22 min read

What Small Game Studios Can Learn From Big Gaming Studios

What Small Game Studios Can Learn From Big Gaming Studios

I recently recorded a podcast with Steve Young from App Masters. We talked about my experiences from small and big gaming studios, and how to grow as entrepreneurs.

Here’s the transcript.

Steve Young 2:47
Joakim, welcome to the show.

Joakim Achren 2:49
Thanks, Steve. It’s great to be here.

Steve Young 2:51
All right. Well, let’s start off. Did you start Next Games in 2013? So, talk to me about this, because you’ve got the podcast. Now you talk to some amazing people. I love doing a podcast too. Is there anything that you do differently today in 2020, that given you know, maybe like, without the pandemic as well, differently than what you did in 2013?

Joakim Achren 3:17
So many things like my sort of life changed a lot when I stepped away from being a founder in a games company last year. I think that was a big shift. So I’ve always been making games my entire life. But last year, I figured that okay, I want to help out people who are starting games businesses who want to make games, to pay the bills with the games that they’re making, like, how could I bring help to those people? Of course, when I’m supporting them, I can “partner up”, do small angel investing, things like that, but to help these entrepreneurs.

How do I actually get the word out? I started Elite Game Developers, which is an online game startup school, every week putting out new content for founders for entrepreneurs who are thinking about getting into video games as an entrepreneur.

The topics are: What do you need to think about? How do you attract external capital for your company, things like that? These things have really changed a lot from how I was thinking about what I wanted to do as my career as an entrepreneur in 2013 when I wanted to build a big games company. Now I’m building this new thing that’s totally different from what I previously did. Yeah, but it’s still like, I’m still an entrepreneur, for sure.

Steve Young 4:54
Oh, no, I mean, just creating content. I love just being sort of the pulse of the industry and you get to talk to so many people. And themes develop. So if you were starting a game studio today, would you try to seek funding? Here’s a question I get a lot, Joakim: Should I go to a publisher? Should I Self Publish? These are the common questions that I get from the audience. And so what would you say to anybody that is starting? To obviously listen to your podcast, but what would you be doing differently if you were starting Next Games in 2020?

Joakim Achren 5:26
When I was doing my first games company, which was 2005, like 15 years ago, I was a coder, I wanted to do my own business. I had the itch for a startup. And I was super hard. There was no information out there about what you need to do at that first stage? It’s a lot easier today when you have a lot more companies around the world who are doing games.

The games business itself is 10X from what it was 15 years ago. You can find a lot more people to ask questions, ask for help. That’s what I’d do: I’d go back and tell myself 15 years ago, okay, go and talk to those people. In Finland, we had Remedy back in the day, with Max Payne, Allan Wake, those cool games they were doing in Finland. I would go and ask the CEO, can you help me out?

What should I do right now? I’m trying to push people to check out my content, because that’s the way to actually scale my help, versus every day taking calls with people. That just doesn’t scale. But when I write it down on a website, on a blog, it’s thousands of people around the world who are getting help.

Steve Young 6:54
What would you say to that person who is saying, do I seek a publisher versus self-publish?

Joakim Achren 7:03
And that’s a tricky question. The more experienced you are, the easier it is to go around the publishers and do it yourself, then you’re going to do all the marketing bits, try to create the community, which is already a great step towards learning more about the industry, how it works because you want to have a direct relationship with your customers, the players. But the publisher can do a lot to accelerate your learning, so you can work with the publisher and learn from them. And then, maybe take your next game idea to the market independently.

Steve Young 7:48
Yeah, I kind of feel the same way. And you have way more experience than I do in terms of mobile gaming. But I kind of feel the same way. Like you’ve learned throughout the years. It’s a long journey. And so when people look at publishers, and they look at a deal, like, obviously, you don’t want to get screwed by a publisher, because if things work out really well, there’s… you know, I’ve had friends who’ve had some bad experience with publishers, but at the same time, you’re able to learn a lot. So if you’re at the beginning of that career, and you haven’t had so much traction, working with the guys from Voodoo, if you’re doing a casual game, you’re able to learn what they see, what they look at, how they test different ideas, and then how they market and then hopefully leverage that back into your own self-publishing. I mean, just like what you’re talking about, like, go talk to these people, go listen to podcasts, you learn from others, and then you build like building blocks. That’s the way I see it.

