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Trailmix designer Jade Ostle on how pivoting to story and merge2 boosted Love & Pies to 60% D1 retention

The designer hosted a talk at Develop: Brighton discussing the development of Trailmix's first game
Trailmix designer Jade Ostle on how pivoting to story and merge2 boosted Love & Pies to 60% D1 retention

When it comes to younger companies that are important to watch, one of the most prominent is mobile veteran-led company Trailmix. And at Develop: Brighton 2023, designer Jade Ostle offered an insight into the development of its flagship title, Love & Pies.

Ostle began her career at Trailmix as a level designer after previously serving with Candy Crush: Saga developer King. However, at this point in her tenture she's now a full-fledged game designer, with this - and a boost to 60% D1 retention on Trailmix's debut title - all attributed to a number of key pivots. Ostle went into just how a pivot to story and a new merge2 core inspired by the latest releases all served to boost their D1 retention.

Burning down the house

Initially beginning its life as a tapper game - and ending it as a merge2 title, which we'll get into shortly - this version of the title only brought back a relatively measly 34.6% D1 retention. This prompted the studio to hold a meeting and agree on three new cores to test with key groups; a match3 game with merge mechanics, a tapper core and a linker core all spinning off their original design. In a saturated market they knew that it would be difficult to boost their retention and create a succesful title, however some key findings helped push them forward.

For one, the tapper version proved to be quite succesful with 40% D1 retention. But even more pertinently, Love & Pies' existing story aspects were rapidly expanded with one simple addition. Burning down the cafe. That is to say, in the story they added a key dramatic point to increase retention, by creating a sense of intrigue and a desire to know what happened to the key characters as they rebuilt the cafe - which was key to the game and story progression. As Ostle put it: "We created a telenovella-type game with loads of drama and mystery."

"We created a telenovella-type game with loads of drama and mystery."

The burning of the cafe brought D1 retention up to 50.5% with a relatively minor change. However, while the story was progressing the design remained difficult despite constant tweaking and improvements. This is where another major shift came in, with the release of Metacore's Merge Mansion. This title had many similarities to Love & Pies, such as the dramatic storyline - as anyone who's seen the title's series of adverts can attest - but the key difference came with their core design, a merge2 game.

The shift didn't only come from their leveraging of internal knowledge but also by communicating with Metacore, and sharing their insights.Trailmix decided to make one final pivot and shifted their game design to a merge2 core. They agreed on and developed a 12 week release plan - come hell or high-water - but also kept their first version of Love & Pies in their back-pocket, just in case.

However, the combination of this pivot and their existing additions of story and proven features (with sparks of innovation) paid off massively. On soft launch in July 2021, Love & Pies saw 60% day one retention, 22% on day 30 and 10% on day 180. It was huge boost to their previously flagging retention and also seemed to have boosted their long term retention as well.

All massive changes, but what about Ostle? Well, after her level design role became obsolete with the demise of the original match2 concept, Ostle found herself elevated to a game design role. Now aiding the ongoing development of the title, rectifying some still extant issues such as balancing the game's economy, adding reward layers and a long-term plan for content treadmills.

So what are Ostle's key takeaways? Not all changes are as big as you think. Day 30 retention is important, and game makers should focus on playbook features and establish tools that can pivot quick.

By keeping that in mind, there may be a few more developers joining Trailmix on our next Top 50. Supercell also clearly saw something in both Trailmix and previously Metacore with their major investments, and with both under the same umbrella the skill-sharing between them under Supercell was apparently a major contributor to the success of Love & Pies.