Driving success on Facebook

Driving success on Facebook

KartWorld already has over 350,000 players on FacebookDespite very little marketing, new Australian indie game developer Twiitch already has over 350,000 players enjoying their latest game.

The success of KartWorld on Facebook has provided more validation for veteran local developers Shane Stevens and Steven Spagnolo that the game industry has changed dramatically in recent years.

After six years in the most senior technical roles inside global gaming publishing company THQ, the pair “could see the writing was on the wall” for the industry, and they had to adapt or perish.

Shane and Steven were co-owners of Blue Tongue Entertainment, which they sold to THQ in 2004. They then went on to become global directors of technology at THQ, visiting developers around the world performing technical due-diligence and solving problems.

THQ’s current financial difficulties, which led to the closure last year of Blue Tongue and more recent staff redundancies at THQ’s Australian office, are symptomatic of massive change currently transforming the interactive business.

Shane and Steven decided in early 2010 to jump ship and start afresh with a new studio and a new vision.

“The time was right,” Shane told Screen Play earlier in the year. “We watched the market very closely for the six years following our sale of Blue Tongue, basically not trusting where it was all going.

“Multi-year development cycles costing tens of millions of dollars just wasn’t sustainable for all but a few. The release of the iPhone and the explosion of Facebook caused a strategic, permanent shift towards the casual market, and that’s where we wanted to be.”

Shane and Steven self-funded a new independent studio in Melbourne called Twiitch, and earlier in the year release their first game Coco Loco.

Both Coco Loco and their latest release KartWorld adhere to the studio’s vision of creating  “original, fun, mobile and web-based social games that anyone can play”.

“After six years, we could see the writing was on the wall for US$30 million budget games,” says Shane. “(We) wanted to start a fresh new company focusing our sharp technical skill on games which could appeal to the masses, on devices everyone has in their pocket.”

Screen Play today chats with Shane about the aftermath of Coco Loco and how Twiitch hopes KartWorld could be the next big thing in Facebook gaming.

The full interview can be found below.

Have you been happy with Coco Loco’s sales?

Coco Loco has met our expectations thus far, but there is more to be done.

Would you have done anything differently?

We have a saying at Twiitch, “Ship it!”  The idea is to not get too precious, but to get your product to market as quickly as possible with the best quality you can.  We were a little precious about our first game/baby so took longer than we probably should have to launch.  This meant we launched around GDC, going head to head with “Angry Birds Space” and “DrawSomething” which obviously just dominated at the time.  All round, we’re very happy with Coco Loco, we’ve had awesome reviews and everyone can see how technically impressive and distinct it is, and the characters are much loved.  Still, we could have shipped a month earlier and it would have been pretty much the same.

Are you going to continue supporting the game?

Absolutely!  In fact since Coco Loco’s release, we’ve pushed a further 30 levels and two new theme packs.  Also they’re much harder, so you can forget about blasting through them like the earlier levels. We have also completed the Android version, which looks awesome on the Samsung Galaxy tablet. We’re just integrating the Amazon app store and Google Play store, and we’re going to ship.  We’re also going to release a free version on both platforms which will remove any initial friction. The next update after the Android release will see new characters and a cool new secret Cocoa character.  So yes, we intend to keep showing Coco Loco love.

Tell me about KartWorld.

KartWorld is our second project at Twiitch, and is hugely ambitious.  KartWorld is a free-to-play, synchronous, real-time kart racing game for Facebook.  You race online against your friends and other people on Facebook, winning money and gaining experience which you can use back at your garage to upgrade and buy new karts.  There are heaps of quests to complete, with other in-game characters in larger worlds, plus you can challenge your friends to beat your race times on different tracks.  You can even directly paint onto your karts and see your creations in real-time while you’re racing.  It’s awesome to see what the community has already created!

