“Even as a small company, we’ve always been fighting with the big guys” – Madfinger Games on monetisation, machine learning and Shadowgun War Games

Ever since they first burst onto the mobile scene with Samurai: Way of the Warrior in 2009, Madfinger Games have seen the potential for console-quality experiences on mobile platforms. The studio is perhaps best known for their work bringing first person shooters to mobile, in both the Shadowgun games as well as their zombie shooter franchise Dead Trigger.

As the company prepares to launch its latest title, Shadowgun War Games – a multiplayer spinoff of its 2018 title Shadowgun Legends – Madfinger Games CEO and co-founder Marek Rabas (pictured, right, alongside creative director Óscar Soler Fas) talks about how to fight off stiff competition as a small company, and looks towards the future of the mobile gaming sphere.

Free to play monetisation has come under fire in recent times, with multiple controversies surrounding practices such as loot boxes even making headlines in the mainstream media.

To counteract this, Rabas has a clear image of the kind of free to play games he wants to make, and how the format can benefit the company’s work:

“I love the free-to-play design,” says Rabas, “and when I say that, I mean the proper free-to-play design, not this milking, psychological thing that you see. I love that you can evolve the game, change it, that you are working with the players – trying to understand their needs, their behaviours, their emotions. Taking all of that to create an environment for them.”

It’s this attitude of evolution and change that has informed the studio’s upcoming game, Shadowgun War Games, which, as Rabas explains, has been designed off the feedback the team got from the previous Shadowgun games, Deadzone and Legends, and the mistakes they made along the way in their development.

The Madfinger team at its offices in Brno, Czech Republic

“Deadzone had two problems,” says Rabas, “it didn’t have good KPIs, and it was too hardcore. We basically knew nothing about how free to play was working, or the applied behaviours, and we were just working based on our own opinions. Turns out it was too hardcore, our day one retention rate was very low. We were just throwing players straight into a match and they were like ‘screw this’ and left the game. So we’re being very careful about that now. We want the game to be easy to learn, hard to master.”

“We’re using machine learning for the bots,” he continues. “With Legends, you had people who kept losing to the bots, and never progressed to the PvP because they thought they weren’t good enough. We want to keep them motivated, so we have to take care with it so they are slowly encouraged to try out the competitive side of the game. So from the beginning it’s all about the entertainment, having a fun experience with the game – and then they slowly get attracted to the metagame, and the competitive experience and they’ll start looking for new challenges.”

Perhaps the most visible change in War Games, and what Madfinger hopes will make the game more welcoming to new players, is the introduction of a hero-based system.

The game’s launch trailer featured a selection of the game’s heroes, most prominently a fast-moving, time-rewinding character – you’d have to be blind to miss the obvious Overwatch influences. Of course, Blizzard’s enormous success with Overwatch has seen hero shooters become the fashion in recent years, but there was an additional, more practical reason for the change.

“In Legends, we found that the PvP was hard to balance, because of all the various combinations” says Rabas. “So for War Games we decided to do things differently. We were playing the games that are out there and thought, ‘Okay, so this is like what Overwatch is doing. This works for the balancing, and it works for creating some charisma for each of the heroes.’ On top of that, it also helps the metagame, because if you have a lot of heroes, people will choose different heroes based on different strategies, which could lead to some really entertaining situations.”

The upcoming Shadowgun Wargames is a team shooter with an obvious debt to Overwatch

Madfinger has plans beyond just making their games more welcoming to casual players, of course. With mobile games seeing increasing success in esports, Rabas is eager to get involved. Judging by the studio’s ten-year history, a break into esports seems like an obvious next step. For a studio that strives to create console gaming experiences on mobile platforms, taking pride in the graphical fidelity of their titles, esports seems to be too good an opportunity to miss.

“With mobile esports on the rise, this is a great opportunity for us,” he says. “I feel that people shouldn’t be afraid to play mobile games for esports, especially if the games look good – like a console or PC game. That’s where we want to be. When we were on the ESL stage at last year’s Gamescom, we were testing how it looks, and it looks really lovely on the big screens. For us, there’s no difference. The only thing is that instead of a mouse or a controller, you have a touchscreen.”

Of course, be it in the casual gaming space or in esports, the small Czech studio is going to be facing some enormous competition. Rabas is well aware that, as a studio producing first person shooter games, they need to distinguish themselves from Call of Duty: Mobile, which released this October.

“Even as a small company, we’ve always been fighting with the big guys,” notes Rabas. “All our lives we’ve been playing first person shooters. So we went back and played games like Halo, Overwatch, even the old Quake titles. Obviously Call of Duty is going to be competition, so we want to be a little different. Call of Duty: Mobile is just like the titles on consoles, it’s still this really fast twitch shooter. So we want to go in a different way. Because the controls on mobile react slightly slower, we give you a little more life, a little more room to use your skills and turn situations to your advantage.”

From taking inspiration from Overwatch, to esports, to competing with Call of Duty, then. We don’t think anybody has ever told Madfinger Games that they have limited ambitions. Time will tell if the studio can live up to its lofty goals, but Rabas seems to be confident:

“I hope that War Games will be successful, because we have a lot of plans for it, and there’s a lot of space for it. It’s not just about the competitive stuff: It’s a world of heroes and we want people to have a fun and fulfilling time with it.”

About Chris Wallace

Chris is MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer, joining the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can regrettably be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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