Joakim Achren 8:40
Yeah, exactly. And you can go and look for the people who are the best at giving feedback, helping you grow. Versus there’s a lot of people out there who specifically just want your build. Like, send us a build, and we’re going to see how it works. And then they give you the numbers, but they won’t give you good feedback on the creative side. On what’s working in the game, what’s not working. You want that as well, you want the whole thing

Steve Young 9:14
Do you see on this front of maybe self-publishing… independent game developers, and that’s the one I checked out from you. It was I forgot who the guest was. But he was talking about self-publishing, and he is a part of the early Rovio team. Do you see any common mistakes, whether, in your career, you see common mistakes that indie game developers have, versus the ones that are funded and the bigger game studios?

Joakim Achren 9:40
Yeah, there’s so many, it’s tough to pick one. Like when you’ve been in gaming for a while, you start having all these ideas that you got to build your dream game. Now I’m gonna do it. But there are certain ways that that is actually going to be harming you later on.

I’m a big proponent of this idea that you want to find your audience, versus making a game for yourself. I think that’s the number one lesson that indies should think about. Of course, you yourself might know the exact genre really well that you want to tackle with your own game. But start with the audience. Start thinking about somebody else than yourself enjoying the game. You want to entertain an audience. That’s the big takeaway for the Indies.

Steve Young 10:44
I’m gonna butcher his name. How do you say it again?

Joakim Achren 10:49
Yeah, it’s Tuomas Erikoinen. He was on my podcast. He had a company called Part-Time Monkey. And then he did Double Loop Games now which does Bowland and that’s a cool mobile game for sure.

Steve Young 11:07
One of the key things I took from his App Masters episode was that he was early on at Rovio. He’s like, I was a junior person at Rovio. And he saw the company go from 50 employees when he first joined all the way to 11 people, and Angry Birds was their last-ditch effort. But one of the things I heard and along the lines of what you said, is that they’re playing the game internally, and they have this leaderboard. And they’re like, well, we actually have something here because everybody’s really invested. Granted, they work for the company, but like, you can only fake it so much of it, right? It’s like, Yes, they’re all enjoying it. They’re all competing. And I don’t think these game developers do enough because they might see a hit. And they’re like, Oh, that looks cool. Let me create something very similar with a small little twist. And then, are you sick of your game? How long can you play your particular game or, send it to some kids? And when I give it to my son, and he’s like, I’m out! You know, you might have a problem there, too.

Joakim Achren 12:08
Yeah, yeah, I think the way to see and reveal things is to give it to other people to play and to watch them play. And try to be objective about what you’re seeing, versus you don’t want to look at the places where you have problems, but to try to figure out new things. Each time you see somebody playing, and pick up from there what’s going on. Usually, the controls are the place to start with all the games.

Steve Young 12:44
Totally. You know, we had a great episode with it was a YouTube Live that we did, but with David Reichelt, we did Color Switch. And he was talking about like, Alright, you hit a big hit with Color Switch, like how do you do that? And he’s going into in-depth details about some of the things is considering so I recommend you go check it out.

But the next thing I want to move on to with Next Games, you co-founded the company, IPOed. And I’m gonna learn about some of the things that you learned through the IPO process. But the licensing. So there’s Walking Dead. You have a lot of Walking Dead titles, No Man’s Land, and Stranger Things. Blade Runner. Was licensing a key part of the strategy, the sort of growth strategy? I’ve heard other people talk about it. Would you still do it today? What are the lessons learned from the licensing deals that you’ve dealt with?

