The Happy Wheels Saga: An Interview With Jim Bonacci and Jason Schymick
Anyone who is a fan of online, browser-based flash games has likely heard of (or played) Happy Wheels, found on totaljerkface.com. With a tag line like “Choose your inadequately prepared racer, and ignore severe consequences in your desperate search for victory!”, I was curious about the game’s creator and how a game like Happy Wheels became the resounding success that it is today.
The creator of Happy Wheels, Jim Bonacci, never expected his hobby of video game creation to evolve into the massive string of successes that Happy Wheels has seen over the last few years. In fact, Happy Wheels was not the first project to be launched by Bonacci. Another game, Divine Intervention, was initially posted on total jerkface.com, which functioned as Bonacci’s portfolio at the time. When asked to describe his beginnings and the start of Happy Wheels, Jim replied:
Totaljerkface.com was my portfolio site for Divine Intervention and whatever other artwork I had made at the time. After I released Divine Intervention, I realized that video games were the type of thing I wanted to spend more of my time creating. They gave me a medium where I could perfectly combine my interests in art and programming.
At the end of the day, Bonacci still had to fund himself, so he took a job at an ad agency. While working at the ad agency, Alec, Jim’s Technical Director created an open source flash physics engine called ‘Flade’. Of course, Jim’s creative genius was sparked and he immediately felt the need to play around with the engine. Soon after, the beginnings of Happy Wheels began to emerge in the form of a guy in a wheel chair.
Soon I had made this guy in a wheelchair who would continuously fall down this infinitely random hill. You’d crash and your limbs would fall off and tumble along beside you. I found this appealing, so I resolved to make a new, different game. This one would be much less ambitious than the fighting game, and I’d finish it very quickly and release it to the public. After working and saving up for around 6 months, I quit and decided to spend my time finishing up my new game.
Happy Wheels Emerges
After a few stents of working, saving up, quitting, and working again, Bonacci finally began to see the fruits of his labor. When asked to comment on the process of bringing Happy Wheels to life, he spoke a bit about the hard work required to make it happen. Even though he had incorrectly estimated how long the project would ultimately take, Bonacci acknowledges that he is doubtful he would have gone forward with the project if he had known how lengthy the process would ultimately be. Continually adding new features to the project, Jim finally stumbled upon what is now his wildly popular game, Happy Wheels.
With Happy Wheels finally a relatively finished product, Jim was free to find out whether or not it would be as big of a hit with his fans as Divine Intervention was. As Happy Wheels began to gain momentum, Bonacci found himself becoming an accidental business man in charge of something much bigger than he ever imagined.
I would probably never refer to myself as an entrepreneur, but I guess I accidentally became one with the success of the game. Based on the popularity of my previous game, Divine Intervention, I expected Happy Wheels to do fairly well. I was now a better programmer, and the game was higher quality, so it seemed natural to assume that it would at least match Divine Intervention’s success. However, I thought it would be popular for around 6 months or so, and that some larger company might notice the game and want to develop it for consoles with a larger budget. Instead, Happy Wheels somehow remains popular 3 years later and ad revenue has been more lucrative than I imagined. I am happier with this result as I can now afford to work on whatever I’d like in the foreseeable future independently.
Eventually, Jim was able to hire an employee with the revenue he began pulling in from Happy Wheels’ ad money. Ironically enough, he hired the guy who took over his old job when he quit the ad agency, Jason Schymick. Luckily, Jason had some Actionscript and Box2D experience and ultimately agreed to work for a subsidized rate.
Being able to fund himself with his creation, Bonacci has been able to focus more on the development of the Happy Wheels website, totaljerkface.com. Three years after its creation, Happy Wheels typically has at least a half million visitors each day. Of course, Jim stresses that there is a direct correlation between how often he updates the game and how steady his traffic influx remains. Over the last year, Bonacci has stopped updating as much in order to focus all of his efforts on an upcoming sequel to Happy Wheels. As expected, traffic to Happy Wheels has slowed a little, but fans seem to be remaining true to the game, regardless of the updates coming from Jim. Luckily, the main content for the game is user generated, so there is still lots of excitement to be had. Soon, though, Bonacci plans to take some time off and throw his fans a bone in the form of a new character.
With characters like Wheelchair Guy, Irresponsible Dad, Santa, and Pogo Stick Man, it is certain that fans of Happy Wheels would be thrilled to have a new character come on the scene. Although they will likely be even more excited for the sequel mentioned by Jim. When we asked about a possible Happy Wheels 2 and when we should expect it, Jim had this to say:
Happy Wheels 2 might not actually be the name of the sequel. The new game might have less emphasis on vehicles, so having “wheels” in the name seems a bit inappropriate. It will however definitely be the spiritual successor of Happy Wheels. What I’m currently trying to do is make the physics engine much more suitable for character animation. With the first game, you could eject from your vehicle, but you were then limited to a few odd poses and squirming on the ground. Now, you’ll be able to create your own character animations that will be completely interactive with the physics world. Because this will be a major part of the game play, it seems as if I’d be hiding it if all the characters started out in vehicles. Of course, people can do whatever they’d like. I’d just like to make a great 2-d sandbox. I’ve abandoned flash for C++ and OpenGL. This will allow me to make the game look and perform much, much better, as well as making it much easier to port to other platforms.
Now, a more recent task that has faced Jim and Jason is the porting of Happy Wheels to iOS. We asked Jason just how difficult it was to port the game and whether or not he and Jim expect it to be as successful as its flash predecessor:
It has been very difficult. Putting aside things like developing touch controls and the physical limitations of mobile devices, simultaneously converting and updating the code as well as converting the assets from Flash has been a big undertaking. And like all other projects, a million other unexpected issues have come up. The mobile space looks rife with opportunity. However, there is a saturation of 2D racing games currently in the app store. Plus, the casual gaming community is becoming more and more used to using one finger to play games. That said, I think our game is unique enough to attract new fans in addition to those who migrate from the online game. In other words, I see it being very popular.
While it has been somewhat of a struggle to get Happy Wheels moved from a browser-based flash game over to an iOS app, it has clearly been a rewarding process. All that is left to speculate about is what pricing model Jim and Jason will decide on regarding the app. While Jason says that consumable-items that can be purchased and used up (think coins, doughnuts, etc) annoy him, he says that he has no problem with the freemium model, as long as the cost to value ratio is made very clear. Because of competition, Jason feels as though developers will over-deliver free content in an effort to stay relevant. This has us wondering if perhaps Happy Wheels will be a variation of the freemium model that so many app purchasers are familiar with.
The Future and Beyond
With so much talent and resources at their finger tips, there is no end to what we might see coming from Fancy Force in the future. With Bonacci’s oozing creativity and Jason’s dedication, there isn’t much that these two can’t accomplish. Whatever is to come, we can only hope that it will be as fun and insanely successful as Happy Wheels.
Check out Jim and Jason’s work and play Happy Wheels now!