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.
Being successful in the mobile game sector isn’t something you just accomplish. Even the greatest game of all times might simply drown in the daily flood of new releases. So why would a new studio set their focus on developing a mobile game with absolutely no guarantee for success? Small Giant Games from Finland did so and we had the pleasure to talk to CEO Timo Soininen – about the studios’ history, their latest release Empires & Puzzles and, of course, why he and his team of actual gaming industry veterans would explicitly choose the mobile market.
Please note: While the interview is about recent events around the time of the game’s launch, we will continue the topic in one of the upcoming issues of Making Games, in which Small Giant Games will look back in retrospective on how things actually worked out. Stay tuned!
Timo, thank you for your time. To get us all up to speed, please tell us a little about yourself, about your company and of course about your latest mobile title Empires & Puzzles, that released a little more than a week ago.
Timo: Sure, we’re Small Giant Games, a bunch of, let’s say, gaming veterans coming together here in Finland. The core team of Small Giant, including myself, are also some of core team members behind Habbo Hotel. We started back in 2001 and basically build that to a pretty big virtual gaming world for teenagers. Myself and others, we left that company 4-5 years ago. Shortly after that Habbo’s former head of studio Otto Nieminen called us up and said “Hey, you wanna put a new ‘rock band’ together?” And we all said “Hell yeah!”
So Small Giant Games in its current state exists since 2013?
Timo: We practically got going in between 2013 and early 2014, when people started coming in. We did our first financing round around September or October 2013 and an even bigger round one year later, so after all we had a capital of around 3.1 million Euros in total and we have this new round coming this year. It was basically the core team together again. We’ve worked up to ten years together and so we know each other really well. We also managed to lure some of the top developers to join in as well, in addition to Markus Halttunen, the former CTO of Habbo. In addition to that we’ve been able to recruit new international talents into our company. Also our lead game designer Tim Lönnqvist has a very strong background from back in the early days of mobile games, working back then with the guys of Supercell. Also he was most recently at Remedy as a designer on Alan Wake and Quantum Break on the console side. We have a very interesting mix of competence, from pioneers of Free-2-Play to AAA-titles. I think that’s one of the reasons why so many interesting people came together – the mix of people with backgrounds in social gaming, Free-2-Play and deeper understandings of gaming structures, even of big games.
Which makes your decision even more interesting: On the one hand Small Giant is a pretty young studio, that – on the other hand – consists primarily of veterans from the gaming industry with, at times, decades of experience. So why exactly did you choose to put your efforts into a mobile title?
Timo: Well, obviously the sheer size of the mobile market makes it the predominant platform and we basically wanted to create games that can reach millions and millions of users. We felt that there is a big opportunity going forward. Having said that, we all know that it’s super competitive. Every company, even two guys and a dog can probably create beautiful games nowadays and go to the market. But we started out over three years ago, working on casual games because some of our graphical designers are super talented – they almost have a Disney-like skill set – and we had an interesting concept for a new type of endless casual game. So we launched Oddwings, a beautiful type of flying game with sort of new control mechanics and lots of other smaller innovations – and we aimed to really change the paradigm of casual game retention, offering a little bit more than what most casual games were offering. We got several millions of downloads but in terms of monetization we didn’t do a good job because we were too ambitious in our project. One very blunt conclusion was that it’s very difficult to break away from the conventions in the casual games F2P-market. You have to follow the existing conventions almost to detail and only do select few micro innovations there because consumers have gotten so used to a certain flow of things in games, which makes trying to divert from that extremely difficult and risky. We were too ambitious, changing too many things and some sort of complexity started to creep in where, in hindsight, shouldn’t have been too much complexity. So basically, after a deep analysis we had to ask ourselves: Do we really want to, let’s say, open up the hood, go back to tweaking the “engine” and try it again?
We were talking to a lot of fellow colleagues from several studios here in Finland. The conventional wisdom and our own conclusion was that such a step is very difficult. Once you’ve done a new game, the live soft launch results will give you get the read if the game’s going to fly or not. As a rule of thumb changing and redesigning things is a very risky business because you will spend a lot of time, probably many months on fixing things, then have to go back into testing mode and all that without any guarantee that any of this will work.
