Small Giant Games’ credo is “creating giant games with a small team” and that’s exactly what the they did with their latest mobile release Empires & Puzzles.
In the first part of our interview with Small Giant Games’ CEO Timo Soininen we talked about the studio’s and team’s history, former projects and the basic yet most crucial components of their latest mobile release Empires & Puzzles. In part #2 we want to go a little deeper and find out what made the mobile sector the most interesting for Timo and his team. Enjoy!
So now that we know about your game, its different components and how they interlock, what exactly made you go and try your luck in a sector of the gaming industry that is as overflooded as the mobile sector? What was that one crucial component that made you say “What we have here is totally different from the all the rest. It’s going to help us stand out, get recognized and be successful!”
Timo: Well, this is a very good question. You know, one of the top executives in the games industry just recently said that there’s basically two ways to be successful in this business. One way is to clarify an idea, strip a game from everything not necessary and in the end, you have a really, focused game. Clash Royale, for example, is a game that really focuses super-sharp on the casual, yet demanding PvP combat and just makes that work perfect.
Then there are games that kind of do the exact opposite and succeed by combining a lot of things together in a clever and unique way. We chose this strategy of making a unique combination. The game ideas we had presented an awesome opportunity to combine different elements into one huge package that would be surprisingly accessible and welcoming.
The other thing that strongly affected the direction we’ve taken came from looking at a lot of the absolute top RPG games. There are some fantastic games there but quite many of them, in our opinion, were a bit intimidating or even unwelcoming if you weren’t, let’s say, a hard-core player that already knows everything about these games. They just make it hard for a lot of interested players to get on board.
So, we knew we wanted to create a game that would do two things well: First, the game would combine the fast-and-fun match-3 combat with a large variety of other great game elements. Secondly, it had to be really welcoming in aesthetics and gameplay. It shouldn’t feel intimidating, too dark or grim to begin with. The game is supposed to walk you through all the core mechanics smoothly to get you a good picture of what the game is really about.
With two weeks since the launch (note: about 1.5 weeks when the interview was done) – does the game, so far, perform the way you hoped for? First time I checked there were around 10k downloads on iOS.
Timo: We are indeed quite pleased about how the game is performing. It went live March 2nd on iOS and Android on most of the markets around the world and currently our focus is on the North American market, Germany, the UK, Spain, Italy – the big European and Western markets. We are a very small team so we must choose what markets to tackle first, but so far, we are extremely happy about the player feedback and engagement in the game.
It’s good to remember that these huge RPG’s aren’t about being a “flash in the pan”, so to speak, where you get a lot downloads immediately and enjoy one weekend of success – it’s all about great player engagement and community building. The retention metrics are on a very healthy level – we see that players stay with the game for a really long time. We tested the game in Canada and Australia for several months before global launch and we are very pleased to see that the pretty much all metrics exceed the already healthy results we saw during the testing.
How much of an edge does being part of the industry for such a long time give you when it comes to launching a title like this?
Timo: Well, we are a small team, just 13 people altogether. This is a big game and we developed it in a record time, around 11 months from scratch. I think these numbers are remarkable but this required a team of super talented and motivated people who know exactly what to do. From a game design perspective, we also had a very clear plan for the game. We didn’t deviate from that plan during the development to basically any notable degree and that’s how we got it done so quickly. I think that was the edge that we had – a solid plan with even more solid execution.
From this point forward you are planning on doing monthly updates?
Timo: That is our plan, yes. There may be some smaller updates coming in faster, but our big plan is to make sure that when we launch new content it’s worthwhile. We have a very active dialogue with the player community so we’re all ears about them. At the end of the day that’s what it is: We want to create a fun game and add new cool features for our players. Even many of the seemingly straightforward game elements we have now came from discussions with players that have been with us since the early testing. We obviously now have a huge wish list we are looking at, trying to prioritize what we should do next, and there’s some awesome stuff coming to the game in the future updates.
So I guess with the launch accomplished, the worst part seems to be over and you can lean back, at least a little.
Timo: (laughs) Yeah, of course and as I said, we’re super happy. And yes, our approach was not the most typical one. We went live very early, with a really rough version of the game that had a lot of promise but a lot of super rough edges, just to test the components. Then we listened to users, we were looking at how people progressed and what the players were asking for. Because of this kind of dialogue, for example, we pushed to get the multiplayer alliances into the game sooner rather than later. We actually even delayed the launch a bit just to make sure we had enough time to for the alliances to be present in the global launch.
Are there any plans to launch the game on PC?
Timo: Not for now – let’s see how it goes. At this point our challenges simply relate to the fact we are such a small team focusing on improving the core game experience, so our bandwidth for anything else is limited at the moment. But it is an interesting thought. We are developing on Unity, so it should be easy for us to bring the game to other platforms as well.
You should give it a thought. The mechanics are fun and actually kind of adictive, I have to give you that! But as I mentioned before – personally I’d always have to choose between playing a game on my phone and dealing with an empty battery before I even get to work or … well, calling or texting people … (laughs).
But more importantly: Your website says Small Giants are hiring. Could you elaborate?
Timo: Yes, we are hiring a couple of more developers as well as considering how to get more bandwidth into community management. We just hired a new community manager but we need some more people to interact with players. Marketing is yet another field where we are looking for great people to join our team.
