InnoGames: Why cross-platform's compromises and medicore results led us to a mobile-first focus

InnoGames: Why cross-platform's compromises and medicore results led us to a mobile-first focus
Matthew Jarvis

By Matthew Jarvis

May 19th 2016 at 11:28AM

Studio director Dennis Rohlfing recalls the German developer’s search for a new platform to conquer as the browser sector continues to lose momentum

Having announced in 2012 that you would adopt a cross-platform strategy across mobile and browser, all of your titles this year are for mobile – why is now the right time to move on from browser as a platform?

It’s not that we are completely abandoning browser, since all of our current titles will remain on browser. We are, however, embracing the mobile market as a second growth opportunity while putting focus on this addition to our portfolio.

Our last release was a browser-based game – Elvenar – which is successful and continues to grow in player numbers. But the browser market as a whole is not growing anymore. And as we’re already in the top ranks when it comes to browser market share, our overall growth opportunities are limited. The browser business is very profitable for us and allows us to invest into a second platform to accelerate our growth.

In 2012 we started our joyride to mobile while having the mission to allow all of our players to play all of our games wherever they are.

Based on that, we implemented companion apps with a limited feature set for Tribal Wars and Grepolis and a fully-featured version of Forge of Empires for tablets and phones on iOS and Android. The companion apps improved the retention of our browser players, while the successful mobile version of Forge of Empires became another entry point in acquiring new mobile players.

In addition, we started two full cross-platform productions from scratch. One didn’t work out, and the second, Tribal Wars 2, extended our Tribal Wars franchise without having a huge impact on the mobile market.

Our overall cross-platform approach meant huge teams, complex productions, a lot of compromises, no focus and, more importantly, mediocre quality when it came to usability of our games.

We learned that to be able to create a great gaming experience for your players you need to focus. That’s the reason why we moved from cross-platform to one platform first, having three new mobile games in production now.

"Our overall cross-platform approach meant huge teams, complex productions, a lot of compromises, no focus and, more importantly, mediocre quality when it came to usability of our games."

Dennis Rohlfing

From your perspective, what are the biggest design and development differences between browser and mobile?

There is a huge difference in developing games for touch interfaces versus mouse and keyboard controls. While in browser games it’s no big deal for the player to navigate through overloaded user interfaces, your display opportunities in mobile games are limited based on the small screens.

Mobile devices are, no surprise, mainly used on the go, while browser games are played at home or at work. Due to this mobile players invest less time per session in average, while having more sessions a day.

For our browser-based games we focus on JavaScript and ActionScript, where most of the tooling needs to be implemented along the way. On mobile we can make use of strong frontend engines, such as Unreal 4 and Unity. Both engines offer tools for implementing user interfaces, level design and others, to empower our content designers to implement changes by themselves, without any programming effort.

Releasing and updating browser-based games is in full control of your development team, while mobile releases, including updates, depend on a submission process by Apple and Google. The moment you’re done with internally approving an update for release you need to wait until Apple and Google approve your update as well. This makes hotfixing your game harder on mobile. Based on this fact we were forced to evolve our release cycle and the mindsets of our teams towards constantly releasing high quality updates.

 

How have your dev cycle, tools, tech and design methods evolved from your time working on browser titles to building for mobile?

Our development cycle from conception phase to commercial launch changed based on the new market conditions. It’s easier to get data from the overall mobile market than for the browser market. So, analytics has a huge influence during our conception phase and production. In addition we evolved our release process from closed and open beta to a three-step phase model, with clear success criteria in transiting from one phase to the other.

In the past, most of the asset management has been done manually by developers. Today, because of Unreal 4 and Unity, all artists and game designers are able to add and change content on their own. This allowed us to form smaller teams while still delivering huge games and high production values.

Based on our strong analytics department and the available data from the mobile market, we’re now able to center our game design on the player’s experience. We managed to embed user testing into all stages of our development cycle, starting with conception. 

"A bad rating in the App Store, even if it’s temporarily, costs a lot."

Dennis Rohlfing

What have the biggest challenges of moving to mobile been – and how have you overcome them?

It took us a while to fully understand the overall user experience on mobile devices. Touch handling was completely new to us. Especially in regards to signs and feedback the mobile player expects more compact information and more real-time feedback on any interaction with your game.

In browser game development you mainly have to tackle different browser clients. On mobile, especially Android, you have a high device fragmentation and it’s an intense process to support most of them. This was a very new experience for us at InnoGames. Today we rely on external partners for gathering issues on a huge bandwidth of devices.

A bad release will lead to immediate punishment by your players, visible for all new players. A bad rating in the App Store, even if it’s temporarily, costs a lot. Marketing activities attract less players with the same effort; less new players lead to less attraction in the top download charts; less attraction leads to less organic traffic; less organic traffic leads to even more costs per install.

Our main driver in overcoming suboptimal releases have been the teams themselves. Simply talking about the negative impact of bad ratings was enough to initiate a mindset change which lead to releases of even higher quality.