Interview

Five years on: InnoGames on the evolution of Forge of Empires

Five years on: InnoGames on the evolution of Forge of Empires

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 discuss city-building strategy game Forge of Empires with InnoGames Senior Product Manager Stefan Walter.

Forge of Empires launched first on browser in 2012, before coming to mobile in 2014. This interview was conducted at InnoGames' Hamburg headquarters as part of the company's 10th anniversary celebrations.

With Forge of Empires now more than two years old, how do you reflect on its performance from launch to the mature title it is now?

Stefan Walter: It was a different experience. Launching on browser in 2012 with not a small scope, but a rather small scope, five years later more than 50% of our players are now on mobile.

We also had to catch up with all the features, because our initial release on iOS was 2014. We needed to catch up on mobile, while keeping up development on browser.

We have players that have stayed with us for more than three, four, five years.
Stefan Walter

Since we are delivering one version that can be played across all the devices, and not having different versions, this was rather tough.

And then adding Android, and Amazon now, we are so widely spread. This of course comes with a lot of benefits, but also a lot of challenges on the technical side.

We still have 100,000+ players at the very end of the game, and since you need a couple of years to achieve that - or spend a couple of thousand euros, which most people won't do - we do see that we have players that have stayed with us for more than three, four, five years.

It's really cool that those players are still with us and that we've managed to entertain them for such a long period of time.

How have you done that?

A big part of it is listening to players, and being open to information that comes from all sides.

We have a very good presence on Facebook, so we try to entertain players and deliver fresh information on a monthly basis.

Additionally, we have so many community managers out there, people actually helping us to bring in the information from the community - what's wanted, maybe even what's broken.

So listening to them is one key factor, but also having a vision in place within the boundaries we have - being realistic, having a strategy.

Also, everyone on our team is a player, which really helps with the creative process.

How different is the game now?

Kind of a lot, and kind of not a lot.

We try and keep our core as it is, because we still have those players who have followed us for so long. You can't implement something which totally breaks their experience.

In 2016, our mission was to have something new every week going on.
Stefan Walter

It's challenging to find the right balance of what is the core that we want to keep, and what are the things that we want to change in order to make it more state-of-the-art from a technical side and for new users.

What has been your approach to content updates?

We have a really detailed strategy on that, especially since we are now up-to-speed on mobile as well as browser.

The first priority was that we needed to catch up to deliver the same content, and since we did that in 2015, in 2016 we thought, 'what's next for us?'

In 2016, our mission was to have something new every week going on. We achieved that, but we didn't want to burn out the users.

It's so intensive to play all this content, and we could potentially do even more, but we need to find the balance.

What impact has this had on KPIs?

The last year was kind of a success story for us - we had an almost 50% increase in revenue for Forge of Empires.

Of course, this came also based on the very good marketing we did in 2016, getting a lot of highly engaged and motivated players through the marketing channels.

So traffic input itself was great, but we can also see it in numbers like session lengths, how often players come back, how long they play and how much they spend.

We can definitely see this was the right choice for us.

How do you ensure that all updates meet internal standards?

Luckily, we don't often have to kick features already in-game. But while developing, if the feedback isn't good, we're able to push it back two steps and explain to upper management that we cannot deliver.

We should take care of quality, because we want to ship games for players.
Stefan Walter

That's the beauty with InnoGames, and Hendrik the CEO is fully on that. We should take care of quality, because we want to ship games for players.

So if we are not confident on quality, how can we expect players to be?

Still going strong at five years, can Forge of Empires be the next Tribal Wars?

14 years? That's quite a benchmark.

That's a goal for us. We say that although we're in the fifth year, we can still grow in the next year and potentially the year after - and then it's already seven years.

So 14 years? We totally see that Forge of Empires will be there.

How big is the team currently handling live ops on Forge of Empires?

It's 40 people right now. It was a little bit bigger last year, but we managed not to decrease in speed by optimising all the processes.

We not only question the game, we also question the process quite often, and rearrange where we do see a need. From 2016 to 2017 we changed the structure to support our roadmap.

It's the biggest individual game team at InnoGames.

What lessons have you learned/are you still learning from Forge of Empires? Is there anything about the game that, in hindsight, you'd now handle differently?

It's hard, since there are not too many things where we would say 'man, this was crap!'

I don't want to say we made things perfect, because that's not something that anyone would say, but I can't see a huge issue that we should have tackled differently.

I guess that's based on the fact that we had so much input from so many people in different fields, and we're hopefully always aware of problems we should take care of.


Features Editor

Matt is really bad at playing games, but hopefully a little better at writing about them. He's Features Editor for PocketGamer.biz, and has also written for lesser publications such as IGN, VICE, and Paste Magazine.

