Though Z2Live only has two iOS titles under its belt, the Seattle-based developer has already attracted attention after somehow pushing both of those freemium games, Trade Nations
and Metalstorm: Online
, into the App Store's coveted Top Ten spots for initially free games.
Formed in 2009 initially to create a platform based on multiplayer and push notifications for iOS devices, the company switched its business model shortly after Apple unveiled its own Game Center service, to work on multiplayer and social experiences.
With the recent launch of Z2Live's third game, Battle Nations
, the firm's COO Lou Fasulo spoke with Gamasutra about getting its first two games into the top 10, and how to run a microtransaction-based game without alienating players.
You've had two apps in the free-to-download top 10 at this point, two out of two. How would you say you got there?
Yeah. And MetalStorm
has been number one free, and it has been as high as number seven top-grossing.
First of all, we have a real focus on quality. And we really start asking ourselves what is the core experience, and why is it fun? Why do I care as a player? Going from there, if players care, then developers and publishers matter in whatever ecosystem you're talking about, whether it's iOS or Android or Xbox.
And then from there we're very cautious and careful about how we integrate monetization. We didn't want to break the gaming experience, but we wanted to create an experience where players could get in, we give them ample rewards in terms of some of the premium currency so they get a feel for the adventure we're trying to take them on.
And I think one of the key tenets of our production process is that we focus on this concept of love at first sight. And it's a little bit more than just visual, obviously, but we want to bring players into a world where they instantly want to be a part of it.
So with MetalStorm
it's intense action, response of controls, high-end graphics and audio. And in Trade Nations
it's much more about paying attention to every little detail on the buildings and the characters and the animations of those items, all the way down to when you start creating cookies in the bakery, you see some smoke coming out of the chimney.
Both games are freemium. Can you kind of explain your philosophy for selling items without resorting to, I don't know, being evil or breaking your game?
We don't hit players over the head with requests to buy at all. In fact, I'd roughly estimate about 80 percent of the content in Trade Nations
is free, and players certainly don't have to opt in for any of that. When we do updates, the majority of the new content that we put in the game is all free. And it really comes down to player choice, if they really want to customize and decorate the additional level of opportunity is there for them, and it's their choice.
How do you decide whether something is a premium or free piece of content?
That's not a science by any means. It just depends on the context you're looking at. Where's the player in his or her lifecycle in terms of how long they've been playing? How valuable is the item, whether it's consumable or not? There are a variety of factors that we take into account, so it's hard to say there's a formula for that. There's certainly not. It's a little bit of science and a little bit of instinct and creative inspiration.
What works and what doesn't with social features? What have you learned? What kinds of metrics do you have?
We have a lot
of metrics! What I would say is, trading in Trade Nations
is a two-way thing. I mentioned that traditional social games as you see them on Facebook, the interactions are essentially one-way.
In Trade Nations
, I could go to your lumber mill and say I want to cut these logs into lumber, and the other player has to agree to give up their mill to do that job for you. And in exchange they get rewards for that, more so than if they were to use it themselves.
We have a very large percentage of users that use the trading feature. And what has also happened that we didn't really anticipate is that we exposed in-game mail so players could communicate.
We didn't really know how they were going to use it, it was just a little bit of a shot in the dark. But it was part of our platform, and they actually use mail to negotiate like "Hey, I only want to do six-hour jobs," or 15 minute jobs, or they'll even send a message saying "Hey I'm going to be gone for the day, I'm not refusing your trades, it's just that I'm not playing today." And the fact that players have to work together has really built a community around the game.
They've also done things like use their in-game icon, they've customized it to communicate different things about their nation that they want to tell people. And this would never happen if the interactions weren't meaningful between the players. If I didn't depend on you, if we didn't need to coordinate, there would be less value and less social interaction.
On the flipside, that's always a risk, because the more of a hurdle you put in front of somebody, the more likely you're going to lose them altogether.
The more you make it a requirement to be social, the more you risk no one using the feature, right?
It can flip-flop. Instead of 60 or 70 percent of your user base using it, it could be 5 percent using it with 95 percent saying this is way too much for me.
Can you kind of quantify the effect of being on the top 10?
It changes everything, in terms of size of user base. It gives us the opportunity as a company to scale and continually invest in our products. We started at a leadership position when we launched, and three and six months in we've invested double the amount for an even richer feature set, more content.
In general, I think the scale of our products is much bigger and the world is deeper, and there's more content for players. And so a player that comes in to Trade Nations
today has a significantly better experience than one who came in a year ago when we first launched.
And it's similar to if you think about an MMO that launched today versus comparing it to World of Warcraft
. Blizzard's team has had a lot of time to learn how to build quests, how to create items and new content and make the user experience seamless, and that kind of thing.
It seems to me like mobile games can't really have that time to develop into something substantial, it seems to me as an outsider that you almost have to be at the top right away in order to be able to grow at all. It seems like a necessity for survival unless you have a very small team.
I think one of the things that developers need to consider, and one of the things that we have kind of working to our advantage, is a large player base. So the next product that comes out will have a large group of players we can reach out to. Players who trust us because they've played our games. We have a pretty decent overlap between our two products.
So they cross-promote each other, despite being very different games.
Yep. We're not heavy-handed, we just make sure players know both products are available. They definitely have different audiences, but there's some overlap there, and it's not insignificant. So players trust our products, and they are more willing to spend with us and spend some time learning about what we're launching.
And I think that's where a big difference comes between an indie developer that's a team of three or four guys who are just starting out and they've kind of got a good, talented team. If they don't make it in the top ten, they're in a tougher situation, whereas we have a user base to go to and a track record with those users.
This is kind of a high level question, but what is the biggest challenge right now for iOS developers in terms of finding exposure?
Well, that is
the biggest challenge, right? There are somewhere close to 700 or so new games launched every day, and last time I checked, the top free, grossing and paid lists don't change that much. So you can kind of imagine that literally 700 games a day are launching and they're all becoming irrelevant almost that fast.
On the flipside, people talk about there being half a million or so Apps in the store today, and that is not the important thing in my mind for developers or publishers. That's sort of like being at Ford and saying, why launch a new truck? There have been 400 of them launched in the last hundred years!
That's not how consumers think. They don't shop for things that launched last year, they're looking at what's new today. So I think there's a lot of opportunity to stand out if you're building high quality product that brings a new experience and is not a re-skin or a ripoff. So there's plenty of opportunity, but discovery is a problem.