Interview: Appy on Freemium

The studio behind Face Fighter and SpellCraft talks about their place in the freemium games market.

In case you haven’t noticed, here on TouchGen there has been a lot of discussion regarding the state of freemium games on the App Store. While we’ve certainly reached out to a few studios, none has really jumped at the chance to comment on this topic. Then I got an email from the fine folks at Appy. Appy broke into the App Store market with Face Fighter Ultimate, an awesome app that lets you essentially beat the crap out of anyone by taking a picture of them. We had a lot of fun with this game when it was first released… probably too much fun. Appy followed that up with Trucks and Skulls NITRO, a fun stunt destruction game. Both of these games were paid titles at launch, and have since become freemium titles. Appy’s first major foray into the freemium world is SpellCraft School of Magic, a game that combines elements of farming, dungeon crawling, deck building, and PvP. Not coincidently, this is one of the games I will be discussing in the upcoming part 4 of my Freemium Manifesto series.

Yes, it’s actually a good freemium game.

I was able to sit down with Paul O’Connor, the Brand Director and co-founder of Appy Entertainment, Inc., to discuss his thoughts on freemium games, and where SpellCraft School of Magic fits into their big picture. I was pleseantly surprised at how forthright Paul was in answering my questions, and I think you’ll be too.

Hi Paul, thanks for giving us a chance to talk. This first question may be a bit too open-ended, but what is your opinion on the current state of freemium games? Good or bad?

One of freemium’s biggest advantages is getting people to try new genres and new types of gameplay. Since we specialize in creating original IP and high-quality games, we’re very excited about freemium. Furthermore, the market is speaking with their wallet and clearly the market wants freemium games (between 70 and 80 percent of the top ten games on the App Store are free).  But there is still a fair amount of range within freemium — from open-ended games like SpellCraft to hyper-competitive menu-grinders.

The best freemium games of today (Temple Run, Tiny Tower) are tremendous efforts from designers who are playing a big part in creating an entirely new art form based on interactivity, social gameplay and 21st century buying habits.

Very true. What kind of research went into developing SpellCraft as a freemium title?

Mostly we learned by doing. We pivoted two of our premium apps — FaceFighter and Trucks & Skulls — from premium to freemium, and kept a close eye on what worked. We are also finding our own voice in building these kinds of games.

In SpellCraft, how did you decide what items should be free and which items should require paid currency? How do paid items affect the balance of the game?

We feel like we are creating “virtual Disneylands.” We don’t put hard paywalls in our games — you can keep playing as long as you like. We hope that after you’ve played awhile that you’ll think it a bargain to spend as much money as you think the game is worth, which is the great thing about free-to-play games. The player gets to decide what he or she wants to spend. You don’t have to buy the mouse ear hat, but you can if you want to!

SpellCraft is a largely self-directed dungeon crawl, and you can play the game just with the gold you earn from beating monsters in the dungeon. If players want to jumpstart their game, they can purchase currency or they can grow it in their nursery with Gold Berry plants (money DOES grow on trees after all!).

This works for SpellCraft because it is mostly a one-player game. We do have a player-versus-player dueling system, and some players have complained that they are at a disadvantage if they enter the arena au naturel. In our last update we introduced some dueling gear that gives players extra options in the dueling zone (which can be purchased with the free, low-value gold currency). That should help bring down some of the armored behemoths that were ruling our multiplayer. It’s an ongoing process – we’re in this for the long-run :)

It makes me happy to know you’re taking that feedback into consideration! If you’re willing to share, has there been a major difference in profit between SpellCraft and previous paid titles you have released?

SpellCraft has shown more staying power, earnings-wise, than our early premium successes, which tended to be heavily front-loaded in terms of revenue. SpellCraft is showing a longer and thicker tail of downloads and revenue than our previous games; both FaceFighter and Trucks & Skulls have also enjoyed renewed profitability since we changed them from premium to freemium.

Very interesting. Out of curiosity, what percentage of people who download SpellCraft actually spend money on it?

We’re hitting our targets, and are encouraged that players are choosing to pay for our work. It tells us we’re on the right path and that quality counts in freemium.

SpellCraft has been out for two and half months now. Are you guys in the black yet? If so, how soon did you reach that point? How does this compare to previous paid titles you have released?

SpellCraft has experienced more downloads that our last title (Trucks & Skulls), but made a bit less revenue for the same period of time. However, SpellCraft is continuing to build an audience, while Trucks & Skulls as a premium game peaked in the first month thanks to Apple’s support – Trucks was Apple’s iPad and iPhone Game of the Week.

I see, so SpellCraft has a more gradual profit curve but it is still growing. Well it is certainly  a good-looking game. Unlike many other freemium titles, it appears you guys put a good amount of work into visual assets for the game, along with other things. How long was SpellCraft in development?

About six months. We ended up holding SpellCraft out about a month longer than originally scheduled to apply an extra layer of polish and make sure the game was balanced. At Appy we are devoted to building high-quality, polished, and unique experiences that provoke sudden bursts of happiness in our players. The Appy brand means everything to us.

How did you test SpellCraft? Was there a specific QA team, or did it consist mainly of friends and family? I’m always curious how games get reviewed and tested, because I’m used to seeing so many bad games, and I wonder how in the world they were ever released.

We have an internal QA staff here at Appy. The game was tested internally throughout development, and we did a formal (and exhaustive) internal test for about three weeks prior to launch. Then we went out in a “soft launch” in one international market for ten days before pushing the game live to the United States and worldwide.

That’s good to hear, as “family & friends” betas don’t always work. On a different note, what are some things that have surprised you about releasing a freemium? What things were not the least bit surprising?

Things have gone pretty much exactly as we anticipated (we had a little preview of how this might go from moving Trucks & Skulls and FaceFighter over to free to play earlier in 2011). A pleasant surprise has been the degree to which players have been engaged by SpellCraft — we get a LOT of mail about the game, everything from suggestions for improvement to players just wanting to chat about their characters and experience.

I’d say our players, on average, are emotionally invested in the game. I think part of that is the role-playing nature of SpellCraft. More importantly, it’s a game you play every day – and where success is earned through consistent effort – so we have attracted players that like to dive deep in the game’s universe, making it a part of their daily life. And that, frankly, is enormously flattering and gratifying.

If you had to do it all over again, is there anything you would do differently?

We might have cut scope to allow us to finish the game earlier — not to get it onto the market sooner, but to allow a longer window for our live soft launch. We were up against Christmas which dictated some of our launch strategy. Instead of a ten-day soft launch we’d like to have thirty or sixty days to really shake down the game and ship at least one major update based on player behavior and the bugs that inevitably come to light when you move from dozens of testers to tens of thousands of daily players.

Thanks for being so up front with us. It’s often hard to get straightforward answers from app developers. Do you have anything else to say to our readers?

All we ask is that players have patience with this emerging form and give it a fair chance. There are lots of different ways to buy and play games but we are all seeking to entertain. I hope the day will shortly come where our games aren’t notable for the way they monetize so much as for the ways they make you laugh and the joy they inspire when shared with friends. The other thing I’d ask is that players support the work of developers they appreciate with a purchase. Even just a dollar or two adds up over time, and it will encourage Appy and other pioneers in this field to keep improving our craft and creating great games for everyone to enjoy.

Thanks, Paul!

SpellCraft School of Magic is currently available on the App Store for free with in-app purchases.

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  • Mrdender

    Wow, really good interview I am going to download SpellCraft right now!