This month, developer Hothead Games launched Big Win Football, the next entry in their wildly popular sports series for iOS and Android. While the team at Hothead routinely creates excellent mobile titles, did you know they started as a console developer? Having found success in both gaming worlds, Hothead Games is a shining example of how to make the jump from console game development to mobile.
We sat down with Hothead Games Director of Marketing Oliver Birch to discuss the transition, what the pain points were and how they continue to succeed.
TJ: Several of your latest titles, such as Big Win Baseball and Zombie Ace, have been well received by users and critics alike. What do you think it is that makes these games so popular?
OB: We all spent a lot of time playing on our phones and getting rocket surgery degrees to get this far, so at least we know it was worth it!
It is a competitive marketplace so we feel that it is our job as developers to create unique, super-fun experiences that delight the player and grab their attention as quickly as possible, involving them in the action straight away. We want to “WOW” the users!
TJ: Take us through how and when the decision was made to jump into mobile development. When did you decide to focus on mobile games, and what were the major factors that affected that decision?
OB: We started making console games for the digital download market when the company was formed in 2006. A lot of Hotheads were developing bigger retail console games like Simpson’s Hit and Run, Hulk: Ultimate Destruction and Scarface: The World is Yours before that.
Mobile development started to become a topic of discussion at Hothead in 2010, while we were still developing the third episode of our DeathSpank console game series – The Baconing. We had to decide what to move onto next.
We always knew that the potential audience reach in mobile outweighed the digital console world significantly and the vast number of daily mobile device activations hinted at a much bigger market to target. It is obvious now that this is where the significant growth is happening in the gaming industry.
The decision was made at that point to go all-in on mobile and we haven’t looked back. Not one person in the company had any mobile experience, so it was a big leap into the unknown that we had to prepare for.
For starters, we took our one, large console team and created four, smaller mobile teams. Our risks were spread over a number of games and in theory, more games should potentially result in more revenue.
Understanding what kind of games to develop was our first company-wide debate. We reviewed other successful games in the Apple App Store™ and Google Play™ and dedicated time to new ideas and prototyping so that we could get to grips with mechanics, like the devices themselves and their user input gestures. Determining the gaps in the market became a full time process initially.
The app stores themselves prompted a new way of thinking: all of a sudden, we needed to be aware of promotional features, store rank algorithms, percentage of territory sales by country, and more. And while we were super excited by the amount of data we would have to back up our theories, little did we know how much data we would have access to! We hired a Business Intelligence Manager from outside the gaming industry to provide us with useful insights to help us determine our publishing strategies and tactics.
Other daily challenges remain: user acquisition, retention and monetization are still the pillars of our strategies today. Obviously, Tapjoy is one of the strings in our bow that helps us across all these areas of our business.
Looking back nearly two years later, we reflect an incredible amount of learning and admit that at first we didn’t understand the mobile marketplace at all. We weren’t afraid to try everything and anything so that we would learn quickly. This was the right approach and benefited us after six months or so.
TJ: How has Hothead’s origins as a console gaming company played into your current mobile lineup?
OB: Funnily enough, some of the Hothead team that developed the original Scarface game for PlayStation 2 have also worked on our newly launched Scarface game for mobile. In the words of Tony Montana, “Every dog has his day”, but sometimes every dog has two days!
The two games are worlds apart from a product point of view, mainly because of the differences in platforms and audiences. However, in both games, we were able to represent authentic Scarface experiences paying homage to one of the most iconic movie brands in existence.
Our console pedigree shines through in our current games, and the high production value we bring to each title (like Scarface) help to set Hothead’s games apart. As mobile gaming devices become even more sophisticated with powerful processors and displays, we can see how our console past can help take advantage of the new world gaming order.
Now, in the mobile space, we can iterate quicker and update more frequently based on real user feedback and analysis of the data. This is a new area of publishing for us and we have had to adapt our outlook and development process accordingly.
TJ: How would you advise others who are thinking of making the move into mobile from console?
OB: With the user feedback so readily available and the ability to update frequently, we were determined to start with minimum viable products at launch. This is actually difficult to achieve with all the “good ideas” we have, but when we did stick to this philosophy it helped us to develop the “right” game for the audience.
TJ: Tell us about your approach to analytics. What analytics solution do you use? What KPIs do you track most carefully? How do analytics impact your decisions on new features and game mechanics?
OB: We now have a department dedicated to analytics and this team is working closely with the marketing, user acquisition and product teams. There is constant communication between all parties as our marketing efforts and promotional plans now require collaboration and coordination.
We track a number of KPIs depending on what we are trying to understand or make sense of. The usual DAU, ARPDAU numbers keep us on our toes each day and we check our MAU related numbers to keep an eye on stickiness and to assess the improvements we make to our games.
Conversion-to-spend is another obvious metric—but like any of the indicators, they only tell you part of the story, and we believe they shouldn’t be viewed in isolation. Sometimes we delve really deep into game metrics and looking for answers can become a kind of drawn-out treasure hunt.
It’s a relief to have people dedicated to this area of the business that can use the various tools and dashboards to get to the heart of the situation and present the key information back to the business.
TJ: Now that you’ve launched the latest title in the Big Win series, what’s next for Hothead?
OB: I can’t say too much, but players can expect more Big Win Sports titles and Scarface Player Vs Player—plus an Android version of Scarface and Jaws Revenge.
We have other secret projects that will be out before the end of 2012. One has a military theme and the other is set in the past! That is all we can tell you right now!
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