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King’s Trevor Burrows on the power of art: "We could see our numbers literally dropping"

Farm Heroes Saga has a willingness to experiment but importantly listens to its fans so taking a U-turn back from a "fresh, more contemporary art style" proved to be a smart move
King’s Trevor Burrows on the power of art:
  • We visited King HQ and sat down with Farm Heroes Saga’s head of product Trevor Burrows
  • Burrows discussed his role in the company, communicating with other King games, and the power of an art style

During our visit to King's Stockholm HQ last week, we had the chance to meet the teams that make their games. To find out more about one of King's most enduring titles we sat down for a chat with Farm Heroes Saga’s head of product Trevor Burrows.

Through this conversation, we learned all about communication between King’s hit games, the changes Farm Heroes Saga has undergone over the past decade, and the impact simple art direction can have on all-important player retention. Could you tell us a bit about your work at King? What does your average day look like?

Trevor Burrows: I'm head of product for Farm Hero Saga and my responsibility is in setting the vision, the strategy, and the plans for what we're going to build in the game and bring to our players.

We have an incredible team in Farm that is spread across all of our various offices in Stockholm, in Malmo, Sweden, Berlin, Barcelona, and London, of course. And we connect on a regular basis to discuss and review our plans, what we think are the best and most important things to focus on, the biggest opportunities that we see, and what we learn from what’s happening in the game.

We're always talking to our players; we're always collecting feedback. We are very data driven. We monitor what is happening in-game and while data in itself doesn't give us all the answers, it can flag things.

And we take data insights on board to help inform us as to what the next thing is that we should be working on, and we then try something out. Not everything always works out - some things do, some things don't. We test them first to see how players react and if successful, great! Then we roll them out further.

If they don't, we take them back and look at the lessons. What did we learn from this? Why do we think this hasn't worked or what could we do better next time? I think this is pretty much what drives my day-to-day work.

Farm Heroes Saga in action
Farm Heroes Saga in action

How long have you worked for King, and what’s your journey been to your current role?

I joined in 2016, so I've been at King just over seven years. And my very first role was actually in Farm Heroes Saga on the very initial rollout of ads. I was working on it from a game perspective and my number one priority was protecting the player experience.

This was something new at the time - really something quite different - because we went from just in-app purchases to ads, and we wanted to make sure that the way in which we did this felt very seamless and enriched the player experience as opposed to causing any friction.

Then I was given the opportunity to move around different roles. I ended up working on Super Saga as well for a little bit, then I spent a little bit of time on new games and then eventually went full circle back into Farm Heroes Saga where I've now been, I think it's five years or more? Maybe six now.

Is there much communication and crossover in strategy and ideation between King titles? Do you work closely with Candy Crush Saga, for example, as a fellow match-3 game?

“We're always talking to our players; we're always collecting feedback. We are very data driven.”
Trevor Burrows, King

I would say that one of our core values at King is being open, and transparency is a really important part of our work. We learn a lot and we're very lucky to be part of a company like King where we have such huge games like Candy Crush and Soda that are constantly trying out their own things and learning in the process as well.

We work closely with each other. We share those lessons and we share what we learn from each other as well, then take those lessons on board and assess what the relevance is in the case of Farm Heroes Saga. We consider whether there’s a way to bring those lessons across in a way that makes sense for the game.

So I would say there's a lot of that happening and I think this drives a lot of King's strength as a company.

Has Farm Heroes Saga had to undergo any significant changes to keep up with the evolving market?

That's a really good question. I think over the last 10 years, a lot has happened in the game. We tend to work quite incrementally on things in Farm and there are certain areas like the core gameplay where it's a constant flow of work where we are going in, whether it's improving our levels, fixing some mechanics…

Sometimes there’s a mechanic that players may find annoying and frustrating, so we go in and we tweak those. We're also constantly updating how responsive gameplay feels, how it moves, how it animates, and some of those changes individually may feel very subtle. But if you take a break and you come back after a while, those changes do add up and the game can feel like it moves along quite a bit over time.

We think it's important to keep the game relevant and to make sure that we're adjusting to the evolving market trends and player tastes, but equally the reason why we do them so gradually is because our core players - the ones that have been around for the last, you know, up to 10 years - are really important to us. They are at the core of what we do and we want to make sure that everything that we do, doesn't detract from the reasons why they have chosen to play this game and why they're still around to this day.

