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Wooga’s latest title, Agent Alice, sure reminds me of console-game production. This kind of title signals a big change for the mobile space, which will separate into a small group of winners and a much larger pack of losers.
The hidden-object adventure game for mobile devices just debuted after two years of development. It was built by a core team of 15 people, but more than 80 worked on it over the course of the project. And at the end of February, Berlin-based Wooga will launch the Agent Alice with the largest marketing budget it has ever had — somewhere in the millions of dollars.
Jens Begemann, chief executive of Wooga, told me in a conversation that this is what it takes to succeed in the modern mobile-game business. Agent Alice will launch as a free-to-play release with eight episodes, but Wooga’s team will produce a new episode every Friday.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
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GamesBeat: Tell us about the making of Agent Alice.
Jens Begemann: Agent Alice is basically the successor, but also the reinvention, of our most successful game of the moment, Pearl’s Peril. It’s a hidden-object game. Everything we learned there we’re taking to Agent Alice. At the same time, we’re trying to reinvent the genre for mobile.
Hidden-object games have been huge on the PC. Big Fish and other companies have seen a lot of success there. The demographic is mostly women, typically 40-plus years old. Pearl’s Peril has been very big on Facebook, always among the top Facebook games, but it’s never been big mobile. That’s what we’re trying to change.
We have very high production values and attention to detail. The game is designed particularly for mobile. The hidden-object scenes and the puzzle scenes are designed for a small screen. The play sessions are short, so you can come back a few times a day. It’s extremely story-driven. We tried to take inspiration from TV, where there’s a new episode every week. … We’ll do a big launch at the end of February with the highest launch budget we’ve ever had in terms of marketing. We’re spending millions of dollars on launch weekend. We’ve produced a trailer.
GamesBeat: Is this one of those 40 prototype ideas you were talking about a while ago?
Begemann: Exactly. The way we work now, we create lots of concepts. Last year we created more than 100 concepts. That’s more than 100 concepts on paper. Out of those, we created 35 prototypes. One of those 35 prototypes is Agent Alice, which is now launching Feb. 26. Some of the other prototypes also made it to the next stage and are coming later this year, in spring and summer.
GamesBeat: What did you find from doing all that iteration and study of the genre?
Begemann: A few very interesting things. One is that this demographic — women 40 and older — is underserved on the app stores. You see lots of action and strategy games geared toward men. But for women 40 and older we have puzzle games — Candy Crush or Jelly Splash — and not much besides that. If you look at what this audience watches on TV, it’s drama, things like Downton Abbey. Not much on mobile is story driven or character driven. That’s what we want to create.
The Agent Alice team is a very international team. At Wooga, we now employ more than 40 nationalities. That’s one key thing we’ve found. The second is that this is all about content. If you think about it, every episode is like a TV episode. Most of these hidden-object games that have existed so far, you start playing them, and after a week you’re through. That’s it.
We want to avoid that. This will be endless like a TV series. Every week, predictably, there will be a new episode. That’s a crazy amount of effort. We have a small team internally, but we have people doing the artwork externally, and then we have localization. In total, 80 people work every week on Agent Alice to create the new episodes. That took us years to build up with Pearl’s Peril. Now we’ve done it, it works, and we’ll apply it to Agent Alice.
GamesBeat: Is each episode produced by the same team or do you have different teams working in tandem?
Begemann: The core is the same. Pearl’s Peril came out early in 2013. Many of the key people — I’d say about two-thirds of the team — moved on to start Agent Alice. Pearl’s Peril still has a live team. We have many new people there who continue to improve the game. But we took all of those learnings and the key people from the team and moved them to Agent Alice. Then we added new ones.
GamesBeat: How long does it take you get to something like 80 people?
Begemann: Out of those 80, about 30 are internal. The others are external. We have partners in Canada, Ukraine, and India who help us with artwork. The ramp up to 80 was around the late summer or early autumn — September or October — when we started making this weekly content. Until roughly October, it was about the core of the game, and the team was small, about 10 or 12 people. Now we’ve scaled up. Going forward, we’re launching with eight episodes, and every week, there will be a new one.
