Interview

How DomiNations kept going for three years and made $150 million in the process

How DomiNations kept going for three years and made $150 million in the process

It’s been a wild journey for US developer Big Huge Games (BHG).

By the time of strategy title DomiNations’ release in April 2015 the company has been through five different incarnations since it debuted with PC title Rise of Nations in 2003.

During that time the company was snapped up by THQ before then being acquired by 38 Studios. That is before it went infamously bust. It did, though, result in the formation of the Epic-owned Impossible Studios, before that also shut in 2013.

Following on fortunes happily turned and Big Huge Games brought its name back before being snapped up by Korea-based games publisher Nexon in 2016. All thanks to the success of DomiNations.

After recently hitting its third birthday, the strategy title has driven past the $150 million mark in lifetime revenues. It has also managed to pull in over 37 million in downloads during the same period.

We caught up with Big Huge Games’ CEO Tim Train to chat about how DomiNations has adapted and changed to suit the market over the past three years.

PocketGamer.biz: The game recently achieved double-digit growth in revenue in Q1 year-over-year. What do you put that down to?

We’ve done a lot of work to improve our live operations over the last 18 months.

“Live Ops” is shorthand for everything that keeps the game feeling fresh, even after three years of constant play, and gives players new things to enjoy on a daily basis.

As we’ve gotten better at learning what players enjoy from Live Ops, we are able to invest even more in creating the right kind of experiences.
Tim Train

As we’ve gotten better at learning what players enjoy from Live Ops, we have been able to invest even more in creating the right kind of experiences.

All this is the result of a lot of hard work from our Product team, particularly Game GM Brian DeSanti, long-time BHG lead product manager Jen Airoldi and live ops specialist Sean Antia, who have all done a great job continuing to grow the game long past when other titles have entered maintenance mode.

Is continuing growth three years in for a game like this down to finding new players, better engaging your existing user base, or both?

Our growth has come both from new players and our existing user base.

In some ways, DomiNations’ most distinctive metric is the very high percentage of “organic” installs, new players who found the game on their own, without having tapped on an advertisement.

Of course, we believe that is driven primarily by word-of-mouth from current players who love the game and tell their friends about it, but it also is reflective of the unique gameplay.

There just aren’t a lot of fun games on the market now that allow you to play through all the Ages of human history. The other notable metric is our high retention, which measures how long someone plays the game.

Since launch, we’ve been able to keep quite a lot of players around for the entire three years of the title (even more, for some players in the Philippines and Australia who were part of our beta).

We take a lot of inspiration from Nexon’s other long-lived titles, like Maple Story and Dungeon & Fighter.
Tim Train

In what ways have you had to adapt and change to industry trends?

Our main takeaway from recent industry trends has been: “Wow, people may very well be excited to play this game for 10, 15, maybe 20 years.”

We take a lot of inspiration from Nexon’s other long-lived titles, like Maple Story and Dungeon & Fighter, and aspire to continue growing the game for many years as those teams have done.

That’s also an interesting design challenge, particularly for a game about advancing through all the ages of human history.

We’ve been excited to map out all the ways we can incorporate new gameplay elements drawn from history. Even if it takes twenty more years to complete the story J.

What does live operations mean in 2018? How regular are your updates and how radical are they?

We aim to have a new app update every eight weeks, or thereabouts. Those updates often contain big new gameplay systems, like the just-released Museum that will allow people to collect artefacts from every era and region of human history.

We also address player issues or suggestions with those releases, so we’re always looking for “quality of life” improvements that are less dramatic but make the game more fun.

True “Live Ops” happens on a faster cadence than that, often with new events or other happenings occurring several times a week.

The goal is for you to see something new almost every day you log in. We also run longer-term events like “Summer for the Ages,” starting July 1st, where we do rolling discounts and crown sales from the Classical Age to the Cold War Age, spread out over a couple of months.

We’ve definitely gotten better at knowing how hard to make specific events
Tim Train

The discounts help players catch up on all the upgrades available in each Age, and this has become a very popular event.

Have you changed the way you approach live ops? Such as with events, for example?

I’d characterise it as having gotten better at live ops, which involves a change of course but it is mostly just improving our pipeline in response to game data and player feedback.

We’ve definitely gotten better at knowing how hard to make specific events, so they are achievable but difficult, so you feel a real sense of accomplishment when you finally unlock the B-17 Hangar or something similarly cool.

How big is the team currently handling live ops on DomiNations?

We’ve got roughly 45 people working on all aspects of the game at any given time including Live Ops, plus a big load of summer interns at the moment.

We’re always on the lookout for the next generation of entry-level talent at Big Huge and our internship program helps identify promising candidates for those roles as they open up.

We also believe in creating an inclusive culture that is representative of our diverse player base, and our intern program helps us to be sure we are drawing new employees from a broad candidate pool as well.

How different is the game today than when you first launched?

Oh wow. When you actually consider the scope of new features in the game, it’s quite the long list.

When we launched, you could only advance up through the Enlightenment Age, which is the era of the American Revolution, Napoleon, and the US Civil War. No aeroplanes, tanks, helicopters, missile silos, or more recent Wonders of the World!

We’ve added the Industrial Age (World War One), Global Age (World War Two), Atomic Age (Korean War/1950s), and the Cold War Age (Vietnam/1960s).

The best thing about historical subject matter is that you never run out of content.
Tim Train

We’ve added dozens of new fun features for the game, including the University & Great Leaders, World War, Expeditions, Mystery Chests, Alliance Levels & Perks, War Replays, the Stronghold & Troop Tactics, the Storehouse, the Korean nation, the Museum, the Embassy and National Trade Goods. The list just keeps going on.

It will be fun to see how much has changed when we look back from the ten-year anniversary. I can’t imagine how much we will have added to the list.

What's next for DomiNations in 2018 and beyond?

I’ve spent much of my career working on games set in world history, going back to the original Civilization.

The best thing about a historical subject matter is that you never run out of content. Human history offers an endlessly rich tapestry of events, characters and themes to draw on.

We will continue to tell the story of humanity as long as players want to continue building their bases and advancing through the Ages.

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Staff Writer

Iain is a freelance writer based in Scotland with a penchant for indies and all things Nintendo. Alongside PocketGamer.Biz, he has also appeared in Kotaku, Rock Paper Shotgun, PCGamesN and VG24/7.

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