In this episode of the Mobile Gamedev Playbook, Thi Detert, Senior Lead Game Designer at InnoGames, and Product Owner, Alison Simpson talk about the development journey of Sunrise Village with GameRefinery, a Liftoff company analyst Teemu Palomäki and our host, Jon Jordan.
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We will cover the challenges (and solutions) encountered along the way from soft launch to global launch; the solutions that allowed the design team to build everything from components developed by the dev team; what inspired the game; and what the future might have in store for InnoGames.
You can also watch the episode on YouTube:
Topics we will cover in this episode:
- Moving from strategy games to casual games
- Expanding your audience
- Two sets of crafting games
- Combining existing genres with new trends
- Creating a narrative for a mobile game
- Design and pre-production phase
- How does InnoGames approach the soft launch phase
- Designing a game economy that is accessible to all players
- Designing collaborative elements
- Future plans for Sunrise Village
[00:00:06] Jon Jordan: Hello and welcome to the Mobile Gamedev Playbook. Thanks for tuning in for another episode. This is the podcast all about what makes a great mobile game. What is and isn’t working for mobile game designers and all the latest trends. I’m your host, Jon Jordan, and joining me today, we have a packed podcast, and we’re going to be going deep into the latest release from InnoGames. Let’s go to our experts from InnoGames great to have you with us. We have Thi Detert, who is the senior lead game designer. How’s it going?
[00:00:41] Thi Detert: I’m good, Jon. Thanks.
[00:00:42] Jon: Good. We also have Alison Simpson, who is the product owner. How’s it going, Alison?
[00:00:48] Alison Simpson: It’s great. Thanks for having us.
[00:00:49] Jon: Good. You are both working on Sunrise Village. That is the focus of our podcast today: to talk about the concepts and how it’s gone through in development, soft launch, and into launch. Providing a thousand-mile view as ever is Teemu Palomaki. How’s it going, Teemu?
[00:01:10] Teemu Palomäki: It’s going great. Great to be here, at least.
[00:01:12] Jon: Good. Good. You’ll be our headline expert for crafting games, and Thi and Alison will talk specifically about what’s been going on in that game. Maybe to kick us off may be good to get a little introduction to InnoGames. Pretty well known, but perhaps some listening people don’t know. Can we have a little potted history of InnoGames? Thi, do you want to tell us a bit?
[00:01:30] Thi: Sure, Jon! So, InnoGames is based in Hamburg, Germany. It was founded in 2007 and is still run by the founders today. The company is over 400 employees strong, with people coming from all over the world, including the Americas like myself, all over Europe, and Asia, so it’s cool to be in a diverse company. Even with a rather big size, it still focuses on having an open and collaborative environment like something you would see in a start-up. I worked in many start-ups here in San Francisco, so I appreciated that part of InnoGames. You may have heard of some of our more well-known games like Forge of Empires, Elvenar, and Tribal Wars, to name a few, all of which were very strategy city-builder type games. But, as you know, we’re moving into other genres now and had two successful commercial launches this past year—one with Rise of Cultures and, of course, our very own Sunrise Village.
Moving from strategy games to casual games
[00:02:09] Jon: Cool. I guess I’ve played a few of the games in my time. I guess, without being pejorative, it was a very German developer, so very German PC-style strategy games and quite deep. Successfully moved to mobile and has been doing very well in mobile. The full progression is to do a more farming simulator adventure game, which we have with Sunrise village. Where did the idea come from? Is it just a natural progression that you start with very hardcore games that tend to be more played by teenage and young male players, and then over time, you go, “well, let’s make games for a more general audience?” What’s the thinking internally? Alison, do you want to jump in?
[00:03:01] Alison: Sure. As you mentioned, we’ve already got a lot of experience at InnoGames with strategy titles and city-building simulation titles like Sunrise Village. We initially wanted to create an assimilation title but also use our own experience from InnoGames. You do have the city building elements in Sunrise Village in the village area. We also wanted to introduce some new elements and reach a new target audience with the farming and more of the resource management style of gameplay. That’s what we did. Then, we wanted to make the most of the character to add a bit of a Sunrise Village spin. We’ve got a very heavy focus on the character gameplay. As we went through development, we wanted to increase the focus on the character gameplay. We added an extensive quest system and an extensive story. That’s where the exploration took off. We found that this was compelling in terms of gameplay, in terms of goals, and motivation for the player. We carried on with that, which ultimately became Sunrise Village.
