Best practices in mobile game development usually means developing and soft launching a multitude of games. Then if those games don’t hit certain minimum key performance indicators (KPIs), to cancel it, like Supercell does when they taking pride in being “serial killers” of their own games. Developers tend to gravitate toward the retention and engagement KPIs early and rush to soft launch as fast as possible, with the sole purpose of being able to derive how much they can afford to spend on user acquisition. This attitude has over recent years had a trickle down effect to independent studios who aspire to replicate the “Supercell success formula” for making games. In search of our own unicorn, we had to find an alternative.
When we laid the foundation for Riposte Games, we knew we needed to approach things differently. This was partly because we couldn’t afford to be another “serial killer,” but also because we wanted to send a different message to our team. Why should they put their work and names on the line if there is a chance it gets cancelled? Perhaps more importantly, it becomes near impossible to actually make games that people want to play when everything revolves around triggering certain parabolic KPIs. So we decided to stop putting a price on players or worrying about how much we can “acquire” them for. Here’s why this method might work better for your team.
It helps team morale
The core team at Riposte have each worked through the mental grind of working on games that had been cancelled well into development while working at other companies. When building our studio, we had a founding pillar to not develop a game unless it was showing ridiculous amounts of fun and could project its high production value. We simply didn’t want to only follow what other studios were doing or supposed industry benchmarks while designing and building a game.
With our just-launched Mini Guns, we are sticking to a unique development methodology that effectively enables the team to focus on innovating gameplay, creating art, and developing technology rather than worrying about what the Day 1 retention for a strategy game ought to be. We end up going about our business a little differently, both to protect the very foundation of the business and our team from creative failure.
Once we’ve decided to take a step back from a KPI-based game design model, our creative process follows a highly curated approach with a focus on discovering the fun as fast as possible while maintaining a laser focus on scope. We see game development a bit like electricity: if you don’t capture it that day, it’s gone (or more directly: you’ve spent that money).
At Riposte, once that base idea is in a good place, the creative lead takes one or two members of the core team to explore the topic and flesh out the overall design. This process will generally set an artistic style and gameplay direction that, in turn, reveals things like genre and comparable titles, etc. As a developer and designer under this methodology, it comes down to creating a narrow hybrid of what you really like to play and your understanding for what makes it a successful/fun and what you think people will actually enjoy playing 12-18 months from now. This essentially becomes the seed of the idea and the foundation for that blueprint.
We think that game development is inherently a scarce resource in every sense of the word so if you are running a scrappy start-up or a team within a larger company that needs to deliver, this should capture your attention. The model we employ has been nurtured over the last 10 years and span five successful F2P games. Our chief creative officer, Mathieu Rouleau, has perfected an organic, yet purposeful development methodology that serves as our blueprints today. We all have games that we really like, really admire, or play a lot of, and ultimately think we can improve on but it does not necessarily mean you need to follow the same path to draw the same results. Or more importantly, if you do not understand what drives certain loops and mechanics, it will be hard to copy a successful game. For example, when we started working on Mini Guns, the marvel that is today Clash Royale, was not announced yet and there simply was no benchmark for what success would look like besides making a fun experience that players would enjoy. We wanted to make something new and innovative all while drawing drawing from our previous card games like Card Monster and also inspiration from classic games like Company of Heroes and Advance Wars rather than fitting into a genre that needs to respect certain KPIs to be profitable.
The Moneyball of mobile
So, if we are not targeting certain KPIs, how do we ensure to make money? This is where the business side kicks in. Everyone obviously would like a massive viral hit, but the apex of the unicorn business is nearly impossible to reach. So we really focus on making evergreen, long running games that use systems and loops that the team know very well and will provide the players with endless, yet accessible fun.
For those familiar with the book Moneyball, author Michael Lewis explores how to be competitive while optimizing and balancing a baseball team rather than spending top dollars on unicorns or, in this case, high-profile stars. At the time Lewis wrote, getting on base frequently was undervalued compared to hitting the occasional home run. With this concept in mind — and with the assumption that we cannot afford to not release the games we just spent a lot of blood, sweat, and tears making — we know that we can at least get the game “on base” or, in game terms, bring the game to all major mobile, PC, and web platforms.
So knowing that we have a fun game, powered by a scalable and highly extensible backend technology and coupled with the magic of Unity, we are effectively able to publish across devices having players play in the same session, in real time, with a compact team supporting the whole process. This strategy allows us to chase real profit margins by being a good developer and publisher rather than only throwing good money after bad money on a CPI model. By taking a long term approach we are also building brand value and sustainability while bringing our games to market.
Mini Guns, our fifth game released with this model, just released globally. However, thanks to a soft launch in New Zealand, Canada, and Singapore, we’re seeing Day 1 retention topping 50%, players spending over 14 minutes per session, and ARPDAU beating expectations, some of the ingredients for a successful F2P. It obviously does not guarantee it to be a viral hit or that we will be able to acquire a massive player base. But by bringing a fun, well made game across all these platforms will allow us to reach a wide audience and effectively getting the game “on base”. Drawing in a larger player base through diversification and doing it with a lean live ops team has really attracted the attention of potential partners and because of this canny ability to build and manage games, the team have managed to attract the Quebec Intellectual Property Fund (a fund focused on video games) as a major partner to help fuel the growth.
There is an inherent challenge as a business to maintain focus and purposely work on as many aspects as possible that you can control to a certain degree. For us, we know we have a proven formula, a well established process that allow us to focus on building long term projects on original properties. I’ve seen a lot of companies that look like they were an overnight success when in actual fact it was years of work and an uncompromising belief in their product that saw them through, just look at King’s massive portfolio of games and our favorite, Supercell, who also fought through adversity before seeing success.
There is always a line to be drawn between what the market wants and what you want to create. When Ford started building cars people said they wanted faster horses. Studios can’t follow the big guys in the hope they’ll create a billion dollar game, or that they will receive investment for instant user acquisition. Manpower, time, and funding will always be up against us. If we start by creating something we enjoy, that’s scalable and sustainable, then the rest will follow.
Johan is the CEO of Riposte Games, the developer behind midcore hits like Shop Heroes and recently launched Mini Guns.