On his first day of kindergarten in 1991, a four-year old Ryan Cash walked with his mom to the mailbox at the end of his suburban street in Richmond Hill, Ontario. While waiting for the bus, she introduced him to Jordan Rosenberg, a neighbour boy who lived right across the street. They rode to school together, and no sooner had they gotten into class, than they decided to make one another’s acquaintance as only newly-introduced four-year old boys could: by wrestling for absolutely no reason at all.
Almost immediately, the pair was pulled apart and given a stern talking-to. The damage, however, was done. They returned home later that afternoon not as neighbours, but as inseparable friends. And though neither of them knew it at the time, that playful classroom tussle would change their lives forever.
“I can’t really remember becoming friends. It was kind of like we were always friends, as soon as we met.”
Chatting with me over Skype from his Toronto apartment, Cash can’t recall a time when a sentence beginning with “Ryan” wasn’t soon followed by the words “and Jordan.” In the almost twenty-five years that have passed since they were first introduced, he and Rosenberg have been at each other’s side through everything from elementary school to the co-founding of their own app development studio, Snowman. Under the banner of the latter, the duo released mobile game mega-hit Alto’s Adventure in February of 2015 alongside UK-based artist Harry Nesbitt. Before anything so life changing, however, there was skateboarding. Skateboarding and sleepovers.
“[Growing up], Jordan and I spent, like, all of our time playing Tony Hawk,” recounts Cash, leaning heavily on the “all” so I know he’s not exaggerating. “We would skateboard, and then it would get too dark, and we would come inside and play Tony Hawk‘s [Pro Skater] . We would have sleepovers with our friends and play it til’ six in the morning. For years, every single version…even half the music I had and listened to was from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.”
“I can’t really remember becoming friends. It was kind of like we were always friends, as soon as we met.”
Elementary turned to high school, and pavement became powder, with snowboarding supplanting skateboarding as Cash and Rosenberg’s newest obsession. Every winter, they’d pitch in with friends and rent a chalet at Ontario’s Blue Mountain Resort (“It’s really more of a big hill,” derides Cash playfully). When he wasn’t on the slopes, Cash would bring the slopes home.
“[At the time] I played a lot of Amped…it’s like a snowboarding game, but it’s unlike [any other]. At the time, [with] most games…you were stuck on a specific path, and [you’d go] down a ramp…doing tricks, and it was kind of a very narrow sort of experience. Whereas with Amped, you’d pick a mountain you wanted ride down, and you’d choose any one of a couple [of] different spots to be dropped off on…and then, it basically felt like you could go wherever you [wanted] on the mountain.”
For Cash, it seems, video games were not so much escapism for its own sake, but rather digital trips back into nature — a way to connect with the things he loved outside the screen. With graduation looming, however, he decided to do something rather unexpected. Something you don’t often hear in the stories of people responsible for hit video games: he stopped playing them altogether.
“[I] decided video games were for kids, and I needed to grow up, and become a real person.”
In high school, Cash and Rosenberg had always been hatching schemes with one another. At one point, the two of them ran a website filled with a curated selection of car and automotive videos from YouTube, leveraging what Cash sheepishly admits were some “shady” advertising practices to bring in hundreds of dollars per day. For both of them, this meant that growing up and becoming a real person was about throwing themselves headlong into their interest in business. Rosenberg pursued (more legitimate) internet advertising opportunities, while Cash accepted a position at Markham, Ontario-based software firm Marketcircle in 2007, focusing on branding and promotion for the company’s line of productivity applications — tools like invoice and time tracking software “Billings Pro”.
Serendipitously, this was just around the time that Apple’s first ever iPhone burst onto the scene, offering developers a captive audience in the form of a newly emerging App Store. Almost right away, Cash began concocting concepts in his spare time, hoping to think up a hit. To hear him tell it, however, none of his nascent ideas were coming from the right place.
“[I] decided video games were for kids, and I needed to grow up, and become a real person.”
“I was basically…seeing the market and saying, ‘Okay, I’ve learned a lot about this industry, I have a lot of contacts in the industry…camera apps are doing really well, and people were making tons of money, and I also really love photography, so…maybe I should make a camera app.’ But it was never born out of pure, good intention…it wasn’t…a natural thing.” Sure enough, half-formed, “on-trend” ideas like “maybe a camera app” fell apart before they could even materialize. That is, until the summer of 2011, when Apple released the newest version of their mobile operating system, and along with it the ability to trigger location-based reminders. These new alerts used a phone’s wireless signal to detect where you were, and prod you about tasks only when you were back in a certain area.
