Nihao! Hello and welcome to China! Most game developers in the mobile space are starting to branch out and look to other markets. There’s been some strong interest in China. With over a billion people and about 400 million smartphones being used in China according to IDC, most developers are drooling over the idea of making a game for the Chinese market. Consultant for the Chinese game market Luke Stapley tells more.
Jason Park provided a view of the Chinese mobile market compared to the other markets during Casual Connect USA 2014. “China’s big; we all know that,” he explained. “We’ve know that for awhile, but how big is it really? This year alone, in just Q1, the mobile market surpassed 630 million dollars. At this rate, they’re looking to surpass 3 billion by the end of the year.”
Jason Park, vice president of operations at Art Concept House/Spellgun, runs this world-class art service as well as managing the new China mobile publishing division. When Park met CEO of Art Concept House, James Zhang, and heard his vision for the company, they discussed how Park’s prior experience as general manager for global publishing at Perfect World Entertainment, as well as running his own startup, could help take the company to the next level. And Park made the decision to join them.
From Player to Creator
He was first attracted to the games industry through running a PC café at the time StarCraft, Warcraft 3, and Counter-Strike were the popular games. While there, besides running tournaments and fixing broken computers, he spent his time (sometimes more than 12 hours a day) playing Counter-Strike in the pro league. When the PC café eventually went out of business, he began his first corporate games industry job in QA, testing games for SCEA. He went on to hold senior positions at IGN Entertainment, Gala-Net, and Sony Computer Entertainment. He also founded his startup company, Mobula, a mobile studio that made real-time online core games.
Park has worked in almost every aspect of the games industry: development, quality assurance, production, marketing, localization, operations, and business development. He loves the products, the people, and the constantly changing process. Despite his extensive experience, he feels, “No matter how many games you’ve worked on, the next one is always a new challenge.”
Finding Interactive Gameplay
He has always been a PC gamer, but for the past year, his focus has been on mobile. Although a longtime MMORPG player, he now finds it difficult to find the five or six hours in a day to concentrate on the game. Instead, he is playing Game of War – Fire Age, which he claims is undoubtedly the mobile game closest to an MMORPG. But he keeps going back to Kingdom Rush Frontiers whenever a new update is released.
The next big trend Park sees coming to the industry is deeper and more interactive gameplay in mobile games. He points out that MMORPGs took PC gaming to a new level; similarly, more interactive online experiences must be the next stage for mobile gaming. Already full-fledged MMORPGs are hitting the top charts in Japan and Korea, while in the US, successful mid-core games have been adding more MMO-like systems, such as global chat, guilds and clans, and guild wars – features which are leading to exponential growth in monetization and retention.
At Casual Connect USA, Park announced a publishing partnership with Get Set Games to publish Storm Casters in China.
Founded in August 2011, Artibus is a company of 12 people with an objective to develop mid-core massively online games for smartphones. Their first and main game, Angry Heroes, was initially released on Google Play and the web in September 2012, and currently has approximately 300K installs, 10K DAU, and 1K online players on average. Daniel Poludyonny, the game’s designer, talks about what they learned in the process of its creation.
What would be the best way to share our experience? We could write about how we make games, but everyone does that. However, there are some tricks we used to increase the game’s performance that not many game companies practice. So we decided it was time to share some of our own recipe to a successful mid-core MMORPG.
What is Angry Heroes?
In case you haven’t heard about Angry Heroes (since we’ve only launched in Eastern Europe so far), let us tell you a little bit about the game. First of all, Angry Heroes is a MMORPG that makes fun of the MMORPG genre itself. We made it this way hoping that players will enjoy exploring its sarcastically-epic fantasy world with lots of gags about cliches from famous games like Diablo, World of Warcraft, or Skyrim that they know so well. We even created some Angry Heroes-related comics about the daily suffering of RPG players.
However, unlike the mentioned RPGs, Angry Heroes is easier to play. You can fight other players whether they are online or offline. If you win, you get some of their gold that lets you pump your skills and get stronger. You don’t even have to control your character: he fights automatically. In general, your goal is to get as much gold as possible while losing as little as possible, and keep getting stronger.
An average gameplay session can be just a couple of minutes: launch the game, pump your hero skills for gold your loyal minions have mined for you, attack some other players, loot more gold, go in quests to get even more, then repeat. Or the game-play session can take up to an hour, as the game features lots of optional casual mini-games (iSpy, match-3, puzzles, and other genres), so the players can play longer. There is also a chat, where you can talk to other players.
Quality Before Quantity
Unlike most game companies who make games for both iOS and Android, we initially launched our game on Android instead of iOS, and there is a reason for that.
We wanted to make sure the game was fun, engaging, and can earn revenues before bringing it to the big masses. We thought: if you can make money on Google Play, you will certainly earn money on Apple iTunes. Currently, our game generates about 20 cents from a user daily, which is a noticeable performance for Android platform, where users are not as used to paying for the apps as iOS users.