At the same we saw that the market had started to change quite rapidly. There was a huge influx of games. At that time, I think, there were 450 to 500 new games a day. Now it’s already close to 700 new games a day and most of them are very casual. Our grim conclusion was that is very difficult to compete and to stand out there as such a small studio. So then we started working on new concepts in late 2015 and, very quickly, we created around 30 new game concepts, from casual to more or less midcore games and we created 12 prototypes in literally a month.
Was Empires & Puzzles already one of them?
Timo: No, but it was one of the important steps towards it. Basically first there was Oddwings, with the attempt to change casual games a bit. Then we took on a project called Rope Racers, a smaller multiplayer race-project that we assigned to a partial team. It launched in March 2016 and it did quite well, but it still wasn’t a big game in terms of structure and depth. During the development of Rope Racers we kept analysing the market and decided our new strategy. In early 2016 we made very big decision for our small studio, that we are going to go away from casual games completely. Our conclusion was that it is almost impossible for a new studio in today’s market to break through to the top 100 grossing list, and especially to stay there. We believe that the only way to achieve that, is to have a game that has the structure and a lot of depth so it can become a hobby for its players. Then things started coming together in terms of how the game was created. We basically had a really cool prototype by one of our developers, with a new tactical twist to traditional match-3-battling mechanic. And our game designers realized there really isn’t one game on the market that has really combined base building, hero collection and match-3-battling. That’s how the concept was started and we did a very quick prototype for video testing in Canada and in the US. It wasn’t pretty or anything but players really liked the combination. That gave us the final confirmation and we finally started working on the game with the full team about a year ago.
Before the interview I gave the game a look. Now, I honestly am not that experienced when it comes to mobile games – which is actually more about my battery dying too quickly than about mobile games themselves. However, the idea behind the battling-system actually reminded me of another game I’ve seen recently, but in combination with all the other components such as base-building as in Clash of Clans and collecting and levelling heroes it is a really fun concept. Let’s talk about those individual components.
Timo: Sure! Let’s start with the core gameplay which is based on the match-3-system. We figured said there’s already enough jewels and gems and other funny stuff out there – let’s do army shields. So we took the general concept of army shields and factions, to give the game, let’s say, more of a serious touch. So we chose the army shields and then thought about building a tactical twist into the core battle mechanic. Once you get to do a match with the shields they create these mini armies which you then launch vertically against your opponents. We then also put in elemental strenght system familiar from many Asian role playing games. When you, for example, hit a red enemy with blue shield troopers you will do double damage, so you have to tactically think about your options. It creates an additional dimension and by adding special effects and powers, it feels more like battling than doing regular match-3.
It works, I have to admit, and it’s fun. And I still catch myself thinking about my next moves before I actually execute them. So yeah, it is like you said: a simple core game with more depth than one might think in the beginning.
Timo: Exactly. So that was one of our key components. The next step was coming up with classical collecting and levelling of super hero decks. Every hero has a special skill and power and the next step was to combine it with the match-3-battling-system. And this combination of using the battle mechanics and applying and replenishing your special powers creates a really interesting dynamic. And we are really pleased about how that concept worked out: It’s welcoming, very easy to get into but pretty hard to master. And you can actually get a lot better once you start reading your opponents status whether it’s another player or NPC monsters.
We also added an additional dimension, the battle items. You can actually have different healing potions, time freezes or arrows – one-time battle items you can use when you’re in trouble. So, all of a sudden we no longer had a simple match-3, but a very tactical version of the whole thing.
How about levelling your avatar and heroes? And how do you progress in the game?