[00:04:08] Jon: That’s interesting. As you spoke about that there, I guess me having not made games, I get the idea that some developers sit down and go; this is what we’re going to make. Then they work away for a certain period to come up with their vision, but what you suggested was much more: “Well, we came up with an idea. Then we used some of our expertise.” Then over time, things got quite fluid, and you came up with something, I guess, that some of those specifics are not what you originally thought. I guess Thi, with the designer hat on, was that the process? Where did that flow from? I don’t know if you have an original vision document or whether those things exist anymore, but how did it flow through the process?
[00:04:54] Thi: As Alison mentioned, we have a lot of experience with the quest systems, many of which are other games. I was on a previous game at InnoGames before at Forge of Empires. There, we used a lot of quests and a lot of storytelling, and we brought that over here. With the character-centric gameplay, we could delve deeper into that and create now, like, within the game, a story that can unfold through levels. The player can explore and uncover the story slowly. We’re trying to make this compelling. We introduce this mystical element to hook players in and make them want to figure out what’s happening. It’s uncovering the story is now the player’s main goal, and that’s developed along with the city-building expertise that we have, the quest-building expertise that we have and developed into that.
Expanding your audience
[00:05:46] Jon: With my equally inexperienced hat on, a game like Sunrise Village, I guess was surprising from InnoGames because InnoGames, as I said, generally being a male focus game, and obviously, you two people coming on the podcast are women, which you don’t have all the time a game done at the circles. Was this another overt thing where you said we just want to make this more accessible or was it a bit more like, we want this to appeal to women, or how does that sort of gender aspect come into play when you are designing and thinking about a product?
[00:06:21] Alison: InnoGames does have another established title, Elvenar, which does appeal more to a female audience than a male audience, even though it is still, you could say, technically it’s more strategy city-builder title. We also made a conscious decision when we were looking at expanding our audience. We know we already have a very strong male audience at InnoGames. When we were talking about the farming simulation genre, you can see that this naturally seems to appeal more to women. We built on that. We geared our game in that direction, and Sunrise Village was the result.
Two sets of crafting games
[00:06:57] Jon: Obviously, it will be enjoyed by all genders. Not what I meant. Teemu, coming in with your expert view of the entire ecosystem. What’s been going on in that? I don’t know if that’s a genre, the farming simulator narrative. There are many features, genres, and sub-genres packed into there, which, as we’ve discussed, is where game design is at the moment. People aren’t making pure single genres as much as they used to. It’s all very much layered, and different gameplay matters in there. What’s been going on over the last year in that area?
[00:07:38] Teemu: If we look at the Tycoon crafting games, there are two sets of crafting games. There’s the type that is, say, heyday and township where you just focus on the farm and then there’s the Sunrise Village type of games that also has the exploration and is more focused on story and uncovering the world. Those are two different games but still within the same sub-genre. When looking at it as a whole, the top games have been bringing in social aspects lately. These are also keeping players motivated to keep coming back to the game. What differentiates the top games and the sub-genre generally has subscriptions that get people invested in the game or the magic word – battle pass always works, or just like periodical gifts that if you come during the week, you get weekly rewards. Those are some of the differentiating features within these crafting games.
Combining existing genres with new trends
[00:09:06] Jon: Cool. Good. With the designer hat on now, Thi, I guess it probably wasn’t just you. All these things are team efforts, but how did you start thinking about what you wanted to do in the design phase? Was it obvious that you would have crafting, exploration, and story? Was that you had that as a core of what you’re going to do, or was one more prominent in the beginning than the others? Especially not being a designer, some types of gameplay are associated with elements that don’t necessarily link together coherently. How did you think about that, and where did that progress as you got into the production?
