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"By keeping it small I have the chance to be more hit-and-run"

Despite the success of Reigns, Nerial's Francois Alliot will respond to a fickle premium mobile market by keeping things tight

Each year, a small handful of games serve as a reminder that the mobile market has at least some room not already occupied by free-to-play; for games that aren't operated as perpetual services, and for which a premium price doesn't inevitably mean a swift and ignoble commercial death. In years past that service has been provided by the likes of Ridiculous Fishing, Monument Valley, 80 Days and Prune; last year, it was provided by Reigns.

Indeed, as 2016 drew to its end the game's publisher, Devolver Digital, announced that Nerial's beguiling fusion of Tinder's interface, Game of Thrones' politics and Monty Python's humour had reached 1 million sales - a substantial return for a game with a development team of just five people, and, according to founder Francois Alliot, far more than either he or Devolver had expected.

"For Reigns it was very good to have a publisher, but we were very lucky in getting Devolver"

"It all just grew together," he says when we meet at the Ludicious conference in Zurich. "I wasn't expecting people to get it so quickly."

In retrospect, though, it seems clear to Alliot that Reigns was a "perfect storm" in that respect; a brilliant design with just the right hooks, but perhaps unrepeatable in anything other than a direct sequel. More to the point, Nerial found the exact right publisher for its strange brew, Reigns fitting so snugly into Devolver's portfolio that it could have been custom-built for its considerable knack for making the world sit up and take notice of edgy, distinctive indie fare.

"For Reigns it was very good to have a publisher, but we were very lucky in getting Devolver," Alliot says. "There aren't many publishers that are really worth your time as a developer. What they bring to you needs to be very clear. If they don't have good grounding in social media, communication and press then it's not worth it."

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Francois Alliot, Nerial

Nerial is updating Reigns with new content, adding 120 cards free of charge to all of its owners, but work has already started on a sequel, Reigns 2, with Devolver back on board as publisher. The intention was never to build a service, selling a stream of card packs to keep players interested. Instead, Alliot is keen to push the first game's concept further, applying the same mordant wit to the role of queens throughout history - in many ways a richer and more diverse subject, he says, due to the ways that patriarchal monarchies have tended to force the hand of their female members.

"It's a very interesting way to think about the notion of power," he says. "Whereas Reigns was a bit more cliche, if you like, with the king and his advisors. That's why it works. It's very identifiable for people, you can play with that. With queens we'll have to bring more content, more background to the idea of the character. It's an interesting challenge."

What we won't see, though, is an over-reaction. Nerial is a small studio, and while the success of Reigns has generated substantial resources for future projects, Alliot argues that the best response to exceeding your own expectations is "relative calm."

"I'm not a young game designer," he adds. "I've been making games for three years, but before that I was a consultant for ten years. It's very good to be able to make a living from making games, but I feel no big pressure to grow."

"It's a lot of luck. That's the sort of luck you have to create for yourself, but it can also not happen even if you work just as hard"

Many indie studios do, the gains made on one project immediately showing in the scale and ambition of the next. However, Alliot sees Reigns as the product of a handful of underlying principles that apply to each of Nerial's four other games: a dev cycle of six to nine months; a team of five people at the most, but usually just three, some of which will be specially picked to suit the project. This consistent structure allows each Nerial release to be treated like "a new step, a way to experience and learn new things," the very creative atmosphere from which the Reigns concept emerged. Changing that now just because it's affordable doesn't make sense.

"I want to carry on like that," Alliot says. "I would use Devolver as an example of that, because it's exactly the same sort of thing. Devolver is not many people. It has extremely experienced industry guys who have been around for 20 years or so. They did AAA studios and big publisher stuff, and now they want to keep it small and make things nice with that number of people. It works."

This is also the reality of the market for indie developers who don't want to build free-to-play games. Premium titles like Deus Ex Go and Super Mario Run benefit enormously from the fame of their IPs and the influence of their publishers, but beyond that the mobile market is too fickle to confidently predict. Particularly in premium, Alliot says, investing more money doesn't necessarily raise the chance of success. Indeed, one of the most important factors isn't even under the developer's control.

"It's a lot of luck," he says. "That's the sort of luck you have to create for yourself - it's not just going to happen - but it can also not happen even if you work just as hard.

"I'm not really competing with free-to-play games. I'm not all the same sort of size, or philosophy, or professional practice. By keeping it small I feel I have the chance to be more hit-and-run. There's still space for that in the market today."

GamesIndustry.biz is a media partner for Ludicious 2017. Our travel and accommodation costs were provided by the organiser.

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