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This year will go down as one of the toughest in history, but Argentina-based mobile game publisher Etermax performed well. During the pandemic, the publisher of the hit mobile game Trivia Crack published eight titles.
As people sought solace from games while social distancing, mobile gaming is expected to grow overall by 25% to $112 billion, according to market researcher App Annie.
Since the quarantine began, Etermax saw its daily usage of its games increase by 20%. Not all of the games took off. But Words & Ladders reached 1.5 million in less than a week, and Trivia Cars hit 1.5 million downloads in its first month. Some countries saw downloads increase five-fold during March through October.
The slate of seven releases came after 2019, a year when the company didn’t release any new games. Instead, it focused on its internal processes — including its Genesis prototype assembly process — and created a platform for launching games more easily. Etermax’s game users grew 120% during the year. Those are good results for Etermax, which started in 2009 and had a huge international hit with Trivia Crack. All told, Etermax’s games have exceeded 800 million downloads.
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This year’s new titles included Word Crack Mix 2, Words & Ladders, Word Crack 2, Word Show, Topic Twister, Trivia Cars, Triviatopia Run, and Trivia Crack Adventure. Etermax opened a new office in Mendoza, Argentina, and it acquired Performash to beef up its ad tech capability. The company hired more than 170 people and grew to more than 450 overall.
I spoke with Maximo Cavazzani, CEO and founder of the Buenos Aires company and how it pulled off this achievement. We also spoke about new hiring and expansions coming for 2021. (We’ll talk a lot about mobile gaming growth at our GamesBeat/Facebook Summit: Driving Gaming Growth event on January 26).
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Maximo Cavazzani: We wanted to release six games this year, and we did it in spite of the pandemic. We had to start working from home — 400 people. We did very well. We were able to launch many important games this year, especially Trivia Crack Adventure, which is doing very well, especially in the U.S., continuing that brand.
GamesBeat: Which of your new games has done especially well?
Cavazzani: Trivia Crack Cards and Trivia Crack Adventure. Cards is more directed to male consumers, while Adventure is more along the lines of the regular brand. Those two went very well, and are still growing. We’re working to make four new games next year, so we’re very busy now. We reached 2 million downloads in the first few months, and we were among the top five trivia games in most countries. We’re very pleased with our results.
GamesBeat: What helped you release so many games in 2020 compared to 2019?
Cavazzani: We were working for a long time on our gaming platform. We’ve been working on what we call Escalator, constructing a platform to make new games. In the past, we had to start over with the infrastructure, the base of the game, like registration and monetization. That usually took at least three months. Now we can just do it in an hour with one line of code. The platform took around two years, with much of the work done last year.
We tried to learn from successful games like Trivia Crack and Word Crack, generating good practices and forming the shape of what a good game should be in terms of the games we do. These very social, very casual games. We take that platform and try to think of new games based on those practices. It’s difficult to build a good game, but it’s much more difficult to build a business around it. We try to make the experience we’ve built with our games into something that’s reusable in the next iteration.
We’re aiming to be the company releasing the most games in South America, but not in a hypercasual way. We want to make well-constructed projects in the regular casual field. That’s where we’re experts.
GamesBeat: How are your teams set up? You have about 450 people. How many projects are you usually working on at once?
Cavazzani: We have people between Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Berlin. We have others in Mexico and Brazil, but they’re not making games. They work on advertising and business relationships. We’re divided up into teams of 10 to 50 people, depending on the game. We have what we call genesis teams making new games based on our platform. Then we have people building the platform itself, and we have performance teams managing games that are doing well, like Trivia Crack or Word Crack.
We’ve been trying different ways of organizing ourselves. We’ve found that this way, people can concentrate on certain aspects of releasing a game. For example, building new things, thinking about new gameplay, and using the good practices we’ve found in the past. Others are searching for those practices and finding out how to raise our average revenue per daily active user (ARPDAU, or a measure of how much daily users spend) and retention in an incremental way. We have people who specialize in trivia content and how we can improve the user-generated content experience. It’s not very different from other companies, but we take synergy very seriously.
GamesBeat: The performance team you mentioned, is that about live operations, or user acquisition?
Cavazzani: That could be a confusing distinction, yeah. We have a performance team for UA, and that team is around 30 people. But then we have–what we call performance, you have a good game with an audience, like Trivia Crack, and then you focus on making it better in retention, engagement, and monetization. One of the aims of that team is to make the game better, but the second aim is to find practices or numbers or data that can help the next game’s developers to do more than start from scratch. Our strategy is to be connected in terms of what we learn about making games and use that in terms of technology and product to make new games.
GamesBeat: As far as monetization goes, are you more advertising-heavy than some mobile game companies? What does your mix look like?
