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Nordeus: The difficult second game

Branko Milutinović on making only the second game in the company's history, Spellsouls, and the imminent AAA age for mobile games

The 'difficult second album' is a popular phenomenon in the music industry, one cited whenever a precocious artist returns to the recording studio.

It is no different for mobile developers; the biggest games can remain at the top for years, generating the kind of revenue that can happily sustain a business with hundreds of employees. Attempting to follow that kind of success has proved elusive for many companies, and been attained only by a few. Nordeus is about to find out which of those two groups it will join.

Founded in 2010, the Serbian company's first game, Top Eleven, has been one of mobile era's bigger hits for much of the time since. Now, seven years later, that 'difficult second game' is inching towards a full global launch.

"Being a company famous for a football management game and saying you want to lead AAA on mobile - that's a big statement"

"Well, game number two officially," says CEO Branko Milutinović, laughing, something he does rather a lot. "Don't ask me about unofficially"

According to Milutinović, Nordeus has been thinking about tackling a second game for almost three years, but only "seriously" approaching the task for the last three. The company's three founders - of which he is one - were "inexperienced engineers" when they started making Top Eleven, and he admits to being only "somewhat more experienced" today. Nordeus, however, has grown considerably, with a headcount somewhere north of 160 people; some of whom have been there since the very beginning, some of whom joined to make the next big thing.

A blend of card-battling, action-strategy and richly detailed artwork, Spellsouls is clearly a very different beast to Top Eleven, which is rooted in the stats-and-spreadsheets genre of football management sims. If both games can be said to appeal to an audience of adult males with a penchant for competitive gameplay - which Milutinović does - then it is likely a markedly different subset of that very broad market segment.

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Top Eleven was Nordeus' first release, and it has proved an enduring hit for seven years

It was also a very different challenge for Nordeus. Milutinović believes Spellsouls conforms to the classic 60/30/10 split for "proven, improve, innovate" - the mix of unique and familiar to which a great many products intended for the mass market adhere. However, while the company had "spectacular" engineering talent, it was less expert in the kind of art and gameplay that Spellsouls would demand. When Nordeus opened its London office almost three years ago, it was partly as a "fast track to talent" with those very skills. The arrival of Natural Motion art director Daryl Clewlow in 2016 was informed by the same objective.

"We believe mobile is now going through a similar cycle to all other platforms, where it's going to reach the AAA stage one day - and we think that day is very soon," says Milutinović. "Being a company that isn't able to produce AAA experience might soon become problematic, and we actually want to do the opposite. We want to be among the companies that are going to lead that.

"For us the right choice is independent. That means we're not selling; we never even raised any money"

"Being a company famous for a football management game and saying you want to lead AAA on mobile - that's a big statement. It's a very big statement."

Another deep, booming laugh, and a confident one. The mobile market has become perilously hard to predict, but careful, principled management has left Nordeus is in full control of its own destiny. "For us the right choice is independent," Milutinović adds. "That means we're not selling; we never even raised any money, which was part of not selling... To be that you really need to stretch yourself. This is us really stretching ourselves. That's how we think."

Spellsouls may be an expansive product - in terms of subject matter, in terms of target market, in terms of the skills needed to make it work - and it may lift Nordeus to a new level of success, but Milutinović insists that it was really born out of the desire to improve. "Self awareness is very important," he says, and that demands an awareness of where you can be better.

"That's the main purpose of the product, actually. With Top Eleven, we had a heavy engineering focus; a lot of science there, a lot of mathematics, a lot of number crunching. Just like any football management product the beauty comes from the numbers, not from the visuals.

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Spellsouls represents a major departure from Nordeus' comfort zone, but one it has prepared for years to make

"But we want to be one of the premier independent gaming companies in the world, and you cannot be that if you only do management sims based on numbers. That genre is an amazing experience for the users, but we need to be capable of diversifying our portfolio... I feel we are ready now, and not just to build game number two, but to build any game that we feel strongly about.

"I think over the next five years, probably having three games that are contenders to be category leading - y'know, number one - is really aspirational. But we're still at one, right? We need two more to fulfill that statement, but at least now I feel we know what we're doing, and we're actually doing it."

What does it take to become one of the world's leading independent gaming companies, and to lead mobile's transition into AAA games? For Kabam the answer was $24 million budgets, for Gree International the budget was closer to $35 million - and, perhaps not coincidentally, the latter closed down and the former sold up before any those games were released. However, while Spellsouls may be an answer to the same questions, but Milutinović insists that it does not represent the same level of risk.

"The reality is that the investment - time, money, people and resources - is different to what it used to be," he says. "The quality bar it needs to hit is also very different, and the market itself is more complex and competitive than it was before. We're lucky, because we could be ambitious like that if we wanted to, but at the same time I wouldn't say that approach is required yet. We'll see if it's ever going to be required, but there's still more blue ocean than people think.

"But [Improvement] is the main thing... We feel that we could be much, much, much better, in every aspect. As long as you're improving constantly, while being able to be independent and make your own choices - if that's there, it's inevitable that you're going to do something great."

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