There actually is another question I forgot to ask when we were talking about the heroes, it’s about the loot you mentioned. Is there actual loot in the typical sense of weapons or armor or is only items and consumables like potions and scrolls?
Timo: Aside from the consumables, valuables and common resources there are indeed various specific loot items to collect. These specific items, such as herbs and adventurer’s tools are used to either craft new consumables or to upgrade heroes. Upgrading a high tier hero beyond his maximum level, just for example, might require a combo of items such as a leather jacket, a special sword and a magical compass. Especially the rarest hero upgrade materials are highly sought after in the game.
So no typical item slots like in a … uhm, let’s say Diablo. You get armor and weapons, but they’re still treated kind of like herbs and ores. If you want to upgrade that one special hero, you need a bundle of grass, two loads of iron, three oak branches and a set of navy blue coats – like that?
About currencies: The game itself is downloadable and playable for free. Ingame-purchases solely include gems you can use what for exactly?
Timo: Yes, the main currency is gems that the can be used many ways. While the entire story of the game is playable through without using any gems, many players do appreciate that extra battle items can be bought directly when needed or that heroes can be revived for a small fee after a battle that has gone wrong. Base construction, also entirely doable without gem purchases, can be accelerated if you’re in a hurry to complete any of the work with the buildings. The most widespread use for gems, however, are the hero summons. There we offer various options to try and get rare heroes faster than with the normal hero training.
At this point I have to ask, because as soon as there is a PvP component as well as the possibility of purchasing goods like said battle items or summoning higher level heroes – doesn’t that give you an unfair advantage over your PvP-opponents, when spending money on a currency grants you access to better characters and equipment or are items like those deactivated in duels?
Timo: That is a very good and fair question, yes. First, we have a PVP matchmaking solution looks to match you against similarly powerful opponents based on your trophies – sometimes the opponents are slightly more difficult, sometimes they’re slightly easier, but generally you’ll find good fights whenever you play. Second, we don’t allow battle items to be taken to PVP. They’re meant to be crucial part of planning and strategizing for the battles against monsters in various PVE modes, but in PVP they’re just not part of the rules. Third, higher rarity heroes can indeed be very powerful in PVP, but unless player spends the time and effort required to power them up they’re not much use against well trained lower tier characters.
That does sound absolutely fair, you seem to have found a good way. Given, if you want to purchase currencies and/or items to progress faster in a single player campaign/game … well, it’s your money and therefore your decision, but in the end it doesn’t affect anyone but yourself. That’s not the case in competitive gaming …
Timo: Definitely! I think the most crucial component is our matchmaking-system. Thanks to it you always play against players at roughly similar level. Of course, both luck and skill do affect the battles as well, which is pretty unique in this genre. Choosing the right target for a special attack can make a huge difference, there’s always the ‘best’ match to make somewhere and, well, sometimes you just get lucky with the combos, destroying a player with a seemingly stronger deck in one massive attack chain!
How about regular PvE-missions you access on the world – are they randomized as well, every time you play them or are they scripted?
Timo: There are currently two kinds of PVE missions. The first type is the Story where you advance across a continent, conquering 20+provinces that all have dozens of levels within them. These levels are all scripted with specific enemies at specified levels with story sequences shown between the provinces. You do fight some PVP battles as part of the story experience as well, but in these cases the matchmaking picks opponents that match the story progression instead of your trophies.
The other mission type, Quests, get activated once you’re bit further in the game. The Quests are short ‘mini-stories’ that are on a separate map with new content every day. The Quests have more specified rewards and challenges, so one day you may have a Quest where all the loot is comprised of gems, or another day you’ll find a rare Quest where the final loot at the end of many levels is a guaranteed rare hero upgrade material. We’re really looking forward to adding more of these dynamic and challenging missions soon.
The end content for all those who already completed all of the 200 regular story missions …
Timo: The Quests are activated on player level 10 which does not take that long to get to, so Quests are not end game content in any way. Instead of thinking of end game we really want to add much more story, many more quests and altogether new competitive events into game first. Maybe once these are there for the players to enjoy we’ll concentrate on the end content.
So we talked about the game itself and the launch going well, but before we’ll get together again in a few months to talk about how things – in retrospective – worked out overall: What are your plans and wishes for the game until then, for the next weeks and months?
Timo: Well, like I mentioned we are quite pleased about the way the launch went and about the helpful feedback we get from the players. So right now, there seems to be enough variety and depth in the game and that’s the most important thing. Now we focus on making sure the game stays fun and engaging for the players and will also start growing and promoting the game in different countries, working together with the community. We sincerely hope that Empires & Puzzles becomes more than just a game for players, that it becomes a bit of a hobby – that’s what we’d really love to see happen. And I think we’re on a good path here, seeing how people enjoy the game and discuss about it in the live chats.
If we can create a game that becomes kind of like a social environment where people enjoy the various competitive, co-operative and solo activates, then I think we’ve succeeded and everything else for us will follow from that point forward.
So I guess Empires & Puzzles is the game you are putting all your focus on and there are no plans for new games, at least in the near future?
Timo: Not in the near future, no. We have plenty ideas and even prototypes for new games ready, but it would simply be too much for a team of that size. This game is the one we now continue to work on heavily, to keep it fun and engaging.
And I think you are on a very good way – all the best for your game Empires & Puzzles and thank you so much for your time!