When siblings Isabel and Andrés Tallos set about creating Age of Aces, an arcade game for mobiles based around World War II planes, with another partner in 2012, they surely didn’t imagine that they would become experts in the free-to-play industry.
Until then Andrés Tallos had worked as a marketing and business expert for companies such as GREE and McKinsey & Company, while Isabel Tallos was developing her artistic career as a photographer, holding exhibitions throughout Europe.
Six years later not only have they had a complete change in their professional careers, they have also turned Everguild, a studio in its infancy, into one of the benchmarks for the development of free-to-play card games for mobiles.
That’s why we wanted to take advantage of their sojourn as mentors at the F2P Campus in Vitoria-Gasteiz to talk to them and ask them a few questions.
F2P Campus (F): Why did you decide to make a card game?
Isabel Tallos (I): At that time we were really hooked on Hearthstone, to tell you the truth. We started talking about what things we would change, what we would add… Also, back then it was only available on PC and tablet, so there was a big gap in the mobile market.
Andrés Tallos (A): They’d said they were working on a mobile version. They said that it was going to take them nine months but knowing Blizzard we thought that it would be more than a year. Although we expected it to be a difficult game to adapt and release on mobile, they ended up meeting the deadline.
Even so, we thought that there was still an opportunity to make a card game designed primarily for mobiles, from the interface to the file size.
F: Why choose free-to-play as a business model?
I: We believe that for mobile there’s no other option unless you have the capacity to get a great deal of visibility, and maybe not even then. For every paid game there is, even if it’s 50 cents, you have 500 that are free and, what’s more, they’re really good.
A: While I was working for GREE, a Japanese game publisher, I had the opportunity to see how the market in Japan was evolving and it was clear that in the end free-to-play games were going to take over the market. It’s much easier for these games to invest in publicity since they get more profit from every euro they invest: it’s easier to convince somebody to download something free than something paid.
When we started making games, in Europe and the USA Candy Crush and co. were already around. You could see that even games with strong brands like FIFA and Football Manager, which were coming out as paid games, were struggling to make as much money in comparison. That’s why in the end they’ve all been moving towards F2P.
I: With that in mind, having opted for a card game made it much simpler for us to implement free-to-play. The monetization is in selling cards, a very simple format that all payers have internalized. What’s more, a lot of players like it because it’s cheaper for them to get cards compared to physical games; sometimes they don’t even have to pay.
F: As I understand it, you’re both fans of physical card games. Have you brought any ideas from physical games to your videogames?
A: Everything’s been done. Numerous card games have been made trying out many types of game mechanics. Obviously, we’re always looking to do new things, but it’s much more about finding those mechanics that not only work well but also make sense in digital format.
An example I like to give is Magic: The Gathering. One of the fundamental mechanics that has made it successful is having cards that can be used during your opponent’s turn. It allows you to be interacting the whole time and you no longer have the feeling of playing alone half of the time.
However, when you take it to digital it has the opposite effect because you have to pause the game to ask if the other person wants to do anything every time a card is played. It breaks the rhythm, so if you want to have something similar you have to implement it in a different way.
I: You have to choose [the game mechanics] really well and see whether players understand them. It’s very important that they don’t get confused or frustrated.
F: What did you learn from Drakenlords that helped you make The Horus Heresy: Legions better?
I: One of the most important things we learnt is not to be scared of charging for things. To begin with we were too nice and gave a lot away; even so, people complained and said that it was pay-to-win. With the second game we lost the hang-up. If you pay you have better cards, and if not you have to wait to get them another way.
A: Then there’s the issue of content for the player. There are card games that have released campaigns, but it’s been very difficult for us to monetize them in the free-to-play world.
In Drakenlords there was the first part that was a free campaign of around six hours. Later the idea was that the player started playing PvP (player versus player) and accumulated gold to unblock other campaigns and cards later on.
What we found was that loads of people didn’t want to play PvP and also weren’t willing to pay.
I: It was a great deal of work in terms of art, translation, game balancing, just for people to play for free and, on top of all that, to get angry.
In this vein, another thing we’ve learnt is that people are scared the first time they play with another person instead of against the machine. For that reason we’ve learnt from games like Clash Royale and tried to make it an invisible transition.
