right away. That's why we went with single button input swiping to move around. The patience aspect comes in while you're getting used to the game: the slower you go, the further you'll reach.
Your scores on each level, in both story and endless mode, are impacted by a series of variables, with one of them being time. However, the really impactful ones are things like the number of pearls you collected, the amount of secret passageways or secret areas you found, and so on. The more of those you find, the better your score will be as well. We reward accuracy and patience more than high scores.
When you first get going, you'll learn how to get around traps and become better quickly if you're a little bit more patient, and we think that's something that's missing in a lot of mobile games. A lot of people try to brute force their way through things, simply because they're used to being rewarded with gems or collectibles. We wanted to slow things down and find something that's a little more immersive, so the game can reward patience.
Cash: To that point, when you can stop a character from their movement, that alone really changes the gameplay and how to approach it. With Alto['s Adventure], for example, you're endlessly moving, which allows the player to really get into a rhythm. In terms of strategy while playing, in that game obstacles were just coming at you constantly, so it's more reactive. You can develop skills like knowing when to turn on and off the wingsuit to bounce off a rock, and then use that to hop onto grind rails, and develop these strategies over time. Here in Lucky Luna, however, you can make a decision immediately, in the moment, and be more situational.
Does this game have a concrete ending, or is it simply going to generate dungeons infinitely?
Schimmel: We have two modes, story and endless, which were part of the objective of making sure there is something for everyone in this game. Story mode takes you through Lucky Luna's journey, where she starts as an outcast on an island and moves through a series of trials to discover what's going on and what destiny she will fulfill. However, from a gameplay perspective, the mode is there to teach the player the game mechanics, with each level introducing something new. We wanted to make sure you kept feeling like you were discovering new things and engaging with new opportunities and sort of coming up with and figuring them out as we go.
The story mode does a really good job of that, but we also have an endless mode, which is more skill-based. You have one life, and you have to figure out how to descend through the procedural dungeons as quickly as possible, while gathering pearls along the way. There's a ton of depth we put into that side of the game, like challenge floors that appear every few floors that show you a new way to play the game. If you're able to collect a certain amount of pearls within a certain amount of time, or if you prefer avoiding pearls and getting to the end as quickly as possible, you'll be rewarded for both approaches.
Earlier we talked about your previous game, the endless runner Alto's Adventure. What lessons learned during that development cycle helped in this cycle?
Schimmel: Alto's Adventure and the sequel Odyssey were the first and second games we'd ever made, so our team was a lot smaller when we began. With Luna, a lot more hands went into this game. There [are] also a lot more rules to cover in Luna's mechanics, but something that carried over from Alto is considering the natural ebb and flow of gameplay. We want players to feel engaged, but at ease at the same time. We don't want people to feel frustrated while they're playing. We want players to think, "Okay, I can get better," or, "Okay, I failed because I made a mistake there," not that the game cheated them or that they need to purchase something to be able to continue. That's something that we've tried to get into every game.
We also had to figure out the perfect "size" for each stage. Alto was procedural, and this game has an intense procedural side as well. Each stage is made up of handcrafted pieces that can be reassembled in multiple ways. However, we can't just depend on the procedure generator, so we have really talented level designers that map out exactly where these pieces can be placed, and then we create the rules on how to mix and match which pieces are actually placed. We had a lot of practice doing that in Alto, and we were able to use that knowledge to refine the process as we worked on Lucky Luna.
Cash: We also focused on the importance of nailing down the flow and the rhythm of the gameplay, aiming for a "less is more" approach. When you're making a video game, there's always a million ideas from the team, and a lot of them are great, but if you put too many things in a game--especially a mobile game with a mechanic that's very simple--it can be a problem. Something we talk about a lot is how Nintendo famously has a simple mechanic in one of its games, and they see how far they can take that one mechanic in that one game. I think we've learned a lot playing those games, and so we try to just do more with less.
In Alto, for example, you can essentially only backflip. You have the wingsuit and you can grind, but we didn't add things like front flips, grabs, corkscrews, or things like that, because then it would be a very different game. That new game might be fun too, sure, but I think when you know what you're trying to make, while you can say yes to anything, it's sometimes what you say no to that, in the end, gives you the best result.
We were also talking about Alto focusing on horizontal movement versus verticality here in Luna. What new challenges in development arose from that change? It sounds like a simple change, but I assume there's a mountain of elements to consider.
Schimmel: Yeah definitely, and in a myriad of ways. In terms of going from horizontal to vertical, it's honestly not the biggest design change. It just felt right for what we were trying to do: create something where the player is falling a lot, but with really tight air control.
The hardest challenges came from the pixel art: It is beautiful, and it invokes that feeling of gaming you grew up with. Even young players who haven't played old-school Nintendo or Atari games still enjoy the retro-futuristic look of the game. Unfortunately, creating assets and fixed art in this style is really intense, as is making a game that's lengthy. Creating something substantial takes a ton of time and effort--shout out to Anaïs again--but creating enough content to be able to make a procedural game is a real challenge, because not only is a lot of it handcrafted, but you also have a big enough selection of those handcrafted items for the procedural mode to work convincingly.
Another intense element was creating both a story mode and an endless mode at the same time. We needed to include a level generator system that could handle procedural generation in endless mode, but also create overly-scrutinized hand-designed levels that guide you through the story progression. I think that's probably the biggest difference. It's like developing two different games, but in this case they work complementary to one another.