[00:09:57] Thi: Of course, we settled on doing a farm simulation. There’s a large market for that. When you’re a game designer, you look at competitor games to pull in, what they’re doing, and what may work for them. For us going into a simulation, we had the city builders before; we haven’t pulled from that. The knowledge was transferable there. A trend that we’re seeing is that in the market now, you have games that are merging genres, so you have a lot of games that are like match three, but with something else attached to it, to extend that gameplay. It was just a good space for us to get into, like again, going back into the story aspect, we have a lot of experience with that, and like, why not make that more immersive for the player?
Why not make the simulation side just maybe half of the game? The other half is a lot of content created by us, but for the player is just some stuff that they can continue to discover, which is quite different from all the games we have, which are pretty static. You sometimes have content releases, but in the end, you’re focused mainly on your base, home base, city, and whatever it might be. Yes, so I think that’s how it just developed for us.
Creating a narrative for a mobile game
[00:11:11] Jon: As you say that, it strikes me that as you say there’s a game where we’ll talk about live ops, but there are games where you have limited events and drops, or maybe certain items that are available for specific periods and that drives usage, but games narrative is much harder to do as you alluded to there. That’s a lot of work to create a narrative, and it’s not just “let’s create some items, and someone quickly writes a story about it”. It has to be much more thought through, and if a certain bit of it’s polished, then the rest must be the same polish. You can’t just suddenly knock something off. Alison, has it worked from that point of view?
Because I’m guessing that from a production point of view, the narrative bit of it just takes a lot longer and probably has many more people looking at it and making sure that’s right. Is that the case, and how did you work on those two different types of production cadences?
[00:12:13] Alison: The story, yes, it does take a lot of work, and I think game designers are also very, very heavily involved in the story writing process, and the game designer is currently actually working with the narrative designer that we’re also working with to create the story that players are enjoying. Thi, do you have anything else you’d like to add?
[00:12:38] Jon: One thing about the story is, do you run out of the story? Like a meta, the message just goes on and on, so you level up, and there are more things to find, but a story tends to be more linear.
[00:12:50] Alison: No, we don’t run out of the story. When we created the concept for Sunrise Village, we also designed the story, and we have this overarching story that runs throughout the entire thread of the game, and this is not going to end. We have the first stopping point where we might wrap up like the first, well, not the first chapter, but perhaps the first version of the story or the first book in the story.
Then we’ll move on to more because there’s always more for the players to explore. I think we’ve got a vast world there that we’ve created. We’ve got some light fantasy elements in there to allow us to explore more unique elements of the story, such as magical elements. There’s still a long way for us to go regarding the story.
Design and pre-production phase
[00:13:38] Jon: Talk about the design and maybe pre-production. How long did that period take, and were there any major challenges or things you thought you solved in pre-production rather than in productions that had to rethink a little bit?
[00:14:18] Alison: Yes. During pre-production, when we started building Sunrise, we focused purely on the game’s simulation and farming simulation aspects, so we hadn’t developed the story potential of Sunrise Village at that point. It wasn’t until after we went into development that we saw, “Hang on, the farming simulation alone with just character gameplay wasn’t working because a character didn’t have that much relevance in the farming simulation.
This was the point when we talked about it. We made some bigger changes to the game at that point. We moved away from the focus being on farming to the focus on exploration. That’s when we started adding the levels, fleshing out the story further and adding the quests, and all of that happened after pre-production. It wasn’t during development. It was during development that we started doing that.
[00:15:11] Jon: Thi, as a designer, is that the sort of thing that you spend your time designing this certain type of game, and then suddenly all this other stuff has to be added in, is that a bit scary suddenly? You have to redo all the work, but it’s a different game at that point.
[00:15:29] Thi: Sure. Yes. You spend a lot of time working on this idea, get married to it, and then, of course, you pivot, which was a pretty big pivot for the game. Then the challenge is using what we had already built and eventually melting it into the system we wanted for the game. That was a challenge on the GD side to make sure that, especially on the technical side of the toolings and all that stuff. Yes, it is a challenge, but it is part of the job. You have to go with what works best. Sometimes, that means pivoting in another direction.