“I fell in love with location-based reminders, because, I was always trying to…set timers and alerts in my calendar and to-do apps with time-based reminders,” says Cash. “But I’d be at work and then I’d set a reminder for nine o’clock to do my laundry…and then the reminder would go off, but I would be at the gym…and I’d snooze it or reschedule it. So once I found [out] I could do location-based reminders, they totally changed the way I was getting things done.” Yet for all their potential, something about location-based reminders felt off to Cash.
“[At Marketcircle] I learned a lot about simplifying things, and the importance of being concise, and getting something that’s a five step process down to a three step process. So that ended up causing me to see that Apple’s Reminders app took 11 different steps to create a location-based reminder every single time…[and] I think I was out, driving around, and it kind of clicked in my head, and I…[thought], ‘I need to go home and try and sketch this out on paper.'”
But first, there was someone he had to call.
Months earlier, Cash had tried to get Rosenberg to jump on board for his ill-conceived camera app, but things had ended up sputtering to a stop. This time, though, he felt he was on to something, and had to have his best friend on board.
“I called [Jordan] and said, ‘[Listen], I have a real idea this time that I’m passionate about.’ He came over later that day and we started sketching on paper. And surprisingly, it took a long time; I would say it was [about] four or five weeks, [and] he was over almost every night and we were just sketching out ideas for the interface on paper.”
Not developers by trade, Cash and Rosenberg spent the better part of the next year balancing their day jobs and their daydream, working with several failed hires before eventually finding a duo of reliable contractor programmers. In April of 2012, they decided that it might just be time for their biggest scheme yet.
“There was no escaping it: a slight variation of a built-in app every iPhone owner already had in their pockets for free was a hard sell, no matter how many less taps it offered.”
Cash left his job at Marketcircle and Rosenberg put all his own projects on hold, and, savings pooled, a company was born. Harkening back to winter days in Richmond Hill, they called it Snowman. And three months later, Snowman released its fledgling project Checkmark into the wild, touting simpler reminder scheduling and a clever “timer” feature that would target reminders for the moments just after you arrived somewhere, giving you breathing room to settle in.
If the duo’s car video collection site had dazzled their high school selves with youthful riches, however, Checkmark proved significantly less impressive by adult standards.
“Checkmark…got really good reviews, a lot of great customer feedback, customer emails, people saying they loved it,” begins Cash, listing all the things that can’t pay your bills. “But it wasn’t…a crazy runaway success or anything.” Between them, he and Rosenberg had great business savvy and exacting standards of quality, but there was no escaping it: a slight variation of a built-in app every iPhone owner already had in their pockets for free was a hard sell, no matter how many less taps it offered. And things were going to get worse before they got better.
In the middle of planning their sophomore effort – a slick-looking privacy app of sorts that would hide files, photos, and messages from prying eyes – one of their programmers noticed that the interface looked like colorful childhood memory game Simon. Taking a look at the mobile app landscape, Cash and Rosenberg once more found themselves intoxicated by the promise of overnight success. After all, games were quite popular by that point. Games were making people tons of money. “Maybe,” they thought, “a game?”
Privacy app suddenly in their rear view, Snowman spent months working on its first game, Circles. Released in April of 2013, it amounted to what Cash retrospectively admits was little more than “just an interface.” To be sure, reviewers praised the meticulously crafted minimalism that was beginning to become a trademark of sorts for the team. Yet, it went largely unnoticed amid the glut of flashier games lining the App Store. Even with positioning by Snowman as a memory aid and a heartwarming pledge to permanently donate a portion of sales to Alzheimer’s research, the game couldn’t move the needle financially. Circles was outperformed even by the not-mind blowing sales of Checkmark, and left Cash and Rosenberg floundering.
“It was…” begins Cash, hesitantly. “It was tight. It was definitely very tight. Luckily I had been working for five years, so I had some money saved up, and Jordan, kind of the same. We were still able to keep the doors open, so to speak. But we talked, like, ‘Okay, should we continue?'” After two projects, it was clear that the guys could make beautiful products. Less clear, however, was the question of whether they could craft meaningful ones. Could they bottle that je ne sais quoi necessary to stand out, or would they be always be stuck chasing the next big trend?
The answer, it turns out, would come from a really awful flu.
“Jordan, who had been in Australia for a bit…was telling me that he could not stop playing Tiny Wings,” remembers Cash, referring to German independent developer Andreas Illiger’s landmark mobile game about an adorable bird, and its quest to sail across the skies of a Seussian landscape before the sun goes down. Released in February of 2011, it was nonetheless the kind of game that was still being recommended by friends traveling in Australia to their pals back in Canada two years later.
On the surface, all you needed to do was tap your iPhone or iPad screen to control the descent of your feathered friend, using the contours of the game’s many hills to keep up momentum as you careened from one island to the next. Painterly visuals, a soaring soundtrack, and singularly brilliant design all elevated Tiny Wings to the status of gaming classic. For Cash, who had been out of touch with games for years, it was a revelation.
