When Michael Martinez and a handful of co-workers left Zynga in 2012 to found Juicebox Games, they had two main motivations. Martinez told GamesIndustry.biz that first of all, they wanted to try their hand at midcore game development because they believed those types of games would be more fun to make as well as play. Secondly, the casual market of the time was ridiculously crowded, a problem that was only getting worse.
"Casual is even more saturated, if anything, with so many match-three games doing incredibly well," Martinez said. "With casual style games, absolutely you can make some really great games, but it felt to us that there was a little bit more luck involved there because you needed to hit such scale. If you don't hit that scale, the game won't be successful as a business. But we were really confident if we built a great midcore game, there would be an audience for that and those types of players will pay us and create a business."
Martinez wasn't the only developer to have that idea. Even in the early days of Juicebox, naysayers were already telling him they'd heard plenty of empty promises of a midcore mobile market explosion. But in a world with Clash of Clans and Hearthstone drawing big bucks, Martinez knows the days of any early mover advantage are long gone.
"Yes, there are a lot of players in [midcore mobile], but I still don't think the games are up to the quality bar that players want. There's a lot of room for it to grow."
"I think the midcore market is already extremely fierce," Martinez said. "I don't know if it's easier [than casual]. It takes a lot to succeed. It takes a really good game, and there aren't any tricks to that... It's only going to keep growing. Yes, there are a lot of players in it, but I still don't think the games are up to the quality bar that players want. There's a lot of room for it to grow. We're huge fans of Hearthstone. It's awesome to see that game; I think that's the most innovative game that we've seen for years now come out of the mobile space, probably in the last two years. It's really great to see that game succeed, and we're really excited about that. I think it just shows we're scratching the surface of what players want."
That growth in the midcore market is leading to some of the same problems the casual scene has been dealing with for years. Cloning is one concern that has dogged the midcore market of late, but it's not one that Martinez shares.
"There have been lots of clones of Candy Crush, or takes on the match-three game, and those have been incredibly successful," Martinez said. "I think there are two or three in the top 25 or top 50 grossing right now, but none of them are going to unseat Candy Crush. And on the midcore side, Clash of Clans is the monster. There's been countless versions of that game, and some have been very successful, but none have come remotely close to unseating it. So I think it happens, games will be inspired by it, but we don't feel like it's a threat to our business in any way."
Juicebox's first effort in midcore, the card-battling role-playing game Honorbound, launched over a year ago. And as expected, Martinez said you don't need nearly as many users to make a good business in midcore.
"They just monetize a lot more," Martinez said. "The percentage of payers, and then the transaction size and the total lifetime spend per payer is much higher. In a game like TwoDots, you spend a dollar at a time to get five lives or do whatever you do. In midcore games, the average transaction size is around $20, and it can get much higher. In Game of War, the App Store shows the package that is purchased most is their $100 package."
"In midcore games, the average transaction size is around $20, and it can get much higher. In Game of War, the App Store shows the package that is purchased most is their $100 package."
Martinez stressed that's not just the highest grossing package in Game of War; that's actually the most frequently purchased. For Honorbound, like most other midcore games, the most frequent in-app purchases are about $5. With fewer users to fund the game and each one spending more money, that makes the issue of long-term player retention crucial for the midcore market.
"In casual, you can have an audience of 150 million players," Martinez said. "You can't have that with Game of War or for Honorbound, so the users that you do have, you want to make sure you keep them that much more. You almost care more about that than day-one retention."
The bright side is if a team builds a successful foundation of a game and manages it as a live service well, there's no set lifespan to worry about. Instead, Martinez thinks of games as having a flexible lifecycle.
"There's launch, growth, then a plateau period, then a decline of users--but your revenue can still be growing because you're losing people that aren't as interested or aren't payers--then decline of revenue as well. And it's about trying to manage all of those and prolong each one as long as possible."
A year after launch, Honorbound has been in the plateau period, Martinez said, but encouragingly, Juicebox has seen it return to growth of late. The studio is also evaluating moving into new territories like China or Korea, which could also potentially prolong the game's journey through the lifecycle. Even so, Juicebox isn't relying on Honorbound to last forever, and the studio has started working on its second title.
"We always wanted to be a multi-game studio," Martinez said. "We never thought we'd just have a single game and only work on that game. This is our first time running a company and we have plans, but we're also figuring things out along the way. Some people could say, did we start it too late or should we have started it earlier? I think we started it when we were ready to start it. We have a road map and a plan for bringing more games to market, but it's all about focus for us. That's really the most valuable resource for the team. How do we focus on the things that will move the company the most?"