[00:16:07] Jon: Yes. I still think it’s the case where someone comes up with a game design, and then six months later, this perfect game emerges, and people are always complaining, “why didn’t you make it quicker?” and they’re just things that are so complicated. The more I learn about game development, the more stuff gets made. Maybe it never sees the light of day, which we never know.
. [00:16:29] Thi: Yes. Absolutely.
How does InnoGames approach the soft launch phase
[00:16:30] Jon: Cool. We’re taking a chronological view, moving through production. One of the interesting things about free-to-play mobile games or games to the service element is that if you have this, it might be quite a long production phase. Then you go to soft launch. You’re putting a version of the game out there and testing for technical aspects. Then the first thing you people end up testing for is retention monetization. That can be another period in which games experience significant changes because that’s the first time you’re getting a public view of what’s happening. How did you approach soft launch, and how did that play out? Alison, do you want to take that one?
[00:17:18] Alison: Yes, sure. When we entered soft launch, we had a stability check when we first went live. This is just a short technical phase where we check everything’s working and have all our analytics in place. We know where everything is stable and don’t have any critical bugs in the game. That’s where we start bringing in and looking for a few players to play the game and try it out. After that phase is gone, then that’s when we start trying to bring in a few more players. Then we were able to see if this game resonated with the audience. That’s the point when we’re all in there. We’re fully committed.
At that point, you have live players in the game. You’re getting hundreds of thousands of live players in the game. It’s very different to before live game development because suddenly, you have a play base that you need to maintain. You can’t start throwing away features and then rebuilding them from scratch. You need to be conscious that now you’ve got paying players who are fully engaged with your game and have expectations. The expectation is that we’re able to deliver new features regularly and new content regularly.
We need to maintain the game accounts so that we don’t completely break things for them, which is quite different to before you go into soft launch, where it’s okay to break things during developments. Once you go live, that’s no longer the case. It’s a mindset change. It’s a really big mindset change. You need to slow down, look at everything you are adding to the game, pay attention to the quality, and ensure that everything you add is something that players will welcome. It’s going to be in a really good working state. That’s what we’ve been trying to do.
[00:19:06] Jon: Was that generally the case, or because in that early stage where the people who are playing the game have not been playing for very long, I suppose they’re not necessarily that committed to it, and you don’t maybe know, you have an idea what people you think might play the game, but you don’t know until you’ve got some data around who’s playing it. Were there any surprises in that process?
[00:19:34] Alison: There are always surprises when you go into soft launching. Again, things don’t work out exactly the way you planned. You have bugs you didn’t expect to find, and you find big issues on a new deployment that might send the game or create serious issues in the game for players when you release new content, for example. I think this is normal in the early stages, but this is also why you don’t immediately try to bring hundreds of thousands or millions of players into the game. You need to work through those early stages of live game development cautiously so that it is possible to maintain those players. Yes, they are important because they’re the ones that are going to be the end of content players. They’re the ones that are going to be the most advanced and able to give you that feedback later on so that every player that follows afterwards will then be able to also benefit from those experiences and those learnings.
[00:20:30] Jon: Now that’s quite a good point, isn’t it? Those are going to be your day zero players, and if you can keep them engaged, I suppose the starting of the community if you haven’t. Still, they’ll be the ones who get through the game quicker than anyone else and experience that and then they can make even more introduced, I suppose, as community members. When Soft Launches are happening, Thi, the game designers, are just sitting around not doing anything because their job’s done, so this is the nice easy period for you now. I assume not. What’s it like on the design side?
[00:21:03] Thi: I know. I was going to say that you have your game, you’ve balanced it, you created the system, you’ve done your calculations, we’ve had user tests before this just kind of like testing out with a real audience, how players would play through the first couple stages. We have that data, and then your game goes out to the wilds, and then, of course, players act completely different, or they’re blazing through the content much faster than you anticipated. One of the challenges for game design was, “Oh man, we have to keep up with this content.”