Cavazzani: We’re one of the few companies that has been drawing revenue mostly from ads in the gaming space. We’ve been doing that for almost 10 years now. We monetize our games through ads, and we also spend a lot of time and effort on building ad technology. We sell ads for other companies in South America as well. We represent 1,800 titles from other companies like Rovio or Sega so they can monetize through ads in South America.
We also work on our own technology for serving ads in a way where–what we see is that most of the industry’s ad serving is managed by non-gaming companies that take advantage of them. They use their data to impose their own game. We’re trying to democratize that through technology, and I think we’re doing very well in that direction. In some time you’ll hear more from us about what we’re doing in that field. But in general, we think there’s a lot to do there, a lot of ways to generate value from our standpoint.
GamesBeat: How do you balance the emphasis between trivia-related games and other titles?
Cavazzani: That’s one of the key aspects of what we do. How much do we stick to what we do very well and how much do we innovate? We have the company almost divided into two spheres. We have people working to make the trivia games better, or make the next generation of trivia games, and then we have another part of the company, about half of the company, that’s thinking about new games and working on new experiments.
For example, Trivia Crack Adventure was actually based on a previous game we released at the beginning of the year. The basic mechanics are similar, but we applied trivia to it, and it worked very well. Sometimes you need to think a bit outside the box, and sometimes it’s a good idea to return to your roots. Our idea as a company is to release games that are trivia-related or user content-related and innovate through new ways of doing that, but also trying to think about the next generation of casual games, whether related to trivia or not.
We’ve decided to focus on a particular type of game in that they’re not hypercasual and not core games. They’re casual, social games where most people can play and make friends and have a social experience. One thing we plan to incorporate a lot in the next year is real time. It’s not just about technology, but how our games are going to look. We’re trying to explore that in our new generation of products, and I think we’re doing very well. Each game we release is more aligned with what we expect. That tells us we’re making progress.
One thing I’ve seen in the industry now is that companies are not releasing a lot of games. That’s another thing that differentiates us from the rest.
GamesBeat: With the four games you’re targeting in 2021, what categories are you going after?
Cavazzani: One of the new main categories we’re thinking about is brain puzzles, the extension of that idea. We want to extend what we did with trivia into more diverse gameplay. There are games in that field, but we feel they’re very casual. They don’t offer anything deeper. We’re looking at things like escape rooms and other mental challenges. That’s one field we’re investigating.
Another is related to how we can do a social multiplayer experience that’s very casual. We feel that there’s a space to explore in the casual multiplayer field. We expect to do some experiments around projects there. Of course, that takes more time, because we have to think about how that can express into a product that becomes a viable business. But that’s one thing we carry in the company, being able to rely on our traditional products that work, and then experiment with different things that we can explore and that might become better than what we’ve been doing before.
GamesBeat: As far as hiring goes, what’s the situation there? Are you expanding?
Cavazzani: We are. We’re hiring inside Argentina inside what I call a new office, but we’re obviously not able to go to the office. Eventually we’ll open our new office in Mendoza, which is another part of Argentina. We’re also expanding in Montevideo, where we’ve more than doubled our square feet of office, and we’re hiring in Berlin. Berlin is a small studio, but it’s growing and doing great stuff. We plan to keep expanding. Our efforts in trying to share more and having something to start with on new projects, that will give us a head start in terms of competition in the next two years.
GamesBeat: How do you feel about the industry generally, about mobile games? What do you think about dealing with what Apple is doing around the retirement of the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA)?
Cavazzani: It’s one of those things that happens every couple of years, where a big player changes the rules a bit and you have to accommodate that. I feel like the rankings are broken. When you see the top 100 games in the app stores, they don’t represent the best games. It’s not what it used to be five years ago. Apple is moving in that direction, and also toward more privacy. Blindly being able to detect payers in the field, I don’t know if that benefits the industry in the long term.
It’s something we have to deal with. Some players will move out of the equation and others will maybe think it’s a good thing. I don’t think everyone will lose. I do feel that the industry needs more innovation. As the industry became more stable, game companies made more money and had more expectations, and innovation slowed. I feel like a new time of innovation will come in the next few years, when the audience tires of playing the same thing over and over.
GamesBeat: As I understand it, the changes won’t affect established brands as dramatically as they might affect newcomers or people who are aggressively advertising new titles. Would you agree with that?
Cavazzani: Yes, I do. Again, it’s a playing field. Very big companies may be able to find ways to innovate, but it’s more difficult for them. I believe that some will. But the newcomers have their challenges, because it’s difficult to build a business. It’s expensive to become profitable. It’s expensive to stop being profitable. On both sides of the equation you have a problem. I believe that mid-sized companies with a focus on innovation will be the ones that audiences will move toward.