Joakim Achren 13:31
Well, I think it was an opportunity that we couldn’t really pass on since our CEO had worked in the entertainment business for 15 years. And he had the connections into Hollywood. He ran an outfit there in the States in LA for a bigger like virtual world company back in the day called Habbo Hotel. And he was creating the relationships with the studios there. And what we decided to do is like, Hey, we could create our own games. But there’s this huge opportunity to go after these big IP who want to get into gaming, want to work with people who know what they’re talking about. And we started pitching that to the studios, to AMC, for Walking Dead, and to investors. And I think that we just noticed that this is a really good opportunity to go and do something different. And definitely wouldn’t pass on that opportunity ever. It just made so much sense. And of course Walking Dead isn’t as huge as it used to be. It just and the main show ended. How long can you build on top of an IP? I think the fan base will never go away. And there’s more content coming on that IP anyways. So if you just structure those deals in a way that it makes sense for every party to be involved, that there’s profit to be made, then it’s really good.

Steve Young 15:24
Yeah, I love it, too. I know, one of the… from my various podcasts with game developers, when the big themes that come from a licensed field is that organic traffic like you have people searching for Walking Dead, you’re gonna rank really well for it. And so you get this built-in organic traffic growth engine. And with your expertise on the gaming side, whether it’s retention, monetization, you could really build a great title. A profitable title.

Joakim Achren 15:47
Yeah, exactly.

Steve Young 15:49
For game developers. When they’re thinking about retention… because I always talk to the smaller guys out there. And I always say, hey, look, you know, when I’m working with these game, big game developers, they spend a lot of time in soft launches, like really tweaking their metrics, whereas the smaller guys, they really think about, “Oh, I like this game, it looks cool. This game worked. Let me just launch it in the App Store”, and they don’t spend enough time tweaking and fine tweaking and figuring out the LTV. What are the things that you see like, Hey, you know, I used to run this big gaming studio, here’s our process for it, that you think would lend well, to the indie small gaming studios as well?

Joakim Achren 16:34
I think you want to timebox how long you want to wait until you know that something’s going to work or not. How much effort to put into tinkering a game, until you need to say, “Hey, this is just not interesting enough for a market that we can’t find an audience for this one. Let’s move on and start another concept.” Find another game. I think that’s often hard… To kind of timebox the whole process of, “here’s where we started. And this is how long we’re going to give life to this thing to discover.” And there’s a lot of people who still… like when they leave bigger gaming studios, they’re approaching a startup that, “Hey, we need to have 12 to 24 months to build out the game before we know if it works or not.” And they should be shifting that mindset that they had from the bigger studios, but it’s sometimes hard. But the indies… you got like a lot of people who are alone, making games, putting them out quickly to see how it works. And then moving on to the next one, there’s not that much quality put into place. And the polish level isn’t that high enough. I think that the opportunity there is in people who figure out that, “Hey, This is my audience, this is what I’m tackling. I’ll put more quality into each game as I go forward.” I think that’s a really interesting way to bootstrap as well. If you can get into ad revenues going early on.

Steve Young 18:14
Are there specific numbers that you try to reach? Let’s get a minimum of 10,000 downloads, whatever that number is, before you decide, “Hey, you know, is this working? Is this not working?”

Joakim Achren 18:27
I think you can easily see on the retention numbers, for how many people come back on the following day after day install. You want to get at least half of the players coming back. So that it matters later and you can put effort into it and to get some return on your efforts. Often it’s too easy to try out a lot of things. You’ve timeboxed it into one month, you say that “we need to test this after four weeks of development and see the retention numbers.” I think a lot of learning from there is how many tries do you want to put in before you run out of cash? And I’d rather optimize for trying a lot of concepts because it usually boils down to the core gameplay anyway. Just get some Unity Asset Store graphics and go for it. It doesn’t need to be too polished to get the first Retention day-1 numbers.

