Casual games shouldn't skimp on complexity, says Breaktime's Todd Heringer
Interesting, then, that Todd Heringer VP of studios at casual king Breaktime should call on developers not to hold back when designing games for the casual market.
Indeed, Heringer suggests much of Breaktime's success could be because casual gamers are "underserved" by quality, complex releases. So what should other studios operating in the sector be doing?
We caught up with Heringer for the inside track on the Breaktime way.
Pocket Gamer: Can you give us some quick background about Breaktime Studios, when and where you set up and what sort of games you make?
Todd Heringer: Sure. Breaktime was founded in March 2011 with the mission of developing immersive casual games for smartphone and tablet devices.
We're based in downtown San Francisco and financially backed by Sega and Azure Capital Partners. Our studio has 45 incredibly talented and passionate team members that have joined us from a diverse set of companies both within and outside of gaming.
How has your previous experience in companies such as Idle and EA influenced the way you operate?
Probably too much to say here, but I think a couple of the most important things we learned were, firstly, the important of taking the time to polish a product and how adding smaller elements of personality can really make the experience more memorable and different.
Secondly, we learned the value of smaller, nimble teams that can iterate quickly and evolve features and engagement loops throughout the development process.
Making games for a more casual market can deliver a larger audience, but it can also mean you face the most intense competition. As a small - if well funded - developer, how do you deal with discoverability?
It's a multi-dimensional issue that really starts with making a great game. I know that sounds cliché, but solving discoverability really only matters after you have a compelling game that supports investment in user acquisition.
Our philosophy for delivering fun and differentiated games hinges on the notion that the casual market is actually underserved when it comes to games that offer more immersive experiences. Casual gamers will engage with complex loops if delivered appropriately.
So, we spend equivalent time proving out more subjective and intangible game design objectives around fun factor, content depth and aspirational clarity as we do with, say, monetisation objectives.
I think this approach informs better design and feature decisions and ultimately delivers games with the potential for much deeper engagement.
Once a title is live, we pursue a very methodical approach to user acquisition. Mostly our objective is achieving positive return on interest, so we test multiple channels simultaneously and rank them based on performance.
Historically, it could take several days to determine this but with the recent build out of our internal analytics and user acquisition platform we can now assess performance of a channel in near real time, maybe 6 to 12 hours after starting a campaign.
This has been incredibly important in helping us optimise user acquisition and direct spend to the most efficient channels.
During the lifespan of the App Store, the balance has arguably shifted from making great games to making great games and being very smart about marketing and monetisation. How has that affected the way you make games and the way you launch them?
It's certainly true that survivability in this market has required developers to execute efficiently along more vectors than just game development.
In terms of making games, as I mentioned before our design philosophy focuses on casual gameplay with emergent depth.
Internally, we refer to this as 'mid-casual', and it's about developing games accessible to the casual audience the look and feel - but with depth in content and core loops capable of immersive experiences, especially as player's progress in the game.
I think Dragon Skies - a title we released worldwide a few weeks ago - has the building blocks of this philosophy. We've created a compelling breeding game with the inclusion of casual racing as part of the core loop.
Overall engagement is solid, but it's particularly strong with racing where players train their Dragons for competition in tournaments with their friends. We will continue to focus on social gameplay with future updates targeted at competitive and cooperative gameplay.
Mouse Tales is a much bigger step in this direction. It's a title currently live in Canada with a worldwide launch planned in January. Here, we have created a casual, approachable world where mice and lizards must co-exist.
It's an interesting blend of city building and combat targeted at the casual audience.
Since we are testing a variety of new concepts, we spend more time in beta, which I think will be a general trend with developers going forward.
Which have been your most success games to-date, and what do you think have been the key reasons for their success?
Pocket Potions has probably stood out as the most recognisable Breaktime title to date. Even after a year in market, it continues to have a very engaged and loyal audience.
I think we succeeded with Pocket Potions - and our first generation titles, collectively - in delivering a highly differentiated art style with rich character-based gameplay.
There's a tremendous amount of content available in Pocket Potions and a ton of really cool animations that create compelling moment-to-moment gameplay.
There are lots of different services partners available for mobile games. Why have you chosen to go with Chartboost, how do you use its various services, and how does it improve your business?
I think one of the key differentiators with Chartboost is the combination of network scale and reach, and overall ease of use. The site does a great job connecting developers with network advertisers and publishers as well as enabling direct deals. And the tracking and reporting is pretty robust.
We are both a publisher and advertiser, and have also executed direct deals through the site. Like a lot of developers, we definitely value Chartboost as part of our broader monetization and acquisition strategy.
Your current project is Mouse Tales. Can you tell us something about the inspiration behind it and how the Canadian beta test is going?
Sure. As I say, the game has been live in Canada for about a month and we expect it will release worldwide in January.
The inspiration came from a concept we bounced around several months ago a causal combat-style game.
As the team spent more time on the project it was clear the challenge was really about how to introduce combat in a manner that would be fun for all audiences out of the gate, yet deliver enough depth to create interesting elder gameplay.
We couldn't quite solve this in isolation but a few months later the team had the idea of tying combat with a thin city-builder game concept. And we had this David vs. Goliath narrative that pits the likeable mice against the aggressive lizards.
Once we found the art direction we were pretty confident it could work and that we had stumbled upon something unique.
Thus far we're encouraged by the initial data in Canada. There's the typical tuning, balancing and polish that is occurring now, and we are also focused on social features to bring even deeper meaning to the combat/fighting elements of the game.
There's a lot of debate about how the free-to-play business model should be used. What's your view in terms of the game being more focused on younger players?
Actually, Mouse Tales is not targeted at "younger" players. In our definition of mid-casual, our titles target a close to even male-female split and core age group of 25-34. But, you raise an interesting point regarding the free-to-play business model.
I think our higher level perspective is that the market is migrating to more of a content model where in-game purchases are intended to deliver additional - and ideally compelling - gameplay and not used as a road block to continued play.
I think there are simply too many choices in the market with low switching costs to force purchase points early in a game.
Ideally, we want our players to consume some base level of the entire game and decide for themselves if making in-game purchases will create a more compelling experience.
I'm not entirely sure this is a young versus older age issue, but it's the way we approach free-to-play.
More long-term, what are your plans for 2013?
We are very focused on evolving game development consistent with our mid-casual philosophy. You will see an emphasis on social features and deeper elder game content with updates to Dragon Skies and Mouse Tales.
We will also launch two new titles in Q1 next year that continue to build on those fundamentals.
International and cross platform initiatives are very important as well. We expect to launch all Breaktime titles in 2013 across major platforms and in key international countries.
We're very excited about some of the partnerships we're working on now that will help us take advantage of emerging opportunities. Overall, we expect 2013 to be a very big year for Breaktime Studios.
Thanks to Todd for his time.