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These aren’t easy times for all mobile game developers. But Space Ape Games is one of the exceptions that has begun to rise above the pack.
From January 2015 to today, Space Ape Games grew from 10 million players to 35 million players, said John Earner, CEO of the London-based game studio, during Unity’s press event at the Game Developers Conference (GDC). During that time, revenues grew from $25 million to $92 million. And in the fourth quarter of 2016, the company had $5 million in profit, Earner said.
A big part of the change was the launch of Space Ape’s first licensed title, Transformers: Earth Wars. But, the company has also honed its skills in live operations — or keeping users coming back through events, such as tournaments or special offers. And the financial cushion now allows the company to further refine its organization. Game teams have now gone from 20 developers to eight, and the company prototypes many more ideas in a month than it did in the past.
Earner said that creates a funnel — or an ability to reject some of the prototypes in favor of focusing on the best ideas. And that will lead to fewer but perhaps higher-quality games. I spoke with Earner and chief operating officer Simon Hade for an interview at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this week.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: What were the stats you ran down?
John Earner: Over the last two years, from January 2015 to today, we went from 10 million to 35 million players, 60 to 100 employees, from $25 million in sales up to $92 million. A bit of that was just trying to keep everybody happy with regard to talking about certain numbers the right way. The most important stats to know are that we had $5 million in profit in Q4. We’ve been profitable for 10 months running. We just got the 10th in February.
We’re doing that on hundreds of thousands of dailies. Samurai Siege is alive and well three and a half years later. Rival Kingdoms is the same. Transformers is growing every month. It’s been a great year.
GamesBeat: Samurai Siege is still the biggest overall?
Earner: It’s the smallest. Transformers is by far the largest. Rival Kingdoms is about half that and Siege about half of Kingdoms. But, each game has been better than the last. That’s the direction we want to have. It’s a layer cake. We can maintain Samurai Siege for years, add to it with Rival Kingdoms, and add to that with Transformers.
GamesBeat: You’re happy with the licensed route?
Earner: We are. It really worked. If we look at Rival Kingdoms, one of the biggest problems it had was it was difficult for players to discover. We got editor’s choice from Apple, which we were grateful for, but that art style and that genre were tough. We knew we had a great game. We just felt like it would be awesome to surface it to more people via a brand that we love. It’s done its job.
It’s a lot easier to acquire users for Transformers. I’m happy to say it’s the best Transformers game out there. Forged to Fight looks awesome. I look forward to it coming out. It will be good. But, it’s been a long time without good video games based on the Transformers. That’s what you get when you play that game. You really feel like you’re playing with the toys you had as a kid. It’s that nostalgia that let the game pop.
GamesBeat: That seems to be the usual approach for companies now, to have multiple games out at the same time. Star Wars, Marvel, these have a different game for every genre.
Earner: They have more saturation. There are a lot of Marvel games. There are not many Transformers games. That means when the movie launches late spring, we expect to get a huge lift. Our game’s not directly associated with Paramount, but it’s going to drive a lot of interest in the brand.
Simon Hade: People searching for it. Also, these big brands are so broad. They can work across multiple genres simultaneously with very little overlap between some of these games, even though the mechanics may be similar. They all scratch a different itch.
GamesBeat: What’s your specialty, then, as you’d describe it?
Earner: If you were to talk about this a year ago, we’d say our specialty is live ops. We think we’re the best in the West at running a live game. The true masters of the craft are in China. We learn a lot from them. But, we’re fantastic at events, at interaction with our community, working with our players. We have dialogue with our alliances. We’re all about taking a game and making it a living, breathing service. I’d say that’s thing one. Thing two is execution. People a year ago regarded Space Ape as a company that could get a game live quickly and well. High quality. Transformers is a beacon there.
The message we’ve spent the week spreading at GDC, which has been true for a year now — it’s just that only now we have the fruits of our labor to prove it — is that we realized a year ago that we could incrementally grow our business 30 or 50 percent for many years and never get to where we want to go. We set out our mission to make the best and most commercially successful games in mobile. We’re not going to get there doing build and battle games. Innovation was the word we’ve spent the last year adding to the list of things we’re great at.
We inverted our approach from a slate to a funnel, from telling the company what games to make to the company telling us what they want to make. We administered a process to vet those ideas and identify the best of them. We shrank our team sizes down. The average is eight today. It was 20 a year ago. Because of our profitability, we were able to start making the decisions we always wanted to make but couldn’t.
This is a thing that plagues most of the game industry, except for the very top. You have an ambition to do something creative, but you don’t want to run out of money and not be able to pay your employees after six months. Now, we don’t have to make that trade-off. We have four games in development, two of which we can talk about here. They’re all very different from what we’ve done before. What they have in common is our goal to own new categories in the Western mobile market. I’d like to think, going forward, people will talk about our innovation and our willingness to take risks to create new stuff that delights players.