F: Andrés, in your talk you mentioned that you have to integrate marketing into the development of the game. What have you done with The Horus Heresy: Legions so that the game ‘sells itself’?
A: Apart from owning the intellectual property, which is pretty important for getting people to try the game, we believe it’s fundamental that all the game mechanics fit with the lore. We worked really hard to make every card, every character, every mechanic behave the way they’re described in the books. For instance, an ability to steal cards goes with a character who it suits to do that.
In this way, when you play with them the cards lead you to play in the way that the characters are in the story. Maybe it’s not marketing in the sense of communication, but it’s marketing in the sense of understanding what players like and incorporating it into your product and how you communicate it.
I: In our case, this familiarity goes both ways. In the players who read the books at the time as well as those who have started reading because of the game.
F: Why go for a soft-launch or an early access instead of a normal launch?
A: In our case we’ve done both. The idea is that, when it’s time for the official launch, the game is as polished and refined as it can be. In our experience there are things that, until the game gets to a body of end-users (who aren’t testing it, they’re playing as if it’s been launched), you can’t see and fix.
I: The players go about getting the best possible deck, they experiment a lot and, in the end, they retest the game and find things you hadn’t thought of.
The advantage for them is that they’re the first ones who see it, and they also have the opportunity to transfer their progress to the final game. The latter is something that card players value greatly.
A: The disadvantage for these players is that they have to accept the changes that we make to the game because it’s not yet finished.
F: What decisions did you take when designing the game for mobile that you wouldn’t have done for other platforms?
I: We definitely wouldn’t have put the hero on the board, and we would have obsessed less over making games shorter but still maintaining all the strategic elements.
We also wouldn’t have worked so hard to optimize the size of the game or make it multiplatform (Android and iOS) from the start.
A: Something that most free-to-play games for mobile are doing, which don’t work on a computer, is trying to turn the game into a daily habit for the player. That pushes you to, for example, be constantly releasing new content, creating events…so that it doesn’t become a boring routine.
F: Recently Epic announced that they won’t be distributing Fortnite via the Play Store on Android. Do you think this could be a future trend in the industry?
A: I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s something that’s already happening in countries like China where the ecosystem is much more fragmented and stores have much higher commissions. There the big studios are distributing their games directly, doing direct marketing to users and saving themselves the middleman’s commission.
Although the commission may seem high, intermediaries like Google Play offer a lot of services. From protecting users from malware to benefits for the developer, such as a reliable payment platform and technical support when things go wrong…
I: For the time being, we’re really happy with the app stores; they make many aspects of our work much easier. Entering your card details in an online store that you hardly know doesn’t give you the same security as doing so in a well-known store like Amazon. In the end you feel much more secure.
A: I don’t think it’s going to be something that quickly becomes widespread, but if it goes well for Epic and other studios are encouraged to follow their lead, it’s not unlikely that similar services for small studios will start appearing.
F: Finally, what advice would you give to people who are starting out in the free-to-play videogame industry?
I: To start doing things as soon as possible. These days it’s very easy to start, even if it’s following a Unity tutorial step by step. Make a clone of Space Invaders and release it in the store.
It might seem silly, but you learn a lot from copying good games. People think that the decisions behind them are obvious, but they’re not. Copying a game that you know helps you to understand why they took certain decisions, and that is vital for learning.
But above all you have to push the button. Go through the whole process of creating a game from scratch so that when you embark on a more ambitious project you have the experience.
A: My advice is to release something onto the market as soon as possible. It’s very typical, it happened to us too, to start making your first game and want to make ‘the best game of all time’ or for it to be a smash hit. If you have such high expectations it’s easy to get into a vicious circle where you keep putting in more work, more time, more mechanics, and you end up never releasing anything.
I: It’s like when you’re in a toxic relationship but you don’t want to leave because you’ve invested so much in it. There are people who don’t want to let it go.
A: The best thing for that is to have a deadline. If you set it yourself you can be more flexible, but it’s better if it’s externally imposed. Work flat out until that day and then let the game go out into the world.
You shouldn’t get frustrated if your first game isn’t a resounding success; you have to know how to learn from it and improve for the next one.
Many thanks to Isabel and Andrés Tallos for coming to Vitoria-Gasteiz to answer our questions and advise the F2P Campus teams.
Until next time!