Russia's vast landmass can be seen as something of a cultural span that connects Asia and Europe through its geography. As such, it hosts a distinct games market that partly reflects a meeting point of those two sectors often painted as entirely distinct; the East and West.
That gives its games makers a unique perspective on both the thriving local scene, and the reality of truly global games development.
And as one of Russia's longest serving casual and mobile specialists, Nevosoft knows more than most about what those opportunities mean. Develop caught up with COO and co-founder Pavel Ryaykkonen to get a better understanding of the studio and its markets, and learned some insider tips on seizing the opportunity of making mobile and social games for Russian players.
Nevosoft is one of the most significant mobile developers in Russia today, but what are your origins as a team?
We started the company 14 years ago, and we began making really very simple puzzle and logic games. And we decided to distribute them via the internet. At the time that was absolutely new for the market – especially the Russian market – but also the market globally.
There wasn't even the definition of 'casual games' back then, and no casual games market. Over time we started to design more of those games, on an increasingly bigger scale, and it went increasingly well.
We had to learn a lot, though. Through those times we learned that some early puzzle games we were making were too difficult for our audience to enjoy. We didn't know enough about what worked as a strong puzzle game back then, as it was those very early days. We took our feedback from the audience, fixed our mistakes, and learned a lot.
The first true success of the company was when we launched our Mysteryville game. It was a hidden object game, that we launched in around 2005, and we saw it did very well on the biggest websites distributing those kind of games. It was really a very big success, and it did very well internationally. That got us the money to do a lot more development.
Mysteryville also let us decide to try and start more of a market inside Russia. So we decided to be not just a developer, but a publisher too. We built a portal as a website – a catalogue of games on a website – and quickly we saw our company become the number one in Russia for distributing downloadable casual games. I think we really helped create that market in Russia.
Maybe we should have started with Facebook; but developing for the local networks gave us a good experience, and an understanding of making social games.
When did you see the opportunity to start your expansion into social and mobile?
We saw the new era of social and mobile games coming, and we really turned our development to social games first, because mobile was only really just starting then. We started with the local Russian social networks. Maybe we should have started with Facebook; but developing for the local networks gave us a good experience, and an understanding of making social games. It really taught us to change all our processes of game development.
It was one thing to make premium games, but developing social games was absolutely different. There were different business models and different processes. That really turned us towards the company we are now, developing only free-to-play titles. Right now our most successful title is Gemmy Lands, which is a match-three game.
And that genre has been important to you for some time?
We were developing match-three games in 2003 or 2004. But when we started developing for mobile maybe seven years later, we thought we should try it again, for mobile. We knew match-three well, so it really let us understand how to develop for free-to-play on mobile. And now it is still very important too us. Gemmy Land has about five million daily active users, so we feel that it is very important to our success.
Both the culture and the geography of Russia connects the East and West; two game markets and industries often understood to be very different. How do you see Nevosoft in that context? Is that East-West divide even a reality, especially if you are connected to both?
In terms of the way we see the games market, and our strategies, we think globally. I mean, come on, we make digital games. Digital games are global; they don't need to be only local. Some companies could make a big mistake if they are only thinking about digital locally. If you make digital content, think globally. All your efforts should concentrate on a global market.
But the culture of Russia and making games? We are one of the biggest countries in the world, and part of the country is in Europe, and part of it is in Asia. People that play games here prefer Western-style content, but they prefer Asian monetization mechanics.
I think people in Russia prefer that game Western content – they have those Western tastes – because Russian culture is actually very similar to Western culture. It is mostly European feeling here.
Digital games are global; they don't need to be only local. Some companies could make a big mistake if they are only thinking about digital locally.
But it terms of your global approach, and your cultural and geographical position, do you see the East and Western markets as that distinct today, especially considering your perspective of digital content as global content?
We don't really worry about that. We make games for the global market, and we don't feel there's a divide or a very different way to do things. It's about making games with a global appeal, so we don't worry about that.
But that way of looking at things might be something that comes from us being a Russian company. In Russia, people of my age, and many people working in games in Russia today were working in an older Russian-style education system. It was a very strong education system then, with a global view too.
And, of course, Russia knew how to make globally successful simple casual games before many others did. We are the home of Tetris, after all.
It's interesting you mention the Russian education system being important to games development. Wargaming is obviously a Belarusian headquartered studio. However, the CEO Victor Kislyi has spoken of how the role and status of chess in both the Russian and Belrusian education systems had a significant influence over the type of studios in the region, and type of games that suit the market. Do you recognize that?
He's right. The USSR had really strong chess players at a school level, and chess was important to schools in our countries. We are still very good at chess, and growing up with such a good game help you understand not just developing mind skills, but understanding how games work.
But I think chess helps you whatever you do. You don't have to play professionally, but playing at school helps you whether you work in the labour market or making games. It's the ultimate game, and chess is important to people here and to our education; to learning and to the success of good games. We are educated with a game, so we understand games.
But I'm sensing you feel your studio's position in Russia doesn't define it?
I think we are very like many American studios, and European games developers, so maybe we are a Western studio. The Chinese market in particular really is very different, so I wouldn't pretend to say we see the global market as one without differences.
Chess is the ultimate game, and chess is important to people here and to our education; to learning and to the success of good games.
The internal Russian games market is, of course, large, and it's said more developers from outside Russia should consider it. What advice would you have for games makers looking to be successful in the country?
It is a pretty big market in terms of size, especially in terms of growth in the numbers of people that use mobile phones. I also read recently that now Russia is the world's number one in terms of internet population. The audience for games isn't as strong for mobile users. But that's changing, and the numbers of mobile users are climbing. And it is still a large market today. Russia has about seven-to-ten per cent of the global revenues for mobile games.
If you want to enter the Russian market, the most important thing is understanding to local ecosystem, because things can be just a little different here. It is rather unique, not just in the gaming market, but across the internet and digital markets. There are not many places in the world where Google is not the number one search engine, but here in Russia we have another local, bigger search engine, Yandex.
Similarly, in most other countries, Facebook is the number one social network. Here in Russia Facebook is not even number two. We have VK.com as the largest, and then there is Odnoklassnik, known as ok.ru. VK's strength is that it has a mobile platform, and they support the game launch and can help with traffic.
So when we launched Gemmy Land in Russia around a year-and-a-half ago, we partnered with them, and that worked out well for us. We got a lot of traffic - more than one million people direct from VK's support. That was very helpful, and is worth thinking about if you bring your game to Russia.
If you want to enter the Russian market, the most important thing is understanding to local ecosystem, because things can be just a little different here. It is rather unique, not just in the gaming market, but across the internet and digital markets.
Last month you took your White Nights mobile conference out of its normal home in Russia, and hosted it in Finland. What motivates a very busy game studio to also launch an industry conference?
Well, when I was thinking about our business relations and how I might develop them, I was thinking about it a lot. I realised we didn't have a mobile focused games conference in Russia. Yes, we have general gaming events. Back then we didn't have any in Russia, and we didn't really have much happening in Europe. So in 2012 I decided Nevosoft should change that. We knew a lot of people in the industry, so why not invite them, and create and agenda and discussion point for the mobile games industry?
From the beginning we wanted it to be very big, and host a full two-day conference. In a way, at the beginning White Nights was, in a way, a tool to develop our business relations. And we wanted to encourage communication and collaboration for other companies. So now we are also in Helsinki, making the event mobile, and it is going very well, and, I hope, not just for Nevosoft. It is a profitable business project also, but it feels very powerful as a communication point for very different people from across mobile gaming. We are very happy with how White Nights is growing.