Technically, we’re pushing the boundaries of what is possible in a browser.  We use Flash, so our gamers don’t have to download anything to play our game.  We have written our own technology stack for both the game client and the cloud back-end.  We’ve invented an incredible new rendering technique that allows us to have karts with exquisite detail, yet can be custom painted by players, plus real kart physics giving a ‘console’ feel to the game.  We also invented a cool control mechanic, after a lot of iterations, so anyone of any skill level could pick the game and not touch the keyboard.  In can steer the karts with nothing more than the mouse cursor!  If you’re hardcore, you can still use the keyboard if you like.

Twiitch’s DNA is in the cloud, so it’s no surprise that we’ve gone all out on our back-end infrastructure.  This is where our technical background in the games business has come into its own in this new social field.  We built KartWorld from the ground up to scale, and it’s performed perfectly since the initial launch.  We’ve scaled to hundreds of thousands of users without a hitch, plus we’ve written our own analytics platform, producing nearly 20 million analytic events since launch.  It’s these analytics that we use to drive design decisions.  In other words, we know what our players do and don’t like and adjust the game day-by-day, focusing on what’s important.

I’m incredibly proud of our team, and what they’ve accomplished.

How did the game come about?

When Steven and I founded Twiitch, we saw the future of games, but there were two potential futures: premium and freemium.  We decided to put a foot in each, so Coco Loco was born as our mobile “premium” game and KartWorld was our “freemium” social, Facebook game.  Steven and I love racing games, and could see how we could bring value to this space.  In fact when it was just Steven and I programming out of our new office at the beginning, we had the prototype running of KartWorld in a couple of weeks.  We could see this was going to be a great addition to the crowded “farming” Facebook space, and so we went for it.

How important was the Film Victoria support in getting the game off the ground?

Steven and I have always managed our businesses such that we could still survive without outside help or debt.  We both equally invested into Twiitch, with a plan on how to scale over some time.  That said, being fast to market is everything in this space, and if we hadn’t had funding approved by Film Victoria, we would have only been able to make one game at a time, and it’s hard to say how that would have gone.  So Film Victoria provides an amazingly helpful service to the gaming community, and we were lucky enough to benefit with some early support.

What did you think of the Victorian Government cutting financial support to the Digital Media Fund?

I think it’s short-sighted.  The video game industry has been decimated locally, and worldwide actually, so there are a lot of talented people around now without jobs.  Or they’ve moved into other fields, because they have no choice.  The Indie industry is really important for both creativity and nurturing new talent, so this community will take a blow for sure.

Who is your target audience for KartWorld?

Anyone with a Facebook account, who is sick of farming for carrots! Seriously though, we have algorithms for matching people together, such that total noobs don’t get matched against seasoned players. We want people who are new to this genre to have fun right from the start, which is why, unlike other games, we let the player race their kart before any other sort of tutorial kicks in. It seems obvious, but it’s critical people have fun first and foremost. I don’t think that is adhered to enough in a lot of Facebook games.

Where do you think your key markets will be and why?

Without a doubt the top tier 1 market is the US, followed by the UK, Western Europe, Australia, Japan, China and others.  These are markets that know and love racing games, and are used to the freemium/micro-transactional model.

How different is it designing a game for Facebook compared to console or mobile platforms?

The number one issue you have to deal with from day zero is scale.  We are obsessed with scale at Twiitch, and it shows in everything we do.  Our game loads quickly, minimises how much data is thrown around, has no central server and uses peer-to-peer networking.  There is no single point of failure by design, so if you don’t get that sorted right at the beginning, you’re going to be in a world of hurt.  In addition, there is a much larger User Acquisition Cost.  There are really only two ways to get customers: direct marketing (ads) or viral (referrals, search, etc).  Companies like Zynga have an extensive private network that they use to significantly lower these costs, which was largely built during the earlier Facebook era.  Facebook has since plugged most of the viral hooks developers used to rely on, so it’s harder to acquire those users now.  This is why we have partnered with RockYou in the US, who are our publishing partner.

What are some of the biggest challenges?

