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EGD News #118 — Building a big game

EGD News #118 — Building a big game

Sent on January 21st, 2022.

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I recently posted about big game projects on LinkedIn and got a lot of interesting responses.

It’s a topic that I often come back to. I’ve observed closely some big game projects developed by game studios here in Finland.

The one common factor in their development was that it always took longer than anticipated to get to a soft launch with these games.

One sought-after solution to speed up development was to bring on more people to help with the development, which meant that you were growing the initial team from a few devs to ten to twenty. And it was hard to stop adding people as more work was uncovered.

You’d think that adding more people will make things go faster, but the issue is that your core team will be training new joiners, slowing down progress on the game.

Then you’d also have investors asking: “Where’s that PVP feature,” team: “It’s coming.” This back and forth would continue for months, sometimes years.

Eventually, once you’ve been in development for 18 to 24 months, you get to soft launch to measure the game’s performance. But then you realize that soft launch will take even longer as you are waiting for features that will increase retention and monetization numbers.

This is a vicious cycle that studios worldwide are constantly stepping into. Could there be a better way to make these big games?

Some have succeeded

I’ve seen things go much better for some studios who’ve built these big games. You’d take a systematic approach, where you’re not planning a game with an 18-month roadmap to create a game. Instead, you come up with a system of velocity.

What is this system of velocity? I believe that Supercell and Small Giant Games had something like this when they built their hit “big games.”

Core team — Onboard team before work starts; keep it small with eight people: four developers, two artists, designer, producer. Wear multiple hats—exceptional communicators, especially those who are the designer and the producer.

Sandbox the design work and artwork — What is out of scope. Make sandbox crystal clear for the team early on. This guides what you do. The best sandbox example is when you can build on top of existing games. “We take metagame from here,” “Core gameplay from here,” and you make them work.

Utilize existing tech — Don’t build tech based on a game concept; create games based on available and proven tech. Supercell had made the tech for multiplayer games with their first game Gunshine. It wasn’t a hit, but the ready multiplayer server tech was used to launch Hay Day and Clash of Clans without adding new bells and whistles that would jeopardize velocity.

Effective meetings — Make meetings meaningful by involving the entire team. Utilize Lencioni’s meetings model. Read my piece on “How to run a team meeting.”

Pride and camaraderie — Things will go a lot faster if everyone on the team is willing to wear several hats. Besides team members having a range of experience from different disciplines, having a sense of pride and belonging to a group will go a long way for people taking up tasks to cover each other’s backs.

In her masterclass, Sophie Vo talks about how she built her team at mobile games publisher Voodoo. Last year I wrote a review of her masterclass, which you can read here. There’s so much that you can take from this masterclass and apply to your system of velocity.

Empires & Puzzles

I want to bring up one exceptionally well-executed “big game” project: Empires & Puzzles (E&P), developed and published by Small Giant Games.

It took about one year to get E&P soft-launched and a little over a year to reach tens of millions in annual revenue. How did that team pull this big game project off? Especially when so many others have struggled with their big game?

I recently watched a presentation by Tim Lönnquivst, head of design at Small Giant Games, from October 2018, just before Small Giant Games’ acquisition by Zynga for $800 million.

After watching this presentation, I returned to my notes and research from years of working on big games. I will now highlight the reasons why Small Giant succeeded.

1. Small Giant’s system for velocity

Tim makes it clear that they knew beforehand that it would be a big game. “There’s no such thing as a successful small RPG or strategy game. It has to be big. That means that we will need to work on hundreds of things.”

They had ten people on the team. They set a goal “Everything has to be doable by a small team, in a year, and without crunching.”

They worked on sandboxing the design “[It’s an] RPG with base building. Don’t need to innovate that much, as long as we can pull off a really good mix.” Lock dock the decisions. Details need to be sorted out, but we can do that later.

They set up small teams for prototyping that could work fast: 2 devs made MVP of the core experience in 2 weeks. Once the playtests were successful, the 12 months of production was given the green light.

