There's a challenge at the heart of the games-as-a-service model in mobile gaming: convincing a critical mass of players to invest time and money into your product when just merely grabbing their interest for a single minute is a Herculean task. For those developers fortunate or talented enough to cross that initial threshold, the way we keep players around in the long run is through iteration on that first engaging game hook - take a strong core gameplay loop and build upon it with new content (levels, characters, items, etc.) and features (campaigns, multiplayer, and so on).
Simple enough on paper. And yet so many promising and even legitimate hits fall off the ball and, subsequently, the charts, delivering something their players eventually sour on. From our perspective, being attuned to your player base, making sure you're delivering what they communicate they need (either directly through social media, reviews, etc. or indirectly through playtesting and in-game metrics), is an under-appreciated aspect of successful game iteration in mobile.
Evolution vs. Revolution
"With every change or update or addition we always have this weird, core question to weigh: does it make the game better or worse to play in the bathroom?"
This might sound deceptively simple, but the honest truth about a significant share of potentially long-term mobile players is that they don't want things to change that much. They want new things, but they don't necessarily want a different thing, and a lot of their motivations have as much to do with the context of their play experience as much as the experience itself. Here's a thing we learned about the people who regularly play Hill Climb Racing: a lot of them are gaming on the toilet. That's a bit of an oversimplification, but it's clear our fans play in situations where they only really have or are making available a few minutes at a time.
So with every change or update or addition - and even with a full-fledged sequel like Hill Climb Racing 2 - we always have this weird, core question to weigh: does it make the game better or worse to play in the bathroom? And that affects a lot of what we prioritize in game! It means the game absolutely must have quick load times. It means each gameplay session has to feel satisfying in a short span.
Our peers in AAA gaming have taught us that "bigger and better" should be the mark of quality for sequels (how often is "it hasn't changed from last year's game" hung around the necks of console and PC games?). But in mobile, a number of audiences would rather have accessibility and consistency on an already solid design over wildly expanded gameplay or graphical upgrades. Effectively iterating on your game doesn't mean expanding it pointlessly. Feature creep is a risk not only because it can lead to losing a game's central focus, but also because it can make the mistake of changing things your players didn't want tampered with.
Adding the "2"
When is the right time to start thinking about making a sequel or spinoff? The first thing to consider is that there's nothing to say you even have to make a sequel to keep your players satisfied. The right game with the right content and pay model can continue to make money for a long time, sustained by fresh upticks in installs after each update. That's nothing to take for granted in a market that is always skewing ever more competitively.
That said, while making a sequel or spinoff is risky, a totally new game offers a few benefits over traditional updates, and you may eventually reach a point where they deserve serious consideration against those risks. Sequels present an opportunity to tell completely new stories. Applying new features on a previously balanced template can be awkward, and sometimes it's better to simply start from scratch without breaking and remaking an existing (and successful) product with years of investment already put in. Finally, and this is a smaller point, but the challenge of making a sequel can be creatively reinvigorating for a team that feels like it's been on patch duty for the past few years.
"Ultimately, a lot of what makes for an effective update or sequel will come from your fans... That doesn't mean doing everything they ask for - you still have a responsibility as a developer and an artist to make your own active decisions for your product"
I think there's an understandable fear in mobile that games are zero sum; that any gains we make have to come at the expense of other products. But it's not a necessary truth that like games must cannibalize each other's audiences. Developing a franchise or brand in mobile means finding new angles for the core experience your players enjoy, so that each of your titles builds upon and supports the others through cross-promotion, much in the same way a series like Dots offers multiple games that share a familiar comfort and skill set without overtly overlapping in features.
And so I'd caution not to forget your previous product or the community still engaged by it when releasing a new game. I recognize it can be a challenge to actively develop two games at the same time, but it's important players of the first game don't feel their investment in the original game they loved is being shelved or replaced.
Designing from Play
So much of making a new game before release is theorycrafting - how will players respond to this assortment of mechanics and graphics we've assembled? But when your game is out, you don't have to guess quite so hard. You have an audience now, and keeping it means making its many varied voices an intimate partner in development.
Ultimately, a lot of what makes for an effective update or sequel will come from your fans. So listen to them! That doesn't mean doing everything they ask for - you still have a responsibility as a developer and an artist to make your own active decisions for your product. But consult with your support team to know what the players want or, perhaps more importantly, what they continue to struggle with. Understanding precisely what it is that your audience originally found engaging - and retaining that feel with every edit and add-on - is essential to a game's long-term success.
Teemu Närhi is the CEO of Fingersoft, a Finland based game developer and publisher located in Oulu best known for its worldwide hit mobile game Hill Climb Racing. Since HCR's global launch in 2012 Teemu has played an integral role at Fingersoft, building out strategy and helping the company become one of the most successful IT companies in Finland as it grew from a two-person team to the 28 strong operation of today.