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‘Temple Run’ franchise now calls Raleigh home

The creators of the ultra-popular “Temple Run” mobile games – more than 300 million downloads and counting – are looking to expand.

The husband-and-wife team of Keith Shepherd, 33, and Natalia Luckyanova, 31, founders and sole owners of Imangi Studios and the lucrative “Temple Run” franchise, moved to North Raleigh about a year ago. They’ve been running the business out of their home since then.

That turned out to be a successful launch pad for “Temple Run 2,” which made its debut in January and rocketed to an astounding 50 million-plus downloads in two weeks. That, the company boasts, made it the fastest-selling mobile game ever.

“The sequel has exceeded the original in terms of its overall success,” Shepherd said.

Shepherd and Luckyanova have leveraged the “freemium” business model to the max.

The “Temple Run” games can be downloaded for free to Apple or Android mobile devices. But players can purchase coins that enable them to enhance the game experience by, for example, upgrading their characters’ abilities. Packs of coins range from 99 cents to $19.99.

It’s a model that has allowed Imangi to generate “millions of dollars” in revenue, said Shepherd, who declined to be more specific.

That success is all the more impressive when you discover Imangi hasn’t relied on an army of programmers to create the games. Until recently, Shepherd and Luckyanova did it all with the help of three independent contractors scattered across the country.

But in the last few months, they’ve added three employees in Raleigh – all of whom are working out of their homes at the moment – and have started looking for office space that could accommodate up to a dozen workers.

After years of not being interested in expansion, Shepherd and Luckyanova decided they needed to expand if they wanted to create new games while continuing to support the “Temple Run” money machine.

Part of the fun of being in the game biz, Shepherd said, is “getting to work on new games and thinking about new ideas and bringing these things to life.”

Before founding Imangi in 2008, Shepherd and Luckyanova worked as programmers in the health care field for companies in Washington, D.C.

‘Apple fanboy’ instinct

Shepherd had become frustrated with his work and, with Luckyanova’s blessing, quit his job and began searching for something else to do. While he was in search mode, Apple announced it was going to launch its App Store for software applications designed specifically for the iPhone.

Shepherd, a self-described “Apple fanboy,” saw a lot of potential in the App Store and enlisted Luckyanova to help him create a word puzzle – called Imangi – that they could sell when the App Store opened.

“We made it in a month,” he said.

In the first 30 days after the launch of the game, it generated about $5,000 in sales.

“It wasn’t any sort of windfall, but it opened ... our eyes,” Shepherd said. “Hey, we created something, people are enjoying it, and we can actually make money on it.”

It wasn’t long before Luckyanova quit her day job, too, and the two started turning out games at a steady clip.

Along the way, they tapped talents they didn’t even know they possessed.

Luckyanova, for example, said that although she has played piano since she was a kid, “my first composing experience was for one of our games. It was really fun. Ever since then, I’ve been writing the soundtracks for our games and doing some of the sound effects, too.”

Some of the games they created did OK. Some flopped. “We felt with every game we grew a lot as game designers, and we were learning what it takes to make a successful game,” Shepherd said.

In August of 2011, Imangi’s ninth game, “Temple Run,” made its debut and sold 40,000 copies at 99 cents each in the first month. Then sales started to slide.

The free model

“It was our best launch ever for our games,” Shepherd said. “It got great reviews. But it didn’t shoot to the very top of the charts.”

So they decided to experiment with cutting the price to nothing.

“The game went viral,” Shepherd said. “Everyone was talking about it, and everybody was sharing it with their friends. It was immediately actually generating more money as a free game than as a paid game.”

PC Magazine, which called it “the ridiculously addictive free game,” described the action thusly: “In Temple Run, you’re an Indiana Jones doppelganger who can’t stop running. Clutching a golden icon in your hands, your goal is to stay out of the clutches of evil eagle-gorilla hybrid monster things (hey, it’s a casual game) and avoid obstacles in your path by tilting and swiping your way through levels.”

Its runaway success also led to a collaboration with Disney Pixar on two hit games that combine “Temple Run”-style game play with characters from hit films: “Temple Run: Brave” and “Temple Run: Oz.” Those games cost 99 cents.

Shepherd is convinced that “Temple Run’s” accessibility was one of the keys to its success.

“The controls are very intuitive and simple,” he said. “We have people of all ages playing this game.”

Shepherd and Luckyanova decided to move to Raleigh for both personal and business reasons.

On the personal side, they wanted to be – along with their now-1-year-old daughter, Katherine – closer to family.

“I went to Athens Drive High School” in Raleigh, Shepherd said. “My parents still live in Cary.”

On the business end, they liked the cluster of game companies, including Epic Games in Cary, that the region has nurtured.

“The Triangle is an amazing place to grow a business,” Shepherd said. “There are a lot of very talented people here.”

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