Back in the late 2000s, when the first two Train Conductor games were hits, it was a very different App Store.
Most notably both were paid games, which makes the arrival of the third game in the series - the F2P Train Conductor World - something to talk about.
A beautiful, intense, and difficult arcade game, Train Conductor World is now gearing up for a major update, as well as its Android launch.
So to find out more about the game and its development, we chatted to Simon Joslin, Creative Director at Australian developer The Voxel Agents, about switching to a free-to-play model and the difficulty of balancing gameplay and meta-game.
PocketGamer.biz: It's been a long time since we've played a Train Conductor game, so what have you been doing in the meantime?
Simon Joslin: We began exploring new concepts in 2011. In a three-month period, we prototyped 26 games, three of which showed great promise.
One has shipped as Puzzle Retreat, one we're working on in the form of Gardens Between, and the other is waiting patiently. Hopefully we can work on it one day.
We spent about eighteen months on Puzzle Retreat as a small team of four.
In 3 months, we prototyped 26 games, 3 of which showed great promise.Simon Joslin
The biggest challenge in that project was figuring out how to simplify the game and its rules down to complete minimalism, leaving just you and the puzzle.
True simplicity takes the longest time to achieve, but it was worth it.
We created a truly unique puzzle mechanic that captivated players, won us some awards and has paid off the development costs.
In 2013 we were exploring a colour matching title that blended Rubik's Cube and Bejeweled. It was in perpetual prototyping and just didn't find its feet. We killed it in early 2014, but I still have dreams of where we could go with it.
And finally we came back to the Train Conductor series mid-2014 and made the latest wonderfully successful Train Conductor World.
Given the first two games were successful as paid games, how worried were you about taking the franchise F2P?
We weren't worried about choosing to take the game F2P. It's a great model, especially so for casual games.
Players can try out tons of games and just give money to the ones they love. It's a much more welcoming model, when done right.
That helps us achieve our goal of broadening audiences and helping players find games they didn't know they'd love.
We've been dabbling with F2P since 2013 when we started making Puzzle Retreat, and we've been learning ever since.
This would be our first truly F2P game however as it can be played from start to finish without spending a cent.
However, it came as a surprise that we spent more time on the meta game of Train Conductor World than the core arcade gameplay of connecting trains.
What I was worried about was that no one would spend a cent.Simon Joslin
It now seems obvious because the meta is a much more complicated and nuanced design challenge, but at the time we only wanted a relatively light layer over the top, and you wouldn't think that'd take long.
We were wrong, again. Simplicity takes a long time to hone and refine.
This time round we started by exploring the meta-game on paper as a makeshift board game. You used your soft currency to buy paper cut-outs of track tiles that you could place on the board and expand your network.
That was the easy bit.
What took many months to refine was how you earned soft currency, and what interesting layers could be added on top of your rail network that gave you a good reason to care about it. We almost shipped a game that was much more complicated.
But we decided to spend another few months simplifying the design down, and I'm really happy with what we've made. From this new simple layer, we have a really rock solid base to build upon over the coming years.
Through that whole process I was never worried that we were going to be ripping players off, or treating them poorly.
The design gives away a lot of fun gameplay for free, and the entire game was unlockable without paying a cent.
The entire game is unlockable without paying a cent.Simon Joslin
What I was worried about was that no one would spend a cent. We are so far on the gentle side of free-to-play that paying was never a requirement for having fun. That was important to us, but how do truly know someone will spend.
You as the developer are not a valid test subject, and your friends might say they'd spend, but truthfully, once they actually had to get their wallets out, would they?
We just took a punt on what we felt was right, and just shipped globally without even a soft launch!
When you were designing your monetisation, which other games inspired you?
We especially loved the implementation of rewarded video in Nimblebit's Disco Zoo. It's brilliantly integrated into the core loop.
In those kind of conditions, you as a player are thankful that the option is there. Sure, you don't watch a video every time, but when you do, it really is helpful.
In terms of IAP, we looked at the broad strokes of what was working across the industry, rather than any one specific example.
For example, there is a common blueprint shared by most F2P games to have an endless treadmill of progression.
We especially loved the implementation of rewarded video in Disco Zoo.Simon Joslin
It solves many problems at once, such as why a player would engage long term, what a player is focused on, and also what utility spending may have, i.e. skipping progression.
I think in ten years' time the approach will be considered a little crude, but we felt like it is a relatively good match for a world building metagame like ours, and a reliable and fair approach for our first true F2P.
The smart thing about this approach is that a player with a lot of time but little money can enjoy the game and continue progression roughly in line with a player with little time but money to burn.
Both can enjoy the game equally, and the path they both take is enjoyable.
You employ a number of different monetisation strategies in the game, including interstitial ads, incentivised ads, and IAPs. Which of these do you feel has worked best for your game?
None of them are great. They all have flaws.
Rewarded video only works well in our game when you've got a lot to lose by not watching an ad, like when you are in a single chance objective, or when you've delivered a lot of cargo but make a mistake right at the end.