1. Scale.

2. Analytics.

3. Making a fun game! (Actually that problem always exists)

How hard is it to release an original IP on Facebook?

It’s easier than releasing an original IP on a console, that’s for sure.  I think people are more willing to take a chance on something that’s free, and that goes for mobile/PSN/XBLA/Steam too.  When you have to cough up $80 for a game, that is a huge friction point, so publishers really want to make sure they can have reasonable projections before committing development/publishing dollars.  That’s much easier for brands and sequels.  It’s not a business we want to be in.  We own everything we do, and are passionate about our original concepts, which I think shows.

How do you get that crucial initial player interest so you can build some momentum and grow the community?

You have to spend money to make money! The nature of Facebook is that there are review/community channels, like on mobile, however there are a huge number of games/distractions that can make it hard to stand out from the crowd. So there will always be direct user acquisition costs – paid, directed ads. You just have to have a business model where your LTV (user Lifetime Value) is greater than your CPA (cost per user acquisition). We strongly believe that fun and quality are the most important selling points, which is often surprisingly overlooked. In other words, if you build something cool and fun, the community will get behind it and you’ll get more of a viral lift, driving down the user acquisition cost. Users will be truly engaged and be driven to want to spend in your game, rather than feel pressured into it.

What do you think makes KartWorld different from its competitors?

The main differentiator is that KartWorld is its synchronous kart racing gameplay. It is built around the idea of having true engagement, and a competitive community. There is nothing like playing against people live. We have gorgeous graphics and a natural player control mechanic.  There really is nothing else like this on the market.

How has the response been so far?

The initial response has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve deliberately rolled out carefully and slowly, improving the game and refining the features before opening up worldwide, which we’ve now done. With very little marketing we rocketed to more than 350,000 users in a few weeks! We have more than 17,000 likes on our official page and we’ve only just begun. The community is passionate and feedback constantly to us.  We couldn’t do it without the community.

How many concurrent players can the game support?

We don’t have any limits on concurrent users. Our architecture scales elastically, so there is nothing stopping us from having millions of concurrent users (actually playing at the same time), or tens of millions of monthly users.  We’ve spiked up to tens of thousands of concurrent users, and our server architecture hasn’t skipped a beat.  We’re justifiably proud of this.

How do you ensure players can’t cheat?

Because of our experience with the Korean online market during our time at THQ, we learnt how important cheat prevention is. A lot of Facebook games have avoided the full brunt of cheaters, and the affect they can have on a community, due to the fact that most don’t have synchronous and competitive play. Most games are really just solo experiences in their essence.  Right from the beginning we knew this, and built cheat prevention into everything, from the network packets sent from our player’s machines, to server-based pattern matching and data analysis.  We handle everything from the people messing with the clocks on their computers, all the way through man-in-the-middle data injection, network data replaying, etc.  Also, nothing important is ever done on the player’s machine, the client machines are assumed to be unreliable.  Everything is sent to the cloud for analysis.  To date, there was has only been one cheat found.  Through a hacked client, some players took advantage of a game exploit enabling them to gain coins. However, straight away our server analysis picked this up, and we reset the accounts.  We keep these users around and set their accounts to monitor, this way they can show us if there are other problems.  So in short, never underestimate cheating, it’s very important to the cohesiveness of the community.

What are your plans for the game in the next 12 months?

We are updating the game every day.  Everything from the graphics, performance, networking, new karts, skins, the economy, quests, etc. change frequently, showing our players that we’re listening.  Now that we’re live, these decisions are driven by analytics from the game, so we know what to concentrate on. We let our audience tell us what they want to see, through their actions.  We are also about to deliver a huge performance update, which we’re keeping close to our chests.  It’s awesome though.

The most importantly for us, though, is mobile.  I’m happy to announce, we’re bringing KartWorld to iOS and Android as a free app.  It’s very exciting; we can’t wait to share more on this soon.

Great, many thanks for your time Shane. All the best with the game.

Screen Play is on Twitter: @screenplayblog

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