Steve Young 19:39
Yeah, it’s so true. A lot of my audience, is the more casual game developers and I talked about Voodoo, for instance, they look I think it’s like 30 or 50 Day one retention, and usually, they don’t need a very polished game. Voodoo are like, “give us a raw prototype, we’re going to test it out. And then we’re going to look at the retention numbers. And then once that was retention numbers are there and they’re like, okay, we’ll publish this game.”

Joakim Achren 20:12
Yeah, that’s the biggest learning for, like any game developer, they should look at what is the great thing about hyper-casual. It’s actually this rapid game development that they’ve come up with. You can add a lot of content on top of a core that works, an experience that really works. But you don’t need more effort to figure out if it’s the first test you’re going to do when compared to the hypercasual folks.

Steve Young 20:44
Would you say that the biggest factor for retention is the core game play?

Joakim Achren 20:48
Definitely, from my experience from 15 years, like that’s totally it. Anybody can come along and prove me wrong. But that’s how I feel it usually goes. You can try to tackle a niche gaming audience that will then require a lot more built out and fleshed out features. If you want to go and tackle somebody like Marvel Strike Force with their JRPG gameplay. That’s not going to be easy to just “Voodoo-test that”, to actually have something that you could say that this makes sense to go forward because you’re trying to beat an incumbent like Scopely with their game. If you’re going out to something that’s real casual. If you’re even going after something that might not be as casual as you think. But the core gameplay is sort of unique. I think that that’s worth already testing, and then just build on top of that.

Steve Young 21:59
It seems like, you… Look, I trust your 15 years, but it seems like it’s tweaking… Like, hey, should I make these graphics better? Or should I do this? It’s like, work on the gameplay if you can get that right, it doesn’t… you can polish the graphics, that’s the easy part.

Joakim Achren 22:13
Yeah, or tutorial, making a better tutorial has never blown the game up from the bottom to the top of the list. So you put that in a lower priority, like, don’t focus so much on the tutorial.

Steve Young 22:30
Okay. All right, you got any more?

Joakim Achren 22:35
In a sense, you can already spot so much when you’re playing the game between your teammates, who you’re making the game with. And with your friends and family, you can always spot if this is going anywhere. And that’s a big mistake that a lot of people do in testing is that they start thinking about free to play, mobile, that they’re building a game. And they’re sort of relying on that the soft launch will save them. But oftentimes, you should be able to spot problems before you need to put them into the App Store. There’s a lot of obvious things to spot. If you then put it on the App Store and your day one retention is like 20%. You should have spotted that already earlier.

Steve Young 23:26
I want to move on to monetization. And I wonder if you can provide us with some insights on whether you know what types of monetization strategies tend to work always across all apps if there is such a thing? And what are some of the mistakes that you see game developers making when it comes to monetization?

Joakim Achren 23:58
Let’s first talk about that in-game ads. Back in the day, when mobile was coming up, ads were thought about like, “Hey, this is going to bring the quality, so much down.” But eventually, it really became something that… if there’s a game out there that doesn’t have ads… I think Supercell is still without any ads inside their games, is still I think the whole thing about like, saying that it’s bad to have ads doesn’t have any material effect anymore. It should be that if you’re thinking about like a different kind of user, you’re going to have thousands of players, not all of them will be spending, but a lot of them would love a rewarded video ad. Like that kind of functionality has been already in place for a while.

Then if you think about what the hyper-casual people are doing, where they’re forcing a lot of ads. When you complete a level, when you fail a level, you’re going to look at an ad. I think the great thing about that is actually creating a pacing, which is important in mobile games that you’re not constantly… there can be this kind of thing of fatigue from reacting quickly inside a game. So the ads give you this mental break from the hectic controls and what you’re doing in the game. So it gives these breaks and breathing room for the players. And also something that “Hey, this might be the right place to just put my phone down, I can’t start a level for the next 30 seconds anyways.” So it breaks the session at a natural point in a sense.
I think the big reason for people to quit mobile games is that they burn out. There’s too much content, too much… you’re constantly going in, into a match and Brawl Stars like that’s… it’s a crazy kind of like cadence that you need to keep up with, so ads are breaking that up really nicely.

