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.
That leads us to our semi-regular Live and Kicking series, where this week we spoke to Fingersoft director of business development Daniel Rantala surrounding the five year anniversary of Hill Climb Racing 2.
PocketGamer.biz: With Hill Climb Racing 2 now more than five-year-olds, how do you reflect on its performance as a series – from launch to the title it is now?
Daniel Rantala: First of all, I’d like to highlight that developing and releasing Hill Climb Racing 2 was a substantial effort, as the game’s prequel - Hill Climb Racing - had already developed a user base of hundreds of millions of players. Therefore, the development team had increased pressure to deliver a game that would carry the core elements of the original Hill Climb Racing, but could still provide improved player experiences and introduce new elements.
The launch of Hill Climb Racing 2 exceeded all expectations, and we reached around 20 million installs during the first month the game was out. The community took the game very positively and it was clear we’d done something right.
Looking back now, the Hill Climb Racing 2 we released was quite different from what the game is today. After the launch traction calmed down, the organic traffic stabilised well and it’s remained on the same level ever since then. Daily active users are extremely steady and monetisation KPIs have improved from the launch with new features we’ve implemented, such as Trophy Road, Teams (clans) and live ops events.
Astonishingly, the original Hill Climb Racing is still attracting over 15 million installs organically every month despite being launched already back in 2012 and has reached over one billion installs during its lifetime.
How big is the team currently handling live ops?
Day-to-day live operations of the game are handled as a multi-team collaboration. The whole operation is led by the Hill Climb Racing 2 team lead and live operations manager and supported by our marketing and monetisation teams amounting to about five to seven people in total.
How important do you consider customer support and updates to be? What has been your approach to this?
Customer support is of extreme importance in any game that wants to upkeep certain quality standards. It’s not just a matter of user reviews, but being active towards players and listening to their worries and issues (and fixing them) really keeps the user base healthy - they love to play our game and it’s up to us to keep the experience great. At the end of the day, games are meant to be fun and bring positive feelings to players and for that customer support and community management is a must, I believe.
Astonishingly, the original Hill Climb Racing is still attracting over 15 million installs organically every month despite being launched already back in 2012Daniel Rantala
The same thing applies to updates, really. The mobile game market is so saturated nowadays that if we are unable to deliver new content on frequent cycles, it’s likely that players will move on to new games that can give them that joy of waiting for the next interesting updates. Up this far, we’ve operated with a monthly update cycle, but we might transition to bi-monthly updates so we can polish each update to make sure it’s robust and can fulfil players’ expectations.
What steps have you taken to ensure that Hill Climb Racing 2 maintains a sizable and active player base all this time after its launch?
The Hill Climb Racing IP has reached a considerable recognition value, so organic installs are still driving the majority of new installs in general. Back in 2016/early 2017 when Hill Climb Racing 2 launched, we didn’t really have steady UA operations in place and were just starting to learn how to actually market games.
Now, after some years, we do have sustainable high-volume UA campaigns running constantly so that’s one way to keep the traffic ongoing. Seeing how the original Hill Climb Racing still attracts over 10 million installs organically every month, we are lucky to be in a position where we are able to also use cross-promotion between Hill Climb Racing and Hill Climb Racing 2, keeping both games fresh.
To what do you attribute Hill Climb Racing 2’s consistently impressive grossing performance, and how do you sustain it?
I think we’ve definitely managed to make Hill Climb Racing 2 into a platform/closed ecosystem where each gameplay element relates to the next. The trophy road progression has proven to work wonders as it gives players clear short-term goals and a feeling of completion.
I also want to point out that our team has managed to balance the in-game economy very well and kept it on a level where paying is completely optional. All of the updates we’ve done in the past have contributed to the in-game ecosystem and improved engagement, which in turn gives players the initiative to expedite their progression and unlock new content without grinding. This is very important for us as we want players to first and foremost enjoy the game.
Can you tell us how you have approached the game under the current pandemic? Any changes you have put in place?
The pandemic has affected us in the same way as it’s probably affected most other game developers as well. Transitioning to remote work was not easy, but I think we’ve managed it very well and have focused especially on supporting our employees on various levels - whether it’s technical assets, software, or small surprise coffee deliveries, we’ve tried to keep things positive and have managed well in my opinion.
Of course, it’s taken a toll on the development team since Hill Climb Racing 2 has never had an official producer, but rather the team has made content decisions and roadmaps collectively. Now, you can’t just turn around and chat with your colleagues about big decisions, so the pandemic has at least slowed down the decision-making processes a little bit.
