Milutinovic hinted on stage that we'd see a glimpse of the new project this year, and it was already common knowledge that the Top Eleven follow-up wouldn't be a sports game, but what's been going on behind the scenes to get to this point?
Well, it seems one thing that has never been in short supply at Nordeus is ideas. The difficulty, then, has been deciding which to run with.
“We've basically built around 40 prototypes in the previous years,” Milutinovic tells PocketGamer.biz.
“An idea is a great thing, but it's really about the team and the capability to develop that great idea.”
Mother of invention
Having already developed a management game featuring the most popular sport in the world, what Milutinovic refers to as “adjacent titles” were immediately ruled out; the audience for another sports management title would be smaller, and the Top Eleven update cycle makes a sequel unnecessary.
This was a double-edged sword, as it encouraged creativity at the studio but - other than 'not a sports game' - left the team without a clear brief.
No one is ever fired - or even criticised too much - for failing.Branko Milutinovic
“It was complete chaos - total, 100% chaos,” recalls Milutinovic.
“Then we looked at what we'd got and tried to rein in that chaos.”
He recalls that Nordeus “learnt a lot” from the process, and that a core principle behind the prototyping process is to allow staff to work creatively without fearing failure.
“No one is ever fired, or even criticised too much for failing,” he explains.
“When you're doing things for the first time, it's very hard to expect you'll do them perfectly.”
Rather, the problems begin when “there is a cliff, you're driving towards the cliff, and you continue.” Having to put the brakes on isn't a problem, so long as you are aware when to do so.
Milutinovic is now confident that his team, which he describes as “significantly more capable than a few years ago,” has good instincts in this regard.
“We rely first on the gut feel of the team,” he asserts. “After that, we test externally. We also do market research.”
And so, while Milutinovic is refreshingly blunt about his company's naivety in certain areas, he makes it clear that Nordeus is all too aware of the bigger picture.
“We [scrapped games based on] some results that weren't really bad, but didn't fit our ambitions,” he reveals. “We think long-term. I would like us to be a big company ten years from now.”
It wants to get there on its own terms, too, which gives Milutinovic the freedom to be honest. The only people he cares about, he tells us, are his staff and his players.
We think long-term. I would like us to be a big company ten years from now.Branko Milutinovic
“I understand that sometimes companies want to oversell, [but] we never raised any money and we don't plan to ever,” he says, meaning that Nordeus is not in the business of courting investors.
“It's part of our culture,” he goes on. “I think it's valuable that we're self-aware. If you're cocky and you're not good, you're going to fall hard - and that's bad in any business.”
Top Eleven boasts both extraordinary appeal - one of Milutinovic's proudest moments was recording a paying player in every country in the world - and strong revenue.
But for the next game, and Nordeus going forward, which is the biggest priority?
“It's not football, so the market is less predictable, but we're definitely looking for the appeal more,” he says. “We want to make our users engaged, excited.”
“We look at retention first… monetisation should be there, but it's not how we design products [first and foremost].”
“We're more Supercell than Machine Zone,” he sums up pithily.
It's a strategy that's served Nordeus well, at least when it comes to Top Eleven, which originated on Facebook in 2010 and came to mobile in 2011. Fresh off the back of a chunky 2016 update in February, it's showing no signs of slowing down.
We look at retention first… monetisation should be there, but it's not how we design products.
“If things go like they're going, Top Eleven will be the first mobile hit going 10 years,” reveals Milutinovic.
The key to replicating this long-term success with future titles, without relying on the Top Eleven name or the sports theme, is to grasp the essence of the game's staying power.
In Top Eleven, the player is responsible for transfers and tactics, but has little control over the matches themselves. In fact, due to the scheduling of matches at real-world times, overseeing the action is often impossible.
Is this focus on the meta-game, rather than traditional mechanics of which players can get bored, part of the reason that Top Eleven players have stuck with it so long?
Milutinovic certainly thinks so: “If you look back at the games that have kept going for the longest, they're always like this,” he considers.
“It's something we're going to play heavily on in future titles.”
Watch this space
Hard details as to Nordeus' next game remain scanty, then, but it's certainly revealing to hear Milutinovic talk so candidly about the creative culture at the studio and the kind of success it strives towards.
He evidently has a great deal of pride for the number players Top Eleven continues to reach, and that's the benchmark for success around which the follow-up has been developed.
Emerging from years of experimentation and tens of scrapped prototypes, there's a lot of pressure on whatever Nordeus' next game turns out to be.
But even if it should fail, there will be no stern words from Milutinovic - and plenty of life left in Top Eleven, too.