And then thinking about in-app purchases. A lot of people say that it’s really hard in casual to do in-app purchases. But I think it’s so much about like how you approach your offering for your player. If you want to keep the players playing for weeks, for months, for years, with your game, a lot of people have managed to do that. I think there are ways that you can make them feel that, “okay, I’ve been investing so much time in this game, I’m happy to put some money down to get some cool new things inside the game, some new experiences.” So that’s what you should be thinking about here. If you sort of have this notion that IAPs are really hard in casual gaming, I think it’s more about what is the experience that you’re offering? There are people who are willing to pay just like there are people who don’t want to pay, who want to watch ads, who don’t want to watch ads. It’s a big spectrum.

Steve Young 27:11
I’ve seen this too, with even non-games where. I’m reading this book, they’re talking about options and how we as humans, we love options. Why? Because we feel like we’re in control. Right? We don’t want to be told what to do. It’s called the Catalyst, from Jonah Berger. He’s written a lot about human behavior and all that stuff. I applied this with different things that we’re doing. You think that they only want one thing, and you try to give them a couple of things. But then, the more options you give, you don’t want to give too many options, because that tends to work the opposite, but some three to five options, boom, they tend to feel more in control. And then I like options, Joakim, because it’s like you can turn a sway, put options together. So you can sway the user into the option that you want them to kind of pick. And so I like that too. But it is a good one.

Joakim Achren 28:02
Yeah it is.

Steve Young 28:04
Anything on that end that you want to add? So we got pacing, which I love the video ads, and I love that too. Like rewarded videos, you said it the best. And I never heard anybody call it pacing wise, but I found those to be so effective. So I did this video too. I was like, Oh, you just won this race, like Fun Run 3, for example. And I was like, Oh, it’s great and then you double your points. Yes, watch a video. It’s a nice little break for me, instead of constantly playing. And I like the way you said it was like, “Hey, we get fatigued.” Like, we’re just gonna be like we’re playing too much. “Okay, next game” type of thing. And so it does add that nice break to it. And it’s a win-win. Yeah.

Joakim Achren 28:37
Yeah, it’s not what brain wants, or what it’s telling you, to take a break, but it’s actually super healthy to keep the players playing for a longer time and to watch ads. And to finally buy an IAP later down the line.

Steve Young 28:56
You know, it made me think about these workouts I like called HIIT, high-intensity interval training. And it’s like the Tabata for example. 40-seconds on, then a 20-second break. You just go hard right for 40 seconds and you know that you got a 20-second break. And it sort of tricks the mind and I always feel like I get a way better workout because it’s always moving. It feels like it’s always moving. I get to do a little bit more. So kind of leverage certain things from other industries too.

Joakim Achren 29:23
Yeah, definitely.

Steve Young 29:25
Let’s end with this. You IPOed, congrats on that. I know a lot of people, business owners, it’s like, bam, I’ve been doing this forever? And so there was a nice little end cap, I guess to it? What were some of the lessons learned from going IPO? Everything you dreamed about, everything that we dreamed about?

Joakim Achren 29:44
I think it’s sort of like the start of another company. Things change since you were a private company before an IPO and then you’re a public company. It removes privacy. We don’t need to tell anybody what we’re doing. When you IPO, you need to change how you operate, how you talk about stuff that you’re building. There’s more sensitivity regarding everything. So it’s just a new life that starts afterwards with a lot of options, like, what do you do with all the capital available from going public, which then opens up like… there are really good examples. Let’s talk about what’s happening with Zynga. They’ve leveraged their position in the public market to go after a lot of bigger gaming companies. Acquiring Peak Games, for $1.6 billion. Like that’s a huge acquisition. But it wouldn’t be possible if they wouldn’t be a public company. And then you’ve got Stillfront in Europe, they bought Storm8, Candywriter and Kixeye in the States. Stillfront is also publicly traded, they did like a direct offering to sell shares into public market, and then to use that capital to acquire the studios, and to grow revenue. I think that’s where the public market, and doing an IPO, really shines.

