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Love letters: The making of Ruzzle

How MAG reached the masses with 'zero' marketing

Love letters: The making of Ruzzle

If you've ever set about searching for a word game on mobile, chances are you've quickly realised you've taken on more than you bargained for.

To describe the genre as an endless sea teaming with a wave of different titles is putting it lightly. Competition between those at the top table is rife, and it's not hard to understand why, either.

Tapping into the appeal of traditional board games like Scrabble, word puzzlers are a perfect fit for mobile, enabling players test their vocabulary and observational skills against friends – all without the barrier of having to take each other on in person, thanks to the addition of asynchronous multiplayer.

Ruzzle, created by Swedish outfit MAG Interactive, has quickly become one of the genre's leading titles, having blown up across Europe and the US in quick time - as recently detailed by the developer at Casual Connect Europe in Amsterdam.

But how do you go about building a massive audience when, by your own admission, your marketing budget is "zero"? MAG Interactive's CEO Daniel Hasselberg was only too keen to spell it out.

Word up

MAG Interactive was formed in 2010 and initially developed apps and games for other companies, with the aim of being able to "bootstrap [its] own game development".

That goal was realised in early 2012 with the release of Ruzzle. "It became an - more or less – instant success and ever since, we've been able to focus on our own game development," says Hasselberg.

"After three weeks, we reached one-million downloads and, after almost two years, have passed the 50 million download mark."

Daniel Hasselberg

If 50 million isn't a big enough number for you, it's worth nothing that the combined 'swiping' distance of all of the game's players is equal to the distance from Earth to the moon, and back... 30 times.

As well as the swiping distance, the total play time is equivalent to 50,000 years – not bad for a game that's been out less than two years.

Ruzzle was created with big numbers such as these in mind, however. The fact that it took the form of a word game came from a goal of developing something that would appeal to the mainstream.

"We wanted to make a game that could have broad appeal, in order to make it possible for a true viral growth," says Hasselberg. "So the starting point was to make a free, casual game that's super polished and [can] stand out quality-wise, and of course make it easy as possible for the players to share their experience with their friends.

With its marketing budget at "zero", MAG Interactive had no option but to try and create something that spread organically. Once the team decided to create something with mainstream appeal, it was time to look for inspiration.

"We looked at existing board games and tried to see what makes them fun, and what could be improved when you have a mobile asynchronous context," says Hasselberg.

"We wanted to have the same social feel to it as [you do] when gathered around a table playing a board game, even though the players might be in different locations."

A bit board

After opting to take on the word game genre, MAG Interactive had to set about teaching Ruzzle what words its players could play at what words they couldn't. As such, the studio turned to a combination of free and paid dictionaries.

For the Swedish version, the team used the government approved dictionary, called 'Definition of the Swedish Language'.

Endlessly entering words into a database wasn't the only task MAG had to talk on, however. Within days of Ruzzle gaining a fanbase, 'cheat apps' started to appear, offering players a way of beating their opponent without flexing their frontal lobes.

"We had some anti-cheat detection built in to the game on the client side, [which would] not allow [players] to kill the game, restart, or have certain apps running in the background," says Hasselberg. "We also do some sanity checks on the server side to find the most obvious cheaters.

"Not everybody cheats, though. Some people are just really, really good at finding words with their eyes and swiping them with their fingers. That's why MAG Interactive looked to chess for a solution to matching two players of similar skill level.

"We use a rating system that is called ELO rating – the same as what's used in chess tournaments," says Hasselberg.

"[It] takes into account both opponents' rating and alters it after each game, according to the outcome. Pretty quickly, that gives us a view of the player's skill level and we use that to match opponents."

Zed's dead, baby

On the development tools front, MAG turned to xCode and Eclipse for both the native iOS and Android versions. Indeed, iOS was the first platform on the agenda, with Android and Windows Phone taking a back seat to enable a three-month long soft launch on Apple's OS.

However, Hasselberg says the team are still tweaking and beavering away on Ruzzle two years later – as is the case with modern day mobile - adding the aforementioned anti-cheat measures and matchmaking systems.

"Our main challenge was that we first developed for iOS to see if the game would be well received or not," Hasselberg says. "With a PvP game, the demand for an Android version was pretty instant when we hit it big, and we had absolutely no resources to make it happen.

"We outsourced the development of the Android version and that was a real headache. Quality wasn't what we had hoped for and we had to struggle quite a while to fix it using in-house resources. The way to overcome this issue was by hiring great in-house Android developers."

MAG Interactive now plans to keep supporting Ruzzle with regular updates and has just release an iPad version of Ruzzle, complete with split screen mode, where two players can play on the same tablet. You know, like a board game.

Although Hasselberg is happy with the fifty-million downloads of Ruzzle so far, he hopes to see that number double in the future. That goal may well become a reality, too.

"The plan is to grow to about 40 [staff] over the next few months, so all great iOS developers feel free to send an application," Hasselberg concludes.

"We also have a couple more games in development that I'm really looking forward to seeing on the market soon. 2014 will be a super exciting year for MAG Interactive."

Contributing Writer

Kirk is a writer of many words and grower of many hairs. He manages to juggle family life with his passion for video games and writing. From the mobile indie scene to triple-A blockbusters, his life ambition is to play ALL the games. Yes, all of them.

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Michael Pilinovics
Nice. I recommend Headwords word game too.