‘Temple Run’ Developer Imangi Studios Turns 10 Years Old Today – A Retrospective

There are likely very few people on the entire planet who wouldn’t know what Temple Run (Free) is, or at the very least recognize the name of the monstrously successful mobile game. When historians are writing the history of the App Store someday, Temple Run would easily qualify as one of the main pillars of success alongside things like Angry Birds, Pocket God, Tiny Wings, and Doodle Jump. What may not be as well known is that the studio behind Temple Run, Imangi Studios, is turning ten years old today and they have been toiling away in the App Store since the very beginning, long before Temple Run changed their lives forever in late 2011/early 2012. Originally just a husband and wife duo of Keith Shepherd and Natalia Luckyanova, Imangi has since expanded to keep pace with the runaway success of Temple Run, but we thought it would be fun to kind of revisit some of their earlier mobile games over this past decade.

Say hello to the original Imangi Studios!

Unless you were really into the mobile gaming scene when the App Store first launched in July of 2008, you might not even be aware that Imangi Studios is named after their very first mobile game: Imangi. In it you were tasked with finding as many words as possible from a grid of letters which you could rearrange by sliding the rows and columns like a match-3 game. Imangi was there the day the App Store officially opened on July 11, 2008 and was a unique enough twist on word games that it garnered quite a bit of love from the TouchArcade community as well as a positive review from the editors here, or at least what we considered “reviews" in the early days of TouchArcade which are quite a bit different from the reviews we put out nowadays. Just a few months later they released Imangi Word Squares, a follow-up that blended Sudoku mechanics with forming words, that saw a similar amount of success to their previous Imangi.

With two moderate success stories under their belt and with Keith quitting his day job to focus on indie game development full time, Imangi prepared to release their third iPhone game in February of 2009, the adorable tilt-based racing game Little Red Sled. We enjoyed Imangi’s “first entry into the world of non-word games" as we stated in our review, and old Keith even got some more major media exposure at that time by way of this article in The Washington Post detailing the influx of indie developers flocking to the iPhone platform. This is my favorite excerpt from that article, which makes me chuckle considering the success Imangi found with Temple Run just a couple of years later:

So far, Shepherd has released a pair of well-reviewed word puzzle games, Imangi and Imangi Word Squares. Last month, he released his latest game, Little Red Sled, in which players tilt their iPhones left or right to steer a sled down a series of snowy hills. He’s not making as much as he did at the job he left, “but I’m getting there" he said.

A few months following the release of Little Red Sled, Imangi was back at it again with Harbor Master, their maritime-themed take on the line-drawing genre that was sparked off by Firemint’s brilliant Flight Control. Aside from the obvious similarities to Flight Control, which were pointed out in humorously savage manner by TouchArcade co-founder Arnold Kim in his review, Harbor Master did bring its own wrinkles to the formula and went on to become the biggest success for Imangi thus far, rising high up in the iTunes charts in many parts of the world. Not bad for a husband and wife team working out of their tiny apartment.

In the fall of 2009, Imangi continued their indie game developer adventure by attending the 360iDev conference in Denver, Colorado. Part of that conference was a game jam where participants were tasked with making a playable prototype of a game in just ten hours. Imangi’s game was a cute tilt-based game where you controlled a hippo as it dove off of a platform high in the sky and tried to guide it through as many flaming rings as possible before landing in the pool of water below. That game jam prototype was polished up over the course of the next few weeks and officially released as the appropriately-titled Hippo High Dive in November of 2009, which was another game from Imangi that we enjoyed in our review. Around this same time Natalia from Imangi also joined us on our first ever podcast episode to talk about Hippo High Dive and a variety of other topics.

Mixed into these major releases, Imangi also released several free lite versions of their existing games as well as a large format version of Harbor Master to release alongside Apple’s highly-anticipated iPad going on sale on April 1st of 2010. Incidentally the day the iPad launched was also the first day I began working for TouchArcade as a freelancer. Two weeks later I attended the 2010 360iDev conference, this time just a couple of hours away from me in San Jose, California. There I met up with Eli in person, presumably so he could determine if I was a psychopath or not, and it’s also the first time I met Keith Shepherd of Imangi in person. Like the previous 360iDev in Denver, there was another overnight game jam that Imangi once again took part in. The game jam produced a ton of games, including Pollinator from Imangi, which was more of a zen experience than actual game. After the jam ended Imangi continued work on the game in the months that followed, even renaming it to Blossoms, but ultimately could never get something together that they felt was fun enough to actually release.

At the end of April, Imangi officially announced their next major release and their biggest project to date: A dual-stick shooter called Max Adventure. We followed the development of this one quite closely, seeing it at WWDC in June of 2010 and checking in on its progress in late August. I was a massive fan of dual-stick shooters so was personally very excited for Max Adventure, and when it did finally arrive in December of 2010 we thought it was awesome. Unfortunately, Max Adventure failed to make much of a mark in the mobile gaming world and by all accounts was a financial disaster. Imangi had a prototype of a game idea they had started working on during the development of Max Adventure, and pretty much just enough resources to hopefully finish it up and put it out in the world. If this next game didn’t do well enough that might spell the end of the indie development adventure for Imangi.

