Angle down icon An icon in the shape of an angle pointing down. Digital Melody
A week ago, over 1.5 million people had downloaded the popular arcade game, Timberman.
Today, that number has ballooned to over 6.7 million downloads.
And yet, for a viral game, Timberman feels remarkably like some classic old-fashioned fun, a bit like something you’d expect to see in the dusty corner of an arcade. Even the hero character, a burly lumberjack, feels a bit familiar as he furiously chops away at a never ending tree trunk, dodging left and right to avoid the descending tree branches.
To figure out the story behind Timberman’s success, we talked to the game’s creator, developer Pawel Kitajewski, who spoke to us from his home in Poland.
Early “Timberman” concept art Digital Melody
“Timberman is our third app,” said Kitajewski, who would occasionally pause to type a word into Google Translate for clarification. “We were making money working in advertising by day. After hours, we were trying our skills at making games.”
In the beginning, it wasn’t going well. With two failed games under their belt, Kitajewski started from scratch, focusing on who the main character of his next app would be.
“The first thing that I decided to start with was creating my hero. I started to generalize what sort of characters are very overused … zombies, cowboys,” Kitajewski said. “I recall myself watching some American movie, ‘Fargo,’ I think. There was this scene with giant lumberjack statue. I began to think that this is a character that exists in the minds of people, but isn’t so much explored.”
From there, the focus turned to gameplay and animation, which Kitajewski wanted to keep simple at first glance, but addictively difficult to conquer.
“I begin by creating an animation where the lumberjack is chopping down a tree, the tree was falling down, but not left or right,” he said. “I remember thinking that this won’t work.”
And while the concept of dodging the descending tree branches is vital to Timberman’s gameplay today, the rough concept was enough to get work started on the app.
“I sent this to our programmer and asked him how much time it would take to create the mechanics if I provided him with graphics,” said Kitajewski. “He said one day or two days. The first version of the game was created in 3 or 4 days. Later, it only took us a month.”
After completing Timberman, the app was released to moderate success, reaching #1 in Poland and Russia’s App Stores.
“In the beginning, we had the first peak of the game,” Kitajewski told us. “It was released on May 8th, and in one week we hit like 50,000 downloads per day. This was really cool. But from that moment, it started to slowly decrease.”
Interestingly enough, the team took the app’s slowing momentum as a sign that Timberman was likely on its way out.
“Most of the guys in our company were like, ‘Okay we had some good times, but it’s decreasing so bye bye, we should work on another title.'”
Kitajewski, however, was hopeful that if Timberman could also top the charts in the Google Play store, the app could have a second wind.
Weeks later, that’s exactly what happened.
“The game had a second birth like two weeks ago, and the second big peak was 600,000 downloads daily.”
Suddenly, Timberman was at the #1 spot on Apple’s App Store, and Kitajewski and his Polish development team were thrust into the spotlight.
“The first day that I heard that the game hit #1 on the U.S. App Store, it was like ‘I need to talk to someone in the U.S., because maybe the numbers are false,'” said Kitajewski. “But then we checked our company mailbox, and we’re getting 50 or 100 emails daily with offers to make some toys, or other platforms that would like to appear in our games, or some requests for the different games … that was the moment I knew something was going on.”
For Kitajewski and his team, the added attention meant they could theoretically quit their day jobs in advertising to pursue game development full-time.
“When I heard Timberman was doing well, I bought myself a ticket to India for a vacation,” said Kitajewski. “I try to reward myself for when you get those best times. It’s good to reward yourself with some sort of treat. I like traveling, when it comes to creativity. It’s something I learned in advertising. To be creative, you need some new impulses to attack your brain.”
Kitajewski and his development team met at school while studying advertising. According to Kitajewski, their studies helped them understand what was required in making a successful app — namely, face-to-face promotion at conventions, and social integration with platforms such as Twitter to help the app spread.
Timberman’s Twitter integration is extremely simple, but it promotes the same sort of competitiveness that caused people to brag about their Flappy Bird scores months ago.
“It was just publishing a screenshot of your score with a text we made in the game saying, ‘High score, 1,000 points, can you beat me?’ and we linked to the game,” Kitajewski said. “There was a pretty big number of those tweets appearing. This was cool because it started to spread pretty fast.”
Like Flappy Bird, people keep returning to Timberman, too. Between 2.5 and 2.7 million people boot up the app daily, and those numbers mean Kitajewski and his team are in the process of deciding not just what to work on next, but also who to work with.
“The point is that we would like to develop for a company,” Kitajewski said. “From the beginning, our target should be making games.”
For now, Kitajewski is biding his time, continuing his advertising work during the day, which he says keeps him from falling prey to the laziness quick wealth can bring.
“I used to work in freelancing, and it was a pretty hard thing,” said Kitajewski. “I was getting up from bed whenever I wanted, the days were extending. Something I could do from working at a company from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., I was extending into the whole night because I was taking breaks to watch TV or make food. You need structure. It’s good for people to have this routine. It’s easy to get lazy when you don’t have deadlines.”
And while Timberman’s success has certainly opened doors, much of the revenue generated from the in-app advertisements and ad-free “Timberman Golden Edition” was already spoken for, at least during the early days.
“We didn’t even see this money until now because we had to take care of some administrative and legal issues about the status of our company,” said Kitajewski. “Right now, I have minus 5 dollars on my credit card, so I can’t even get a train to work.”
That’s not to say that Timberman isn’t making money, it is, but Kitajewski and his team made it a priority to clear up the outstanding tax and administrative issues first, before focusing on what comes next.
Now that it’s been taken care of, Kitajewski is in talks to continue to tweak and optimize the monetization within the app.
“Currently, we’re talking and negotiating with different advertising platforms,” said Kitajewski, discussing how Timberman’s revenue at the moment comes from both in-app advertisements and the ad-free version, called Timberman Golden Edition.
But Kitajewski and his team aren’t sitting still and only relying on Timberman’s continued success to keep them afloat.
In a world where apps can fall from the ranks as fast as they rise, Kitajewski knows his team’s value isn’t only in just one app, but in the understanding of what makes for an addictively fun and successful mobile experience.
“Timberman is our biggest success so far,” said Kitajewski. “Our company’s existed for one year. And this a thing that is still open. We will continue to develop Timberman. We will also think up other titles.”
Even with new projects and possible partnerships on the horizon, Kitajewski also hints there could still be more Timberman surprises still to come.
“We are also thinking of creating something that involves Timberman, but something bigger,” said Kitajewski. “Extend it in some way.”
We can’t wait.