“I downloaded Tiny Wings, and I was…immediately blown away, and kind of, in a way, didn’t even know like something like that could exist,” says Cash. “Where it’s really artistic, beautiful, soothing…I was really blown away and…I never really knew that people were making things like this.” Forced to question what he thought he knew about mobile games as exclusively bite-sized distractions, Cash looked to Rosenberg for more recommendations, who turned him onto Ski Safari — an over-the-top title that has you barreling down a mountain at top speeds, collecting coins and ridiculous power-ups as you go.
That’s when he got sick. Very, very sick.
“I’ve never really been stuck in bed. But I was pretty much stuck in bed for four days,” sighs Cash. “So I just spent the entire time playing Ski Safari…I was just…playing it all day.” As he did, the digital flurries of the game’s mountain scenery blew fond memories of his teen years back into view. He got to thinking about the last time he was this absorbed in a game, when he and his friends huddled around the TV late at night stringing together impossible skateboarding tricks together to set high scores in Tony Hawks Pro Skater. He silently lamented the fact that his schedule had kept him from the slopes, and missed the serenity of being on the mountain.
And slowly, surely, naturally, visions of a game materialized in his mind.
It would be about snowboarding. No. It would be about the feeling of snowboarding.
“[I wanted to make something about] that feeling when I’m on the hill, or even when I’m camping, or [when] I’m hiking…It’s that feeling of serenity and enjoying the moment for what it is and letting everything else fall away,” Cash ruminates. Convincing Rosenberg, who had remained a much more avid snowboarder, took no time at all. Motivated as never before, the pair mapped out a skeleton for a game born not of analyzing the market, but rather of inspired introspection. A patchwork of their passions.
Together, they created rough sketches of what a game about a feeling would look like, and shaped some of the core principles that would define it.
It needed to let players do the kinds of tricks you could really do when you snowboard, and earn a high score like the one kids their age had obsessed over in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. All the same, it needed to be the kind of the kind of game Cash and Rosenberg’s parents would play. That their grandparents – who had never played a video game in their life – would play. And if at all possible, it needed to do all of this with one tap. One touch. They hadn’t forsaken money, after all. This is a game that needed to sell. To that end, what they needed most was an artist and a programmer. Cash just happened to know someone who would become both.
In January of 2013, he approached English designer and artist Harry Nesbitt, whose work had stuck indelibly with him since his time at Marketcircle, when discussions about potentially creating some cartoon avatars for the company’s official website had fallen through. He so believed in Nesbitt’s artistry that he had a rather unique proposal: near-total creative control.
“Ryan was keen to give me creative freedom to design the entire look and feel, including characters, environments, items and animations,” writes Nesbitt in a blog post on his personal website. “It was an incredibly enticing proposition, but I have to admit that initially I was unsure. I know almost nothing about snowboarding, and I’m typically not a fan of extreme sports games, so at first glance it all left me feeling rather cold (if you’ll pardon the pun) and I began to wonder if I was really the right guy for the job.
“But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered how the game could look if we took a more sensitive, stylised approach – to try and capture the feeling of being high up in the mountains, where the environment and characters felt like just a small part of a much larger world, with it’s own history and culture. And finally, to tie it all together with a bold, minimalist art style that conveyed a lighthearted charm and a little hidden depth…[now], that was the kind of snowboarding game I could really get excited about!”
That excitement translated quickly into sketches, and Cash and Rosenberg’s original loose-leaf pen drawings soon gave way to Nesbitt’s stylised alpine landscapes, punctuated by deep greens, cool blues, and masterful shadowplay. Using programming framework Unity 3D, Nesbitt later spent a blustery weekend holed up bringing the game to life, including ever-changing vistas, basic character animations and a few snowboarding tricks. Though the title would come much later, there was no mistaking it: Alto’s Adventure had taken flight.
Of course, flight meant turbulence. Nesbitt started coding in earnest in September of 2013, with a plan to release that title during the holiday season that year. In reality, four months lasted 18. And while the art style matured steadily and centered around a seemingly Peruvian-inspired mountain village nestled in the mountains, Nesbitt wasn’t nearly so confident a coder. In fact, for the final few months of development, he struggled with impostor syndrome, and wasn’t altogether sure he had the programming chops to see the game over the finish line.
Meanwhile, as the project’s scope evolved and its complexity grew, Cash and Rosenberg got antsy to see their name on something, and foolhardily created an ill-fated puzzle title with more outside freelancers as a side project of sorts. Released during Alto‘s development, Super Squares was a game of connecting coloured lines. A free title with opportunities to make purchases during gameplay, it proved an abject financial failure. Cash summarizes the experience taciturnly.