Imangi Studios finished up work on that promising prototype, showing us its progress during WWDC 2011, and in August of the same year they released Temple Run to… resounding silence. Yes, the Temple Run that is now a household name was originally on track to be a flop. It’s important to note that this was an interesting time in the App Store. The “race to the bottom" pricing and visibility issues had been a problem since pretty much day one of the App Store launching, and with no lack of games coming out on any given day mobile gamers were less and less inclined to spend money on new games, even the paltry 99¢ that Temple Run originally launched at. It didn’t even really matter that we highly recommended the game in our review. A pre-planned promotion just six weeks after launch saw Imangi dropping the price of the game to free, with unexpected results. They saw Temple Run making more money as free than it ever was while paid, and so decided to simply keep it free permanently while keeping all other IAP amd monetization the same. This move turned out to be a complete game changer.

With any sort of barrier to entry now removed, Temple Run began to find itself downloaded on more and more devices. It hit big with the schoolyard group that loved playing and competing for scores against their friends in mobile games, but rarely had any money of their own to spend on them. By the time 2012 rolled around, Temple Run had essentially gone viral. In February, Imangi reported that Temple Run had been downloaded a whopping 36 million times, and it basically stayed glued to the top of the charts for months. It even got inadvertent celebrity endorsements from the likes of Justin Bieber and… Republican politician Rick Santorum(!?). By the game’s first birthday in August of 2012, Temple Run had reached an astounding 100 million downloads.

The magnitude of the Temple Run phenomenon didn’t really hit home for me until June of 2012, when I was on location at Disney’s Pixar Studios just across the bay from San Francisco for a big new mobile game reveal. There I was in Pixar’s private movie theater surrounded by fellow games writers, and as the presentation began the folks at Pixar began dropping hints to what they were about to reveal. Talking about a partnership with one of the biggest breakout mobile game hits, and a husband and wife duo from Washington DC, and several more subtle hints that finally lit a lightbulb in my brain: They’re talking about Temple Run! Indeed, moments later Keith and Natalia were beamed via satellite onto the massive screen in the theater to help unveil Temple Run Brave, a mobile game based on Disney’s animated movie Brave. There they were, these two totally humble and normal people that I’d been meeting with at various conventions for years now, partnering up with freaking Disney and Pixar on a mobile game. Mind. Blown.

Temple Run Brave wasn’t the last collaboration for Imangi, as they also had a hand in Temple Run: Oz, which was based on the 2013 James Franco Wizard of Oz prequel Oz the Great and Powerful. Those movie tie-in games were ok for what they were, and were a step WELL above most movie tie-in games, but what most Temple Run fans were really craving was a full-blown, proper sequel. About a year and a half after the release of the original game, fans got just that when Temple Run 2 (Free) hit the App Store in January of 2013. Obviously with massive name recognition under its belt, the sequel fared quite a bit better out of the gate than its predecessor, getting six million downloads in just the first 24 hours and over 20 million downloads in just the first week. They more than doubled that number by hitting the 50 million downloads mark in less than two weeks by the time February rolled around. Truly remarkable stuff.

I’ve mentioned before that surprise success stories are a double-edged sword. On one hand you’re thrilled that so many people have found your game, and presumably you’re pretty happy making some money. On the other hand developers rarely build games with long-term success in mind, so when a game does hit the big time, there’s often barriers to introducing new features or adding on new content that wasn’t planned for from the beginning. This was certainly the case with the original Temple Run, and one of the big catalysts for making Temple Run 2. It provided a fresh start. The game was now built in Unity so it featured greatly improved graphics and much more dynamic and smooth level designs. It also was built for future content, and indeed it has received numerous new playable characters and environments over the years. While the core of Temple Run 2 was the same as the original, there were all sorts of neat new features and fixes that made it the superior game, and we loved it in our review from when it launched.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than five years since Temple Run 2 hit the App Store, and even harder to believe that Imangi has been doing their thing for ten years now. Sadly their previous mobile games have all been removed from the App Store to focus on the juggernauts that are Temple Run and Temple Run 2, both of which are still updated frequently and have millions of daily players. I miss games like Little Red Sled and Max Adventure, but I’m also thrilled for the success of Imangi over the past decade. The studio itself has scaled with the success of Temple Run, expanding from just Keith and Natalia in the photo at the top of this article into the much larger team you see in the photo below.

One of my favorite features we’ve done on TouchArcade is when we sat down with Keith Shepherd at GDC 2014 and took video of the Temple Run prototype I mentioned earlier in this article that had arisen during the creation of Max Adventure. Since I’m such a fan of how games are developed and looking back at early prototype stuff, and since it’s very likely a lot of people reading this didn’t see this when we originally posted it in 2014, I’ll go ahead and embed that video below. Definitely carve out about 13 minutes of your day to give it a watch.

So that’s ten years of Imangi history in roughly 2300 words. It has been my pleasure covering Imangi’s mobile games over the years, as well as meeting with Keith and Natalia at numerous conferences and events over the past decade. It’s cliche as heck, but this level of success really couldn’t have happened to two nicer people. And what’s in store for the next ten years of Imangi Studios? Well, as mentioned, the original Temple Run and Temple Run 2 are still massively popular and receiving regular updates and new content, and I don’t see that slowing down any time soon. Plus with the expansion of the studio there’s now the manpower to work on future projects. Whatever they’re cooking up over there, I can’t wait to see what Imangi Studios does over the next ten years.