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electric rainbows Job Title
Thank you to the Forge of Empires team for making improvements with regard to some of the issues associated with the Guild vs Guild aspect of the game. It's a wonderful game, long may the game and the company have success.
electric rainbows Job Title
There is much untruth in this article in relation to those whom have been playing the game along time and having their issues heard. To demonstrate, our feelings on this, let me post a letter that we have sent to innogames support (in order to have our issues heard). Currently, this message is being sent by numerous players. Previously we have done similar and got no resolution to our issues. It would be high time Forge of Empires makes what has been stated on this post a reality.

To the Developers of Forge of Empires

We write once again to express our disdain at the lack of consideration that is shown toward fixing the crippling issues that prevail within the Guild vs Guild aspect of this game. Many of these issues have been reported several times, through multiple mediums, over the last three to four years, but no fix has yet been proposed. These issues are ever increasing and worsening with time and it is now near impossible to take any fluid action on these maps.

Guild vs Guild is an important aspect of the game to many of us, for some it is the only reason we play. The Guild vs Guild issues have seen the end of many good, longstanding players in the past. No amount of “events” or “guild expeditions” will be able to replace this aspect of the game for the avid GvGer. No doubt, if Guild vs Guild is taken from the equation completely, many more will leave. It is no longer acceptable to us, to have to play a game under such horrendous and frustrating conditions, indefinitely. We’ve been waiting patiently for three to four years and this in and of itself is an unacceptable period of time.

Thus, we urge you to make it a priority to fix some of the most crippling issues that are preventing a fluid and fair game on Guild vs Guild. In your consideration of this issue, we refer to you a statement made by Stefan Walter in July 2017 article of Pocket Gamer .biz.

“A big part of it is listening to players, and being open to information that comes from all sides ... We try and keep our core as it is, because we still have those players who have followed us for so long. You can't implement something which totally breaks their experience.”

It should be noted: We do not feel listened to regarding this issue, we have never felt listened to, and you are totally breaking the experience of loyal and longstanding players. We urge you to take notice and fix the game we love.

All of the issues below are experienced throughout every calculation for the majority of players. The issues are consistently present and make the game unplayable for many. Particularly in the first 10 to 20 mins of the game. Of late, the issues now continue even during the supposed quieter times, which was not previously characteristic.
1. When there is more than one siege active at the same time, opening any other sector will see a copy of the other sector under siege, thus one cannot access the targeted sector. To explain further, one will see the siege army, defences and sector details for the other sector. This means one cannot lay a siege on any other sector, place a defence or kill a siege on the sector targeted. The only fix for this is to wait for the siege on the other sector to end or reload the maps. Reloading the maps doesn’t always fix the issue though.
2. Another copying issue, it often appears like there are two sieges on the sector (visual double set of siege swords that hover over the sector).
3. Clicking on the icon to place siege doesn’t function at times, thus one cannot place a siege.
4. Clicking to open sector doesn’t function at times – requires several clicks, sometimes having to wait for the siege to end, or a total reload of the maps. This prevents one doing any action at all, be it to fight, siege or place a defence.
5. Clicking on a sector to place siege or defence can crash the game completely, meaning at times there is several reloads during one period of calculation.
6. When fighting on “autobattle”, the results screen does not appear, sometimes the fight that one completed does not log. At times, several battles can be done without a results screen and then several results screens, or several “conflict issue” pop ups appear later, one after the other. Sometimes it appears as if more screens appear than actions were completed. This is hindering any further action until the screens stop appearing, sectors can be lost in this time that could have otherwise been prevented.
7. When fighting the selected army does not remain in the troop panel, rather it goes blank and one has to re-select troops to fight/defend. There are times when it takes 3 to 4 attempts to select 8 troops for battle. Further, one may enter a battle with 8 troops in the panel, but the results window will show troops missing after the battle is complete. Oftentimes troops are being unnecessarily and unfairly lost due to the system not registering the troops selected by the player. Thus, the battle goes on with 5 or 6 rogues and no deciding troop.
8. Defence Issue, even outside of the usual busy periods. When one places a defence in a sector, you take down the troops already in place, in order to put up troops for the defence. After placing the defence, the old troops reappear instead of a clean panel. A bit of a nuisance when you are trying to place several defences, since you have to continue to take them down again each time. Manual fix for this is take the troops down, close the sector and reopen, then you can work away as normal (this is not acceptable to have to do this – but it is stated in case that helps you diagnose the issues going on here).
9. The map freezes, like it’s stuck in time, it doesn’t update. Thus, one can watch a map and think there are no actions, despite the fact that a siege is ongoing. Again a reload is the only manual fix for this.
10. Lag is consistent throughout every calculation period and onwards, it creates a sharp jittery freeze that stagnates the game, makes actions sluggish and slow or causes excessively long loading issues between actions.
11. HQs disappear – even though they have not been moved.