Recognised by Develop in 2022 with a Rising Star Award we felt it fitting to catch up with Space Ape Games Charmie Kim, a veteran of mobile free to play gaming and the lead on hit music game Beatstar as Develop Brighton is just around the corner. Beatstar has now been played by over 50m people and generated over $120 revenue since launching in September 2021.
In addition we also have Space Ape Games Co-founder Simon Hade sharing comments on the challenges of securing music rights for Beatstar, future plans for the game and a new version of Beatstar with a country music focus.
Pocketgamer.biz: How's your 2023 going so far? What's the hot topic at Space Ape right now?
2023 has been a wild ride for Space Ape and me personally. Pre-registration for our new launch - a car restoration puzzle game called Chrome Valley Customs - has just opened. It's our first global launch since Beatstar in 2021. We’re also in soft launch with another music game, Country Star, a version of Beatstar dedicated to country music (yeehaw)! And the big news for me is that after spending the last five years of my life on Beatstar, I’m leading a small team to kick off our next game, which is both daunting and exciting.
So the hot topic is how we scale the studio to support all these projects Charmie mentioned. In the past, before Beatstar, we spread ourselves too thin across many different R&D projects and genres, and that was a difficult time for us that you’ve spoken to us about before. Thankfully we came out of that period very focussed and intentional about what we work on, but now that we’re going from supporting two live games (Beatstar and Transformers: Earth Wars) to supporting three, maybe four by the end of the year, that has meant we’ve had to increase hiring and start to think about how we scale the studio. We’ve been around 120 people for over six years and need to rebuild some of the marketing, analytics and product management muscles that atrophied when we were in R&D mode. We have something like ten open roles right now and would have more, but we lacked recruiting bandwidth, so I’m over the moon that Michelle Simon has recently joined with over 20 years of experience recruiting for the likes of King, Bossa, Jagex, Rovio and other hugely successful studios.
How's the world of Beatstar and how has the game been taking shape since we last checked in?
Beatstar has exceeded all my wildest expectations. The game has been played by over 55m people, generated over $120m in revenue and there have been over 3.5bn song plays. When we last spoke a year ago, we had just introduced a mechanism in the form of events for artists to drop songs in Beatstar as part of their release strategy, either day and date or even before release on streaming platforms. That program is now thriving. We are also adding many new songs to the game every month and loads of improvements, events and new event types.
With the title now being long established, what is the process of securing new music and 'spreading the word'? Is it a challenge or more straightforward now that the game has reached a wide audience?
It’s still a lot of work to secure all the rights, but it’s definitely easier now that we’re firmly established as the most successful music game on any platform. Big artists are routinely coming to us as they see Beatstar as an important part of a release strategy. When we run events in the game, we can focus millions of people’s attention on the new song and when the song really connects with our players we’ve seen up to 400k people pre-add the song or album. This is a level that is meaningful for even the biggest names in music and the reason we’ve seen exclusives from the likes of Eminem, Nicki Minaj, Chainsmokers, Shania Twain etc.
A fun event we recently ran involved Linkin Park. It came about organically when some Beatstar players who are in Linkin Park’s Discord channel started a movement to get their songs into Beatstar. This caught Mike Shinoda’s attention and he tweeted about it, and within a few weeks, we had their iconic song Numb and a newer single Lost feature in an event. Linkin Park’s community and socials team deserve the credit, they also worked with our community marketing team providing fan club memberships and tons of support. The platforms then picked up on this and the event was heavily featured. As a result, we went from around 40-50k organic installs per day, to over 200k per day for the duration of the event. Having big artists drop big songs in the game is cool but fans like this make working with the music industry extra special. Also, there are a huge number of Linkin Park fans on the team, that helps!
What's the most exciting thing in mobile gaming right now?
This might be a boring answer, but I think the most exciting things in mobile gaming right now might not be “conventionally” exciting. By this, I mean, when we were in our R&D phase, we spent a lot of time trying to discern trends - either games in other platforms or countries that were yet to translate to mobile or nascent play patterns that were popular in free apps, but no one had cracked monetization. That was exciting from a creative standpoint. We came out of the other end with Beatstar, which was highly innovative across all dimensions, gameplay, design, business model, marketing, etc. But we also had 24 failed projects in that period, which is not a strike rate I’m proud of.