Potentially you could play for years. That’s what we see in Pearl’s Peril. Every week, people wait for the new episode to arrive.
GamesBeat: This audience seems like it’s close to what your core audience has always been.
Begemann: That’s true. We’ve always had 70 percent women, 30 percent men. With Agent Alice it’s close to that. It’s a little bit older and a bit more toward women. We expect 80 percent women for Agent Alice. While typically we talk about average users being over 30, here I think the average user will be over 40, closer to 45. It’s a new audience of people who haven’t played much in the past. Maybe they’ve played downloadable PC games, but on mobile, they may have only played puzzle games.
GamesBeat: I wonder if there’s been a rise and fall for this genre in social gaming. Have you studied that?
Begemann: To me it seems that maybe it’s more a specific thing about that title or some other titles. For us, with Pearl’s Peril, we still have seven-digit daily active users on Facebook. The key, what you have to achieve, is it has to have very high production values. Story is incredibly important, a rich story with different characters. People fall in love and die and all of those things. The third factor is content. Many of these other hidden object games, people simply ran out of content. When there’s no more content, you stop playing.
If you think of a strategy game that’s built around [player versus player], the users are the content, the people attacking each other. This kind of game is about content. You have to deliver content every week. If you stop delivering content, people play to the end of the content and stop. It took us years to build up this content pipeline. Maybe others weren’t willing to make that investment.
GamesBeat: Weekly has turned out to be the right interval?
Begemann: Yeah, for us. I’m very happy about last year. Agent Alice is our first new game in more than a year now. Despite that, even though we haven’t launched so much recently, 2014 saw 30 percent more revenue than 2013 and four times the profit. We’ve been profitable for three years, since early 2012. Every year, profit has risen. Revenue has risen. I’m very optimistic.
The hidden-object genre only works with significant investment. You can’t just copy some other title. That doesn’t work.
GamesBeat: How many employees do you have now?
Begemann: We have 270. That’s pretty stable. I don’t want to grow much. It’s a good size. Obviously, being very profitable, we could hire many more, but we feel we’re at a good size. We can make all the investments we want to make by ourselves. We have a high cash balance. With this headcount, we’re big enough to work on many projects in parallel and make bold bets. At the same time, it’s small enough that everyone can be in one office. We can share learnings between teams. It works well.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting comparing notes on Supercell. They have only 150 people. Fifteen of them work on Clash of Clans. They outsource a lot as well.
Begemann: For them, it’s less about content. The core team of Agent Alice is also exactly 15. Everything else on top of that is content and localization. If you look at the total of 80, it’s mostly external, and everything but those 15 — 15 is kind of a magic number — is content and localization into 12 languages. I know that they have a huge customer care operation that’s external, hundreds of people there. Really, though, you’re more productive if you have small teams.
GamesBeat: Is there a timer putting a limit on how long you can take to solve the puzzle?
Begemann: You get more points if you work it out faster, and so you progress faster. You have your first star there. Now you examine these strange lines, and the story continues. Crosby here is your partner. You’ve discovered a new scene now, backstage. You can see all of this artwork, beautifully done. The resolution is higher than full HD. Even on the highest-resolution tablet it’ll be at native resolution.
Traditionally, hidden-object games on mobile have always used pinch to zoom. You had to zoom in to play. This is perfectly playable on the phone. We have a very big phone here, but even on the four-inch iPhone 5, it’s very playable. No zooming needed.
One thing that’s interesting is how we design smartphone and tablet at the same time. If we go to the same scene on the tablet here, what you’ll see is that we show more content. Here, the scene ends at this lantern. There’s more content on the side. Here it ends over there with that chair. Likewise, we show a bit more content on the top. The content is dynamically adapted to the devices, which you have to do in this day and age.
We’re quite proud of the production values. This sort of thing isn’t just at the beginning of the game. It’s at that level of production value throughout. Every Friday it looks like this.
GamesBeat: Are hidden-object games a full-scale category now on mobile?
