With the end of active development on Hi-Rez's hotly anticipated spin-off of its Rogue Company IP for mobile, we've gotten a unique chance to get insight into the lessons learned from the company's decision not to launch.
Speaking at Develop: Brighton 2023, COO Veronique Lallier and chief marketing officer Stephen Hutchins gave an overview of the successes it initially had with Rogue Company: Elite, and more importantly the mistakes that led to the game maker shelving the project. Given how rarely companies are willing to talk candidly about missteps it's quite a unique opportunity to broaden our understanding of how a seemingly promising project can simply not be up to scratch for a full launch.
Firstly they laid out exactly why they wanted to bring Rogue Company to mobile after it was announced in December 2022, that being a belief in removing the barrier of entry for players while allowing existing players to deepen their engagement with the brand, the existence of an already succesful game on PC & console, and the fact they already had great tech they could scale up. This is where they also identified their key challenges, that being controls, hardware, user acquisition and retention.
It's important to note in this case that Hi-Rez and First Watch leveraged virtually all tools available to them including some familiar names such as Sensor Tower and Data.ai to do a great deal of research, including testing, audience research and an even wider variety of info to ensure they had as much coverage as possible. This was all with the ambition that they would aim to get a version of the game in front of audiences in soft launch as soon as possible, and this would come in January of 2023.
The first soft launch test on iOS was in Mexico, for a few simple reasons: An existing strong presence of the Rogue Company IP with it being localised to the region, widespread adoption of mobile shooters, a large enough number of iOS users to feel confident in the sampling, a localised population in the same timezone and low CPIs. Hi-Rez believed that these factors would contribute to a great market test that could be extrapolated for their planned February 2023 launch.
However, as the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the proof of the game is in the playing. And this market test was where the problems began. First there was first impressions, and one crucial mistake Hi-Rez and First Watch made was a lack of a guest log-in for new players. With many reticent to provide their details it meant that many simply bounced off within the first ten minutes.
Next was retention, and they identified that players who won their first match had 50% higher D3 retention than those who didn't. The solution? Pop them in a match with bots and let the players have a relatively easy win. However, this had the opposite effect as players didn't feel they were being challenged and bounced off once more.
Retention is a major problem for many mobile games of course, and can be rectified given time. But there was another problem, and a much more critical one - user acquisition. Paid UA was effective, and UA costs for their chosen market was quite low, however upon pulling back on this paid UA, organic UA failed to fill the gap.
As Lallier and Hutchins put it, this sudden drop in UA was a huge red flag. Compounded by worse performance in this soft launch than their closed beta test despite a wider, public audience, these issues and the challenges faced in mobile specifically convinced the company to finally pull the plug on Rogue Company: Elite and place it on hold.
So, what did they learn? Firstly that the mobile shooter marketplace is oversaturated, and thus competition is fierce. Secondly, that small changes will only make small differences. Third, that creative campaigns will be crucial to boosting your UA and bringing in organic player traffic. Finally, know when to quit.
As Lallier and Hutchins put it, the situation was crystal clear that, although they had made great strides in understanding the mobile market and developing tech for it, they were also fighting a losing battle. Thanks to the macroeconomic situation and the current glut of shooters on mobile, Rogue Company: Elite was being drowned out despite debuting in the top 20 of action games when it hit soft launch.
It's a sobering reminder of just how difficult getting into mobile can be. It's why many of our top 50 game makers of 2022 either have the size and weight to acquire existing skilled companies, or have been in the business for a relative lifetime at this point.
But, players of Rogue Company: Elite needn't be sad. The tech for things like bot AI and store UI, as well as many maps and skins made specially for the game were soon brought over to Rogue Company's mainline entry. And, as we noted in our announcement of the game's shelving, there's certainly a possibility that this won't be the last time Hi-Rez takes on mobile with their current flagship IP.