A Story of Kakarod Interactive: The small team behind an indie hit Big Hunter

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You throw spears to hunt down a mammoth. It’s a simple enough concept, right? I’d never imagined Big Hunter would succeed as it did. Although I felt somewhat guilty seeing a mammoth with spears sticking out of its head and back, the process of hunting it was unexpectedly satisfying. Created by a married couple in Jeju Island, Big Hunter has delivered that experience to over 9 million players, reaching close 10 million total downloads worldwide. It’s not everyday we see something like this.


Inven was fortunate enough to sit down the two developers from Kakarod Interactive to hear their story about the development of Big Hunter.

 

▲ Head of Kakarod Jinwoo Kim & General Manager Jinhee Kim

 

I understand you two are married. Would you like to tell us a little bit about yourselves and how you came to start Kakarod?

Jinwoo Kim: Hello, I’m Jinwoo Kim from Kakarod. I started to work in IT while doing some work with Flash and making websites back in 2001. After about 10 years in the industry, I started to develop mobile games in 2011. Truth be told, I wasn’t interested in game development before that. I did enjoy making interactive animations with Flash, however. Then, when there was a sudden big rush to mobile games, it got me thinking. I came out and told my wife that I was going to make mobile games. I also asked her to join me.


Jinhee Kim:
I’m Jinhee Kim from Kakarod. Let’s just go with general manager for my official title. [laughs] I worked in the CG department for the Korean Broadcasting System N (KBS N). You can say it’s like a special effects team. After that, I married my husband here and we started making games together.


My understanding is that Big Hunter isn’t your first game?

Jinhee Kim: Our previous game is called Rolling Coins. The number of downloads for it is less than Big Hunter, but it got more attention overseas. It got around 1.7 million downloads for the free week. We never expected it would reach the top 5 free games on the store. [laughs]

 

▲ Kakarod's previous game, Rolling Coins

 

Would you tell us about Big Hunter for those who have never played the game?

Jinwoo Kim: Big Hunter is about a chieftain in the Stone Age who’s out to hunt mammoths. During the early stages of development, we tried to add many costumes and weapons but found out that there were too many of those types of systems already out on the market. So we decided to simplify and give every player a spear to go toe-to-toe with a mammoth.

After the launch, we got many requests from players asking to add more weapons. So, we added other weapons like the stone axe, dagger, and boomerang, and also added rhinos as big game. Of course, these elements were not in-app purchases, instead, they could be earned by playing a couple rounds. People who have played the game know.


Jinhee Kim:
Actually, we initially targeted the international market because our previous games, including Rolling Coins, were received more positively overseas. Additionally, games with realistic graphics and huge capital backings dominate the domestic market, so it’s difficult for small indie developers like us to compete.


I was surprised to see Big Hunter get featured on the App Store even though it’s been over half a year since its release.

Jinwoo Kim: We had so much work to do in order to get it featured on Google Play, too. Because of our hard work though, many people have downloaded the game. Fortunately, our game was featured on the App Store just in time for the new year and was the top free game of the Korean App Store for a moment.


What anecdotes do you remember from servicing the game?

Jinwoo Kim: I once made a post about Big Hunter on an English-speaking indie development Facebook page. At the time, some people asked me if the game is about condoning animal cruelty. [laughs] I had to go through some hoops explaining how it was not about that at all.

I’ve also gotten messages from people who thought we copied Angry Birds because the controls were similar. But actually, I developed Big Hunter based off a Flash game I made back in 2004. So, I sent them the screenshots as evidence, and they replied to me that they were convinced our game wasn’t an Angry Birds knock-off. [laughs]

In fact, that prototype game was quite popular among international communities and received some Flash Game Awards. At the time, I thought about making it into a full game, but gave up because developing for mobile requires a programming language that’s different than developing for Flash. I made that jump again with Big Hunter after I’d gotten more comfortable with mobile game development.


Jinhee Kim:
Jinwoo did everything from design to development for Big Hunter. It looks pretty simple, but it gets quite complicated if you look under the hood.


Jinwoo Kim:
That was back when I didn’t have a clear idea about game development. By necessity, I just kept layering one thing on top of another, and it somehow came together as the development tool for Big Hunter. [laughs] I didn’t know that the big development companies also work like that. I just learned by doing.

 

▲ Some people enquired if the game was encouraging animal cruelty.

 

How did you advertise the game to the overseas market?

Jinhee Kim: There’s a Facebook group called Indie Game Promo where you share news about indie games. I actually didn’t know it existed but came across the page after making friends on social media. I got a lot of help from the group.


Jinwoo Kim:
Our “advertising” mostly consisted of sending out emails. I sometimes sent review copies to gaming websites and popular YouTubers. Honestly, I have regrets about that approach because we didn’t start from our friends and families, who were also potential players. We missed what was near us because we were looking too far ahead. Word of mouth is how small games become successful. Nowadays, my friends and families who play the game ask me how far along I am in the game.

 

▲ They used Indie Game Promo (top) for overseas and Indiera (bottom) for domestic marketing.

 

Could you talk about any future updates for Big Hunter?

