With over 25 million downloads, and a further seven million for the paid version, Cut the Rope is now a worldwide success story to rival Rovio’s Angry Birds. But did you know the gameplay was actually cut from an earlier game? That’s right, it’s the game that very nearly wasn’t.
We had an exclusive chat with the game’s Russian creators – twin brothers Semyon and Efim – to see how it evolved from a demo that, by their own admission, ‘no one liked’.
Read on to discover how they made it happen – and view an exclusive gallery of never-before-seen early sketches.
- Russian twin brothers started developing on a ZX Spectrum
- ‘Nobody liked it at first – we didn’t even think it was entertaining’
- One million sales in under 10 days; 25 million downloads to date
- ‘We knocked Angry Birds off the top of the charts - without Apple’s help’
- Merchandising in the pipeline: ‘Boardgames, apparel… bikinis?!’
TWO MEN AND A PARACHUTE: TOP OF THE iTUNES CHART
Semyon Voinov is sitting in ZeptoLab’s Moscow headquarters. As the co-creator of Cut the Rope, he is one of a new breed of iTunes app tycoons, in charge of a franchise that – almost overnight – became worth millions of dollars. He could easily be talking about mega-yachts or gold-plated supercars, but they don’t appear to interest him. Semyon is here to tell the story of Cut the Rope…
He’d been developing the game with his twin brother Efim, technical director at ZeptoLab. The two had struck upon what they thought a wholly original idea, and naturally were keen to see what their friends thought. But come the big unveiling, they didn’t quite get the reaction they were hoping for.
“Cut the Rope actually grew out of the concept of our first iOS game, Parachute Ninja. To begin with we had ropes in Parachute Ninja, so we developed the rope engine, and we spent a lot of time tweaking the way the ropes look and behave and stuff like that. We were really excited about the way it worked.
“But when we showed it to our friends and family they were a bit confused with the controls. We came to the conclusion that even though we thought it was super-awesome, no one really got it,” he says with a laugh. “It wasn’t really visual enough. So we decided to drop the rope for this particular game and replace it with a parachute.”
Parachute Ninja was released in February 2010, and was a success, with the free version reaching the top 10 on the iTunes chart, and the paid version top 20.
The thing was, Semyon and Efim had spent a long time working on the ropes’ physics, and thought it’d be a shame to just throw away all that hard work.
“We didn’t want to trash the engine, because we’d spent so much time on it, so we started thinking what kind of game could we base around the rope physics. So we came up with several concepts, we made the prototypes, and this was the one that was the most fun to play. Since that prototype stage, the gameplay hasn’t really changed much. I think we were quite lucky finding the core gameplay quite early on, because with some games, like Parachute Ninja, the gameplay is not finalised until a very late stage of development. Cut the Rope was different, we had the core gameplay much earlier, and then it was just a matter of adding the graphics, levels and music.”
THE EARLY DAYS: THE ZX SPECTRUM AND FOUR SHADES OF GREY
“Developing Palm OS games was the first commercial games experience we had,” Semyon says, “but we started making games long before that. It started when my brother and I got our first computer, the ZX Spectrum. We had this big book, which was a manual of basic programming language, which we used to make our first games. They were quite simple, but it was always fun to develop for. We spent more time developing games than playing them.
“The first game we made was some kind of shooter, I remember there was a spacecraft at the bottom of the screen, obstacles flying, and your task was just to avoid collisions.”
With this grounding the brothers moved into making games for Palm devices, considered cutting-edge at the time (yes, really). “During our university studies, we got one of the early Palm OS devices. It wasn’t really that advanced in terms of technology, but at that time it was really trendy. It was like a pocket PC, and the screen had four shades of grey. And we were thinking, ‘Wow! We can really do some crazy stuff with this!’”
They also made some successful animation software which went on to be used by American colleges to teach creative courses. But gaming was always close the brothers’ hearts, even if it wasn’t always in the most legitimate forms.
“Video games came into our lives quite early. We followed the evolution of the consoles, the Spectrum, the 8-bit consoles, the 16-bit consoles, so we were trying all the new technology – whatever we could get. Not all of the consoles came out in Russia: at one point, around the time of the 8-bit consoles, the market was flooded with Chinese clones of all the big names. Often we didn’t even know if what we had was a clone or the real thing.”
What they did know, was how to create utterly addictive gameplay – and with Cut the Rope, it came naturally. Yet there were other factors to consider: “There was the visual style and overall game structure, finding the right setting, and the idea of delivering candy to the character – it all took time.”
