Drag Racing dev: We expected players to abandon us for CSR Racing...but they didn't

Creative Mobile's Funtikov on hitting 100 million

Drag Racing dev: We expected players to abandon us for CSR Racing...but they didn't
During the last couple of years, a certain drag racing franchise has amassed a total of 100 million downloads across iOS and Android.

As the headline to this piece suggests, however, we're not talking about CSR Racing.

Creative Mobile's Drag Racing actuallt pre-dates Boss Alien's iOS smash by over a year, yet – arguably thanks to CSR's eye watering revenue rates – the game has garnered nowhere near the same amount of press attention.

Why? According to Creative Mobile CEO Vladimir Funtikov, the two games are actually rather different. He says his studio prepared for Drag Racing's fanbase to up and leave when CSR hit the digital shelves, but thankfully that never happened.
Drag Racing's players, he argues, are far more loyal, because Creative Mobile's release doesn't "aggressively monetise" its audience and, as a result, holds onto players for longer.

We caught up with Vladimir to find out how Drag Racing has made a name for itself on Android, and where the franchise – and the studio behind it – is headed next.

Pocket Gamer: You've hit 100 million users in less than two years. Is this the kind of target you set for Drag Racing at launch, or has it exceeded expectations?

Vladimir Funtikov: We didn't expect it to become this big.

When we launched Drag Racing we were a tiny team of five people struggling to pay the bills. Our first positive experience came when we stopped trying to sell our games on Android and started monetising with ads instead.

We made a couple simple ad-supported games that did relatively well, making a few thousand euros per month.

Perhaps more importantly, we learned a lot about the market and developed our vision for Android games we wanted to make: short sessions with progress saved in between, intuitive controls, easy to learn and hard to master, free to play and available on every handset, with marketing assets - title, icon, etc. - that communicate the essence of the game as clearly as possible.
Drag Racing was our best implementation of these principles.

Drag Racing

For example, we put lots of effort into the design of on-screen buttons that imitated a real dashboard to make it easier to understand the UI, and we made sure we included some really hardcore features that would keep the players addicted.

We expected the game to do better than anything else we made before, hoping to manage around 10,000 daily downloads on average, but the way it took off exceeded our expectations and forced us to rapidly grow the team and develop the product.

Can you break down the download figures between iOS and Android?

Yeah. Drag Racing is on 81 million since April 2011, or around 90 million if we include the Bike Edition – a themed spin-off launched in April 2012. On iOS, it's at 11 million since October 2011.

These figures represent the number of unique devices our games were installed and launched on, which is the closest we can get to estimate the number of unique players.

We've been more successful on Android mostly because we really bet on it since the early days, getting our hands on every new device, trying to learn the platform inside and out.

Unfortunately we weren't able to dedicate as much attention to other platforms, and couldn't maintain the iOS version of Drag Racing and release timely updates. Our newer games, including the successor to Drag Racing, are designed as cross-platform from day one to avoid this kind of problems in the future.

You've proclaimed Drag Racing the most popular mobile drag racing franchise on mobile. Does this include CSR Racing?

Yes. We've been ranked the number one or two ranked racing game on Android for more than one and a half years, never dropping out of top 50 games in US.

All of these downloads are organic – we do very little marketing and rely mostly on word of mouth to get new players.

We also look at the community around the game to gauge its popularity. Our Facebook pagei has almost 1.4 million fans. A semi-official forum has nearly 80,000 members.

If you type any sports car represented in Drag Racing into Google and add "tuning" - such as Gumpert Apollo tuning - chances are it will return as many Drag Racing-related forum threads as real-life tuning shops or aftermarket part sellers.
CSR Racing is extremely good at monetising its audience, but aggressive monetisation and lack of really challenging or hardcore elements have an obvious impact on user loyalty.

CSR Racing launched after Drag Racing, but has amassed much press attention. What do you make of the game, and how do you think it compares to your own?

They made a really sweet looking game, did a good job of getting it noticed, and fully deserve their success.

However, this is not the kind of game I would play, or many of our fans would switch over to. Frankly, we expected them to, and even opened a subforum on our Drag Racing forum dedicated to CSR, but there has been very little interest and only a handful of threads.

If you look at the core gameplay mechanic of Drag Racing, it's not really a racing game – you don't steer the car, you can't do a J-turn or crash your vehicle. What makes it a racing game actually happens in between races, where players spend lots of time matching different types of upgrades and gear ratios to find the perfect combination for a given class and dominate the opposition online.

This is very much how things work in real life competitive racing, where most of the work is done in the garage by engineers and mechanics.

Although based on the same design, CSR Racing simplified both the upgrades and the multiplayer - which wasn't even included until recently - and converted them into monetisation tools.

CSR Racing

Substituting these hardcore elements with good looks and "pay to win" monetisation resulted in a different type of game that targets a different kind of player and achieves different goals - high revenue over a short period of time versus long-term retention in Drag Racing.

If games were cars, Drag Racing would be an affordable track machine that doesn't turn many heads, but rewards those who push it to the limit, and CSR Racing would be an expensive and good looking cruiser that handles like a brick, yet sells very well.

What's next for the franchise, and what's next for Creative Mobile?

Well, the studio has grown to over 70 people - up from 5 in 2010, and between 20 and 25 in 2011 - and remains independent and self-funded.

Last year we released a bike themed spin-off that did extremely well on Android, at some point becoming the second highest grossing app on Google Play in the US.

We did it without any marketing efforts other than cross-promotion in the original game and a couple Facebook posts. After this success, we realised that, in order to develop as a studio, we needed to take on a more ambitious task, and began working on a successor to Drag Racing that is designed to take the series to the next level.

Drag Racing: Bike Edition

The new title is built around the same core mechanics, but introduces much more content, gameplay depth and social features.

The original game gathered a huge following – something we didn't expect and don't see often on mobile – and one of our primary goals for the next game is to give the community a game where they can have even more fun with their cars.

We even went as far as including a dedicated vehicle physics engine that would be overkill for many console and PC racing games, with geeky stuff like real clutch and differential simulation, dynamic tire modeling, and so on, to make sure we have a solid foundation.

Teams and team competitions are another integral part of the new design. The original game didn't do much to encourage formation of teams.

Nevertheless, players created numerous mini-communities offline, sharing tuning recipes and strategies, and even launching informal competitions on Facebook. We want to give the community the right tools inside the game that will make much easier and more fun to join forces with other players.

The visual quality of the game is also a huge leap forward from the original Drag Racing.

Developing a really high-end game for Android is a huge challenge, especially when your user base is on a scale of millions.

We can't just tell these people "Hey guys, we made this awesome looking new game, but you need a $500 tablet to enjoy it". We had to find the right people and technology to make the best-looking game on the market that would still manage reasonable framerates on mainstream smartphones.

After several months in development it's easy to see that we managed to achieve this goal with a game that looks fantastic on the newest iPad and is fully playable on 2010 Galaxy S at the same time.

We are looking to launch the first version of the new game in May or June and continue developing it based on user feedback and metrics. At the same time, we're continuing to support the original Drag Racing game. This includes getting the iOS version fully in sync with the Android build, and launching a Windows Phone 8 port in the coming months.

In addition, we are developing an Android-exclusive spin-off focused on trucks and SUVs, as well as a number of titles not related to the Drag Racing franchise.
Thanks to Vladimir for his time.

With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.