Begemann: I’m surprised there’s so little. There’s a game based on the CSI brand, the TV series, I think published by Ubisoft. It seems to be doing OK-ish. There’s a game from France called Criminal Case that started on Facebook, and it’s doing OK as well. Zynga tried it, but I don’t think they have any active games. That’s the key thing. The whole category is underdeveloped. On the PC, around 10 years ago, whole businesses were built on that. Big Fish Games, with hundreds of people, their main genre was hidden-object games.
Maybe there’s so little because the investment is so big. If you’re a small shop, maybe 10 people, you can create the core of the game, but you can’t create enough content. To create content at this scale, you have to invest millions, if you want to get to this level of quality and keep doing it. If someone is extremely quick, they may consume our weekly content after three days or so. But then, they know that next Friday they can tune back in. We’ve learned that from TV. We do so many things on a weekly schedule — weekly meetings at work, that kind of thing. That’s what we take advantage of.
We proved all that out with Pearl’s Peril, but Pearl’s Peril was only designed for the big screen. It’s only available on Facebook and iPad. It was never on iPhone or Android because the big content doesn’t work well on the small screen. With that, plus all the improvements and the high production values, we think we’ve gotten it right this time.
GamesBeat: Is anything else interesting going on in the industry from your point of view?
Begemann: The key thing for me is how much everything is concentrating around hits. My estimate is that we have about a thousand new games a week, and very few of them have positive ROI. The vast majority of games launching today don’t make back their costs. I’d say the rate is much lower than movies. In movies, you have a certain rate of projects that make money versus those that lose. The vast majority of games make very little money, and it’s impossible to invest in marketing.
Those hits that make it, though, are so huge that they can finance everything else. That’s the approach we have with our hit filter. We work on lots of ideas. If you have something good, you should stop. Good isn’t good enough. Only great things make sense.
GamesBeat: It’s very different from the old days, where the philosophy was to have a large portfolio. If you were working on a game, you’d just publish it and see what happens.
Begemann: For us it’s radically different. We only focus on potential hits. Everything else we stop in between because there’s no point. I see that more and more.
That has lots of consequences. If you embrace that model, you should stop most games during development. When you launch, you should double down. We’ll see game launches on mobile that are much more like a console launch. As I said, we’ll spend millions of dollars on advertising to launch and thereafter. We’ll do a launch event in London with press and partners. We’re publishing a trailer and behind-the-scenes videos about making the game. A professional crew has filmed the team as they made the game. There’s so much more effort happening toward the launch. Before, you just said, “The game is done. Let’s put it out.” Now there’s a much bigger effort behind it.
GamesBeat: How many platforms do you eventually get to?
Begemann: The focus for us is clearly on iOS and Android. The game is developed in Unity. Technically, we could publish to many more platforms, but we feel that with iOS and Android, you cover so much. That’s what we’ll focus on at launch. Maybe later we will bring it to other platforms, but all of our plans so far are around those two. It’s a same-day launch for both.
GamesBeat: Does Facebook Canvas make any sense?
Begemann: We’re not sure. All of our new games are designed for smartphone first. Many other companies are tablet first. We’re definitely smartphone first because there are so many more smartphones than tablets. If you design for a five-inch screen, for touch, and for a mobile session, sometimes that doesn’t translate so well to other platforms.
We think that by designing for mobile, we can make better mobile games. You just saw the puzzle that was about shooting. There are other puzzles where you need to take fingerprints, which is about rubbing the screen and applying fingerprint powder. You do that with your finger. It’s more fun than using a mouse. This is also designed around a two-minute to five-minute session, around three minutes on average. Other platforms have other session patterns.
GamesBeat: How is Berlin doing for game companies?
Begemann: Berlin is a big startup hub in Europe now. There was a study published a week ago showing that in Europe, the two leading cities for venture-capital investment are London and Berlin. In terms of capital invested, Berlin is number one, but in terms of deals done, London is just slightly ahead. Five years ago, Berlin was 15th in Europe and now it’s one or two.
As far as games, it’s not yet a huge games hub. It’s starting to become one. It’s definitely a technology and startup hub. There are now maybe five sizable game companies there. King has a Berlin office. Lots of German and European companies have headquarters and offices there. It’s not yet a global games hub. But with startups, it’s further along, and it’s growing very fast.
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