It's often said in the world of free-to-play development that launching a game is the beginning, not the end.
These aren't boxed products released onto shop shelves, never to be worked on again. These are games-as-a-service that require constant operation and updating, often over a period of several years.
PocketGamer.biz has long been investigating the Making Of notable games soon after their launch, but what happens long after a game is released?
In an attempt to find out, this regular feature will talk to the developers behind maturing live games about their experience so far. You can read all previous entries here.
In this entry, we speak to Space Ape COO Simon Hade about build and battler Rival Kingdoms, originally launched in May 2015. Despite its age, the game's revenue has been on the up for six consecutive months.
PocketGamer.biz: With Rival Kingdoms now one and a half years old, how do you reflect on its performance - from launch to the mature title it is now?
Simon Hade: Rival Kingdoms is incredibly significant for our business. Our first game, Samurai Siege, made us profitable, but it was Rival Kingdoms that built our foundation as a developer and publisher and really put us on the map.
It also, just on its own, funds our entire 100 person studio, so it is important to us and we continue to invest in it.
In the launch phase of Rival Kingdoms, the most interesting achievement was how we were able to activate the core player community.
Through a combination of influencer outreach and old-school customer service, we generated tremendous buzz.Simon Hade
Through a combination of influencer outreach and old-school customer service, we were able to generate tremendous buzz in the build-up to launch. When we received Editor’s Choice, that recognition amplified our community momentum even more.
The result: hundreds of YouTube Let’s plays including videos from nine of the 10 biggest channels in the category, we were trending on Twitch and received more activity on social media than all other strategy games combined - excluding Clash of Clans - for a couple of weeks.
That was hugely important for attracting many millions of installs in the first few weeks.
We attribute around 20% of our installs during this period to community marketing efforts, and those users accounted for around 45% of the revenue over the lifetime of the game.
In the growth phase, we came to realise that audience for this game - whom we had so perfectly addressed - was relatively small. This really showed in the performance marketing stats.
During the first four to six weeks, we spent $4m across a variety of channels including TV and found the more we spent, the more expensive it became on a per user basis.
This wasn’t fatal since the game was generating $12-15 LTV’s and we were able to track and optimise spending very well, but it became clear that we had massively underestimated how niche the theme was.
We loved the art style and the world that we had created, and players did too. There just weren’t enough of those players and a lot of competition for their attention that meant we couldn’t scale marketing spend profitably.
So after three months, we stopped marketing spend and focused entirely on community engagement that had worked so well for us at launch.
For the past 12 months - the maturity phase - we’ve really focused on keeping the game interesting and evolving for our core fans.
This means we put out new content every week and really curate the events to keep the game interesting.
We really curate the events to keep the game interesting.Simon Hade
We’ve added a lot of depth to the economy, and introduced features such as crafting and greater variety of social competition.
We run weekly live streams where the community engages directly with the developers and we take a lot of feedback from our players and put it right back into the game the soon after.
During the launch of Transformers: Earth Wars, we saw a decline in the revenue of the game as some of the more engaged players moving across to the new game.
But other than that, Rival Kingdoms has grown in revenue and maintained its DAU for six months now and we expect that to continue, in the same way our first game Samurai Siege has sustained revenues for nearly 18 months despite being a three-year-old game.
That is quite rare in free-to-play games, which more often follow a shark-fin-like trajectory. We see this in our games because they are so community-focused.
Players come for the game, but will play year in and year out for the community, and all of our efforts go towards giving that community new and interesting things to talk about and organise for.
How big is the team currently handling live ops on Rival Kingdoms?
The Rival Kingdoms team is currently 10 people. We have two designers, a product manager, live ops manager, VIP manager, CS & Community lead, two QA people and two developers.
The Rival Kingdoms team is currently 10 people.Simon Hade
We are not completely dev free on Rival Kingdoms yet. However, those developers are focused on long range features and are not involved in day to day live ops.
In contrast, Samurai Siege has no developers - just four live ops people. Transformers has around 20.
How important do you consider customer support and updates to be? What has been your approach to this?
App updates are not important per se, at least in the sense of major new features.
We do make occasional updates but these are focussed on introducing long-term tools, or content and event frameworks into the game.
However, that is not to say that the game doesn’t feel alive. The tools we have for the live ops team allow them to make many far-reaching changes touching almost every aspect of the game.
The live ops team is always introducing new Ancients, running new types of events, introducing new storylines, all of which feel fresh and new to players but which do not require updates in the sense of having to download a new build of the game.
Since we make so many changes all the time, customer support is very important.
Sometimes the amount and rate of change to the game can be quite overwhelming, so our support and VIP teams spend a lot of time talking with players, consulting with them on changes and making sure we’re striking the right balance.
Players of Rival Kingdoms expect the game to be in a constant state of change.Simon Hade
We think of customer service, especially our VIP service, as a two-way street. It’s not just about helping players with issues, it’s about giving them a direct line to the developers to help shape the direction of the game.
That is so important for live ops.
How have significant updates been responded to by players?
Players of Rival Kingdoms expect the game to be in a constant state of change. On the one hand, this is challenging because it is gruelling on the team to keep pace with players’ expectations.
On the other, it means we gauge the community’s reaction to changes in real-time and respond immediately. When we run very competitive hardcore events, we’ll have some players say we’re asking them to push too hard, and others will love it.
When we run light, non-competitive events, casual players applaud us but the competitive players say they are boring.
