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Space Ape: Chasing a genre-defining hit

Product owner Nick Mansdorf discusses the London-based studio's mission to break into the big leagues

When lightning strikes with a mobile game, it's unlike finding success anywhere else in the industry. With over two billion smartphones in the world and a user base that long ago accepted microtransactions and loot boxes, it's hardly surprising that companies like Tencent, King, and Supercell present their financial reports in billions, as opposed to millions.

In Q4 alone, Tencent's mobile gaming arm generated $2.7 billion in revenue. Meanwhile, despite revealing the lowest numbers since 2014, Supercell just posted earnings of $2 billion in its latest full-year financial report.

It is little wonder then that Space Ape - with its catalogue of successful if not earth-shattering games, and yearly revenues of over $50 million - has opted to rethink its strategy in order to carve off a bigger piece of the mobile pie.

Nick Mansdorf, Space Ape

Speaking with product owner Nick Mansdorf laid out the company's new approach in its quest for that genre-defining hit.

As a mid-sized studio Space Ape has previously, by Mansdorf's own admission, sat at the foot of the table cleaning up scraps leftover by the goliaths of mobile. It established a name for itself with titles like Samurai Siege and Rival Kingdoms, both of which performed well but were essentially reiterations on the same formula.

"We thought that by refining that formula with Rival Kingdoms and making a better game, we could capitalise on that even farther," says Mansdorf. "But as it turned out... the market really wasn't receptive to that sort of strategy."

After realising that no amount of market analytics or telemetric data could predict what the next big game would be, the need to change strategy became self-evident. Making solid mobile titles that break the Top 100 grossing games was a good start, but it was a far cry from games like Mixi Monsters which, in January alone, generated $66 million in revenue.

"It was something we did to survive," says Mansdorf. "We needed to do this, and it was successful. We built a business out of it and we were able to scale the company up. Every game we released made the company stronger, but it wasn't what we wanted to do.

"We wanted this company-making hit, that everyone looks back and says, 'What defines Space Ape as a company? This game.' Like how Blizzard has Warcraft, and King has Candy Crush, and Supercell has Clash of Clans. That one game that makes a company, we're still looking for that."

The fundamental change with Space Ape's overhaul involved moving from a production pipeline to a production funnel. The new structure places emphasis on creativity with hundreds of ideas - or Sparks - pouring into the top of the funnel, but with only a handful making it out at the bottom.

The central conceit is to allow teams to bounce freely around between designing, prototyping, developing a proof of concept and, perhaps most importantly of all, being able to scrap an idea at a moment's notice, irrespective of how long it's been in development. With this new flexible production model, Space Ape hopes to facilitate the development of a top ten grossing mobile game.

For the bosses at Space Ape, nothing less than a genre-defining hit will suffice. According to Mansdorf, games which would have previously made it to final production have been scrapped for failing to meet the company's new criteria for success.

Vitally, Space Ape still operates four successful mobile games that generate enough revenue to keep the studio running while development teams are committed to catching that lighting in a bottle.

“It was something we did to survive… We built a business out of it and we were able to scale the company up”

In order to make this venture viable, Space Ape has restructured completely over the last 18 months. Where previously 70 per cent of the team was committed to live ops for three games, that number is now 25 per cent committed to four. This has freed up 75 per cent of the workforce to focus on developing the aforementioned genre-defining hit while maintaining profitability.

"This isn't something we could have done 18 months ago," concedes Mansdorf. "We need these live games to make this approach. Only when we had that solid foundation did we start throwing away games that were good, but not good enough."

But it's more than a restructure, it's completely redefining the parameters for success, devolving enormous amount of freedom onto individual development teams.

"You have the complete freedom to work on the projects you want to, but you're also responsible to yourself and the company to always be thinking, 'Is this the game I want to make personally, or the game the company needs us to make right now?'" says Mandorf.

"It's empowering at the same time. I can now make any game that I think should be made, and can spend the resources to do it and convince people to join me. But if it doesn't work out, I need the resolve to kill that game."

Knowing when to kill a game, and being able to walk away from something that you've been committed to for months on end, turns development into a meat grinder with fully-fledged ideas being cast aside. As Mansdorf suggests, this can be an immense creative drain and is arguably one of the greatest challenges facing Space Ape under its new model.

"I can now make any game that I think should be made… But if it doesn't work out, I need the resolve to kill that game”

"We're still trying to work that out and that's going to be one of the challenges Space Ape has; how to deal with asking people to be creative all the time, and what to do when their charge is down," he says.

"We will be trying to figure that out because the next flight of games, some of them probably should be killed at certain stages of development. Maybe at proof of concept, maybe when they get to soft launch and they're not performing, and we'll have to deal with the fallout from that and the right way of doing it."

Even with a significant portion of resources devoted to live ops, and those games performing much better than anticipated, this endeavour can only last so long before a change of tact is required. According to Mansdorf, at the current rate, Space Ape has about ten attempts before that happens.

"That's ten in this year," he says. "That relies upon one of these games coming out and being a hit, in that case it doesn't matter anymore, or one of those games going into soft launch, folding, and the staff getting assigned to projects in earlier stages of development."

Space Ape is now poised to soft launch two of the five games that were originally conceived under the new development structure. Mansdorf says that while no firm date has been set, we can expect to see them both arriving toward the end of the current quarter, or early in the next quarter. Whether either of the games will be that genre-defining hit remains to be seen, but the potential is certainly there.

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Ivy Taylor avatar
Ivy Taylor: Ivy joined in 2017 having previously worked as a regional journalist, and a political campaigns manager before that. They are also one of the UK's foremost Sonic the Hedgehog apologists.
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