We talked about these players sitting at the end, which was a challenge for game design to ramp up our pipeline or our roadmap. That was a big thing for game design.
[00:21:47] Jon: It’s a nice problem. I don’t think I’ve ever heard one game developer say that when they put the game out there, they’re not just amazed by the number of times the real hardcore fans can confer some of these products. I remember back in the days before, when you had box products where people he’d release the game and buy the next day, people would be going, “When’s a Sequel coming out? I’ve finished that one.” At least with mobile games, free-to-play games, you always have stuff coming out, but it is amazing how committed people are. Teemu, what are your thoughts about this sort of process? I assume this is pretty standard.
[00:22:21] Teemu: Being a somewhat hardcore mobile gamer, I’ve played games where I’ve run out of content pretty soon. I can imagine it’s super tough to balance for, say, a person like me who might end up clearing all the content pretty quickly and also considering the new players that are not going so fast. You need to be able to meet the expectations of all sorts of players, which can be tough.
[00:23:01] Jon: I guess you’re not only an expert. You’re sitting there with your company credit card, buying all the hard currency and zooming through. You’re the worst case.
[00:23:08] Teemu: I wish that were the case, but no, we have to play the games for the most part.
Designing a game economy that is accessible to all players
[00:23:16] Jon: Talking of which, so monetization, I guess for some people may be a dirty word. Still, one of the things about free-to-play mobile games is they’re quite good in the sense if you don’t want to pay money, you can just play through and progress it at that level, but some people want to spend. I guess from the design point of view, to begin with, how did you approach monetization? Maybe because some of your other games had been a bit more hardcore, they could have felt that they had a different monetization approach to maybe what this game would be. At least that would’ve been my thought. I could be wrong on that.
[00:24:00] Alison: I think many mobile titles, just like you mentioned, for using the free-to-play model in terms of our monetization strategy, but for Sunrise Village, we want players to play for free and then pay if they enjoy playing the game. Our approach is that we don’t want to monetize, for example, frustration, or we don’t want to have any hard-played roles in the game. We want to have players enjoying the game, get into it, and then when a player, or if a player should decide that they would like to pay for the game, it should feel good. It should feel like they’re getting some value for their money. We’re very careful when paying attention to the pricing in the game. We want to make it accessible to all our players, so they feel they’re getting good value.
[00:24:45] Jon: From a design point of view, Thi, are those techniques you’ve learned through more hardcore games? They find that sort of use may be a bit more sparingly, or do you have to rethink a little bit about the value proposition and how you retail them?
[00:25:05] Thi: Yes. We have to come up with a different approach here because the audience is very different. We don’t want to drive them away with a more aggressive monetization strategy. In the competitive games and the other games we have in InnoGames, it works because there’s that competitive element: a different player set. For here, players are a little more casual. They enjoy the game experience more, and so as Alison said, paying is more about, “If you enjoy the game, do it, right?”
We also have this energy mechanic, and within the game design community, it has always been a little like an iffy mechanic. I remember back in the day when this was introduced in Facebook games, and it was really hated. The difference here is we provide a lot of other avenues within the game for players to continue playing. To continue to get the energy that lets them continue to explore. If not, they can always go back to their village and play the game there. Even with that feature, we don’t have this hard stop where players just feel stuck.
Then when we look at monetization features, we just introduced the Golden Pass. There’s a free lane there. You can participate in this feature, and you get rewarded a lot. The thing with our game is it’s very rewarding. You go play through, and you find that you get a lot of resources, a lot of energy back, a lot of all these nice consumable items you can use to play your game. That’s always a focus to make it enjoyable, but have that option for players who want to get a little more.
[00:26:49] Jon: I think Teemu, you can tick off your Battle Pass mentioned there. We always like to see a Battle Pass mentioned, even if it’s called Golden Pass. If we had a Bingo card, we’d be stamping it now. It’s good.
[00:27:03] Teemu: Battle Pass always works. It’s super nice that you also find it useful.
