Ahead of the launch of its new action strategy title, Dawn of Titans, we spoke to Natural Motion boss Torsten Reil to take the pulse of the mobile market
You've billed Dawn of Titans as a Natural Motion's first mid-core title. Why was this a sector you were interested in entering?
Mid-core is a hugely successful sector, arguably the most successful. If you look at the Top Grossing charts, most of them are mid-core games. From a commercial point of view, we believe there's a big potential. There's another side, we believe that there is the ability to innovate in that genre more than any other genre because it's become... I wouldn't use the word stale, but a lot of games are similar to each other. A lot of games are spin-offs of existing titles by the same publisher, or they are copies of other games.
We found that when that's the case, there's a real opportunity to disrupt and do something fresh, and that's what we did with CSR in the racing genre, we did the same thing with Clumsy Ninja, and that's what we're trying to do here with the action-strategy genre.
How would you assess the state of the mobile market right now?
In general, certainly the top grossing charts have been static. The reason for that is that the games that are successful can afford to become more successful as they combine their users and they can optimise their monetisation. They essentially lock a lot of other games out. If you don't know about game monetisation for example and launch a game – even if that game is compelling, you are already starting at a lower level in terms of monetisation, which means you won't be able to buy as many ads as other people do. That's why a lot of people have been knocked out. The only way to break that is to either have a game like Pokmon Go, which captures the zeitgeist at the right time with a big IP, or you do something that disrupts a genre because it wows people. That's what we tried to do with CSR 2 and with the original CSR Racing. But usually for a lot of games it's hard. If you just do what other people are doing and just do a 'plus-one', at the moment the pattern is that it isn't enough.
How do you think the mobile market will change in the coming year? This year we've seen more innovation in the mobile VR and AR side of things – is this something you think might continue?
It's hard to tell. Something like Pokmon Go is very hard to predict and I'd argue it's an outlier. It remains to be seen, and I say that with some skepticism, whether it is part of a trend. Personally I doubt it will be. I also think that in terms of AR, it's less AR than it is location based. It works really well with the right IP at the right time. [Niantic's first game] Ingress had a completely level of success. We'll see. I'm pretty skeptical. There's always something you can learn from other games, but whether this is the beginning of a big trend, I'm skeptical.
But what you will get is new games cropping up and I expect those will come from either existing successful companies or new teams that have worked together before and have learnt enough about mobile gaming to break through. The thing that's unlikely going to happen is seeing new games that completely innovate the experiences that stick in the charts. It's unlikely they're going to come from indies, because most indies don't know enough about monetisation or they don't want to focus on monetisation to make a game stick in the charts.
Dawn of Titans is free-to-play. How would you say this business model is perceived right now? It wasn't that long ago that the model was getting an awful lot of negative press.
The whole press view of it has died down quite a bit. I used to be reasonably vocal, saying: 'Get a grip', because we know what our users are saying, we know what we see in terms of our user reviews. Those are real users, they are giving us reviews because they want to. They're not incentivised, they just give us the reviews. They are honest. CSR 2 has over 1m five-star reviews. That is really all that matters. It doesn't really matter what the media thinks, whether free-to-play is evil. The customers will tell us. If we get it wrong in terms of monetisation for example, if the pinch is too tight, they'll tell us. They won't even use user reviews, they'll drop out of the game. One of the things that we've found with free-to-play is that for it to be really successful, you can't really try and nickel and dime the user. The large majority of our players don't pay. We have designed the game that way.
How has your approach to free-to-play changed over time? Having spoken to other companies who use the model, my understanding is that the way developers implement free-to-play changes a lot over time as they learn more about the model.
We've learnt a lot as well. Some companies say they learn an awful lot but then you need to implement the learning. That's the really difficult and important thing. This is a difficult and very competitive market place. The competitors in the market are very good, and some of them are entrenched, some of them less so.
If you look at racing, we have always been strong there so we know that genre very well and try to take the learnings from CSR to CSR2. Most of the learnings you get are from your own existing games, and ideally the ones that have been successful.
It's really difficult to learn – and I'm not sure whether I'm speaking out of turn here – from games that are complete failures, that is the unfortunate reality. When you have a complete flop, you don't actually learn that much because you have no data. You just know that it didn't work. You have too few users. That's why I'm sometimes skeptical when people say they have done five games in a row, but learnt a lot. Actually, I don't think you have learnt anything. You learn something when it starts with mediocre success. Then you can start on that stuff because you get data. The most you learn is from a hit, because when you have a hit you see areas in the game that massively underperform, but you have so many users you can actually improve them. That's when you can make the next game a success.
What are your expectations around Dawn of Titans?
The first thing that matters to us is the user reviews. We really care what users are saying and that's why when we talk internally, before we even talk about revenue, we talk about what our users are saying. It starts with that. Part of that is technical, just making sure the game works well and so on. The other part is that people need to have fun with the game. That's the No.1 thing. If I had a wish list, that would be No.1. The other one is that we want to build a franchise systematically. We want to build it up. We do want to learn from when we release the game, because this is our first mid-core title, and what I'm hoping is that in twelve months time we have been able to show we can grow this franchise and it becomes really meaningful.
Given that Dawn of Titans is a multiplayer strategy title, is there any interest in doing eSports?
One of the trends right now is eSports, and connected to that is synchronous gameplay. That didn't really exist in mobile gaming until a few years ago. internet speeds were too low and latency was too high. Even when you could do it, the gameplay just didn't exist, we didn't have the ideas to make it work.
Now some companies, like Supercell, have cracked it with games like Clash Royale. At scale, this stuff becomes very interesting. Dawn of Titans is currently still an asynchronous game. That is less obvious for eSports. But theoretically, this could work synchronously, as you can imagine because we could just be sitting against each other and both battle. If that was the case, this would be ideal for eSports. But we are not announcing yet whether or if or when we are going to do.
What are your ambitions for Natural Motion moving forwards?
The big part of what we have been trying to achieve is to build up an organisation that really successfully runs live operations. CSR2 is a good example, we are running that game a lot better than we initially ran CSR Racing. We just know much more. We know, for example, that people learn. For example, when we launched the original game, we didn't have enough content straight away, we didn't have multiplayer and we actually let people finish the game. We had five tiers in the game and at the end of the last tier we showed all the characters and said thank you, and then it was basically saying 'thanks for playing the game, now uninstall'. It wasn't that extreme, but it was a big mistake.
With this game, it's different. We have live operations and run live events all the time, so I'm hoping in twelve months time that we will have shown we can continue that and grow that game further and that it's high in the Top Grossing charts. That's a big achievement and hugely important for our company. I'm hoping we can do the same with Dawn of Titans, so that we have these two big games hopefully being successful and we show we can do really good live ops. In addition to that, I'm hoping we can prove to the market that we can do more innovation, too. We're not ready to talk about it yet, but there's more very cool stuff cooking. We have three offices – in London, Oxford and Brighton.