"Game Devs Would Be Crazy Not to Go Mobile": Q+A with Social Point's Besenval
With the console-to-mobile exodus in full swing, we’ve been interested, too, in the transition from browser to mobile. Many games that found initial success on platforms like Facebook have been iterating and trading flash technology for touch in order to capitalize on the bourgeoning mobile gaming market.
One such studio, Social Point, developed a mobile game out of necessity in 2012, and transitioned to mobile-only in the following years. It wasn’t that its browser games were unsuccessful, it was that its giant community of players on Facebook (larger than some Zynga and Rovio titles at the times) were begging Social Point to create a mobile version of its successful social game, Dragon City. Once the group tweaked the game’s technology and design, there was no turning back — the title was instantly profitable and wildly successful for mobile players.
I recently spoke with Social Point’s head of product Alexandre Besenval about what the transition was like for the team, why the company went all-in on mobile, and how virality and user acquisition mean different things on a computer and a tablet.
Johan: When did mobile become an important part of Social Point’s strategy?
Alexandre: Mid-2013. The catapult was our game Dragon City — it made us go from one dimension to the other. We released the game on flash on Facebook in mid-2012 and it was an immediate success (the second most played game in 2012 and 2013). So, that’s why we believed it would be a success regardless of platform. We launched on iOS first (in March 2013) and on Android six months later.
Johan: It seems easy to make the transition when your game is so well received, right?
Alexandre: The transition was still very hard. We had to manipulate the front end of the game and weren’t really prepared.We changed our technology a bit — from flash to C++ for example — and also made some slight design changes for adapting the control from mouse to touch. But since we already had a full, successful product, we saw it as sort of a deluxe soft launch.
Johan: When did you start developing mobile first? When did you transition to mobile only?
Alexandre: When Dragon City was an instant success, we got a huge active user base. The game generated lots of revenue very quickly: It was the top 15 grossing game in U.S. from the start. So at the end of 2013 we decided to move to mobile first. At the moment, our line-up is mobile only.
Johan: What strengths could you leverage from browser gaming?
Alexandre: First and foremost, our Facebook audience — we had a huge committed community demanding we release a mobile version. We also iterated a lot on browser. It’s much easier to iterate on browser. You can release the iteration the same day and test and then roll back if necessary. For mobile, you need submission time of one week on iOS. That was the biggest advantage from a product side.
Johan: What changes did you have to make in order to move to mobile?
Alexandre: On the technical side we had to help the flash developers transition from flash to mobile. Our product management is roughly the same, except 20 percent of it is now platform specific. There has been a lot of hiring to support this strategy, but not to fill gaps. We’re growing so that we can make more games. When it comes to user acquisition there are different tools, but the philosophy remains the same.
Johan: How do you approach UA differently (from Facebook to mobile)?
Alexandre: Mobile games are testing new ways for UA — through TV ad campaigns, for example. UA is still very fresh for the F2P industry, which allows us to reach new kinds of users.
Johan: Is virality viewed differently on mobile? Is it much harder outside of the Facebook canvas?
Alexandre: It’s harder on mobile to get a really viral product. The Facebook canvas is all about sharing. Viral mobile games like Flappy Birds are happy accidents, I think. It’s really hard to design for virality. There’s not really the same “invite your friends to advance in the game” tactic on mobile. The best mobile games are usually social — they focus on fostering strong interaction among existing players — rather than viral.
Johan: How do you launch a game differently in mobile versus on browser?
Alexandre: The philosophy is same but process a bit different. On mobile, you really need a product with high retention. You also need to focus on your soft launch and iterating from there. The soft launch is key before launching globally on mobile.
Johan: With all the competition, do you think it’s too late to make the move to mobile now?
Alexandre: It’s definitely more difficult than it was two years ago, but developers would be crazy not to go to mobile. User acquisition (UA) is more expensive now and things seem to be consolidating — 80 percent of the the top 20 grossing games are same as one year ago. Still, the sector is growing. Even if you’re the 100th top grossing title, you’re making a lot more money now.