Designing collaborative elements
[00:27:11] Jon: I guess, just almost going back on one of the points you had there, Thi, is there isn’t competition in this game. It’s got a collaborative multiplayer sort of thing. If they’re set up correctly, they may appeal to different people, but they’re different sides of the same coin of social interaction. Was that a fairly easy thing to implement to have collaborative elements?
[00:27:48] Thi: Yes, I think. We took learnings again from our other games at InnoGames. The multiplayer feature we have, we do have something like, we call its teams in the game where players can come together, and there’s a weekly event where they can play with their team to earn points. It is a bit of competition because you are competing against other teams, but in the future, you’ll also gain a lot of rewards for yourself and ranking for your team.
If you do end up being able to rank, you can get more rewards. It’s also just something else for players to do to just kind of chat with each other. I know my team always cheers on each other and “Hey guys, let’s unlock the next island.” It’s just this collaborative, cooperative kind of game feature, even though it is a bit competitive.
Future plans for Sunrise Village
[00:28:40] Jon: Good. The game’s been live for over six months, but you had a commercial launch earlier in 2022. Alison, where are you as a product, and what’s the rest of 2022 looking like in terms of the stuff you can talk about? And where will the product go?
[00:29:00] Alison: I don’t want to make any big promises right now. We’ve been in commercial launch since February, and since then, we’ve expanded our events pipeline. We’ve added two new types of events now. We’ve got new events coming out at the end of the month. It’s a special event slightly different from what we’ve done before, so we hope the players will go for that. In terms of the rest of the year, we just released the Golden Pass for the first time, and as you mentioned, this is proving quite popular with players, and we need to continue building on that.
We also want to look again at our team explorations feature, our main multiplayer feature. We see that players are really engaged with this, but we want to take it to a new level. We want to provide a few more challenges for players. Right now, we only have one island where players are playing, and we want to expand on this and make it more engaging, more rewarding, and more challenging to increase engagement there. That is a bit of an outlook for the rest of the year, but certainly, there will be more events and features.
[00:30:07] Jon: There always seems to be a balance between those. You get the regular live ops, that sort of things happening, whether weekly or monthly. Then, the question is, at what point do you start adding some of these bigger features? I sometimes think some games I played can be a bit marmite. Some players like them, but other players, if they don’t like them so much, almost allow them to churn out. Which I imagine is very difficult for a game developer to balance because probably anything you do in the game will annoy some people and make others happy. [chuckles] There’s no easy solution to that problem. Anyway. Teemu, any final thoughts? Do you think we can get any more hybridization and mixing of genres?
[00:31:00] Teemu: Well, I think hybridization is always good, like the crafting element. Crafting games are really popular. Even in Mid Core, they had that last year’s big success. Cookie Run: Kingdom that’s also a crafting game and AutoBattle RPG mixed together. Hybridization is always good. Then, one thing that also came to mind is taking care of both your free players and paying players. You mentioned that Golden Pass is very generous to players.
I remember having played many Japanese mobile games; they just throw free stuff at you all the time and make you feel welcome at the game. At least, for me, that help returns to some of those games where you think you’re cared for, and you’re not just the paying customer they’re looking for. Great to hear that Sunrise Village is looking after all of its players.
[00:32:09] Jon: Conclusion: more free stuff is what I’m hearing.
[00:32:13] Teemu: It might be a personal preference also, but it seems to work.
[00:32:19] Jon: Of course, the game designer is like, “We’ve got massive inflation. We’re giving away loads of free stuff that’s messed up all the careful balancing I spent years doing.” Good. Cool. Well, thank you very much, Alison. Thank you very much, Teemu. Thank you very much, Thi, for your conversation.
Thank you very much for watching and listening while you are consuming our podcasts. Every time we are talking to the people building out the free-to-play mobile sector, obviously, the biggest sector in gaming by far now and delivering excitement and joy to three billion people playing mobile games, by far away the biggest audience of any sort of game. Thank you very much. I hope you all enjoyed that. Don’t forget to download the Sunrise Village for Android and iOS, and let us know your thoughts. Thanks for watching. Thanks for listening. Don’t forget to subscribe. Come back next time. Goodbye!