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Here’s something crazy: a game developer in Northern Europe that doesn’t really want to make mobile games.
Poppermost Productions is the Swedish game studio responsible for the Early Access skiing hit Snow that debuted on Steam last year. Now the company is planning to release Snow into closed beta in preparation of releasing it as a “completed” free-to-play game on PC and PlayStation 4. The beta will hit in March, and Poppermost chief executive Alexander Bergendahl and his team plan to show off how Snow has grown at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco that same month.
“We’re trying to make a lot of noise,” Bergendahl told GamesBeat. “To show people what we’ve been working on and to get people pumped up for the beta launch.”
While Snow is going to end up as a free-to-play game, Poppermost has sold it through the Early Access portal on publisher Valve’s Steam digital-distribution service. Its Early Access program is a way that developers can sell access to incomplete games to give the public a chance to participate in the process. Most Early Access games slowly get updates over time, but Poppermost has slowed down on offering big patches in recent months. Bergendahl said the team decided to do that deliberately to jump into the closed beta in a big way.
“What we’ve got now on Early Access is a great free roam experience,” he said. “You have the mountain. You have a dozen different areas we’ve been working on. You have skiing and all the tricks, which has been really refined and feels good. But that’s it.”
With that strong core in place, Poppermost has shifted to developing a free-to-play version that can retain players and offer up enough variety to keep people coming back.
Here are some of the things its working on:
- New events
- Structured races
- Proper multiplayer support
- Free-to-play business model
Shifting to free-to-play
“We haven’t really been true to our description as a free-to-play game yet,” said Bergendahl. “That’s going to be the big thing, dropping that paywall and letting people play for free and perform microtransactions to customize their character.”
Everyone on the Snow team are big fans of Valve and how it has implemented free-to-play into its games. Both Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2 are nearly completely free except for cosmetic items to design your own characters. That’s how Snow will work as well.
“From the get-go, we thought that model fits the winter-sports and action-sports scenes,” said Bergendahl. “In real life, personalizing yourself with clothing and equipment is a huge part of skiing itself. We thought that would make a lot of sense.”
Also, like Valve, Poppermost is open to letting players design and sell their own in-game items.
“That’s something we’ve planned for since the beginning,” Bergendahl said. “We already have plans for how we’ll allow people to participate. Even people who don’t have full technical skills, they can create items and sell them through the game and reap rewards from that.”
How Early Access made Snow work
And being in Early Access and earning revenue has given Poppermost extra time to think and flesh out these concepts. It’s obvious when speaking with Bergendahl that he is grateful for what this development model has enabled his team to do.
“Straightaway you see that the community is playing your game,” he said. “They give you feedback. It’s about being there, being transparent, letting someone play your game when it’s in development. They see that you’re working on the game, talking to them, fixing their problems. It’s a full-time job, just like creating a crowdfunded game. People think, oh, you just put it together at the last minute, but it’s a time-consuming thing.”
But the money from Early Access has made that process easier for the team. It has free the company up to make deals with a platform holder like Sony, which enables Poppermost to self-publish Snow on the PlayStation 4 as a free-to-play game. While PS4 and Xbox One do not have anything equivalent to Steam’s Early Access, that sorta doesn’t matter as it might actually make more sense to go through that phase solely on the computer.
“Games are built on PC,” Bergendahl said. “The avenues for getting on market on PC are straightforward through Steam. You can iterate quickly. You can sell directly to your audience. The audience is often pretty tech-savvy. They’re willing to work around your issues with a game, bugs, and whatnot. They’ll give you a chance to bring in revenue, which I think everyone can use at an early stage, especially indie developers. Then you get to a point where the game is in a state where you can get it out on console. At least Sony is totally up for that. It makes total sense to test on PC.”
Investing in PC as mobile takes over
Early Access and free-to-play gaming is only part of the story for Snow and Poppermost. Bergendahl set the studio up from the start to tackle game development in a different way.
“I’ve been part of several studios who’ve had to lay off half the team or shut down completely,” he said. “I wanted to build a studio that had a business behind it. I wanted to do that as a startup, rather than as a more traditional indie studio. That meant coming up with something that would be the backbone of what we did, which was action sports games, and not just action sports games, but an action sports platform.”
So Poppermost isn’t just working on Snow. Instead, this game is going to serve as the first entry into a wider action-sports series that all run on the frame the team is designing now. The company has taken that tech and shown it off to investors, and it has gone well so far.
The company has struck a few deals, and that’s despite one aspect of Poppermost’s plan that might send many venture capitalists running: this developer has no plans to focus on mobile.
“[We’re] somewhat unique,” he said. “I think it’s maybe a little ahead of its time now for game developers that our focused on PC and console, getting VC money.”
It’s true. Most investment from capital firms — especially in countries like Sweden and Finland — goes to developers working on the next big thing in mobile. But senior gaming analyst Ted Pollak with Jon Peddie Research thinks that opens up a chance for companies exactly like Poppermost.
“The mobile gaming space, according to many people, is approaching saturation in the United States and even more so in Norwegian countries,” Pollak told GamesBeat. “There is so much focus on mobile that there’s an opportunity in PC software depending on the quality of the product.”
The analyst went on to explain that investors are starting to realize that the model isn’t the key as much as the games themselves.
“This is an art,” said Pollak. “And the game will define whether the investment is a success.”
Of course, Poppermost isn’t the only studio making this work. Several European developers have found success by focusing on PC. Euro Truck Simulator 2 developer SCS Software and Day Z studio Bohemia Interactive, both of which are located in the Czech Republic, are just a couple of examples.
“PC has shown that it’s still there,” said Bergendahl. “It’s just as big, if not bigger than ever. The console, with the PS4 and Xbox One, is also making it easy for us to prove our point [about avoiding mobile]. We started raising money before any of this kicked off, of course. But our initial investors believed in what we were telling them. But now it’s coming to fruition where people are realizing, wait, we need tons of money for mobile. The rounds for mobile are getting more and more inflated. It’s getting harder to break into that top 10. Three of the top 10 are one company, Supercell, and they’re not budging. To compete against them in mobile is extremely hard. It’s a tough store to break into as far as discoverability.
“With PC and console now, it’s totally different. Console especially has never been easier to get into. We’re self-publishing. Sony is 100 percent behind us being our own publisher. They have teams set up to deal with free-to-play games. It’s becoming an opportunity for VCs to invest in studios like ours. They know we’ll be able to get our game to market and see a return on that.”
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