Cash: Another thing that Jason Medeiros, our head of design and engineering, talks about a lot at the studio, is when we use our phones in our everyday lives, we use them in portrait mode. Texting, checking email, phone calls, and more are all done this way. We've always talked about the idea of making a game in portrait mode as opposed to landscape. Often our ideas work better in landscape, but moving to portrait creates a difference in how the player will approach a game. This may seem silly or trivial, but there's just something about turning your phone to landscape when starting a game that creates a feeling of "gaming mode," as if it's more of a commitment. This time, there's something that feels natural; you're looking through your phone, doing other things, and you think, "You know what? I'm going to open this game and play for a while." You don't have to take that extra step. There's no one better way, we're still making games in landscape, but it's been a fun idea to explore.
I'm curious about where Netflix entered the picture. Was Lucky Luna something you approached them with, or did they come to you? Also, were there other versions of the game in development, say a free-to-play version or a premium version for a set price, before Netflix came into the picture?
Schimmel: We had met Nacho years ago, and when he showed us the idea for this game it really resonated with us. We connected with the thoughts and feelings that we've spoken about already, so we signed it, built out the team, and committed to development for a couple of years. Any time we're making a game, the monetization strategy is a huge decision. It's really hard to commit to one strategy because it really affects the way you develop the game. You have to know if you're making a premium game or if you're going free-to-play. Are there going to be in-app purchases? Are we going to rely on ads for funding? All of those things affect how the experience is laid out, and you have to make space for them as you develop.
The free-to-play model isn't how we ideally approach gaming. We want to create an experience where you sit down, you open the game and then you're in, you're playing it. It's what we grew up with, and it's what we think works best on other platforms. It works on mobile, too, but there's a lot more pressure to go free-to-play since the climate, from a consumer perspective, has been "I can get a game for free, why would I pay for this?" The expectation that a game is "free" might already be there, and that's hard to get around.
However, this is what made bringing the game to Netflix such a huge win for us. They got behind the idea right away. They like the character and the concept, and they gave us the creative freedom to create exactly what we wanted to make. Now that we can make it with the Netflix gaming service in mind, we don't have to worry about in-app purchases or ads, and we can design the game in an ideal way that aligns exactly with how we want to make things as a studio.
Cash: Yeah, if you don't set out to make a F2P game from the beginning, and make every decision with that in mind, you're not going to monetize well. I'm not saying we'll never do it--both Alto's Adventure and Alto's Odyssey are F2P on Android, for example--but with those games that format was a given. When we started working on Alto's Adventure back in 2012, we just assumed it would be free-to-play and we designed it with those elements in mind.
Then one day we looked at each other and realized we were originally making this game for ourselves, that's where the true idea for that project came from, but this monetization part felt icky. This sort of thing would piss us off if we were the people playing it, and this is a game we're supposed to be making for ourselves. However, it seemed at the time to be the only way mobile games worked. We were about halfway through development when Monument Valley came out and that game was the nail in the coffin but in a good way, proving that people can appreciate artful experiences, and that premium mobile games can work.
That's another element that makes this Netflix partnership so exciting: So many people have Netflix. We're hoping for a situation where someone is talking about a game, and then their friends load up the Netflix app on their phone, download it, and start playing. It allows us to make our game how we want without compromising on our monetization philosophy.
Schimmel: That is a huge win for us. Netflix has over 220 million subscribers, which is a ton of potential players that we can reach. We get to launch it on iOS and Android for the first time as well, which is huge for our studio. There's also a lot of advantages to working with a publisher; for example, we got to work with an awesome localization company to bring the game to more countries. The game was mostly developed in Canada, but we'll be launching in something like 190 countries with support for I think 33 languages.
Services like Netflix, where we can create premium experiences without worrying about "the grind" or predatory monetization tactics that are becoming more common, are really awesome. It was a great opportunity for us when we brought the game to Netflix, and we think it's a really good thing for the industry.
But is there room in the market today, in the mobile market specifically, for a premium game? One where you pay for it, play it until you beat it, and then move on? Or do you think that ship has sailed for mobile and F2P/monetization is the future?
Cash: I think it really just comes down to things like "how big is your company" or "what's your team size" and "what are the resources you're putting into the project?" If you're a solo developer with a nine-to-five job, and then on evenings and weekends you create something really great and launch it for three to five bucks, you can earn some decent money and potentially make that your solo career. There are instances where games like that have been successful; Minecraft still sells tons of copies, but it's Minecraft. IP is another factor; if we were to make another Alto game and launch it, we could probably charge $10 now because we have this recognized brand and so many existing users.
However, I think it would be very risky for a team of 25 people to work on a game for three to five years, and then launch it for $5. I think that idea is just gone. Part of the reason goes beyond mobile gaming too, as there's just so much content out there. I'm talking about all the streaming services, I'm talking about YouTube, and in recent years TikTok. TikTok wasn't around when we launched Alto. At the end of the day, we have to think of things like "what does someone want to spend five minutes doing while they're in line for a movie" or something like that. That's a major change to the landscape.
That being said, I think there are also more options than ever for developing games. It's more accessible, with more platforms and services to launch a game on. But still the early days of making a game and launching it for a set price have been gone for a while. I would say 2015-2016 were the years where you could do something like that and it would be reasonable.
I will say, in defense of free-to-play, I think there has overall been more of a movement toward providing real value in that space, as opposed to tricking users into buying gems or coins to continue playing. You still have a bazillion different match-3 games that are doing stuff like that, but I also think there are more clever ways where you can enjoy a game for free, but you can also pay for access to more things if you choose. But yeah, I think there are more clever ways where you can totally enjoy the game for free, but you can pay and have access to more things.