NaturalMotion CEO Torsten Reil on new iOS game My Horse and the 'massive opportunity' of freemium gaming

Six games in development

NaturalMotion CEO Torsten Reil on new iOS game My Horse and the 'massive opportunity' of freemium gaming
With over 8 million iOS downloads so far, NaturalMotion's graphically-impressive, mass market portfolio of games has been a huge success. So much so that the UK publisher is expanding fast, opening a new London studio and bolstering staff numbers across both its existing UK and US offices.

Yet despite the success of paid titles such as the Backbreaker series, NaturalMotion is now concentrating on the free-to-play model.

Its latest game, My Horse, which hit the Apple App Store last week, represents the first step in this move, and from here on, every game produced by NaturalMotion is expected to be freemium. spoke to NaturalMotion CEO Torsten Reil to discuss the game, his reasoning behind the move to free-to-play and his hopes for the future.

Pocket Gamer: So what's My Horse all about?.

Torsten Reil: We're very excited about the game, which is a really important release for us, because it's taking NaturalMotion's approach a bit further, by combining high-end graphics with accessible gameplay, and the free-to-play business model, which is going to be our main focus from now on.

As for the game itself, it's developed for NaturalMotion by US studio MunkyFun, and runs on iPhone and iPod touch, as well as iPad and iPad 2

The gameplay is all about creating a relationship with the horse. We think this is possible to get this believability across through the animations and the graphics. There's so much opportunity now with the processing power and connectivity that's available.

Can you go into a little more detail about the actual gameplay?

It's a combination of things. First of all, you can interact with the horse, you can pet it etc. Those are the obvious things. But one of the most important aspects is we have a range of mini-games. We're shipping with a few, but there will be quite a few more coming up as well.

So you are able to groom the horse, for example. You are able to feed it. But you're also able to take part in competitions. For these, you first of all have to do training for show jumping, and then eventually you can take part, either against other opponents on the device, or against real people - your friends for example.

Other elements are that you're able to set off jobs in the background with a stable hand, to earn additional XP, for example, and come back the next day.

In this way, we combine some of the mechanics of typical social games, 2D resource-management games, with 3D mini-games and high-end graphics. We think it works really well.

We're really happy with the retention figures we've seen in our beta so far and hopefully that's going to scale up.

How much of the game do consumers get for free?

A lot. In fact, I would say that the vast majority of the game is free. You'll never reach the point with this game where you find yourself unable to progress without paying.

Of course, in order to get some of the really cool stuff quickly, you can use real money, and equally, if you want to progress more quickly to some of the competitions.

What kind of things can you buy in-game?

There's a whole range of things. Obviously, you can buy equipment for your horse; different saddles, bridles, different types of feeds etc.

And, as I said, you can also pay to progress through some of the competitions more quickly. However, we're finding that the large majority of people are quite happy to just play along without paying money. That's the kind of balance we want to strike overall.

For those people who want to pay, we want to make sure that they can - obviously we need to make money. But, at the same time, a lot of people just want to play and enjoy an environment they can spend time in. We don't need them to pay money.

It's typically assumed that the conversion rate for people who buy things in freemium games is around 2 percent. How do your figures compare to that?

We're tracking above that. I can't give you the exact numbers but we're tracking pretty high overall at the moment.

How many games are you working on?

We've got about six games we're working on right now, which will see staggered releases.

Some will be quite soon, others a little bit later. Some of them are very ambitious games. Overall, we feel free-to-play is the best way to get these games out as effectively as possible and also to monetise it as effectively as possible.

From our limited beta for My Horse, what we're seeing is a lot of people are playing for free, but others are prepared to spend a significant amount of money, because they've invested themselves in the game and they find it extremely important to them. That's something that we want to make use of with free-to-play. It's a very attractive business model.

So you won't be doing any more straight paid games in future?

Overall, the focus is definitely free-to-play. I'm not ruling out that we'll never do another paid game, but there is no paid game on the road map right now. Our entire road map is free-to-play.

Do you haven annual targets for how many games you'll release?

We don't have a target as such. We have an ambition to release a certain number of games, but it all comes down to working as effectively as possible and giving the games the time they require.

Sometimes things happen on time, other times we need a little longer to expand the functionality or make improvements. That takes a little bit longer. We like to give ourselves that time.

Overall, it's true that we're quite ambitious and we're trying to release a pretty significant amount of games. We're scaling up, both in terms of production and design, and our development capacity.

Why is NaturalMotion being so aggressive in this space?

It's exciting. Everyone is excited. I think there's a massive opportunity right now in the games industry, both in terms of the volume of games that you can sell, as well as the free-to-play business model.

But also for us, what's really exciting is we're able to use technology that we've developed for consoles on these devices. That's something we wouldn't have imagined a couple of years ago.

Considering your success with paid games, aren't you worried the freemium model may not be so lucrative?

Someone else asked me the same thing the other day. The return of investment on our paid games is around five times, so far. It's been very successful, but we think free-to-play is going to be even more successful.

The market is moving so fast. We're not in the business of making small, slow, incremental improvements. We believe free-to-play is the superior business model. Both for the users, because they can get a lot of content for free, as well as for publishers.

Because we can scale the game much, much faster and make it much, much bigger, we think it's the right model. And if you think it's the right model, then we've got to go for it.

Thanks to Torsten for his time.
Contributing Writer

A freelancer for just about anyone that will have him, Lee was raised in gloomy arcades up and down the country. Thanks to this he's rather good at Gauntlet, OutRun and fashioning fake pound coins from pennies and chewing gum. These skills have proved to be utterly useless in later life.