What makes or breaks a mobile game? An interview with Alexis Bonte

Events Sep 24, 2020

In this episode, Jampp’s own Co-Founder, Diego Meller, interviewed Alexis Bonte, COO at Stillfront, to learn from his experience as an entrepreneur growing in the mobile environment.

Welcome to App Marketers Unplugged: The Founder Stories, a curation of video podcasts in which we dive into the stories of founders in the mobile industry. In this episode, Alexis Bonte, Co-Founder at eRepublik (acquired by Stillfront Group), discusses how he first became part of the Gaming industry, why he pivoted to mobile, and the role of app marketing in making a mobile game a success.

*The following transcript has been edited and shortened.

Diego: Hi everybody. Welcome to App Marketers Unplugged, I have with me Alexis Bonte. Alexis started his career at lastminute.com, which is one of the largest online travel websites in Europe. After that, he founded a company called eRepublik Labs which was later acquired by Stillfront, a massive Swedish gaming group. So, Alexis, you decided to start a gaming company way before mobile gaming, right? What was the thinking behind starting this company?

Alexis: When I was 16 years old, I was writing the business plan of the gaming company I would start one day. So it really was a childhood dream to start a gaming company.

After we sold lastminute.com to Sabre in 2005, I had a bit of money and decided to “go after my dream”, and foolishly thought “I’m gonna design a game myself with a few people”. I was annoyed about having to buy a new computer each time I wanted to play a new game I was tired of... most young people don’t know this but when you bought a game, there were anti-piracy game keys, and if you lost them you couldn’t play the game anymore. So, I thought this game should be online and free.

I hired a technical founder, we formed a team of 6 to design the whole thing, and in 6 months we had a text game called eRepublik.com. We were very lucky that our first game was so bizarre that people actually wanted to play it, and we still have about 50,000 people playing it every day, so we’re lucky that our first game was successful.

Diego: And when did you decide that mobile was the place to be? Suddenly the App Store appears and mobile games start popping up, why did you decide to move there and what was that process like?

Alexis: It was a real pivot for us, ‘cause initially we thought that eRepublik was going to be our only game, that it was going to be a huge, everlasting game. We started monetizing decently and we were making enough money to sustain a 50-60 people studio, just working on that game. But our game had been too complex to move to Facebook, so we missed that whole wave of growth. With mobile, we said: “we missed one shot, we're not missing a second one”. That’s when we started developing mobile games.

Diego: I remember having a conversation with you about this and it sounded easy in theory, but it was not that easy, right?

Alexis: Well, I think we pivoted to mobile games in 2014. Even today, we still don't have a proper eRepublik mobile version—it was just too complex. The first idea that we had was that we wanted to bring X-COM to mobile games. We did an X-COM free-to-play mobile version with asynchronous play and console-like graphics… It took two and a half years of work, 25-20 people working on it, a few million dollars invested. Compare that with eRepublik.com, made by 6 people in 6 months. eRepublik has made probably 20M dollars in its lifetime, and Tactical Heroes, which is the game we launched, cost millions of dollars and made $40,000 in revenue.

Diego: Considering the investment that goes into these games, When do you decide to kill a game? You keep investing, hoping that you’re gonna reach your goal, but at what point do you think “maybe it’s time for this game to die?”

Alexis: Some people are really good at it: no emotion and very high standards. They know the benchmarks and are very disciplined when they need to kill the game. Honestly, when we did Tactical Heroes, we didn’t have that maturity. We probably should have killed that game a year before.

We’ve learned a lot since then. One time, we actually killed the game too soon, everyone was telling us “if you’re below 50%, you’ll never have a major hit”. So we killed it, and now I know that 40% D1, even at launch, is actually a pretty good start.

At the end of the day, it’s pretty much how much it costs you to make a user play your game and how much money you can make from that user.

Diego: I feel like mobile gaming has democratized gaming, and everybody plays now—it’s not just nerds like we were, it’s everyone. How does that impact the way you go about choosing what game to develop and release?

Alexis: The first thing I said when we joined forces with Stillfront in 2017 and I stepped up as group COO was “the gamer market is definitely not what it used to be”.

Today, we work with 14 studios and we have over 40 large core games. Our typical gamer persona is 35-45 housewives. The number #1 game is a game called Property Brothers which is based on the US TV show about decorating your house. It’s a mainstream game for decorating, and many people who play that game probably don’t consider themselves gamers, but they are playing.

Diego: The founders of Rovio, creators of Angry Birds, said it was an overnight success 8 years in the making. Before Angry Birds, they released 57 other games that failed. How was that story for you? Did you guys also have a bunch of hits and misses? What was your first successful game, the one that eventually landed on the Stillfront acquisition?

Alexis: So, we had kind of the opposite story to Angry Birds. They did 40 or 57 failures or semi-failures before Angry Birds. Our first game is what funded the studio for the next 6-7 years, and then we had a series of failures. Tactical Heroes was the biggest one of them. We probably had 12/13 games that failed after eRepublik.

Then we realized that we needed to focus on the niche that we understood, which was what we call 4X strategy games: the management type of strategy games. Most people at the time had Greek or Roman themes, so we decided to do something slightly different and worked on a medieval theme. We did some testing on Facebook, it seemed like it would work. Then we built our first sort of successful mobile game which was called Age of Lords, and after that, we had the recipe that worked. So we tried again. And our latest kind of big success is a game called War of Peace which is a 4X strategy game, but this time based on the American Civil War, because the US audience was monetizing very well and looking for that sort of theme.