Again, I don’t believe the big players will lose a lot of users, but they’ll lose them slowly. Innovating means drawing away your effort from what’s working, and that prevents innovation. When you have to innovate, and you also have to spend $5 million to make a game that has a chance of succeeding, it’s very difficult for small companies. That’s where I feel like mid-sized companies can find a sweet spot.
GamesBeat: Are you always going to focus on multiplayer and social games?
Cavazzani: People like to not have to wait anymore. Waiting for other users, like they used to do years ago, isn’t what they want. Instant multiplayer is one option, as opposed to asynchronous multiplayer, and the other option is single-player. We’ve seen that people are shifting toward those two ways of playing. Of course single-player is easier when it comes to building content and an experience for the user. Multiplayer is all about matching you with the right player in the right game.
In trivia we’re investigating both ends there, and outside trivia as well. We expect to come up with new ideas to deal with the question. But yes, we see that tendency in our users.
GamesBeat: How mature do you think the market is in South America today, compared to when you were getting started?
Cavazzani: As a consumer market it’s advanced pretty well. When we started, Argentina and Brazil weren’t making any money. Now they’re doing well. It’s not the same amount of money per user that you get in the states, but it’s approaching the level of Spain or other small European countries. It’s a big market. Brazil is huge. Argentina, Colombia, they’re huge countries. With the pandemic, I feel like people are acquiring bank accounts and credit cards much faster than they used to. The industry is tied very much to that, to users finding ways to spend money. Next year I think we’ll see growth in the South American market like never before.
GamesBeat: Even though you’re a global company, do you put extra resources into South American in some way?
Cavazzani: Our biggest market is still the United States. We’re good at monetizing in Latin America, because we’re big there and we help other companies there. That’s how we stand in Latin America. As far as production, yes, when we started no one was doing games in Latin America. Now we have a few companies. Not a lot, but you have companies in Brazil, in Argentina, some mid-sized companies. On both ends we’re advancing pretty quickly.
GamesBeat: Are you exploring any new platforms? Are you looking at things like instant games or messaging games?
Cavazzani: We’ve done some research on instant games. We’ve done a lot of research, and in fact are very successful, on Alexa and Google Home. We’re the most played game in the world there. We’ve tested some VR ideas a few years ago. We’re always trying to see what might be the next thing. We’re now working on trying to put our games everywhere, even in Tesla cars.
We had great success with Instagram filters. Those worked very well at bringing users to our games. It was a good way to work with our content outside of the app. We’re always trying to find new ways to put our content out there. When the Apple Watch was released, we were the first game there.
GamesBeat: Why do you think Trivia Crack really took off? What do you think your successful games have in common?
Cavazzani: I’d start by saying that we make games that are actually gamified social networks. We try to make games that bring people together. The content is built by other people. The important thing is the connection and the experience. That builds up a brand. In the states, half of the population has downloaded our games. That’s a very strong brand. It’s something we build by making games that are interesting, that are for everyone, and that adapt to the user. They’re also based on simple mechanics, like trivia, that can create deep experiences.
I often say that our games are more like Facebook than Clash Royale. That’s the general idea. We try to find the best ways of doing that. Sometimes it works very well, like with Trivia Crack, and sometimes it doesn’t. But I like to say we’re making bets, making moon shots. Games should be something that needs exploration, because nobody knows what works and what doesn’t. But where we try to focus is on learning, on building technology where we can learn what people like. We’ve learned a lot. When we make games, we use the things we know will work, and we try to experiment with some other things we think might work.
We’ve tried, in the past, doing games that we don’t understand. That was a formula for disaster. But we did it to try and build our understanding. Now we’re very focused on what we do. We’re in a kind of game that’s always there, always waiting for a new hit to come along. The last few games we’ve released are in the ballpark of what we want to do, but the best is yet to come.
GamesBeat: What do you think you’ve learned from some of those mistakes?
Cavazzani: If you’re in an industry where synergy can be applied, like this one, and you don’t do that — if you start from scratch each time — it won’t work. You need to learn from each of the games you released. Each one should get better from the same amount of effort. You need to learn about how to build content and how to approach the user.
We’ve tried to build Etermax into one whole company, rather than just a collection of 20 teams. A company that’s following one strategy as a whole, that learns, that’s able to A/B test and find things that are valuable to the business and grow from there. Then, we try to apply that to something that makes sense for the user, to games that entertain, connect, and help people learn. In the long term, people value that more than games that are just fun right now.
Sometimes the industry confuses “casual” with “short term.” Casual isn’t just about the short term. Casual is a way of connecting, a broader approach to the users.
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