Outsourcing art played a key role. “We do love art. But let’s not try to do all of that in a year. Remember, no crunching. We needed 40 or 50 heroes before the soft launch. They were done in less than three months. We sent outsourcing specs on the next day after the green light.”

2. Funnel

There were problems early on in the soft launch. People who installed were happy with the game, but the CPI was extremely high. “The biggest hurdle was the poor App Store conversion. For some reason, Angry Vikings don’t work?”

Going from Angry Vikings to smiles and bright colors.

“What if we’d have dragon smiles, beautiful, beautiful ladies, and bright colors? Could that be the plan? And it worked. Conversion is fixed. This was the biggest issue with the whole soft launch.”

3. LTV

Joakim adds: The depth of both core gameplay and metagame played a vital role for the game to work. RPG players will want meaningful characters with lots of variety. When you have those, you have meaningful gameplay, where character collecting matters for a long time. You beat hard content to collect rare characters, which you can use to beat even harder content.

Since this was the case in E&P and the novelty of base builder & puzzle RPG, the audience embraced the game as something they’d spend time and money on.

Once the retention metrics were proven, they knew that they had a game, which was like a platform, on top of which you can build more content and features, to increase the LTV.

One thing to add here on LTV is the ROAS (return on ad spend) and payback windows. Several big games are only breaking even on user acquisition after the cohorts have been in the game for a year. That’s why it’s imperative to work on planning out a system for a deep and meaningful game where spending money is meaningful from the beginning, all the way to two, five, ten years down the line.

Final words

Big games are great for building sustainable games businesses, but they can’t be made without understanding the struggles that other developers have gone through in the past when building a big game.

As Charlie Munger said, “I want to learn as much as I can vicariously. It’s too painful to do it by personal hardship.”

(Photo by Onur Binay on Unsplash)

All those five-star reviews can’t be wrong 🙂 Get my book, “Long Term Game: How to build a video games company” from Amazon. Available on Kindle, audiobook, and paperback. Check it out

🎙 Jere Partanen and Erik Gloersen — Investing in early-stage gaming

In this new podcast episode, I talk with Jere Partanen and Erik Gloersen from Sisu Game Ventures, an early-stage gaming venture fund. Both Jere and Erik are newcomers to venture capital investing, although both have a background from working with gaming startups.

In this discussion, we talk about the competitiveness of early-stage games investing, how a fund like Sisu can win deals and how the partners at Sisu are helping the founders they’ve invested in.

Listen to the full episode by going here.

📝 In case you missed these

📃 Articles worth reading

+ Nobody Cares About Decentralization – They Just Want To Get Rich — “The problem with most of the decentralized apps you know (and all of the ones you don’t) is that, for the most part, they are incapable of doing the basic functions that are easy for other apps to do. Every action a user takes on the blockchain requires a signature, which in turn requires a currency of some sort to operate. These small actions are by default invisible when using centralized applications – the processing is handled in Amazon Web Services, for example, and when a user clicks something, they are ‘signing’ the transaction and approving it.”

+ Why is Zynga worth a whopping $12.7 billion? (Hint: It’s not FarmVille) — “Zynga has successfully transitioned into a casual mobile gaming powerhouse by spending billions of dollars on acquisitions like Gram Games (1010) and Small Giant Games (Empire & Puzzles) in 2018, as well as Peak Games (Toon Blast) and Rollic (Go Knots 3D) in 2020. Last year, the company even dipped into PC games with the acquisition of Torchlight studio Echtra Games. With those companies gathered under the Zynga umbrella, the company now attracts over 168 million monthly users and made $706 million in revenue in the latest reporting quarter.”

+ 2022 predictions for mobile gaming — “Mobile gaming hasn’t been displaced, and it likely won’t be: the immense pull-forward of smartphone engagement catalyzed by COVID has changed the way that society interacts with technology, and mobile gaming is an important component of that interaction. Web3 and the Metaverse are rousing, but the mobile gaming market continues to grow.”

💬 Quote that I’ve been thinking about

“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.”

— Henry David Thoreau

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