License to thrill: Get Set Games on the task of taking on Disney's IP

Monsters, Inc. Run dev tells all

License to thrill: Get Set Games on the task of taking on Disney's IP
Disney's doing pretty well for itself in the mobile gaming space.

The company's one of the few that's able to carve out a space for itself in the top grossing charts with paid games, for instance, and it's already turned a new IP – Where's My Water? – into a big name brand.

Disney's also a dab hand at using paid games to promote its movie properties, and it typically does so by partnering with established indie studio.
Temple Run: Brave, for instance, saw Disney partner with Imangi to inject Pixar charm and a handful of new mechanics into an already hugely popular framework. And now, with the launch of Monsters, Inc. 3D, Disney's partnering with Mega Run developer Get Set Games to do much the same.

So, in order to find out more about the process of collaborating with Disney, we caught up with Get Set Games co-founder Nick Coombe, and asked him about the motivation, monetisation and metrics.

Pocket Gamer: Get Set has always been a fairly indie-minded studio, so what was your first reaction when Disney approached you?

Nick Coombe: Our goal has always been to make the games that we want to make, and to grow carefully and steadily building up our own IP.

The Disney Pixar proposal came out of the blue and caught us by surprise in the summer after we'd launched our first update for Mega Run.

There are so many horror stories about little guys working with big companies that it did give us pause. On the other hand Keith and Natalya at Imangi had a good experience working with Disney, and Temple Run: Brave did - and is still doing - very well for them.

Disney also has a very successful track record on the App Store, so we knew we'd learn a lot from the collaboration.

Secondly, we'd be using Mega Run as the base for Monsters, Inc. Run, so that was a known quantity. If the proposal had been to create a brand new game, the decision would have been much harder.

We figured the tie-in could also only help get more visibility for Mega Run in the long run, as it were, so that would be a good thing.

Third, the game was targeted for release around the launch of Monsters, Inc. 3D, so that meant an eight week - at the time - dev cycle!

It seemed slightly insane to try and produce a Disney/Pixar quality game under that pressure, but at the same time it meant we weren't looking at carving half a year out of our in-house dev time.

If the project didn't work out, we wouldn't have lost too much time.

The last hurdle really was in finding out how the partnership would work. As it turned out Disney was straightforward and put us very much on an equal footing with them for the development of the project, even to the extent of giving us the lead on how the game was designed and developed.

Disney put its trust in our ability to execute on the project and make the core decisions on gameplay, features and design, so we felt ownership of the project, which was crucial for us.

What were the challenges of working with such a licence and company?

One of our biggest concerns, actually, was living up to Pixar's expectations. All artwork had to pass through Pixar for approval, so we felt like we were walking into the lion's den in our first approval meeting with them.

As it turns out, we managed to hit the right notes quite quickly in terms of style – not easy considering the characters actually had to be modified quite drastically from their film versions to fit the sprite design in the game.

Once we synced up in terms of the stylistic approach (a mash up between the Mega Run style and the movie), it was off to the races.

The feedback from Pixar really helped polish the design and animation of the main characters, enemies and backgrounds, and they have been enthusiastic and supportive from the get-go. Really fantastic to work with.

On the technical front, the next challenge was in QA. We do our best to make sure our own games are as solid and as bug-free as possible, but a company like Disney and a brand like Monsters, Inc. means that the quality bar needs to be that much higher.

Disney's QA team did a stellar job working with us to make sure we found, caught and killed any bugs that cropped up during development, and in the crucial final stage leading up to release.

Our stats show that this paid off, with Monsters, Inc. Run reporting a very low crash rate – and those bugs are being tracked down and dealt with for the next update.

Working with Disney and Monsters, Inc. also meant that we had to hit our delivery date, especially since the timing was tied to the movie launch. That pressure meant we had to stay focused from day one and in some cases make difficult decisions about what was possible in the time we had.

Disney was supportive all the way through, and provided dev support from their sound department, creating the excellent in-game sound effects and theme music, by Peter Thomas and Nick Gallant respectively.

In the end, the game is 99 percent what we originally envisioned at the start of the project and, we feel, our most solid and well-designed game so far.

Given your success with Mega Jump and Mega Run, what's the reason to work with a company like Disney? Is it just the cash?

As much as we all love Monsters, Inc. and Pixar in general - we're all big fans of the studio - and the idea of working on a game based on the movie was really exciting to us, we were hesitant at first.

Like many indie companies that have done well, we've had pressure to sell the company, or work with publishers and what-have-you. We've always turned down those offers because, as lucrative as they might have been in the short term, they were counter to our goal of owning our work and our future.

When the Disney offer came along, we discussed the pros and cons as a team, and debated about whether it would be good for us and our other projects – after all, this would be an outside company telling us what to do and how to do it. Or so we might have thought.

As we learned more about the proposal, and the fact that this would be a partnership, not a white-label deal, the equation changed. We realised that we would be able to design the game as we saw fit, and that the guys at Disney Mobile were just as passionate - and nerdy - about games as we are.

One draw was the fact that, as a small company in equal partnership with Disney for this project, we knew that this would help shine a spotlight on us and get visibility for our own games, and that could only be a good thing.

That was predicated on making a good game, however, and we wouldn't be satisfied with just creating a phoned-in movie-licensed game, so our highest priority was to make the best game we could in the time we had. If people liked it, it would help our other games as well, and I think we achieved that.

Yes, the potential revenue was good - although not guaranteed, especially if the game was terrible. That shouldn't to be discounted, but we're quite comfortable as it is with our own games.

The biggest benefit for us in the long term was that we knew we would learn a huge amount from the partnership and the process. Disney Mobile has had a string of hit games with Where's My Water, Where's My Perry, Tap Tap Revenge with Tapulous, Temple Run: Brave etc.

