Big Huge Games: 'We underestimated how quickly players would want new content'

Big Huge Games: 'We underestimated how quickly players would want new content'
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

April 11th 2016 at 11:05AM

DomiNations dev co-founder Tim Train reflects on the game's first year

Exactly one year ago, Big Huge Games launched its debut mobile game: DomiNations, a Clash of Clans contender put together by developers with notable strategy titles such as Age of Empire and Civilization on their resumés.

Over the past twelve months, the firm has added new historical ages to the game – each with countless new units and buildings – as well as expanded the community-focused Alliance feature with the competitive World Wars... and still the game's audience craves new content.

With this month's release of the Global Age, allowing players to advance to the technology of World War II, and the announcement that the game has reached 20 million downloads, the studio is keen to assure fans that there is still more to come.

We spoke to studio co-founder Tim Train (pictured) about the biggest lessons, challenges and triumphs of DomiNations' first year.

What was the biggest challenge in launching DomiNations? How did you overcome this?
From a technical perspective, the launch was an insane number of 'firsts' for us: first game as a new company, although most of us had worked together for many years; first Unity title; first mobile product; and our first foray into the combat citybuilder genre.

Turns out when you try to tackle so many new things at once, it makes for an exponentially more challenging development process. It may be a cliché now, but we overcame this mostly by following the NASA mantra of “work the problem”: don’t panic, tackle one issue at a time, trust your team. It helped a lot that we’d been through several product launches together on other game teams; it made for a lot less drama.

What’s the most important lesson the team has learned after the first year? How will you apply this going forward?
We underestimated the speed at which players would go through new content, and thought that more of our revenue mix would come from systemic spend. That’s a constant reminder to us that players look forward to new features and to be sure we stick to 'ruthless prioritisation' to get them out the door in a timely fashion.

One of our guiding pillars for the game was 'be 20 per cent more free than the competition'. We wanted to be more generous to players through features like hunting and gathering, and the Blessing system.

The mobile market has become flooded with base-building-and-besieging games. How did you differentiate DomiNations from the competition?
We hope that the biggest differentiator for DomiNations is just being a fun game. We are coming from a background of making premium PC strategy games, which is not common in the world of mobile.

Rather than starting from an elaborate design document or set of 'specs' meant to move 'metrics', we started by building a playable prototype within a few weeks of forming the company. We’d aim to play every day, discuss what was fun and what was not fun, and repeatedly iterate until the game felt like something we’d want to play for years to come. I’m not sure if that’s the development process at other mobile studios, but it’s part of the Sid Meier field guide to game design that we’ve used on all our other titles, and it worked pretty well for this game.

What inspiration/learnings did the team draw from their past experience on core strategy titles like Age of Empires and Civilization?
As much as the development process, I think taking all of human history for our subject matter also played a big role in helping us to stand out. World history is subject matter that is often dismissed by marketing departments as being dry and academic, but there’s so much love out there for old-school games like Civilization and Age of Empires. As such, we were surprised that no-one else had tried to bring the Civilization 'feel' to mobile before now, and it’s great to be the only title like that in the marketplace.

We also tried to follow another Sid principle: “a game is a series of interesting decisions”. In many places in the game, you make a mutually exclusive choice that players often find themselves agonising over. Which nation should you pick? What wonder should you build next? Those decisions are fun, but most importantly they reinforce the player’s sense that they are a ruler guiding their nation through time, which is a key draw for these kinds of empire-building games.

 

World history is subject matter that is often dismissed by marketing departments as being dry and academic, but there’s so much love out there for old-school games like Civilization and Age of Empires.

What learnings/experience from these titles could not be applied to a mobile game, and why?
There’s one really fun aspect of the Civilization series that we haven’t figured out how to translate for a live game: repeatedly starting over at the beginning of history and trying multiple different strategies. We talk about this with some regularity – “what does a true ‘live service’ Civilization experience look like?” – but haven’t hit on any genius ideas yet.

How have you gathered and retained a community around DomiNations following the launch?
We’ve really enjoyed even simple things like talking to our community on our forums. There’s so much passion out there for the game, and our players have given us great suggestions for ways to improve the game. Every month we post a 'State of the Nations' update that highlights progress on the game and responds to player concerns, written either by me or lead designer John Hawkins, and I always enjoy giving the forums the first look at what’s coming up.

What has been the toughest part of adding new content/events/features? How did you ensure the game remained balanced?
The toughest part is remaining disciplined about our production processes. When you haven’t launched, it’s a little easier to noodle around with 'possibly-fun' ideas and see what might stick. Once you have millions of players out there excited to get more content to play with, you have to be sure you don’t leave them hanging for long, or they will find other games to play.

So we have a great production and product team including industry veterans Jen Airoldi, Josh Kermond, and Alicia Berry who ensure we stick to 'ruthless prioritisation' to decide what’s actually important to add to the game – often reminding me that my latest pet idea is just not that critical in the grand scheme of things.

On the balance side, we have a strong systems design team whose full-time job is being sure no one unit or strategy is always optimal. And, of course, we look at reams of battle data to validate that the game has many pathways to success.

What’s the ARPPU for DomiNations? The missions and presence of Stags makes it easy to earn a fair amount of virtual currency so how have you monetized this?
We can’t comment on specific metrics for the game, but one of our guiding pillars for the game was “be 20 per cent more free than the competition”. We wanted to be more generous to players through features like hunting and gathering, and the Blessing system. Hopefully, that is part of why players want to come back to the game even after playing for many months – and hopefully years.

How did you manage pacing? With every age advancement, it takes longer to gather the resources to pay the increased building upgrade fee and the upgrades themselves take longer to be completed. How do you ensure players don’t get bored/frustrated?
Similar to other balancing questions in the game, it’s a mix of our own experiences as heavily-engaged users of our own game, validated by player data. We also benchmark ourselves to the competition to be sure we are on par with them.

Once you have millions of players out there excited to get more content to play with, you have to be sure you don’t leave them hanging for long, or they will find other games to play. 

How have you ensured you retain solo players, as well as those using the Alliance system?
The game shipped with a relatively small set of Alliance features, so the core game did well enough to keep solo players interested. Having said that, it’s so much more fun when you are part of an Alliance that is actively engaged in World Wars, so we do hope that most people gravitate towards strong Alliances over time. 

What’s the long-term roadmap for DomiNations? With the Global Age now available, you must be running out of Ages to add.
One fun aspect of the Civilization series is how each turn at the start of the game represents, say, 100 years, but by the end of the game each turn equals one year. The same dynamic is in play for DomiNations: the Classical Age represents roughly 500 years of human history, but Industrial Age (WWI) and Global Age (WWII) are down to 30-year periods.

We think we have a bunch of Ages that unlock fun new toys for people to play with before we reach the end of history. Long-term, we want to continue to add Ages but will also be focused on things like new Alliance features and more content that is available to people from the early Ages – not just those who have reached the end of the game.