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A Short History of Big Huge Games’ Chart-Climbing DomiNations

In the mobile strategy genre, Clash of Clans remains the undisputed kingpin. But rather than simply emulate the chart topper, Big Huge Games tried something different with DomiNations — creating a world history-based take on the popular genre.

This article originally appeared in Chartboost's quarterly Power Up Report, which, this quarter, focused on growing a mobile strategy game business.

In the mobile strategy genre, Clash of Clans remains the undisputed kingpin. But rather than simply emulate the chart topper, Baltimore-based Big Huge Games tried something different with DomiNations — creating a world history-based take on the popular genre.

The 37-person studio — with a team whose impressive pedigree includes seminal PC strategy titles Civilization II and Rise of Nations — teamed up with free-to-play expert Nexon to release DomiNations in April 2015. And they’ve collectively knocked it out of the park: The game accumulated 7.2 million downloads within its first 60 days, has earned glowing reviews and is proving incredibly addicting with both hardcore and casual gamers.

Big Huge Games co-founder Tim Train and Nexon director of product Josh Heenan walked us through the brief history of one of this year’s most exciting mobile strategy games.

Entering the Mobile Age

Mobile and PC game development may be worlds apart, but mobile was too big an opportunity — and potential audience — for Big Huge Games to ignore. The studio wanted to share its passion for history (something often seen as a dry topic) with mobile’s large and diverse audience.

“We don’t really try to teach facts,” Train says, “but we do try to convey our love of history, and designing for mobile meant we could do so for a much broader audience than other platforms. In the old days, if one of our games sold two million units, that was a staggering amount — [but] with DomiNations we have a real chance to reach 100 million players or more.”

Forming a Dynamic Duo

While Big Huge Games is well-versed in designing strategy games for PC, it needed a partner that’s a mobile gaming industry ace. California-based Nexon M — which is the mobile division of 21-year-old, free-to-play pioneer Nexon — was the right fit.

“For a game with such a broad topic and worldwide appeal, we also wanted a partner with global strength,” Train says.

Nexon brought its experiences from previous free-to-play strategy titles to DomiNations, including lessons on when to add as well as not add new features. It also provided mathematicians and economists that could help drive mobile game success.

“These roles definitely play a big part in making a successful mobile product,” Nexon’s Heenan says. “Not just with tuning games so they have strong retention and monetization, but also so they offer a great experience.”

Having access to sophisticated analytics allowed the team to identify an even pace at which to unlock and upgrade content, says Heenan, which keeps players engaged and constantly discovering something new. It also let them carefully calibrate player matchmaking to ensure fair (and satisfying) battles.

Survival of the Fittest (Prototypes)

Big Huge Games has a “jump in and start coding” approach to development, spending little time on “design bibles” and paper prototypes, Train says. Within weeks, the team had a playable version of DomiNations that it could then build on by playing, finding out what worked and ripping out what didn’t.

“If you lather, rinse and repeat that process over a year or more, you have a high likelihood of a fun game,” Train says. “Then, put the game in front of actual users, see where they get confused or bored, and start iterating again to fix those issues.”

During development, for example, Train thought that players would get bored with the repetitive process of hunting, gathering and collecting goods. He assumed that the development team would have to automate the process or remove it from the game, but the opposite turned out to be true in user testing.

“[Now, it] drives an entire sub-economy that keeps me coming back several times a day to see what kind of loot I’ll get,” he says.

Prioritizing In-Game Experience

DomiNations monetizes entirely through IAP, but these aren’t pushed at users from the start. Instead, Nexon takes the slow-burn approach, building an audience first and hoping people buy into the experience once they’re sufficiently invested. They’ve consciously avoided incorporating early monetization barriers.

“Our goal is always to give players a great in-game experience that makes them want to come back again and again,” Heenan says. “We spend the time crafting a quality experience and believe that if players come along and enjoy the ride they will eventually invest.”

Crowdsourced Evolution

Going forward, Big Huge Games has prepared future DomiNations updates which have been informed by suggestions from fans. It’s testament to the more fluid, ongoing development process that’s needed with mobile games.

“We listen carefully to players and read forum posts, reviews, and messages to the company with an eye towards improving the game,” Train says. But he stopped short of revealing exactly what we’ll see from DomiNations as Big Huge Games continues to challenge the strategy game market leaders by drawing inspiration from the past.

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