But when you're playing for high scores or attempting to get the Chaos Star, you really have no incentive to watch an ad. There's a lot we can do to improve that and we hope to get time to implement the fixes soon.
What does work about the implementation is that it complements the core gameplay nicely.
Figuring out the specifics took a really long time, because to truly experience it, you must play it for days or weeks.Simon Joslin
Our core gameplay can be really intense, and when you crash trains it's because you've made a mistake in the heat of the moment, so taking a second to watch the ad is a nice pause before resuming the intensity of it all.
Plus, when you've done really well, it's nice to know you have a fall back in case you make a mistake.
We're seeing really strong incentivised ad engagement, so the approach is definitely working.
What was the most difficult thing in terms of balancing the core gameplay and the wider meta-game?
There are many ways to have the core gameplay interact and complement the metagame.
Figuring out the specifics took a really long time, partly because to truly experience it, you must play it for days or weeks to see how it really feels.
That means each iteration must naturally be so far apart that you end up tackling other issues in between iterations and you can easily lose focus. It's a harder design process to manage in that way.
Another real challenge for us was figuring out how much the player should be thinking about and focusing on the meta as opposed to the core gameplay.
Do they have serious impacts on each other, or are they very light interactions and effects upon each other? We started deep and eventually streamlined it back to some pretty light interactions.
Our biggest mistake was that we just assumed we could figure out communication of the systems later, and that really slowed development down later when we had to go back out and figure it out.
How long did development take, and how many people were involved?
Two people worked full time, with a further two people at three days a week, all working on it solidly for about eighteen months. We also had a little bit of extra help towards the end.
The art style is familiar but also different enough to stand out. How much iteration did this take?
The art style took significant iteration, and it evolves slowly over time. Shath is a very intuitive artist who is constantly evolving the look.
There were some truly dark times for me personally. Some days I was certain I should never make another game.Simon Joslin
He was constantly tweaking, so much so that it started with a semi realistic, highly textured aesthetic, but finished up as a low poly look with sharp details, and nice gradients. It heavily relies on lighting to work and the weather system adds so much to it.
At what stage of development did you think you had a game you were happy with?
There were some truly dark times for me personally.
Some days I was certain I should never make another game. I felt I was wasting the team's time on something that was complete trash.
I felt I was ruining a great and proven mechanic and running it into the ground with all this wasted time on figuring out a metagame that was unproven and didn't add much tangibly to the game.
I don't think I was confident in the game until about the last week.
It hurt most of all because I had killed my previous game, Toy Mania, and given up on trying to solve it. I had significant doubts I would ever get the metagame design right.
How happy are you with the game's launch?
It's been absolutely excellent. We had one million downloads in the first week, we've had the best reviews of any game we've released, and the fan base is rabid for more content.
We've made triple the first month revenue of any game we've ever shipped, and I think the project will be profitable within the first six to twelve months.
We've had the best reviews of any game we've released, and the fan base is rabid for more content.Simon Joslin
We're also seeing metrics which are average or above, across the board.
Which doesn't sound that amazing, but when you consider how new and innovative our approach was to the metagame and how little we've relied upon tried and tested retention and engagement techniques, I think we're doing very well.
At the very least it's an excellent foundation to build upon. We're not fixing the retention, engagement and monetisation, as most F2P games have to at launch, instead we're just improving them!
What can you tell us about the latest update?
Version 1.4 is the biggest and most important update to Train Conductor yet!
It's added a new super rare tier of Track Tiles, four new famous locations, and is the first update to expand across the oceans - heading north up into the UK and Scandinavia.
Alloy Track Tiles enable new ways to improve and expand rail networks. They are better in a few ways; they're the only tile type that can be used to build bridges over the high seas, their unique ‘triangle’ branches allow for the most optimal of train-network design, and they offer the fastest cargo deliveries of all tile types.
Players have been asking for a new Tier and now it's here!
We’ve also added a new ‘Share My Network’ feature because our Facebook page is filling with players posting screenshots of their iPhone or iPad and manually stitching the whole network together.
Clearly this is a feature that players want, and we are listening. Now players can effortlessly take a photo of their entire train network to share with their friends and the world!
Can you tell us anything about other projects you have in the works?
We have a team of amazingly talented people, originating from outside the games industry working on The Gardens Between.
It's a very exciting project and it's been in development for about eighteen months. It is led by the Lead Designer of Puzzle Retreat, Henrik Pettersson.
They're making an absolutely gorgeous adventure puzzle game that is already getting the attention of several awards. I think it has the potential to be huge.
We just held an exhibition of the game at our Australian Centre for the Moving Image. We set up ten iPads demonstrating the game in its current state, and its early prototypes.
This game has had a fascinating journey of creative evolution and experimentation. It's been through eight complete start to finish prototypes built from the ground up, and then throw away.
Even though the prototypes weren't ever meant to be played by the public, most people stuck around for forty-five minutes on an iPad and played through each one!
We were really surprised that these rough, unrefined prototypes were so sticky. I think it shows that the common thread they all share is inherently fascinating.
Check out the website for more info. It's coming late 2016.