Five years ago, Mind Candy's Moshi Monsters had 10 million players. It became a flagship for free-to-play, for engagement with young audiences, for the potential of transmedia and physical toys, for British creativity and the resurgence of the domestic industry. It was the epitome of optimism and success, but still there were people who were asking questions, wondering whether all of those profitable eggs had been put in too small a basket. Cynical as it seems, a runaway success isn't great for portfolio diversity.
Like a lot of companies with a golden goose, Mind Candy found Moshi Monsters a difficult act to follow. Now, the game is in decline after ten years of success, and founder Michael Acton Smith admits that the company has had a hard time diversifying, with several ventures into mobile with the Moshi IP failing to gain traction. Children being the fickle bunch they are, Moshi's audience has moved on, and Mind Candy has struggled to move with them. The company headcount stands at just 100, half that of its peak, and Acton Smith is preparing to step down as the company seeks a new CEO.
Time for change, then. Time for a new audience and a new platform. Time for new ideas and new IP. Step forward Candy Labs, Mind Candy's offices in the games and tech hub of Brighton. Formerly Origami Blue until acquired by Mind Candy in 2012, Candy Labs is headed up by Mark Knowles-Lee, previously of Brighton super-studio Black Rock. His 26 strong team sits in an office situated hard on Brighton's sea front, under the shadow of the giant Ferris wheel which dominates the skyline of the Sussex beach. It's that team's project, mobile game World of Warriors, which now shoulders much of the burden of expectation for Mind Candy's immediate future, but you'd not guess it from the relaxed and cheerful attitude which pervades the offices.
Sitting at the board room table, where I've been asked to politely ignore the acres of design idea scribbling and doodles on the whiteboard occupying one of the walls, I ask Knowles-Lee whether he thinks World of Warriors will have anything like the scope of the company's flagship.
"Infinitely bigger," he says, keeping a straight face for all of a second before he and the other members of the team break into good natured laughter. I sense I'm not the first one to ask the question. Despite the mirth, though, it's clear that the team wants the success.
"We've got ambitious plans," Knowles-Lee continues. "We've put a lot of time effort and love into building it in a way which will entertain tons and tons of people. It's a long term bet.
"We want to put an incredible offer on the table from day one, but it really doesn't stop there - it's very much a live service where we want to be offering continuous updates. We've literally got hundreds of warriors in production - we want to be giving them away throughout the year with different events, PvP competitions etc. We very much see it as a service. Getting that content balance right is interesting but I think we've got plenty there for people to get their teeth into for a long time.
"We've put a lot of time effort and love into building it in a way which will entertain tons and tons of people. It's a long term bet"
Mark Knowles-Lee, studio head
"Community and customer service are really really important for us. Everything that was built around Moshi was such a great platform which we can now apply to Warriors. We're getting great feedback from the small pool of players, involving them. It makes a big difference. It makes a nice change too, coming from the 'fire and forget' model we worked in a few years ago."
"At Mind Candy overall there are a few projects going on," adds Amnem Rehman, Mind Candy's cheery PR manager. "We're still working on a few Moshi things and an app called PopJam, but Warriors is actually one of our main focuses at the moment.
"From a Mind Candy perspective, you noted that Moshi has been our thing for five or six years now and this is a really important year for us. The projects we've been working on, our aims and ambitions and focus for the last two years, have been all about diversifying. We've been quite vocal about saying that what we want to do now is to create entertainment for the entire family, whether that's the parents, the kids or the grandparents, or them all playing together.
"So when we talk about Mind Candy now, we're moving away from just being about kids."
"It's worth saying that from a design point of view, the game is designed for a core audience, even though it's easy to pick up," adds lead designer Florian Ziegler. "I think some people will look at the art style and assume it's more kid-orientated, but that's not the case. Big commercially successful games in that space that are aimed at an adult audience do often have sort of kids characters.
"The Clash of Clans TV advert is a good example, it's obviously aimed at an age group, but it's sort of transcended its original audience so everyone can like it. I'll play Clash of Clans with my six year old nephew. Warriors has some super deep elements, but kids will also like the visceral graphics, the fun of it. That was what we wanted, I think that's what Mind Candy does."
The game itself bears all the hallmarks of a well-budgeted modern mobile success. It's slick and beautifully presented, with a striking art style and simple yet engaging gameplay which sees players taking a team of warriors, selected from various iconic soldier castes throughout history, through a series of battles against AI opponents. It's free-to-play, naturally, and liberally sprinkled with microtransactions and the opportunity to use them, but the core game never demands payment for progression.
World of Warriors operates on a three-tier currency system of coins and two different types of gem. In a system which evolves into a surprisingly complex stat and element based mechanic, coins can be spent on boosting talismans, whilst gems are exchanged for other rewards, like rare talismans or new warriors. With those prizes being awarded at random, in a pretty straightforward gacha system, I wonder whether the team has any concerns over the rulings made in Japan and Singapore which have banned gacha mechanics, or at least put them under the same laws as gambling.
"It might sound like we should be, but we're not really," says Knowles-Lee. "I think the reason for that is that our lucky-dip is a lot shallower in a sense: you always get something very valuable every time you knock on the door. It's not structured in that way where you have incredible rarity. We wanted to be sure that everyone has fun, gets good warriors, gets good value.
"I think after a while the quality of our games will start to speak for themselves. Trust needs to work both ways"
Anil Dasgupta, producer
"We've been careful to ensure that there's a good slew of starting warriors, so you can have a really good playthrough for free. I don't enjoy games that prevent me from doing that."
Moshi Monsters might not be quite the force it once was, but it still carries a lot of clout, imbuing Mind Candy's brand with a healthy dose of quality and trust. Switching to a broader audience might limit the effects of that slightly, but producer Anil Dasgupta sees the brand reputation as important to more than just marketing: it can help make an all important first impression on a platform holder, too.
"I think quality is important," he tells me. "We're trying to build a reputation at Mind Candy for building quality products and when we go to see platform holders like Apple or Google, they recognise that, that we're not making throwaway games. That is how you transcend that, there's not too many companies that get that response. Supercell definitely do, they're one of those companies that can release something and everyone goes straight to it because it's a Supercell game. I think after a while the quality of our games will start to speak for themselves. Trust needs to work both ways."
World of Warriors will be out on iOS in November, with Android to follow