We hope to double or even triple our revenues on iOS.
People who tried making their own games in CIS countries (Russia, Ukraine, Belarus etc.) probably know the problems of our mentality. Our developers are used to working for a foreign customer. They are used to implementing someone’s specifications instead of their own ideas. And each time you want someone to get creative, you might get stuck.
Luckily, we overcame this problem. We deeply believe that two heads are better than one, and twelve heads are far better than two. So we make all product-related decisions together. In fact, we generate most of our new ideas together while having a glass of beer in the pub. There are so many of them that we physically can’t implement all in the foreseeable future.
We also don’t have managers. A programmer can create a task for another programmer or a tester can create one for an artist. This, we believe, is a core power that allows us to create great products.
Be Creative at Acquisition
Everyone knows that acquisition costs. You must have a pretty neat ARPU in order to cover your acquisition expenses. What a waste of money it would be if you make a game in such a way that it pushes users away at the very beginning? You paid $1 for this user, and they just left because they were poorly engaged. What a pity! So we kept in mind the importance of the first 5-15 minutes of the game experience, as this is the time the player decides if they want to keep playing your game or not. It is crucial to improve their experience as much as possible.
One thing that is a big annoyance in most games is that you’re required to enter your name in order to start playing. Of course, some games use Facebook authorization, but making it obligatory can also push some users away. You have to remember that when giving your game “a test ride,” your new user expects to see the gameplay as soon as possible.
We came up with an idea of automatically generated names. And not the names like “user568,” but some pronounceable and memorable ones that can be spelled without getting your jaw broken. We put together a dictionary of syllables that are common for Old-English/ Scandinavian names, wrote a script that selects syllables and puts them together according to each syllable chance, and some simple set of rules. And guess what? It turned out that about 30 percent of the players simply keep the generated names that sound like Lord of the Rings, but are completely computer-generated (ELDTHERAN, POLRAKTUR, BELUGHWOR, etc.) Besides, the script detects the selected gender and generates female names like EINA, UVORA, NALAE, etc.
Be Creative at Retention
Retention might be even more important than acquisition. If your game doesn’t feature enough content for the players to enjoy in a long-term perspective, “you’re gonna have a bad time” ©. Sometimes (like in our case), you might not have enough resources to implement new stuff for them. Despite Angry Heroes having a lot of content for an average user to play it for two months, (and some players have already been playing it for over a year now), there are still some users that get bored more quickly than others. A major problem of having a small team is experiencing a severe lack of time to develop something big.
Sometimes, you have to improvise and select easier ways to achieve the same result. For additional retention, we added a Dragon Fight feature: every day, a Dragon attacks the village at a random time. All players can unite to fight him, and if they win, all of them loot enormous amounts of gold. This increased players’ loyalty and the average online players.
In the meantime, surprisingly, developing our community helped us out big time, too. Since we only have one tester in our team (not enough to find all bugs, especially the ones that are related to the massively-multiplayer gameplay), we created a feedback form. A lot of players were retained just because there was a way to contact us, complain, give us some suggestions, report a bug, and get answers! They feel they are valued and loved by developers, and that makes them keep playing the game. And some games don’t even list their support e-mail!
There were numerous cases when we implemented small features requested by players, which led to retaining those players. And players that are satisfied with service are more likely to convert to paying players or bring their friends to the game, meaning it also affects acquisition.
However, we want our players to be able to play the game for years, so currently we’re making our two largest features that are supposed to increase our long-term gameplay dramatically: guild wars and forge crafting.
Be Creative at Monetization
When you launch your game on Apple App-Store or Google Play, you might notice non-flexibility of the in-app purchases. Once you created one, you keep using it. Inspired by Steam Sales, we wanted to be able to boost our sales from time to time. Therefore we designed a bonus-discount system. It allows us to enable and disable a bonus discount virtually at any time with absolutely no coding. Any given holiday (Halloween, Christmas, etc.), we just enable a discount, and it works immediately.
The sales really went up those days. And then we noticed one thing: when we launched a 75 percent bonus discount for New Year’s 2013 for a whole week, the boost of sales slowly decayed and got back to normal by the end of the week, despite the fact that the discount bonus was still active. We came to conclusion that sales only work when they’re active for a short period of time. The rest of the time, everything should be well-priced.
We designed and implemented consumable, lootable discount-bonuses: the ones you can simply get from the game. By doing quests, there is a chance you will loot a small magic bottle, which enables you a 25, 50, 75, or even 90 percent bonus for your purchase. You can also craft these bottles using the in-game crafting system. What it did to our monetization was basically the same thing the temporary discount did, but on a constant basis.
Every indie studio has its two major pros and cons: they are creative, but they don’t have enough resources. Always use your creativity to your advantage. Listen to your users. Try to experience what they do. Make sure users enjoy your game before bringing it to big masses, and you’ll be a success.
Angry Heroes is currently preparing for their initial iOS release. Keep up to date with information from Artibus through Facebook and Twitter.
