Space Ape’s mobile games production funnel: Creating a genre-defining hit

Product owner Nick Mansdorf discusses three steps to judge a game's potential

Space Ape’s mobile games production funnel: Creating a genre-defining hit

Space Ape is already making more than $70 million in revenue from its games like Rival Kingdoms, Transformers: Earth Wars and Fastlane: Road to Revenge, but the studio has far bigger plans.

As recently as 18 months ago the company had a top-down model for making games and as many as 70 per cent of its staff were working on its live games.

But the company heads decided they weren’t completely satisfied with the studio ticking along nicely and wanted to chase that ‘genre-defining hit’ on mobile they craved.

A new approach

To that end the team changed how it went about designing and ultimately launching games. Today, the studio only has around 25 per cent of its staff working on live games - the rest are currently working on six titles across six different genres.

Speaking at Games First Helsinki 2018, Space Ape product owner Nick Mansdorf discussed how the company now actively empowers small teams to have the freedom they need to make great games - but all within the confines of a framework.

This production funnel effectively comes in three phases...

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  • 1 Idea generation and prototyping

    This first step is all about coming up with new games. Here, developers get the chance to pitch an idea to the company, prototype it and try to get the studio to buy into it.

    This phase can happen between projects for staff, at other times or during “Ape Space”. This is a period once a month where all the studio’s employees stop working on their game and create brand new ideas. The idea is to populate the top of the production funnel.

    Ape Space offers an opportunity not only for idea generation but putting together teams that believe in a project.

    Creative space

    “Whether or not people are attracted to that idea is whether they’ll work together,” said Mansdorf, adding this was not a management decision.

    Ape Space can take the form of a game jam or something else. For example, the studio ran an ‘esports month’, in which they brought in lecturers and guest speakers to educate the team on competitive gaming.

    From this, two games are currently being developed, one very much an esports title, the other a completely different idea but one still born out of the esports month’s theme.

    Mansdorf said one of the learnings of getting the team to come up with new ideas was to have some constraints, such as that esports month mentioned above, to help focus creativity.

  • 2 Proof of concept

    The second part of the funnel is proof of concept. This stage is for two to four person teams to iterate on the core idea over the space of a few months. Here they’ll also design the meta, establish a visual direction for the title and validate its marketability.

    During this stage also comes the all important tough decision of whether to continue with development beyond this or to kill the game.

    One method used here to decide whether a game should continue with development is ‘Takeshi’s Doors’ - the name derived from the Japanese game show Takeshi’s Castle.

    The idea for this is, if a game can through through a set of doors (which are based on criteria), then it suggests the title has potential. Though the criteria can change depending on the game, Mansdorf used an example for one ultimately cancelled Space Ape strategy game, which had the following ‘doors’:

    • Is it mobile first?
    • Does it have evergreen gameplay?
    • Is it scalable? (i.e. can the team make enough content for it)
    • Does it encourage player-driven content? (i.e. What can the players create themselves?)
    • Does it have opportunity for mastery? (i.e. can you still learn and get better over time?)

    Complexity scoring

    As well as this, Space Ape also uses ‘complexity scoring’, which breaks down the visual, cognitive and interaction complexity of the title.

    The visual complexity judges the game’s look and UI, cognitive looks into how deep the strategy in the game is, while interaction looks at how the game is controlled. It’s an interesting way to judge whether a game is achieving the developers’ aims, particularly for the target audience.

    Once all this is taken into account, Mansdorf said the team uses ‘thumbs for milestones’ - a way to measure whether the game is achieving its vision and has potential to be that breakout hit.

    Two thumbs up means the game will likely continue with development, while one thumb up suggests there is potential - and development may still continue - but there are also still other good untapped game ideas in the funnel that may be better to pursue.

    A thumbs down suggests the title is failing to meet its objectives.

  • 3 Agile production

    The last part of the funnel sees a game go through internal and external validation, and possibly a soft launch. Here the team can grow if needed and the title could even get a full global launch.

    Mansdorf said at this point, Space Ape might get its genre-defining hit, or it might kill the game and go back into the funnel.

    What makes a top game?

    By using the production funnel, Mansdorf said that to make a hit game then, there needs to be:

    • A clear sense of core loop, the meta and visual direction
    • An understanding of the audience
    • Conviction in getting a top grossing hit
    • A small empowered team

    None of this guarantees a hit of course, but Space Ape hopes defining a process with clear goals and milestones, while empowering those small, agile teams, will eventually lead to that hit game it craves.

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Senior Editor

Craig Chapple is Senior Editor of PocketGamer.biz and InfluencerUpdate.biz. He was previously Deputy Editor at Develop and Online Editor at Nintendo of Europe.