More than once, their initial enthusiasm waned. “We definitely felt we had something interesting on our hands, but in developing any game, you’re always excited about the concept, then you go through this stage where you’re not quite sure it’s really good enough. Then you show it to someone and they love it and you’re inspired again.”
At times he even questioned whether it was an enticing enough prospect. “I remember saying sometimes to my brother, ‘Are you sure this is the right kind of game? I’m not sure if it’s entertaining enough.’ It’s really hard to know if the game will be successful or not, whether you have something worthy on your hands or not, because during development you don’t have a wider picture, we’re focused on small things. Only when we showed the game to our friends, when it was close to the alpha stage, when the graphics were finalized and there was some audio and stuff like that – only then were we convinced we had something really cool on our hands.”
Though even then, after receiving far more positive feedback than what became Parachute Ninja, they were unsure whether it would be a success. Partly this was down to a healthy amount of self-doubt, partly because of the sheer number of games being released for iOS. “No one really knew until the game hit the market whether it would top the charts, because so many games are released and are never noticed by players, or don’t get the acknowledgement they deserve.”
EIGHT MILLION DOWNLOADS: ANGRY BIRDS GETS KNOCKED OFF ITS PERCH
Cut the Rope was released on October 4th 2010, with an iPad version on the 6th, and free versions for both on the following day. Immediately, it began to be downloaded at a phenomenal rate: within 10 days it had reached one million sales; another 10 days later it’d notched up two million; by November 18th it’d surpassed three million; by March, six million.
Now Semyon estimates seven or maybe even eight million is closer to the mark. It even managed to knock Angry Birds off the number one position in the paid chart. The free version has been downloaded more than 25 million times.
“We thought it should be as successful as Parachute Ninja, we were pretty sure about that, but for it to do so well after just a few days was really surprising,” Semyon says. “Moving Angry Birds from number one was a great achievement. I don’t know if we’ll be able to do it again! It was really a huge achievement.”
Cut the Rope was not promoted by Apple and didn’t feature in any of its adverts until it had already broken the top 10. A small independent studio from Moscow with a handful of staff had done it the old-fashioned way: word of mouth. “One thing we’re really proud about is that it got there without being promoted by Apple. It was already number one or two in the paid chart before they started promoting it. People were telling each other about the game, recommending it to their friends, and that’s the best possible marketing a game could get.”
An Android version was released at the end of June. No statistics were available at time of writing, but Misha Lyalin, chairman of ZeptoLab, tells us, “Right now what’s important to us is we try to get the game into the hands of as many people as possible… we don’t just want to distribute for free, so we try to have people pay or show them adverts.
THE FUTURE: MERCHANDISING AND MONETISING
“Eventually we’ll figure out the best models for every particular channel… basically we’re just starting.”
If Angry Birds is anything to go by, the journey is only just beginning. Semyon confirms there will be further Cut the Rope titles to expand the brand and build the story of Om Nom, with a major update coming soon featuring new levels that’ll double the amount of content in the original.
Having seen what Rovio has done with Angry Birds, it’s not surprise that merchandise is also a key part of ZeptoLabs’ strategy for world domination. “Merchandising is something we’re in the process of releasing,” Lyalin says. “We see so many people do graffiti of Om Nom, people make bikinis out of Om Nom, you name it… If people do it themselves, I’m sure there’s a market.
“We’re not limiting it to plush toys and key chains. There will be apparel and board games – those things are coming out in fairly short order.”
But there will also be any fresh titles? Semyon is cagey, “I definitely believe we have some cool ideas.”
So what’s their secret? “Working with your brother has its own advantages and disadvantages,” he says. “But definitely more advantages. One of the great things is that you can always be really straightforward in saying what you think about gameplay or the game overall, you don’t need to be too diplomatic. We can have really hot discussions about things, but we always get on afterwards.” To coin a phrase, ‘You don’t have to be my brother to work here, but it helps’.
ZeptoLab has stayed small, only hiring four new people. Semyon says he wants to make sure he gets the best – and not expand too dramatically. Though he adds they are still hiring.
It’s time for us to go, but there’s one questions we haven’t yet asked. Eight million downloads priced at 59p (minus Apple’s 30%) equals £3.1million. So what have the brother done with all that cash? “My life has not really changed very much. Previously we were just employees, now we have our own company we have more freedom – we thought we’d be able to drop everything and go traveling tomorrow, that we’d have more free time. It turned out to be quite the opposite! We’re responsible for the company, and there are certain expectations now, so it’s put a lot of pressure on us. If anything, we work even harder now.”
Careful what you wish for.
Additional reporting by Ben Sillis