King's various IP sit in on this meeting area
King's various IP sit in on this meeting area

Gameplay is one area, events is another. We started investing in our events around four or five years ago, or even six years ago now, and we've been adding more and more and more. We initially had maybe two or three features running, where now we have tournaments, 1-2-3 Grow, plus extensions to 1-2-3 Grow.

We launched a feature called Barn Buddies where you can interact with farm animals. We launched another feature called Farmer’s Market earlier this year. There are lots of new challenges being introduced and side levels as well.

So there's always something different and we're constantly adding more to that. I could go on for hours and talk about everything that we added to the game, but there's a lot.

Does any particular area stand out as the most challenging to keep up with adapting?

I would say probably the gameplay is one of the most challenging areas of the game to keep up with because it's such a sensitive, core part of the game.

A very small change can have massive repercussions, like maybe if something didn't quite go to plan. We once tested introducing an art revamp for our main gameplay, so the look of all the cropsies, fruits and vegetables on the board were updated. And you know, it looked great. We and the art team were really excited.

This was, we thought, a really fresh, more contemporary art style, but the reaction from the players was immediately very negative. Not only did we get a lot of complaints right away, but also we could see our numbers literally dropping. So we quickly made a U-turn on that particular update, even though our intention was a good one.

We thought we would be bringing something that would make the game better for our players, but we're always very much listening and very careful with what we do. And this is an example of when things don't work out, we quickly learn, we quickly pivot and take that feedback on board.

Plants take over King headquarters (cropsies not pictured...)
Plants take over King headquarters (cropsies not pictured...)

Again, what did we learn? What could we do better next time?

How do you balance giving Farm Heroes Saga its own visual identity while also fitting King’s art style?

We don't have a King-wide style guide, so I think the commonalities between our games stem from the similar passion that we have in making games, and I guess where the concepts and ideas for those games originated from.

What we are very careful about in Farm is making sure that we build on that - we don't deviate from that. We want to nurture and cater to players for the reasons that they chose to play this game in the first place. So I think this is what maybe helps ensure some sort of continuity and consistency in our approach.

But we are also always looking at making things better and even from an art point of view, how we can improve the art style, how we can improve how things appear in-game. The way in which we approach this is by trying out different things: don't go in with big radical changes, but instead find small things to change.

If those work, then we continue in that route and get all the signals and input that we need to guide us and ensure that we are on the right track, and really doing something that we don't just think is better, but actually our players also think is better.

Is AI involved in this art process?

“We work closely with each other. We share those lessons and we share what we learn from each other as well...”
Trevor Burrows, King

The short answer is no. We are still very much in the early days of AI and right now. Where we see the biggest opportunities for AI is in assisting on some key tasks, particularly around level testing. Testing’s definitely an area where we are seeing opportunities to move faster, enabling us to allocate resources to the right things like the creative side - creating levels.

But equally, you know, it's still early days and there's a lot of expectations for AI. We are certainly really interested and keen in figuring out what those will be, it's just we don't know yet and we're still trying to figure it out.

We’re always thinking: how do we make our experience better for our players? Potentially there are some opportunities with AI to be smarter in the way in which we surface content for our players, but we don't know, it's still very early days. Right now we're brainstorming, but we just haven't got any further than that.

Can you offer any hints of what fans can expect next from Farm Hero Saga?

Well, what I can say is that we're always working on something new. The way in which we approach our work is we’re always looking at what’s the most important thing we can be working on right now, which makes it very hard to give you an idea as to what we'll be working on in a few months down the line.

We’re never short of ideas, that’s the thing. It's down to what we think is the most important thing at any given point in time. So what I can say is that we will continue releasing a lot of updates from gameplay to our events to our features.

We have events running every month with different themes and new exciting content. This month, for example, our players can experience a theme based around Farm’s 10-year anniversary which includes a birthday Cropsie that they can raise through 1-2-3 Grow.

I believe there's some farm animals celebrating the birthday as well in Farm Buddies, plus some unique side levels and other special challenges to earn more rewards.

More King on the way…

We had plenty of fascinating conversations during our time at King HQ with the teams working across a range of games - Candy Crush included, naturally. This includes our conversation with King president Tjodolf Sommestad, who talked AI, tips for indie devs, and much more.

Expect even more sugary scoops coming soon…