It’s impossible to get a good read from the reaction to any one change. However, over a longer period of time, it is possible to see in the stats.
A critical stat we track closely is month on month retention of players who pass a certain point in the game.
Once you are in a Kingdom and have passed Stronghold level eight, then it’s pretty clear you like the game. If you then churn, that is on us for not keeping the game interesting.
Our month-on-month retention for these core players who make up the bulk of our DAU and revenue is over 98%, but that stat is not a given.
If we have a bad run of events, then it drops and players who leave at that stage rarely come back.
However, over the years we’ve found the right cadence of events and content to keep those core players who we depend on engaged and that is a sign of a game that will last for years.
What steps have you taken to ensure that Rival Kingdoms maintains a sizeable and active player base long after its launch?
Usually we’ll see around 2,000 people start playing the game for the first time every day.
Usually we’ll see around 2,000 people start playing the game for the first time every day.Simon Hade
Most of these come from word of mouth referrals from core players of the game who make new friends in other games and bring them over.
Occasionally, the game will be featured and that number can go to 10,000 or 20,000, but we don’t spend any money marketing the game or do much overtly to attract new players.
100% of our efforts on the game are about retaining core players by keeping the game interesting via live ops, and that has resulted in a stable DAU for around six months.
Any KPIs such as downloads, DAU or retention you’re willing to share?
You’ve probably already heard that we’ve made $28m in revenue to date, and that 6.5 million people have played the game.
As I mentioned, we see 98% month-on-month retention of “core” players, meaning those who have passed Stronghold level eight, and we are exceedingly proud of that, but that's all I can say about numbers at this time.
What lessons have you/are you still learning from Rival Kingdoms? Is there anything about the game that, in hindsight, you'd now handle differently?
The biggest lesson was that theme choice and art style really matters.
With the market testing methodology we use today (which admittedly was not available to us at the time), we know Samurai Siege is five times more marketable when you look at click-through and conversion stats, so perhaps Rival Kingdoms would have been much bigger if we’d chosen a more accessible theme.
That’s not to say we make decisions by the numbers, just that we make these stylistic decisions with our eyes wide open now.
The other big lesson was how to run live ops with a gacha economy. Rival Kingdoms was our first attempt at a gacha business model, and we made some decisions in the system design that limited its application.
For example: players tend to find one or two Ancients that they really love and focus on those.
When they do that, the value of the other ancients in the gacha system are diminished and there is less reason to chase them in events.
By contrast, in Transformers: Earth Wars, having more robots (the equivalent of Ancients in Rival Kingdoms) is strictly better because you can fill out more squads which makes you able to play more. So the gacha systems are much stronger.
At this stage in Rival Kingdoms’ life, it is impossible to port these learnings back into the game because people are so used to how things work, but if I had the time over again, I’d design the gacha systems differently to have a more functional collection drive.
Finally, how has your experience with Rival Kingdoms informed where you are/what you're working on now?
Rival Kingdoms has been foundational for everything we’ve done since.
Rival Kingdoms has been foundational for everything we’ve done since.Simon Hade
Obviously it was the basis for Transformers: Earth Wars which has been hugely successful for us, but in addition, most of the backend systems that power matchmaking, chat, the events tools - most of the game code in fact - was designed with re-use in mind.
So, even though we are now working on games that seem very far removed from the build-and-battle genre, a lot of tech under the hood, especially when we are doing competitive or community gameplay, is straight out of Rival Kingdoms.
But perhaps the biggest influence Rival Kingdoms has had is to inspire us to explore genres outside of build-and-battle.
Rival Kingdoms is objectively one of the best, some would argue the best, game in the genre.
It got the best possible start in life with Editors’ Choice, massive community buzz, about as close to a five star review average as you can get, a very robust economy and it looks and plays amazingly.
Yet, it makes in a year the kind of money that Clash of Clans makes in a week. So what the Rival Kingdoms experience taught us above all else is that the mobile gaming ecosystem in its current form is a winner takes all market.
You can make a nice profitable business (as we do), enough to finance a large studio in London by executing well within established genres if you play your cards right.
But to really make it, you need to define new genres or play patterns, and then defend that with a brand that you make synonymous with that play pattern in the way Clash is synonymous with real time strategy, or King is synonymous with switchers, or Miniclip is to pool.
By the time we realised this, we’d already committed to the Transformers game.
I’m glad we pushed ahead and launched it as it has opened a lot of doors, and now makes us the definitive number two developer in this genre after Supercell, but the next games you will see from us will look radically different.
We are identifying genres that appeal to the same kinds of people who play build-and-battle.Simon Hade
That is not to say we are abandoning all the experience we have gained making build-and-battle games.
Rather, we are building out from our core. We are identifying genres that appeal to the same kinds of people who play build-and-battle, but offering experiences they would describe as fresh and interesting.
The games will have broad appeal, and therefore be marketable (learning from our theme choice misstep with Rival Kingdoms), but will have the kind of deep meta systems or competitive community gameplay that we have perfected in the existing games.
These are the kinds of chances that we could not afford to take prior to Rival Kingdoms.
But with a foundation of profitability, a network of over 30 million people who’ve played our games and a lot of tech, we’re now in a good place to make the game that people will look back in 10 years time and describe as groundbreaking.
Finally, because of our focus on live ops, we’re able to operate all three of our live games very efficiently with fewer than 30 people, freeing up the remainder of our 100 person studio to be working on exciting new things and still be profitable, which is a good place to be.