Each Monday for six weeks, USA TODAY's 'Race To The Top: Getting Bigger in Business' series will look at how fast-growing companies rely on innovation to thrive. Today's company: Imangi Studios.
Four-year-olds play it. So do 60-year-olds.
It's a welcome diversion for middle-aged commuters and routine entertainment for teenage students.
The mobile video game Temple Run has become a prime pastime for millions, and late last month, it hit a rare milestone: 100 million downloads.
Its vibrant graphics (such as bizarre-looking monkeys that chase treasure hunters) and simple game controls (players swipe their fingers on the screen or tilt the device to make a character run) make Temple Run a unique, often addictive activity for smartphone and tablet users.
While the game has its share of virtual surprises, including booby traps and road obstacles, there's another unexpected element related to this hit: It was created by Imangi Studios, a tiny development firm that has only three employees: husband-and-wife founders Keith Shepherd and Natalia Luckyanova, and artist Kiril Tchangov.
That small size is by design. "There is a strength to being a small business," says Luckyanova, 30. "We're very nimble."
Without layers of management, they can quickly change gears on a project or react swiftly to feedback from game users, she says.
For instance, when the company saw on social media that real-life athletes were playing Temple Run, they moved fast to create the character of Zack Wonder, a treasure hunter and star football player.
While Temple Run first launched as a pay-for-play game at 99 cents a download, company founders realized within a few weeks that they could significantly boost their user base — and potentially increase revenue — by switching to the "freemium" model. Under that approach, the game is free, but users use real money to buy virtual gold coins that can be exchanged for game upgrades.
Doing it all in house
Since its 2008 inception, Imangi has launched eight games, with Temple Run the most well-known. The company wouldn't disclose revenues for the game, which launched a year ago, but says it is in the millions.
Temple Run's popularity brought Imangi Studios to the attention of big-name companies seeking partnerships and licensing deals.
In June came Temple Run: Brave, a similar video game that features characters from the Pixar animated film Brave.
In coming months, there will be print and digital comic books featuring Temple Run's evil monkeys and its treasure-seeking adventurer characters. By the holiday season, store shelves will hold Temple Run card and board games, plush toys and apparel.
But success hasn't come easily. It takes long hours of intricate programming to create a video game. The Imangi Studio team has done everything from creating computer code to voicing sound effects.
"There wasn't any work-life balance to speak of. It kind of was all work," says Luckyanova — but the work is "fun" she adds.
Shepherd and Luckyanova, who had baby Katherine in June, say they will have a bit more balance now.
Prior to Temple Run, Imangi Studios had some smaller-scale achievements with the creation of games such as the ship-themed Harbor Master. But it's had setbacks, too.