We are examining the merge genre and EverMerge. In this episode of the Mobile GameDev Playbook, we’re joined by Sergey Neskin, the CEO & co-founder of Neskin Games, and Chief Game Analyst Kalle Heikkinen from GameRefinery, a Liftoff Company, to discuss the hit mobile game EverMerge: Merge 3 Puzzle.
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We cover what inspired the game, the growth of the merge genre and how it’s evolved, interesting trends, and predictions for the future of merge games. We also look at some standout releases, the trends in gameplay events and features, as well as trends in monetization.
You can also watch the episode on YouTube:
Topics we will cover in this episode:
- Three things to know about Merge genre
- Filtering previous experiences to create the best new idea
- Narrative in mobile games
- How to ensure player progression?
- How Neskin Games worked out who EverMerge’s audience is?
- Are Merge games mainly targeted at female players?
- “Successful mobile games now are as much about liveops as the foundation they launch with”
- Monetization in Merge games
- How to keep the right content balance for players just joining the game and elder players
- The future looks bright for Merge genre
[00:00:00] Jon Jordan: Hello and welcome to the Mobile GameDev Playbook. Thanks for tuning in for another episode. This is a podcast all about what makes a great mobile game, what is and isn’t working for mobile game designers and all of the latest trends. I’m your host Jon Jordan and joining me today; we have two experts, of course. The first expert up is Sergey Neskin. How’s it going, Sergey?
[00:00:23] Sergey Neskin: Good. Glad to be here today.
[00:00:25] Jon: You are the CEO and co-founder of Neskin Games. Also, another guest, no introduction required, is Kalle Heikkinen, senior market analyst at GameRefinery by Liftoff. How’s it going, Kalle?
[00:00:41] Kalle Heikkinen: Very good. Very good. We had the first snow here in Helsinki yesterday, so it’s wintery and setting up the scene for Christmas.
[00:00:50] Jon: I was going to say I was in Helsinki last week, and it was just getting a bit of snow, but not quite settling. I’m glad winter has finally come. In this episode, we will be talking about Sergey’s game EverMerge. It’s interesting because we’ve spoken with Kalle and other experts over the last few months about the merge mechanic and its importance in the casual mobile game market.
This is an opportunity to look at some of those trends again, but Sergey will also give us in-depth information about how he’s designed his game, so we go into more detail. That’s the plan today. Before we start, Sergey, do you want to introduce yourself and the company and fill out some background for us?
[00:01:39] Sergey: Yes, sure. I started my career as a software developer, creating websites, web services, and business applications. I worked for an outsourcing company during the last few years of my development career. There is nothing wrong with being just a developer in an outsourcing company, but I’ve been dreaming about making my own products and doing something for self-realization. The game dev industry was desirable in terms of creativity and self-realization.
I decided to attend the first Game Dev Conference in my life in Minsk and felt all the swipes, that was amazing to see people like me, people who wanted to entertain other people, and that’s where I met my partners, Val and Alexei. In 2011, we founded a company called Neskinsoft, and later we reincorporated this company as Neskin Games. I’ve worked in the merge genre for over a decade, and EverMerge is the latest game we released.
[00:02:49] Jon: Let’s talk a bit about EverMerge. The official title is EverMerge: Merge-3 Puzzle. You made a whole bunch of games. What was the idea to do a merge game? Did you have an idea you wanted to do merge games, or did you have a specific vision for what you wanted to do in a merge game?
[00:03:09] Sergey: We’ve been in merge games since 2011. We’ve got lots of insights. We did many experiments and learned what works, what doesn’t, and what the audience wants to see in the game. We released about 14 products, almost half of which were merge games. The idea is that game design is the set of solutions you want to try. We didn’t have a particular idea like “we want to create a merge game with fairytale creatures”. It was different. As a game designer, you feel like there is potential, the scope of thoughts and things you want to implement. That’s how we created EverMerge.
Three things to know about Merge genre
[00:03:59] Jon: Cool. Good. We’re going to get into more detail. Before we do, Kalle, can you give us a high-level view of what’s been going on in the decade in which merge as a subgenre has been emerging, to not overuse the term?
[00:04:14] Kalle: Yes, for sure. There are three things that I’d like to highlight here. First is the trend for, let’s say, more than narrative-focused merge games. Two good examples are Gossip Harbor and Love & Pies, which have especially recently risen in the ranks. We’ve seen some merge games experiment with narrative in the past, but not like these games have been doing. I’m not only talking about their quality but also the amount of quality. In these games, the narrative beats are a novice retention mechanic as well, as players want to know how the story and the characters develop in these games.