Diego: So basically, you found a game mechanic that worked for a certain segment, and in a way, you have been releasing different flavors of that game mechanic and essentially making it better every time…

Alexis: Like Candy Crush, Candy Crush Saga…

Diego: Since you bring that up, as you know, at Jampp we help app developers and app companies grow, and we feel that the dynamic of how games get big has changed quite a bit. In the beginning, titles like Angry Birds, Clash of Clans, Trivia Crack, they had viral loops designed within the game to help them explode. Now it is a very different game—no pun intended. There’s so much supply and it has become a mix between great game design, but also marketing. How important is it today for a new release that you get the marketing right?

Alexis: If you’re on a scale to become a top 500-200 game, it’s really necessary. If you want to go and break into the top 100, I’d say it’s essential, because there's no way you can get in there without having successful performance marketing.

There was a time when you could have a great game, get featured on Apple and Google, and you could get away without doing too much performance marketing. You have lots of examples of games that emerged that way and are still really strong today, like Subway Surfers. They continue having huge organic numbers. Nowadays, it’s very unlikely.

Long story short, aside from very rare exceptions, you need marketing. We have one of those exceptions in our group, a company called Candywriter that did a game called BitLife which made it to the top 5 most downloaded games on iOS last year. But even that game is now doing a lot of performance marketing to continue growing. Without a strong performance marketing team, you’re going to disappear.

Diego: You had the experience with eRepublik when you were still a small studio and now you have a very different scale of resources at Stillfront. Would you say that the main difference is that with a large budget you can do a big splash at the beginning, and fund the launch of a game without having to worry about the return in the very short term?

Alexis: I think that the big difference in being part of the larger studio is the experience in terms of knowing if your marketing is performing or not, the ability to really track and analyze what’s happening with your game. You need to have the belief and the information to know after 2-3 weeks whether you can continue investing and “splashing,” as you say, because you know you’re going to get your money back and when. When you’re a small studio, it’s very hard to have that data and that confidence.

If somebody is able to have a game that is as good as yours, but simply outspends you or is faster, or more efficient at marketing, then they’re gonna beat you, even if your game is just a little bit better.

Diego: Let’s say you finetune the game to the level that it’s optimized so that you’re ready to spend, ready to go big, would you say the biggest pain point then is sort of how you find those users to scale as quickly as you can?

Alexis: To give an example, one of the studios that joined Stillfront had a great game, very strong, the KPIs were very good, but they didn’t really know how to scale it UA-wise. After they joined, they got to improve their UA. They were able to basically multiply by 8 the revenue and profit of that game. If you know how to do UA better, you could be potentially 5, 6, 7, 8, 10 times larger.

Diego: Let’s talk about the future a little bit. Where is mobile gaming going from your point of view? I feel that the industry has reached some level of maturity. There are very defined game genres, and all of them have been sort of taken to the extreme by each of the studios. What genre do you think is gonna break out?

Alexis: I think we’re going to continue to see evolution in the existing genres. An example of evolution is mainstream games, where you just play through a map like in Candy Crush, and then you have the kind of advanced mainstream games with a narrative adventure or decorating houses. I think we’re going to see these evolutions in all game genres, and mash-ups: mixing different genres that work together.

We’re also going to see new genres emerge and become large. If you think about first-person shooters, 2-3 years ago you didn’t have one first-person shooter in the top 20 grossing in mobile.

Diego: Which was very different in the console world.

Alexis: Right, back then they made up half of the top ten. Then some people figured out how to make that work on mobile and they started going into the top 10. You got the big boys like Activision that are bringing their big IPs (Intellectual Properties) into mobile. The games that are in the top-grossing in PC and console for some of the genres. If you adapt them and make them playable for mobile, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t go into the top rankings. So that’s one way things are going to evolve, and then there are new genres that are going to appear, made for mobile. I’m actually more excited about that part.

Diego: Hyper-casual games have been a massive thing in the last years. There’s a discussion now around what’s going to happen to their revenue with iOS 14. I know you are not really in that space, but what is your general opinion on that? What’s going to happen there?

Alexis: I think there’s been a bit of a bubble around hyper-casual, that's one of the reasons why we see a lot of hyper-casual studios that are being acquired or for sale. They’re gonna suffer a little bit with these changes in iOS. Their CPIs are going to go down because advertisers buying traffic from them want to get those highly targeted users, and they’ll say “we can’t target as much as we used to, so we’re going to pay you less”. A lot of hyper-casual developers that I know are moving towards casual now and leveraging that marketing machine that they have.

Diego: What is the single most important piece of advice you would give to a new founder in the gaming space or new studio or young studio starting now, apart from DON'T DO IT?

Alexis: Definitely DO IT. Jump in the swimming pool. If you can, find a way to work in a startup before, so you know how to swim. If you haven’t done that before, work for somebody you respect in a startup where you can really learn the ropes, and once you find something that you’re really passionate about and you think you can build a strong team around you, even if you don’t feel ready, just go for it.

Diego: That’s great. Alexis, thank you for joining App Marketers Unplugged and for the insights, and hope to see you soon.

Wrapping up

Thank you for joining us on this session of App Marketers Unplugged 2020. If you enjoyed this episode, check our event series agenda for more information on upcoming sessions:

  • AI/ Machine Learning & Media Mix Modelling
  • Programmatic Media Buying and iOS 14
  • The State of Supply in 2020
  • Creative Concept Testing in Games

Melisa Rocío Fernández

Content Lead at @Jampp, grammar nerd, and translator at heart. When she’s not drinking tea, she’s usually drinking tea all the same… and creating great content along the way.