Both onstage and off at Dubrovnik's Reboot Develop conference, Eipix's CEO Mirko Topalski is frank and upbeat. He is, I get the distinct impression, a man to whom pragmatism is of the utmost importance. His home country of Serbia, has its fair share of unpleasant stories and bad memories, but as he talks me through the difficult origins of his studio, which formed at a point when Serbia was still under a strict travel embargo, he does so with no pathos and a touch of pride.
"The first game we made, Pyroblazer, had a lot of interest from international publishers," he explains. "They were asking if we could go and visit them in New York or wherever and that was impossible at the time. We had to basically publish with the first publisher we could and that was, unfortunately, a publisher which was a fraudulent agent. They basically just took the game and disappeared. Even though I could probably sue that guy now, I don't want to do that. What I really want is the data; I really want to know how that game did. We never got that data."
Today, Eipix is a firm of over 300 people, based in the Serbian city of Novi Sad. Topalski tells me that company growth has been so fast that the team has to keep finding new small offices to expand into, as large offices are very much at a premium in the city, and priced to match. His company has gone from a struggling, bootstrapped start-up living in a country under strict embargoes, to become one of the world's most prolific outlets, and some of that success stems from the bad luck which befell the company's first 'core' product.
"It's a lot of work. I'm pretty sure it's the biggest output of any dev at the moment"
"After Pyroblazer we had to do a bunch of outsourcing to survive, which led us to work in the casual space," he tells me of the turnaround. "I have to say, we're all core gamers, but casual has been so much better to us. Maybe it was just a bad experience, but casual publishers have been so much better, they treat us really well. So basically we're a casual developer now. I have aspirations to maybe go back to core one day...but only if we're really, really successful in casual."
The casual market the company has built itself on is hidden object puzzle adventures, or HOPAs. Topalski's team has pumped out these games at an incredible rate, charging around $7 each on Steam for basic editions and up to $20 for the premium releases. The sheer volume at which Eipix publishes is absolutely phenomenal, but Topalski assures me that they're all made with care and attention to quality. In his presentation, earlier that day, he mentioned that the schedule was to release 25 games within the next year. I double check to make sure I haven't misheard him.
"It's really crazy, I realise that," he says ruefully. "Hidden object games are fairly similar in a lot of ways. The main menus are always the same, the achievements are always the same, the core mechanics are always the same, the characters always appear in the same part of the screen. The puzzles are sometimes reused. There's a system that can be implemented, whereas if you're making one FPS and one RTS, that's going to be a lot harder. So that's how we're trying to make 25 games this year. It's ridiculous. When people hear that they think, 'oh, flash games.' These are not flash games. They're not huge games, but they do work on PC, Mac, iOS and Android. They have five or six hours of content for quick players, up to about ten for the first time. They have cinematics, custom music, voice overs. It's a lot of work. I'm pretty sure it's the biggest output of any dev at the moment.
"It's a premium business, though, so it's obviously not growing; I'd say it's maybe diminishing quite slowly, but it's not growing. So the evolution of the company to free-to-play is obvious."
That evolution takes the form of "Free the Witch", a free-to-play Match Three game which doesn't stray too far from the established path. Moving from an established genre to perhaps the most crowded sector in the entire industry seems risky, but Topalski has pretty sensible expectations.
"If I was self publishing, I would never make a Match Three game, that's for sure"
"If you're talking about the business side you should look at the top 100 grossing games - there aren't actually that many Match Three games on there. There are a bunch on the market but not many in the top 100. That's interesting. Big Fish already has a super successful Match Three game - if we can repeat just a fraction of that success we'd already be doing very well. If by some chance we can surpass that, it would be amazing.
"If I was self publishing, I would never make a Match Three game, that's for sure. But with our publisher's help in this space I think we have a chance. That's basically down to their incredible user-acquisition. With most publishers, you're just spending ridiculous amounts of money on that. Those costs are going up and up. Every month it's a bigger and bigger sum.
"That's partly why I don't expect those games at the top of the grossing charts to ever go away. They have such a vast amount of money being returned for user acquisition - unless you have a billion dollars to spend on acquisition, you're never going to beat those guys. But being based in Serbia, we don't need to be top ten; top 100 would be super-successful for us and let us continue our growth and expansion."