Interview

Live and Kicking: How Plague Inc. took over the world

Live and Kicking: How Plague Inc. took over the world

It is often said that nothing is truly finished and it's a saying the games industry has taken to heart in recent times.

Long gone are the days of developing and publishing a game without the need to tweak, adjust and patch it after launch, with new titles requiring constant operation and updates to keep them at the forefront of consumer thought.

Here at PocketGamer.biz we want to take the opportunity to highlight games that have bucked the trend and found an audience that has kept them thriving long after launch.

In this entry of our Live and Kicking series, we spoke to Ndemic Creations founder and CEO James Vaughan about the eight-year life span of real-time strategy simulator Plague Inc. and how 2020 has unexpectedly seen the game go global like never before. 

PocketGamer.biz: With Plague Inc. now more than eight years old, how do you reflect on its performance as a series - from launch to the mature title it is now?

James Vaughan: It's been a crazy, unbelievable journey that I never expected and has completely changed my life. Plague Inc. is one of the biggest paid mobile games ever with over 130 million players, but it's easy to forget that I made Plague Inc. as a hobby in my spare time and I'd never worked in the games industry or even made a game before.

Plague Inc. started its life with immediate, explosive growth - it was a silent launch that jumped to the top of the charts purely through word of mouth. Since then, the game has steadily grown thanks to updates, widespread localisation and expansion onto other platforms (the PC version is particularly important).

The game is now comfortably diversified with iOS, Android and Steam all contributing broadly similar amounts of revenue - topped up by sales of board games, console versions, and other merchandise. Until Plague Inc.'s recent issues with the Chinese authorities, over half of our revenue came from non-English speaking countries, with China being our second-largest market.

All the big players are focused in the free-to-play ocean next door but there is more than enough space for us to carve and maintain a very pleasant niche.
James Vaughan

One thing I've found very interesting is the power of cross-promotion with Plague Inc. and other titles. When we released our newest game Rebel Inc. we were able to utilise Plague Inc. to drive millions of players to the new title.

We have also used placement in Plague Inc. to ensure significant sales of the board game version. While I expect the power of cross-promotion to reduce over time, at the moment, it's an enormously potent way to drive attention to high-quality premium games that might otherwise struggle to get noticed.

Going back to the original question, Plague Inc. is a big fish in the tiny pond of premium games. All the big players are focused in the free-to-play ocean next door but there is more than enough space for us to carve and maintain a very pleasant niche.

How big is the team currently handling live ops?

We don't have a specific live ops team. There are eight of us in the company and we tend to move around between projects as required. Everyone is familiar with both Plague and Rebel, so this helps keep things slightly fresher.

How important do you consider customer support and updates to be? What has been your approach to this?

Updates and customer support are immensely important and one of the main reasons why Plague Inc. is as big as it is.

Back in 2012, games as a service weren't recognised as being as vital as it is today, with our regular, significant game updates having had immediate, observable impacts on the game's performance. It rewards loyal players with extra content and gives us new ways to engage with people, such as through the Fake News update released around the UK elections in 2019.

We also focus heavily on customer support and aim to respond to everyone who gets in touch with us on any platform – especially in the early days, this was a key driver of word-of-mouth marketing.

What steps have you taken to ensure that Plague Inc. maintains a sizeable and active player base all this time after its launch?

Regular, high-quality content updates and support for player mods in the form of "custom scenarios" help give players a reason to come back and play the game again.

We don't expect to consume all of a player's time. The game isn't structured that way. People can enjoy the content, do something else and come back in the future to see what has changed.

The game also benefits from educating players on serious topics by accident. If people want an accessible simulation of disease spreading (or fake news), then Plague Inc. is a powerful way for them to learn through play. I'm immensely proud of how the game is positioned as an intelligent game that encourages players to think about serious issues (even before Covid-19).

To what do you attribute Plague Inc. consistently impressive grossing performance, and how do you sustain it?

Plague Inc. dominates a niche for high quality, intelligent, and accessible strategy games without free to play constraints.

The initial spark happened by chance. It turned out that the game I wanted to make resonated with a huge number of players and luck plays a huge part in its continuing success. We do what we can to help sustain it through updates, localisation and diversification.

Can you tell us about the success the game has found under the pandemic? When did you begin to notice a player increase?

Whenever there is a significant outbreak of disease, we see increased interest in Plague Inc. and we have to deal with the complex feelings of seeing our game getting attention as a result of real human suffering in the world.

We first saw a large spike of players in China from mid-January and then saw interest spread around the world as global attention increased. We wanted to find a way to help, so we were one of the first companies to donate to the Coalition of Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the World Health Organisation's Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund.

How have you pivoted the game (if at all) throughout the pandemic?

The game was designed to show serious issues sensitively without sensationalising it, so we haven't needed to make any changes to it. Due to requests from multiple charities and international organisations, we are currently working on a new game mode which lets players work to save the world from a deadly disease outbreak.

We have to deal with the complex feelings of seeing our game getting attention as a result of real human suffering in the world.
James Vaughan

Any interesting stories that have come about because of the surge in traffic?

Something I am really proud of is how Plague Inc. can help people understand and come to terms with Covid-19. It's such a complex and scary issue and the game can help people learn about what It all means in a safe/controllable space.

So many people have got in touch to share their stories and experiences, and I'm pleased that my game has been able to help them a bit. We have also had a lot of real-world disease experts, doctors, and scientists get in touch to offer thoughts as well as help on the new game update, which has been great.

What would you consider Plague Inc.'s biggest achievement in its eight-year lifespan?

Still being relevant eight years later. A game that launched in 2012 was incredibly lucky to get to the top of the charts for a single week, and Plague Inc. has somehow managed it for eight years now!

Any KPIs such as downloads, DAU or retention you’re willing to share?

Plague Inc. has over 130 million players.

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

The biggest lesson was how important it is to double down and keep working when you get a successful title. Many times, over the years, I've been tempted to start work on a new game but I forced myself to keep focusing on Plague, knowing that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Eventually, I was able to start work on Rebel but only after Plague had a solid foundation of years and years of updates. Other lessons are the importance of running games as a service and also the power of user-generated content. Plague's custom scenarios are enormously popular and help keep the game fresh and engaging.

There's nothing I would change about the game, yet if I'd known how long Plague Inc. would be successful for, I would have grown the company faster initially. I kept on expecting the game to vanish from the charts and made financial plans accordingly.

Finally, how has your experience with Plague Inc. informed where you are/what you're working on now?

At its simplest, Plague Inc. meant I could build a career in video games. The success of both Plague Inc. and Rebel Inc. shows that there is a significant niche for these types of games and that people are prepared to pay for them.

Currently, we are focused on updates for both and getting Rebel Inc: Escalation out of Early Access. After that, we will see. Plague Inc. has given me the luxury of being able to focus on making games that I want to play. Hopefully, there will be enough other people out there who feel the same way I do.


Staff Writer

Matthew Forde is the staff writer for PocketGamer.biz and also a member of the Pocket Gamer Podcast. You can find him on Twitter @Forde999 talking about Smash Bros. and everything pop culture related - particularly superheroes.

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