What would you consider Hill Climb Racing 2's biggest achievement since launch?
From the player perspective, the biggest achievement in my opinion is that we’ve managed to make Hill Climb Racing 2 into a “platform” where we are able to constantly introduce new things. I’m not just talking about vehicles or level updates, but rather about new live ops events, game modes, customisation elements (tune parts and skins), and so on.
I know this might sound basic nowadays, but considering that Hill Climb Racing 2 was a static game with only two game modes when it launched, there are so many new things we’ve introduced into the game that are loved by players nowadays.
Secondly, we’ve managed to design and implement features that have systematically improved monetisation during the game’s lifetime. VIP subscription, trophy road, and live ops events are good examples of this: players are very engaged in the game, and are increasingly more willing to pay to improve their gaming experience.
Fingersoft originally had a hybrid model towards developing both fun mobile applications and games and was effectively a one-man company.Daniel Rantala
Any KPIs such as downloads, DAU or retention you’re willing to share?
Hill Climb Racing 2 is pretty much in the industry average for retention benchmarks (D1 40 per cent approx.) and for session data, we’re closer to midcore games than casual. On average, we’re getting around 200 000 new installs per day for Hill Climb Racing 2 on all platforms combined, and DAUs are stable at 1.5 million or so depending on the time frame and store promotions.
As for revenue breakdown, in-app purchases nowadays bring more revenue than advertisements (the difference wasn’t so clear in the beginning). I’d say that Hill Climb Racing 2 is a perfect example of a hybrid game: it started out as a casual game, but with the major updates we’ve done it’s getting closer to the midcore proximity.
Hill Climb Racing became the second Finnish mobile game franchise to surpass one billion downloads after Angry Birds, yet maybe doesn’t have the same recognition as the latter. Why do you think this is?
Rovio had already developed a large portfolio of games before developing Angry Birds, so they were a more mature game studio. As far as I know, when Angry Birds’ success became imminent (2009 to 2010), Rovio’s strategy was to build the IP beyond games and they started to develop sequels, spin-offs, and merchandise by licensing the IP. They entered the growth stage quite fast with a clear vision of growing the game into a worldwide brand.
Fingersoft originally had a hybrid model towards developing both fun mobile applications and games and was effectively a one-man company. Having a diverse set of practical apps that had some millions of active users turned out to be a defining factor for Hill Climb Racing’s success. We released Hill Climb Racing in September 2012 and started cross-promoting the game in all our other applications, eventually reaching millions of installs for the game during its first two months.
Another noteworthy point is that back in 2012, the mobile game market was new and very different compared to today. Games like Angry Birds, Temple Run, and indeed Hill Climb Racing became genre-defining games in a way and were able to grab a share of the market and become iconic.
I would say that the initial launch marketing strategy combined with key timing made the game known to a large player base during a short time frame, and since the game was innovative it went “viral”. The same effect is still happening from time to time for games, but due to the sheer volume of games out there, it’s increasingly more difficult in my experience. You need to have a brilliant launch strategy that you can sustain for longer periods of time.
What lessons have you learned/are you still learning from Hill Climb Racing 2? Is there anything about the game that, in hindsight, you'd now handle differently?
We got over 200,000 concurrent users at launch, which was way beyond our expectationsDaniel Rantala
The very early stages of development were probably the most enlightening. Since we were under pressure to develop a great sequel for the original Hill Climb Racing, we prototyped a lot of stuff that would differentiate Hill Climb Racing 2 from its predecessor. However, we stopped prototyping at too early a stage and ended up in a situation where we were developing a new game without a clear direction towards the end goal.
What we did know was that the ghost-racing game mode was fun, and at the end of the day, it did indeed become the core for Hill Climb Racing 2.
We also underestimated how much traction we would get for Hill Climb Racing 2’s launch. We got over 200,000 concurrent users at launch, which was way beyond our expectations and we hadn’t stress-tested the backends to that scale. As a result, we had backend issues in the first weeks after the launch, which we definitely will look out for in the future.
With four years between the first and second Hill Climb Racing entries, does this mean we might hear some more about a third entry soon?
While I can't comment on any specific time frames - the answer is yes, we are developing a sequel to Hill Climb Racing 2. It's a big internal project that will be developed with the utmost care and expertise to make it into the best Hill Climb Racing this far, please be patient - we'll share more insights on its progress when the time is right!