They know what they're doing, and we still have a lot to learn in terms of process, production, promotion, you name it. And learn we did.

Creating Monsters, Inc. Run was a formative experience for us. It validated a lot of what we've learned over the past year working on Mega Run, and it taught us a lot about scheduling, quality control and teamwork that will prove to be invaluable in future.

Mostly though, it proved to us as a team of 10 that we could turn around a project we could be proud of in 10 weeks with minimal changes to our original plan. That was a big success for us.

Get Set has always been quick to experiment with business models – F2P, Kiip, Chartboost etc – so what's your current thinking about how small studios can monetise best across iOS and Android?

The market is always changing, so there's never one surefire way to make money on the app stores. That being said, it looks like free-to-play is here to stay. This is especially true on Android, where paid games tend to suffer.

We actually can't say enough good things about the reach and inclusivity that free-to-play brings.

Paid games have a place – it's how games have always been sold until now, and should be an option even for smaller devs, although it is a tougher market to crack when you're just starting out. There's also an element of prestige that goes along with paid games - even at 99c or 69p - that free games somehow lose out on.

We're excited to have created a paid game in the form of Monsters, Inc. Run – we think it's appropriate and that the game can compete with the other big games on the paid charts.

Here's where I come out swinging for the free-to-play option though, because paid games are a gamble for players.

They are like an exclusive club with an entrance fee, and a lot of people aren't willing to take the risk to get in, which is understandable. Free games, on the other hand, have to live or die on their own merits, since players can figuratively walk away.

There's no barrier to entry, which also means free-to-play games are more inclusive, and can reach far, far more people. I think it's important to emphasise the positives of free games for small devs, because the reach can be so crucial, especially when you're just starting out, and if you do it the right way.

We love the fact that kids who have run out of pocket money - or are saving it for something else - can still download and play our games, and we don't care if they don't pay a penny.

If players like our games, they'll tell a friend or two and we'll reach more people and make more people happy, and in the end we'll generate more revenue that way and grow a huge and happy fan base to boot. Like most free-to-play games, a tiny fraction of players actually pay any money for, or in, our games. And that's fine.

What it means though, is that we can't aggressively promote our games by throwing money around. There's no ad budget for free-to-play when it costs more to get a player to download your game than you'll ever make back from them.

Networks like Chartboost have been invaluable for us in that regard. Using Chartboost we've been able to cross-promote with other partners via click-exchange, essentially, and reach huge numbers of people via a quid-pro-quo arrangement with developers we work well with.

Chartboost also generates healthy revenue for us via interstitials that we run - very minimally - in our games.

We also run opt-in video ads from Flurry, Ad Colony and Vungle that work well for us. The nice thing about those is that players never have to see them unless they choose to, but they still generate good revenue, so everybody's happy.

Kiip has been great for the feel-good factor, and they've run some great competitions - including Guinness Book of Records attempts and some big-prize giveaways - giving out real-world prizes willy-nilly to our players for doing well in the game, which players really seem to like!

We're always on the look-out for ways to promote our games with a zero dollar budget, and generate revenue in ways that aren't awful or force the player to pay for things they shouldn't have to.

We could probably make more money by being more aggressive with our IAP or in-game advertising, but we're gamers and we hate that stuff too, so we try to keep it respectful and appropriate, so that players know that they have a choice and so that the IAP or monetisation options don't get in the way of the game, which always comes first.

How active are you in terms of metrics, analytics and feeding back results into your games?

We do generate a lot of anonymous data from our games, which has been very useful, but to be honest we think we could do more with it.

Next year we're going to be more pro-active with our data to try and improve our games - for instance, to see where people are struggling, or what feature players use the most.

We've already started making changes to our games based on some of the metrics, and to put the focus of new feature updates on to things that players will appreciate the most.

How important is cross-promotion between your games and can you pony up any numbers that back up your no-doubt positive general assertions?

Cross promotion is really our best bet as far as free-to-play goes, and we rely on it along with word of mouth to gain new players.

It's one of the few viable options for small company giving away games for free.

We used to cross-promote 'manually' using our home-brewed system for a while, and that worked quite well, but over time we noticed that this upstart company called Chartboost was making a bit of noise among developers we worked with so we looked into it.

Hooking into the Chartboost network has really helped to take a huge amount of the legwork out of the process, which saves us time and money. We don't have a marketing department. We have one guy, so that really helps.

In general, on a weekly basis we send hundreds of thousands of clicks to and from our games via cross promos, so yes, it's effective!

Mega Jump is one of the longest running successes in the App Store so what's your view on how to wag the long tail, especially when it comes to casual social free-to-play games?

Updates. Seriously. The best thing a developer can do is to continually improve their game and give players more of what they want, which involves listening to them, and not just putting more stuff in your store.

We just did a huge update for Mega Jump that added an entire new world to play, so it's still very much being tended to.

Every time we do an update we get huge re-engagement and a big uptick in downloads, presumably because of spikes in word of mouth each time. Revenue also rises for a time, which softens the drop off in the tail.

We're surprised by the longevity of Mega Jump, but people are still discovering it for the first time and loving it, and telling others about it. It's still a really fun game, even though it's non-retina, non-universal and non-iPhone 5.

What are your plans for 2013? Is it time for a new Mega game yet?

Well at least one of our games is getting a little long in the tooth, so we're about overdue for a jump-start there perhaps.

2012 was a phenomenal year for Get Set, and we think 2013 could be even better, including for Android players, who have been neglected for too long!

We're very excited for what we have planned.
Thanks to Nick for his time.

Staff Writer's news editor 2012-2013