Alto's Odyssey Creators Reveal Why It's iPhone Gaming at Its Best

One of the greatest iOS games of all time is back. Alto’s Odyssey, which launched Wednesday, is a downhill boarding games that captures the meditative snowy art style of 2015’s Alto’s Adventure and brings it to an ever-changing desert landscape. Players soar through gorgeous waterfalls, bounce off balloons and ride across rock walls. An expansive world that’s easy to pick up and put down, Odyssey retains the winning formula that made its predecessor a success on the small screen.

“We wanted to make sure that both games feel connected,” Harry Nesbitt, the game’s lead artist and programmer, tells Inverse. “They’re part of the same world, so they need to feel like they’re painted with the same brush. But we also want to celebrate the new desert environment and explore everything it has to offer. I definitely think there’s a much greater sense of life and vibrancy this time around.”

It was always going to be hard for Team Alto to follow on from Adventure. Launching in February 2015 at a pay-once price of $1.99, controls were simple enough to attract a broad audience. The character skis down the mountain automatically, while touching the screen makes them jump. Holding down causes the character to flip. The goal is to avoid obstacles, while completing tasks like “capture the llamas” or “do a double flip.”

Alto's Adventure.

“Looking back, I don’t think we could have foreseen Alto’s amazing reception,” Ryan Cash, founder of Snowman, tells Inverse. “From the get-go, it was our vision with Harry to create a game that captured the calm and serenity of being in a cozy natural setting. From our perspective, it would have been a huge accomplishment if it simply connected that way with players.”

It was a runaway success. Within 24 hours, the first release hit the top spot on Apple’s paid charts. The Verge described it as “the next great iPad game” and “supremely laid back,” while TechCrunch instructed its readers to “get this amazing iOS game right now.” Six months later, the team was still receiving physical fan mail from fans, with players sharing stories about how the game helped them fight stress.

“I don’t think we ever expected this would happen when we created the game,” Cash says.

In the three years since that launch, the mobile gaming sphere has changed. Statista shows mobile gaming revenue from in-app advertising and app store revenue was just under $50 billion in 2015, a figure expected to double by 2020. In December 2016, 92 percent of games on the Google Play store were free, while Candy Crush Saga ranked as the highest-grossing game on the iOS App Store in January 2018. “Freemium” games, where the download is free but users are charged for in-app purchases, are bringing in the big bucks.

Alto's Odyssey.

“I think that a ‘rising tide raises all the boats’, as they say, and that the amount amazing games coming out for mobile has helped reshape the way people think about play on these devices,” Eli Cymet, lead producer on Alto’s Odyssey, tells Inverse. “And while there’s definitely predatory behaviour out there, I also think it goes under-appreciated how many cleverly and ethically designed free-to-play games are out there which use that business model to craft a lovely experience for players.”

With Odyssey, Team Alto stuck with its original pricing model. The game is $4.99 for a single app that runs on iPhone, iPad and Apple TV. Players won’t be pestered again after paying: You’re free to slip in and out whenever you want with no charge.

Perhaps one of the most noticeable changes in Odyssey is the soundtrack. While Adventure featured a relaxing melodic tune that contributed to its spirit of freedom, the new game takes a deeper approach that gives the environment a grander feel. Todd Baker, a British musician that worked on Monument Valley 2 and Tearaway, was brought on to represent the procedurally-generated desertscape.

“The game’s main theme sits in a non-standard time signature that is meant to feel fresh each time you hear it, always propelling forward to new places,” Cymet says.

Alto's Odyssey.

“Subtle cello variations in the game’s opening title screen give the sense of always finding yourself somewhere new and exciting,” Cymet says. “This extends to the sound effects, which go far beyond functional noises this time around. They have a musical quality that is meant to make players feel that even simple actions are a little magical - that you’re in a fantastical place far from home.”

Zen Mode also makes a return, with Torin Borrowdale returning to provide the music. This is a distraction-free mode for those that want to appreciate the art without worrying about game features. No game over, no score — just straightforward, down the mountain.

While the game retains the same basic formula, adding in features like wall riding for longer trick combinations, Odyssey’s appeal is in the vibrant world. The desert landscape is reminiscent of Journey, a critically-acclaimed 2012 game for the PlayStation 3, and Cymet says he’s “honored” to think that the two experiences are comparable. However, it’s very much Alto at heart: challenging yet relaxing, expansive yet intuitive, and built from the ground-up for both long play sessions and short bursts on the go.

“We’re not seeking to one-up the first game,” Nesbitt says. “We’re trying to create another game set in the same world that taps into a different set of emotions.”

Alto's Odyssey.

It’s an exciting development in mobile gaming, but it doesn’t stop there. Although the game is currently on Apple platforms, and Cash has “nothing to official to announce at the moment,” the team does “hope to come to Android in the months ahead.”