Journey of Once Upon a Runner

The concept behind Once Upon a Runner and the realities we faced versus the fantasies we had when working on our first mobile game.

With Once Upon a Runner now out for both Android and iOS (go download them now, it’s free!) we wanted to give you a look into our creative process as well as the ups and mostly downs we had during the entire creation process. We’ve given you some snippets into our process on a couple other articles, but we figured it would make it much easier for you to have it all in one place. Despite the many, many mistakes we made along the way, ultimately we learned so much from shipping our first game. The biggest takeaway we want you to have is this: Don’t ever give up. Even if things aren’t going your way, even if the final product isn’t what you expect, keep moving forward. You’ll have learned so much more and, at the end of the day, you’ll have something you can call your own.

The Journey of Once Upon a Runner

Once Upon a Runner grew out of a necessity to provide some sneak peeks and teasers into a PC MMO ARPG game called SaltyPepper. I joined the team as a writer and helped world build with another writer. At first, the progress of the game seemed to be relatively smooth; however, soon people started losing motivation. We were a small team so everything just seemed to take longer in terms of programming, artwork, you name it. The producer had already started fanning the flames of hype of the game, but without any interesting developer articles, people lost interest.

In order to keep our name on the radar I suggested we release some short games for mobile so gamers would start recognizing our name. It didn’t take too long to get the greenlight for the project. That was the easy part. The hard part was just beginning.

The Process

We ended up going with a story about one of the characters from SaltyPepper – Ella – and her origins as she seemed like the most interesting and versatile character to base a standalone game on. Our initial target goal for completion was six months, so we needed something simple enough to finish. We initially toyed with the idea of a platformer, but decided to simplify it even further with a runner game. At the time, there were only endless runner games with no story so we decided to stand out with a runner game that actually has an end. Our use of fairy tales weaved into SaltyPepper so we decided to choose some of the more well-known stories.

The addition of Ella, the spunky fire mage, helped shape the fairy tales in a different way. We wanted Ella to have a big personality and charm. We also wanted her clothes to communicate a story as well and kind of place her as a wandering spirit despite her young age. Her clothes are drab and plain, but her bright expressions and hair make you kind of forget all of that.


Of course, having Ella in the story completely changed how the fairy tales played out. There wasn’t a prince anymore. So we had to adapt the story to fit around Ella. With the help of our previous lore writer we drafted several comic book panels to tell the story. We ended up going without dialogue as we wanted people to focus on the illustrations and come up with the dialogue themselves. It made the story more open to interpretation.

I created a game design document that outlines the basics of the game mechanics, gameplay and more. Looking back on it now, it lacked a lot of necessary details. Still, once we got everything into place we started working. We didn’t have any project management system or processes in place for this game. Something I do NOT suggest. For the most part we were adding in details and explanations as we went along. Which ultimately led to:

The Snags

Without proper oversight and direction, the team fell apart. The programmers were split between working on Once Upon a Runner and SaltyPepper. Eventually we ended up dropping SaltyPepper, which led to several core team members dropping out from Once Upon a Runner.

It also took much longer to get the artwork than expected. We couldn’t find a decent animator and by the time we did, two months had already passed since the inception of the game. It took another three months to just get the basic animations for Ella. From there, it was just one mishap after another. The background art didn’t suit the more cartoony style of the animations. It was my first job as lead designer, but I didn’t have much authority at least in the beginning. All of the approvals went through the producer who would often disappear for weeks on end. This led to poor communication and, unsurprisingly, unhappy team members.

The Depths of Despair (Anne Shirley Fans Will Get It)

Eventually the two programmers who started with us left and we had to put the project on hiatus until we could find some who would stick with us. That took several months of searching multiple times. Programmers would join and then disappear just as quickly. Eventually we found three people who could finish the game, but that still took quite a while as soon after the animator left the project. So we had to search once again for an animator.

By this time, a year had already passed and we hadn’t made any significant progress on the game. People lost motivation and even I was ready to give up. It just seemed like finishing the project was not going to be possible.

Wisely or not, we had also started another project – Fairy Trails to keep the momentum going. I hired some artists to get started ahead of time so the programmers would have assets to work with once they moved from Once Upon a Runner to Fairy Trails. It was going well, that is until the producer pulled out suddenly. As the only source of funding, it meant we couldn’t keep paying our artists – something we had promised them. It was a huge disappointment, but there wasn’t much I could do. We tried to raise the remainder of the tab with a Kickstarter, but unfortunately that failed. At that point, the only thing we could do was stop the project.


Despite that cloud of negativity, I decided there was no way we would let Once Upon a Runner die. With the help of the Ray, our VP, we formed a new company and created a plan. Eventually, I moved everyone over to Trello to assign tasks and track progress. I even created a pretty pie chart for even more visuals so we could see how far we’ve come. I’m not sure if they helped others, but they motivated me and it seemed like every week we started to make progress again.

Meanwhile, Once Upon a Runner was making slow but steady progress. I focused my attention on that and started showing it off at local events in New York City. Even with this, I was still pretty unsatisfied with the way it looked and played. There were some major issues with the background and memory leaks on iOS and the game size was just way too big. We kept pushing forward though until we finally released the game 2.5 years later.


Once Upon a Runner poster

There wasn’t much fanfare around our release. In fact, I didn’t want to reach out to press just because I was a little ashamed of the final product. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy we finally got it out the door, but there were just so many issues. With that said, we did still manage to get some good press. Two years after release, we didn’t crack 1,000 total downloads. It’s a bit sad, but not unexpected.


While there are a lot of articles out there that advise against revisiting old games, I can’t really help myself. We’re updating the programming and artwork for Once Upon a Runner. Hopefully we can manage to condense it into a smaller package, too.

Why? Because when I list the games on our site, I want gamers and prospective clients to see we can produce quality work. I also plan on reusing some of the new artwork here for a sequel. But really, I want to look at our released games with pride. Maybe it won’t affect how many people download it, but at least I’ll know the final product now matches my standards. I’m excited to see how it looks in the end and hope you are too!

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