But you have to know that the IPO changes how you operate. I think one of the things that the public market isn’t really good at is understanding the hit driven nature of gaming, Let’s take Supercell. In the last three years, they’ve launched one game, which is Brawl Stars, but they they came out with Rush Wars last year. If they would have been a publicly listed company, they would be just getting hammered at the moment in the public market, because they’re not performing. Even though they’re the probably the dream company, for anybody in gaming to go and work at, they would still like… the public market would give them an F at the moment, and kick them down.
So that’s the thing you need to think about in gaming: why do you go public, you’re gonna have a great time killing a lot of game projects that don’t work, even though you have the cash to do that because the public market wants returns.
But then if you start operating like Zynga, or somebody, who then builds the company, builds the value for the shareholders through acquisitions, where they’re basically buying hit games. It’s like buying Peak Games with Toon Blast and Toy blast. So, yeah, I think you need to think about like what you wants to achieve with the IPO?

Steve Young 33:10
Anything you want to cover that we miss, I want to make sure we plug your podcasts, your blog, your courses to anything that you want to make sure we cover from game development, helping the game developers on that in?

Joakim Achren 33:23
Yeah. So if there are developers out there, I really want to check out my site elite game developers, especially the templates that I have there on the site. There’s like, a bunch of different ways that you can like, there’s a, like a spreadsheet for a cap table, if you want to build out the cap table stock options for your company. Advisor agreements, if you want to bring on a startup advisor, things like that. So I’m just creating more and more every week. Last week, I created this kind of like a pre-mortem, which is the opposite of a post mortem after a games project where you actually think about how the project will fail before you start the project. So there’s a template for that as well, how you can run a meeting like that. So yeah, go to Elite Game Developer. There’s a lot of stuff there.

Steve Young 34:21
Yeah, I will link that into the show notes as well check out the template. It is really, really cool. The cash flow projection template, you’ve got the board meeting, the advanced retention metrics ebook, which is a very cool one. I think that’s very valuable to people. So definitely check that out. And then go to elite game developers. He’s got some free courses to where you can learn about the FAQ. Start with the why. And then how do you pitch your games company to investors as well, that’s a paid product, but some free product too. So once again, it is elite game developers. The podcast is there as well. Yo Kim has been absolutely amazing. But let’s go to the big finish. I didn’t tell you that this is coming. So I’m gonna catch up. by surprise here, but give us one app, and it could be app or game that you definitely think that we should check out.

Joakim Achren 35:10
Yeah. What would be a really interesting one? Yeah, I’ll give them my favorite game of all time on mobile, which is the Marvel Contest of Champions. Do you know that one?

Steve Young 35:28
I don’t play those ones. I like these like casual games. I’ve been playing retro ball a lot, which is, I don’t know if you’re familiar, but it’s like tech, Grenoble. Back in when I was young on my little Gameboy, and my son’s been playing it. He’s on season like seven now. I’m only on season two. So I started playing it one day just I found it featured and I played it like all morning, but he’s like zoomed pass me.

Joakim Achren 35:49
Oh, okay. Yeah, that’s there’s a lot like I love Brawl Stars a lot. So go all the Supercell games are really cool. Yeah. You, you can’t really sort of like leave those games ever feels like?

Steve Young 36:06
What’s the lesson that took you the longest to learn? It could be personal or business?

Joakim Achren 36:11
To what like, not everybody needs to, like not every game entrepreneur needs to build a Supercell to be fulfilled.

Steve Young 36:26
The website once again is elite game developers, the blog, the podcast, the templates, go check it out elite game developers in your favorite podcast app, or on the web elite game developers.com. Joakim, this has been absolutely amazing. Thank you so much for doing this.

Joakim Achren 36:44
Thanks, Steve!