Like most game companies, Cryptic Studios began as an idea. Ever imagined an MMORPG built around a world of superheroes? Rick Dakan imagined just such a thing. He played and admired Everquest, but dreamed of something different, something outside the realm of fantasy. In short, Rick had what might be called a vision. But he didn’t have the means to bring it to life. So he approached Michael Lewis, an old high school buddy, with the idea, and Michael ponied up the initial start-up cash. We call that kind of capital angel-money and like the biblical archangel from the Book of Daniel, Michael delivered. He not only provided the early cash, he recruited Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Cameron Petty, Matt Harvey and Bruce Rogers – three Atari veterans with some serious production chops – to come on board. Boom. Just like that, Cryptic Studios was born.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple or that easy. We all know that the road that begins with “What if?” often ends in “WTF?”. But Rick Dakan’s inspiration for a super-hero themed MMORPG became City of Heroes, a brilliant idea that did lead to a watershed game. However, between his early musings and the final product was a lot of pain, a lot of uncertainty and a lot of hard work. The founders pitched the game everywhere, but it was not an easy sell. Eventually they signed with NCSoft, home of the legendary Garriot brothers, who had the background to help shepherd such an ambitious project through to completion. But even under the care and guidance of NCSoft, the road was still rocky. Several months into development, City of Heroes was entirely scrapped and rewritten from the ground up. Two of the original founders left and things were looking grim.
Building a great game and keeping a studio going through the hard times is a Herculean effort beset with pitfalls, nasty surprises and tough choices. But greatness is born of adversity and Cryptic rallied. Michael Lewis, the angel investor who was so instrumental in Cryptic’s formation, stepped in as CEO. The company scaled from a dozen employees to several dozen, and City of Heroes launched to overwhelming critical and financial success. So much so that a year later, they quickly followed it up with City of Villains, a bookend product launched with much fanfare and also to great success. If you think that all would be lollipops and unicorns for Cryptic at this point, then you haven’t spent much time in the trenches of the game business.
On the heels of the wildly popular superhero-based MMOs, Cryptic partnered with Microsoft to create Marvel Universe Online. This was a dream project for Cryptic. On paper, it was a match made in Heaven, the perfect marriage of a world class IP with a proven technology and production pipeline. But after more than a year working on MUO, Microsoft inexplicably killed the game. Cryptic was emotionally crushed. But like true heroes themselves, they rallied once again. They took Microsoft’s lemons and eventually turned them into a fine sorbet with Champions Online for PC. But hold on, not so fast.
Cryptic needed capital to fund the publishing of Champions and to develop Star Trek Online, a license they acquired from a then ailing Perpetual Entertainment. Next, they hired industry vet John Needham as CEO to help raise funds. But it was hard going. They wound up having to sell City of Heroes back to NCSoft, yet that wasn’t nearly enough to fund both Star Trek and Champions. That’s when the poop really hit the fan. There was that minor inconvenience of the financial meltdown in 2008, when Silicon Valley became Death Valley overnight in terms of investment dollars. There was nothing cryptic about it, Cryptic had to sell their shirts in order to survive.
After being courted by many potential suitors, Cryptic agreed to be acquired by Atari, who was looking to pivot into an all-digital future. Champions Online launched in October 2009, under this venerable old-school gaming brand. But the game didn’t perform as hoped. At this time, the industry was making a subtle, but steady shift from subscriptions to micro-transactions. The things that worked for City of Heroes and City of Villains simply didn’t work anymore. They launched Star Trek Online six months later and had a great deal more success. Then they flipped the switch and turned Champions into a F2P game. Then they got bought. Again. Perfect World, a publicly traded Chinese publisher of F2P MMORPG’s, acquired Cryptic from Atari in 2011.
Under the guidance of Perfect World, Cryptic turned Star Trek Online into a F2P game and expanded the universe, making it bigger than City of Heroes. Their latest MMORPG, Neverwinter, is a Dungeons and Dragons-inspired universe that just entered open beta. It’s already bigger than all of Cryptic’s previous games combined, and word is it’s their best, most advanced game to date. Cryptic credits Perfect World with giving them the freedom and the guidance to make what they see is their best game ever. In fact, they have been generous in their praise of NCSoft and Atari too, giving each credit for helping Cryptic to grow and evolve during crucial periods of their history.
Cryptic Studios is a well-seasoned survivor in a landscape dotted with the corpses of many also-rans. Through various phases of their growth, they’ve somehow managed to bend and adjust as market conditions changed, and what’s truly amazing is that they’ve always put out quality product. They are the poster-child for adaptation and resourcefulness, and a true inspiration to anybody who has a wild idea about making a great game. I’ve heard it said that ideas themselves are a dime a dozen. The real value is in a team. It’s the will and know-how to get an idea made that matters most. Nothing cryptic about that. But the rubber does not often meet the road, and many small studios skid off into trees. Not Cryptic. They’re still driving above the speed limit.