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Powering Hello Kitty’s rise to the top flight of mobile

Hello Kitty Island Adventure is doing a lot of remarkable work to disprove a dated prejudice about kids games based on licensed brands.

It may no longer be remotely fair or accurate, but some still default to assuming that such games are somehow less creatively credible, innovative, or technologically ambitious than equivalent works conceived for an older audience.

Now, that might have been a slightly fairer presumption in the early 1990s, when the likes of kids’ movie tie-ins were too often rushed out quick and cheap. And we can almost certainly point to that era as the source of the lingering prejudice.

However, Sunblink, the team behind the sublime Hello Kitty Island Adventure, clearly aren’t letting preconceptions about licensed kids’ games hold back their ambition. In taking on the the most iconic mascot of Japanese entertainment outfit Sanrio, they have built a beautiful, distinct, ornate life-sim informed by the likes of Animal Crossing.

Sunblink has brought plenty new to the formula, however, by blending open-world and cosy gaming mechanics, while bringing a distinct focus on quests and exploration, hooked around an engrossing narrative where the titular character and her friends restore an abandoned theme park. It’s also highly polished and impressively vast; two things that buck any notion that licensed IP kids games don’t bring quality seen elsewhere across the medium’s landscape.

The result? Sunblink’s focus on innovation and quality has absolutely been rewarded.Hello Kitty Island Adventure won Apple Arcade Game of the Year at the 2023 App Store Awards, and has delivered a stunning stint as one of the Apple Arcade platform’s most popular titles. In recent days, the admiration has continued, with Island Adventure receiving two nominations for the 27th annual D.I.C.E Awards in the Family and Mobile categories. Elsewhere it carries a 89% Metacritic score, reaching a rating few mobile or licensed kids’ games ever achieve.

That success, absolutely, is rooted in not just Sunblink’s clear talent when it comes to game design and development, but also the team’s culture, which is directly reflected in Hello Kitty’s most lauded gaming outing.

“At Sunblink we like to say we make kind, collaborative, imaginative games,” offers Chelsea Howe, chief product officer at Sunblink. “That was part of the spirit that attracted me to the company, because you see that kindness and collaborative approach within the team as much as in the game. Kindness also shows in the generosity with which we give players content. We’re not here to make tightly tuned free-to-play games that constantly prompt you to pay more or grind. We give our players a place to play together and be curious, and set them free to explore and make it their own. And that comes from the team and the studio, too. I don’t think we could make a clone game if our lives depended on it.”

Technology choice, of course, has also been key in letting Sunblink build an ambitious, generously sized place that thrives as a live, maintained, continuously updated entity. The game is built with Unity, which Sunblink have extended and customised to their needs. But it’s not just the Unity engine that the team gives credit to, but rather the entire suite of services and tools that now exist around that core technology, and the philosophy of ease of use that has defined the engine since its early days.

“We know a large part of our success here comes from the fact that Hello Kitty runs so well on mobile, and Unity, of course, was instrumental in us being able to accomplish that,” Howe enthuses. “But it’s not only about that power alone. From a design perspective, Unity is far in a way the most accessible development tool there is. And I’ve worked in many, many different development tools. As a design and product person my questions about tech always come down to: ‘How quickly can I do the work? How quickly can a design become a playable reality?’

“I can literally tune the entire game economy in a relatively simple spreadsheet with a friend next to me or in another country, and suddenly our work is there, in-engine. That simplicity and efficiency also leaves so much room to be creative and explore different ideas. We want Hello Kitty to succeed and delight players for years and years, and all of those integrations and services that exist enable us to create that content that we need to achieve that. From a live services perspective, the faster and tighter that iteration loop is, the better the experience you’re going to create. That’s so powerful in making live games succeed and keep succeeding”.

The Sunblink team also made significant use of DOTS, a Unity technology stack that enables a data-oriented design approach to building games. As Unity puts it, in letting game makers apply data-oriented design to a game’s architecture, they can easily scale processing in a way that is intently highly performant.

“HEROish was our first game,” explains Sunblink Chief Architect Justin Larrabee. “We put that out a bit over a year and a half ago. And to me DOTS felt like a natural fit for the development of HEROish. We needed performance, we had a lot of ideas and concepts to explore, and we knew it needed to be multiplayer. The flexible game architecture of DOTS let us achieve our goals with less risk, and build an ambitious game with a relatively small team. It meant we were able to deliver three single player campaigns and competitive PVP multiplayer at the level of quality we always strive to hit.”

“With Hello Kitty, DOTS has really given us the ability to mix the high performance of ECS with a more traditional content pipeline that our artists and designers here are much more used to using. The flexibility was critical to shipping a giant open-world multiplayer game that could run on a two-core mobile device with 1.3GB of RAM. DOTS put us in a unique situation where we could optimise our game without disrupting content creators, and that was a huge win for us during the last five months of development.”

Credit for all of Hello Kitty Island Adventure’s glowing reviews and award wins and nominations goes to the Sunblink team, of course. Their innovation, ideas, talent, experience and kind, generous, collaborative approach is what made the game a brilliant reality. Unity simply offered the tool box with which they could do their work and meet their ambitions and goals.

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