By contrast, today the mobile ecosystem has matured to the point where success is found less in finding or defining new trends and more in big opportunities that are hiding in plain sight. Our next game, Chrome Valley Customs, is a good example of this. Chrome Valley takes the traditional Puzzle & Decorate mechanics and pairs it with a fantasy of managing a car restoration business where you restore classic cars in between levels. Now Match3 has been around for over 15 years. The Puzzle & Decorate genre has been dominant since 2017. It’s a very well tried and tested genre with huge evergreen demand. But the industry has had this blind spot in that everyone seemed to overlook a big audience segment (ie men) who were playing these games in droves even though all the fantasies, art styles and marketing campaigns in the genre were targeting an older female demographic. Millions of people play these games every day in spite of the fact games do everything they can to alienate them! In 2017 male Match3 players might have been a niche audience and not a big opportunity, but today that’s a really interesting, massive, underserved audience. Those are the kinds of opportunities that get me most excited right now.
As a founder and business guy, Simon is, of course, more likely to get excited about business opportunities. When we launched Beatstar, we were taking a couple of hypercasual references and investing big in it, so there was a lot of design innovation risk with a new core loop, unproven business model, live ops, and marketing approach. We invented a whole new licensing model to align with the music industry in a way that had never been done before. With hindsight, it was incredibly exciting, a little crazy but it worked. I think there is an interesting middle ground between the New+New approach of Beatstar and the highly grounded approach of Chrome Valley Customs.
Obviously, we have a ton of experience in music, now with multiple music games, and there are lots of exciting developments around AI that might be interesting to explore, but I’m casting the net broadly in figuring out what our next game should be.
What will you be talking about at Develop?
The title of my talk is “Beatstar’s Lessons in Hybrid-Casual”. Hybrid-Casual is a bit of a loaded term used to describe games where the second to second gameplay is taken from the hyper-casual space, usually twitchy, but where that gameplay feeds into a longer term meta. This has been the holy grail for many hyper-casual developers and we came to it from a different angle and studio setup, so hopefully, it will be interesting to see how we got there.
The second to second gameplay in Beatstar is a high score chase that rewards accuracy. It requires 100% focus and requires sound to be on. This arcade play pattern has been around since before the dawn of gaming and is incredibly popular, intuitive and compulsive. Those qualities are great if you’re making a premium game or an IAA driven business, but it doesn’t sit naturally with free to play. I am a huge Clash of Clans fan (so much so that we made three similar games here at Space Ape), but most of the time you spend in these games is watching the screen waiting for action to happen. This is great from a systems design perspective because the lack of second to second gameplay gives players the headspace and us, as developers, the real estate to get people engaged in longer term goals. It also allows for more moments in the day when you can play, such as when you’re watching TV, which helps create a daily habit. The amazing gameplay in Beatstar is a blessing and a curse in that the second to second is so engaging there is little opportunity to get people to care about anything else.
So my talk is about how we found those opportunities to introduce longer term goals and structured the game, and also lessons we learned on the hyper-casual side of the business spectrum. We hit a lot of dead ends and I’ll be sharing some of the failures along the way as well as what worked. Some of these tactics are specific to Beatstar - or at least any other game that can manage to licence hundreds of massive bangers - but most are transferable to other genres. I’d love to inspire some developers in this talk to find the next hybrid-casual breakthrough like Beatstar or Survivor.io!
What would you like to do with Beatstar in the future? Anything in progress you could tell us about?
After five years on Beatstar, I’m moving onto new games and feel like the team there now is much better placed to figure out what the future should hold. Personally, I’d love for Beatstar to remain synonymous with music gaming and continue to define and own the genre. They have some cool event types coming soon, which are going to provide a whole new dimension to gameplay and the team is the most talented bunch of people I’ve worked with, so I’m sure they will go on to do great things!
One thing you will see us do is explore new versions to cater for audiences who would never be truly catered for within Beatstar. Last year we experimented with a country music themed month in Beatstar and found that it was truly divisive. Some people (mostly Americans) loved seeing their favourite country artist in there, but many found it too much of a stretch from the rock, pop, hip hop staples that really define the brand of Beatstar. So we’ve been testing Country Star in Canada, which is exactly what you’d expect: a country music version of Beatstar. Early signs are very promising, so hopefully you’ll see more games like that. I’d love one day to see BollywoodStar or MetalStar! After that as Charmie says, it’s really down to where the team would like to take it. We’ve explored different gameplay, different business models and had a lot of discussion about how AI will disrupt the music industry and so there are definitely plenty of interesting areas to explore within music, but for now we’re mostly focussed on building out the Beatstar franchise.
Any top tips for 2023 for anyone looking to replicate Space Ape's success with their own creations?
Do it for love, not for glory. So much internal strength and quality of work comes from the love for the craft of making games and teamwork. External factors like recognition and compensation are important too, but for me those are a consequence, not a driver, for what I do. For women and mothers that are looking for a reason to stay in games, it’s probably not advice that you need but allyships and role models are key. I hope I can be just one example of someone like you that has been through it and will continue to be working through it in this industry.