Timo: You basically have your own stronghold at which you start, fixing and preparing it. You then need to start claiming the empire. You visit this pretty big world map – we have around 200 levels at the moment and more are coming – with areas called provinces and you start claiming them, battle by battle. Once you’ve beaten all the levels and defeated the monsters and claimed a province from another player by attacking their outpost, you basically claim ownership of that province and it starts to yield different kinds of resources like iron and food and sometimes special items from that region – like taxes, in a way. It all feeds into your stronghold where you can craft items or train heroes in training camps, so it all ties back together. Completing levels also gives you special loot and gear that helps you level up the heroes further. We also have sort of a hero character summon mechanic through which you can try to get more advanced characters. You then select your own teams and train them. There is a lot of tactics involved and again: It’s very easy to get going at first, but if you want to play tactical, you have to get into it. There are lots of lively discussions in the global channels with players commenting on what are the best combinations of heroes and skills.
And then there is the base building. It’s all about setting up your mines, your farms, storages and especially the training camps and forges where you can train heroes and produce battle items. So all those areas – battles, hero collection and base building – tie together very nicely.
Player engagement, our multiplayer/PvP component, is another essential component. You can, for example, challenge players of a similar level to a 1vs1-duell in a special arena. This way you can earn trophies to rise on the leaderboards as well some more resources for your base. Another key feature, which is very important in this kind of games, is the Alliances. So we decided to introduce an alliance mode where you basically join an alliance and its purpose is to go and battle these boss-like Titans. These Titans appear periodically on the map – big, evil beasts which you have to fight together with your team members over a certain period from, let’s say, 12 to 18 hours. You must execute multiple attacks as a group and if you manage to beat the titan you will get extra loot and additional rewards for the whole team.
So there are quite a lot of things for you to do and to enjoy and it all kind of feeds back into those couple of core loops about training, getting better and setting up your dream team.
From what I’ve seen so far there is a reaaaaaally huge selection of heroes and I’ve got two questions on that: How do you get your hands on those heroes and is there a way to, let’s say, train heroes of a lower quality to rise, e.g. from a common to an uncommon or higher quality hero?
Timo: You can gain heroes in several ways. Obviously by progressing on the map and winning storyline PvE battles, this way you sometimes find heroes as additional rewards. Then, of course you can go to the training camp in your base and start training of more heroes. Even the most rare legendary heroes can be ultimately trained in the training camp – though it takes a lot of playing to get the training camp levelled up this far Or you can use the hero summon for which you basically get free roll everyday – and many quests and missions also give you more free tokens for this. And if you want to get those really rare characters you can purchase additional summons using gems.
There are five tier-levels of character rarity. Sometime you just want to have a couple of, let’s say, common or uncommon characters and sometimes you want to roll the dice to go directly the epic or legendary heroes which you then start upgrading further. The more common heroes,however, also have cool special powers and training them to a maximum and suiting them with different teams creates a really interesting mix. In the end it’s a question of how much time and effort you want to put in. Part of the fun is making your own experiences and also exchanging notes with other players on what combo of heroes actually works. When you play against other people in PvP-battles, you can look at their hero decks and at how they beat you. That actually gives you a lot of insights on how you should build a deck, it even makes a big difference in which order you position your characters. There is a lot of pretty deep tactical stuff you can get into. The good news for less advanced players, however, is, that you don’t really need to worry about it unless you want to. You can still enjoy the battles and collections, knowing more about all of it simply increases your chances of success.
So the combination of heroes and their skills plus the way you position them influences the way the match-3-system works?
Timo: Exactly. Our team of game designer Tim actually wrote a short summary including precious tips and hints, to help beginners.
How many heroes do you have in your roster?
Timo: I think we currently have around 100 and the same amount of monsters and yes, we are adding a lot more.
So you have at least 100 different heroes with individual skills, qualities and ranks, representing one of five different elements and fighting against 120 different monsters with skills and elements of their own. That is quite a way to pimp a simple mini-game, not bad.
Timo: Yeah! And we think this is really important for this kind of games. People want to be able to form their own preferences, so you have to cater for plentifulness. So as we speak we are working on the next set of characters for more advanced players who’ve been with is since we soft-launched about half a year ago. Some of those people have been really enthusiastic and are craving for more.
If you are also craving for more, check out Part 2 of our interview with Timo Soininen from Small Giant Games, coming out this week and Small Giant Games’ video channel.