“It was the biggest launch failure we’ve had. No one cared, [and] everyone was busy.”
Amidst the uncertainty and the anxiousness, however, the trio refused to compromise on Alto. On this point, Nesbitt’s summary may as well stand in for the entire experience of making art — of creating it and being controlled by it all at once.
“We had no choice but to take our time and allow the project to mature at it’s own pace, watching and waiting for the right ideas to suggest themselves naturally, sometimes many months down the line.”
So it was that many months down the line – nearly two years after its inception – Snowman released Alto’s Adventure. Of the arduous road to release, Cash can’t help fall victim to cliché.
“It was all worth it in the end,” he reflects. And cliché though it might be, his assessment also happens to be something else: one massive understatement.
“Let me preface this by saying that I’m not a morning person,” laughs Cash, taking me step by step through Alto’s launch day. “I often don’t wake up until ten, or even eleven. I’ll get up at eight or nine if I have a call, or something specific to do. But I’m more of a night owl.
For a launch I’d often get up at eight or nine AM, have a quick bite to eat, and then be at my desk [to] finish all the…final touches…and then [switch] the app…from “Approved” to “Ready for Sale”…[but] with Alto’s Adventure, I kind of thought, ‘Okay I need to get up earlier. I can’t screw anything up,'” says Cash, almost giving himself the same pep talk all these months later for my benefit. Part of this extra level of care meant breaking with tradition and making Alto available for sale at midnight, as Wednesday turned into Thursday. It also meant that for that day? Ryan Cash was a morning person.
“I got up at five in the morning…and as soon as I woke my computer, I had 100 new e-mails from people, and…there were like 580 tweets about Alto already. Tweets from [the time] I went to bed at midnight. I was like, ‘Oh shit, people are already talking about it!’ Cash, who was living with Rosenberg at the time, was torn. On one hand, Rosenberg had to see this. On the other? 5:00 AM.
“It [was] already completely out there, [with] reviews in other countries. And there [were] tons of people tweeting about it…I think [I heard] Jordan wake up at 6…[and] I knocked on his door, and I was like, ‘Holy shit. It’s already going crazy.’ Some of that craziness was owed to the fact that other time zones had had their hands on Alto for nearly six hours. Part of it stemmed from an exceptionally well-received video of the game that had been released a week prior, advertising the launch date and highlighting Nesbitt’s art, set to the ethereal sounds of Jónsi Birgisson, frontman for Icelandic rock group Sigur Rós. All of it, though, affirmed the most important thing of all: that an idea living inside Cash, Rosenberg, and Nesbitt’s head for the last two years truly meant something to other people.
And that morning was just the beginning.
Later that afternoon, the weekly refreshing of banners and content on Apple’s App Store revealed that Alto’s Adventure had been listed under “Best New Games,” and given prominent placement in the company’s curated storefront — in regions all around the world. Reviews started to pour in, and like players, critics saw Snowman’s creation more as a digital dreamscape than an idle distraction, rewarding the team’s craftsmanship with a median score of 92%.
The month that followed brought many more early mornings answering e-mails, responding to fan support and suggestions through social media, and trying to do justice to each and every single interview request. It all culminated in a last minute trip to San Francisco to attend that year’s Game Developer’s Conference, where Cash and Rosenberg met Nesbitt in person for the first time ever to – finally – celebrate the birth of their brainchild. Not one to leave an understatement without company, Cash looks back on perhaps the most transformative time of his life with aplomb.
“It was a crazy month or so.”
Since its debut for Apple’s iPhone and iPad, Alto’s Adventure has become a top downloaded title in over 90 countries, been declared one of the App Store’s “15 Most Beautiful Games” by the notoriously picky company, and secured Cash, Rosenberg, and Nesbitt’s financial stability for a long time to come. As a newly minted trio, the guys at Snowman have a few more top secret titles in the works, and find themselves regularly fielding interest in spinning out their serene snowboarding simulator into a multinational brand.
Thinking about the road they’ve traveled to get here, I can’t help but wonder if Cash and Rosenberg still think of themselves as friends first, rather than business partners.
“That’s a good question,” says Cash. “So many people — family members, friends, and traditional business books, or business people, would [say], ‘Never get into business with your best friend. It never ends well, it’s always a disaster.’ [But] we…knew each other so well, that we just had the confidence to know that wouldn’t happen. Occasionally we’ll get in…the tiniest little quibble, but it’ll…be me getting annoyed that he’s really bad with his email grammar, and then him telling me it doesn’t matter.” For a moment, Cash pauses, and chuckles to himself.
“I remember, when we were like, five or something, we told our parents that we were going to make potions — like we always made potions out of soap and stuff. And we told them that we were going to live in a crazy mansion one day making potions. In some kind of funny weird way, that’s what this feels like.”