Jinwoo Kim: Even now, I get many requests from players for new types of weapons and animals. We’ll continue to update the game as long as people want new things, and as long as those additions fit the game. My initial goal was to add one new animal per month, but plans didn’t come together, as I was involved with other things. [laughs]


Jinhee Kim: The ultimate goal is to expand the types of animals to ten.


Jinwoo Kim:
That’s really an end goal. Recently, there have been many requests for dinosaurs. I’m still on the fence because there weren’t dinosaurs in the Stone Age. I could make a new story that incorporates dinosaurs or go with other animals that better fit the game’s settings.


Will you add new weapons?

Jinwoo Kim: Yes, we will.


Wouldn’t adding more weapons make the game too easy? It’s still much easier than before.

Jinwoo Kim: We’ll scale the difficulty of animals accordingly. We didn’t know that the scope of the game would be this wide. We initially planned to make separate Big Hunter series for animals and weapons to increase its chances of success as an indie game. We thought that making it a series would be more viable from a marketing standpoint. Now we’re actually experiencing first world problems since the game became as big as it did. [laughs]

 

▲ More weapons will be added in the future.

 

After killing a mammoth, the tribesman yells out a “yaaay”. Whose voice is that? [laughs]

Jinhee Kim: Jinwoo recorded that sound. I woke up in the middle of the night when he was making that sound in his room. When I inquired about it, he hushed me and told me he was recording. It was pretty hilarious to see a big hulking person making that cute sound.


Big Hunter seems casual from a gameplay perspective, but the ending had some deep messages. Was this intended?

Jinwoo Kim: Yes, it was. There are many hypotheses as to how mammoths became extinct. Some people say they died of cold weather, while others say they became extinct due to excessive hunting. Actually, there is quite a number of people who feel Big Hunter is too violent. Our intended message was about how human greed can destroy a species, but many people said that we didn’t need to go so far as to make the mammoths extinct. Some people felt too sorry for the mammoths and quit the game after making them extinct.


Jinhee Kim:
We may have reached out to the people’s sensitive sides.


Jinwoo Kim:
The leader of a tribe naturally has to hunt for survival. We did our best to capture that sentiment, but some players still felt bad about the animals.


It’s never an easy feat to get close to 10 million downloads for an indie game. Do you have any advice for people who hope to become indie developers?

Jinwoo Kim: I’ve already said what I can about advertising. We used Indiera for the domestic audience and Indie Game Promo for the international audience.

Big Hunter is our third game from Kakarod. We made the first game without giving it too much thought. For the second one, we included some paywall elements because we had to make a living. We hoped that those elements will help us be better off financially.

That game wasn’t well-received, and we were devastated. Big Hunter was our last attempt at developing games. We went back to the drawing board and thought long and hard about the games we want to make and those we ought to make. We didn’t consider financial viability at first. We focused on elements that give the most enjoyment to players and left out the rest. We genuinely wanted to create a game that players want to own.

Then an interesting thing happened. When we made posts about the first and second games, we didn’t get many responses. With Big Hunter, though, the reception was positive, perhaps because we turned down the pressure to succeed. I felt our true intentions were conveyed well.


Jinhee Kim:
Like Jinwoo said, I think our message was delivered well to those who enjoy Big Hunter. We didn’t have any in-app purchases at first, aside from removing ads. Maybe players thought the game was too generous and worried about the developer’s financial stability, so people around me started to spread word about the game. [laughs] When YouTube influencers played Big Hunter, it would top that region’s charts. We got really lucky. I’m thankful for everything the players have done for us.

 

 

I was also concerned for Big Hunter’s financial future because it didn’t seem to have any revenue streams. I was especially worried if the developers would make enough money to continue making games.

Jinwoo Kim: [laughs] I think we’ve probably made enough to do that. We moved to Jeju Island to concentrate on game development. I think developing in a natural environment will help with creativity. We’ve worked really hard here. There’s a magnolia tree right next to the work room. Watching the flowers and leaves bloom and wither was a good indication of how fast the time was passing by.


Jinhee Kim:
Jinwoo has only slept two to three hours every day for almost seven years.


Jinwoo Kim:
To me, those seven years only feel like a couple years. Not being exposed to new experiences seems to make the time fly by. [laughs]


I’m sure you have dreams about Kakarod’s legacy or what kind of games you want to make.

Jinwoo Kim: Dreams… We could probably make bigger games by receiving investments and hiring new people, but it’ll be more difficult to set my own course for the development if that’s the case. My dream is to become a development house that creates innovative games that warrant purchase despite not having huge investment backings. We’re now in Jeju, but I want to travel the world to experience new things and meld those experiences into our games. That’s the kind of life I want to live.


Jinhee Kim:
Like digital nomads, we want to continue to set our own course without being tied to physical locations or market trends. When Big Hunter first came out, we declined many offers from investors. We could have been more financially comfortable in developing the game, but we had a clear mind about what direction we wanted to take with the game. My dream is to create an environment in which we can focus on game development more freely while having tons of fun. We’ll work hard to achieve those dreams.

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