Then the second one is that compared to many other genres in the market currently, the merge genre is a relatively active space. There are lots of new games coming in, and overall, it has been difficult to scale new games in the market. Merge is an exception to this. For example, if we look at the top 10 merge games, all the top 10, except Merge Dragons and EverMerge, have been released in the last two years. 6 out of the top 10 merge games have been released in the last 18 months. There are quite a lot of new entrants to the scene.
Third, we see merge as a mechanic used more and more outside merge games. It’s used on the product side and in user acquisition activities. Some examples include a very successful slots game, Cash Tornado Slots, that has some merge elements in one of its recurring events, obviously Top War for a strategy game that utilizes merge. Gardenscapes just recently had a merge event. We see merge in Tower Defense, in idlers; Golden Goblins, for example, is a successful idle merger game. That’s been interesting to follow as well. It’s not just in merge games; other games also utilize this mechanic in events and other features.
[00:06:40] Jon: It followed the trajectory of match as a gameplay or a mechanic that people easily understand and seem to like doing repetitively.
[00:06:54] Kalle: It’s very accessible. You pick up a merge game or play the merge feature in a game. It takes you five seconds to figure out how this mechanic works. Yes, for sure.
[00:07:11] Jon: Universal thing. Okay, cool. It’s a good overview there. Sergey, you have this company where you’re experts in merge by now. You made some mistakes and saw successes, but with EverMerge, how did you filter those previous experiences to develop your best idea of what would work? Please tell us about that process and how you have all these possibilities. How do you end up with the first stab at the product with which you go into soft launch?
Filtering previous experiences to create the best new idea
[00:07:48] Sergey: Yes, for us, it was the next step in our long journey in the merge genre, and we moved forward to EverMerge. We wanted to reinforce the exploration aspect of the game from the beginning. We experimented with it in our previous games called Robin Hood Legends. We split the gameplay into levels and tried to monetize this game with auto moves like in classic match three games. This didn’t work well, but players love opening, moving forward, and opening new levels. Then we thought, what if you’ll provide the player with the ability to unlock fog, and there is some mystery going on under this fog?
It was the concept of a single game board where a player has some freedom to move forward. Of course, the game is linear, but we wanted to experiment in this direction and know if it would work. We saw Merge Dragons on the market, and it was a good example that it works, but we had to convince our partners as well, like do we want to put time into this or not. I’m glad that we did this.
Narrative in mobile games
[00:09:13] Jon: You’re saying you decided to focus on exploration as one of the main themes there. Kalle was talking about narrative being a theme. Did you have a lot of narrative in there? Or should we think of exploration as something different to narrative? Because they could be the same thing, or they may not be.
[00:09:33] Sergey: Well, it was not our primary focus, so we tried to keep the narrative as simple as possible, but I saw many examples. Some other games do this well, which is why they resonate with the audience.
[00:09:47] Jon: I guess the problem with narrative is it’s pretty expensive on the content creation side because you have to create a lot of specific content, whereas exploration, depending on how you structure it, can be a bit more open in that you don’t end up having to have a lot of artists just churning out this long narrative.
[00:10:08] Sergey: Yes. It adds additional complexity to the game that you must never forget. It includes the cost of content production and so on. In our game, it’s simplified, but you can find well-known fairytale characters. This works exactly as a good IP, but we use folklore. We use things that everybody knows well from childhood. This was a good thing as well. We combined this with exploration with non-characters and only needed to put a little work into the narrative aspect.
[00:10:52] Jon: The nice thing about that using fairytales is it is established IP, but you don’t have to pay a license because you say it’s almost like open-source IP that just historically has been there.
[00:11:08] Sergey: You need to be very careful, though, because some Disney movies have their own interpretation of IP. If you want to draw Sleeping Beauty or other characters, be cautious with this because, yes, it’s IP that we know that comes from fairytales, but be careful. We did special legal checks with our partners. I appreciate they helped to manage this.
[00:11:35] Kalle: To add to the narrative stuff. Having a heavy narrative focus might work better in these Merge-2 games. Merge Mansion specifically doesn’t have a heavy emphasis on the narrative.
Gossip Harbor, for example, a Merge-2 game, does it, and it is natural that after you complete a specific task, you have that narrative bit. Whereas in Merge-3 games like EverMerge, as they are slightly more open-ended and more about the exploration, the narrative isn’t the thing that you can fit into the pacing and the core loop, as well as in Merge-2 games. I might be wrong in this, but it’s something that comes to mind.
How to ensure player progression?
[00:12:35] Jon: Yes, that’s a good point. We’ve gone through a bit of the genesis of the project and you guys as a company, and how you chose your thematic fairytale exploration, that’s a good overview. But then, when you start to drill in a bit more, the gameplay is about merging, but then when you’re thinking about progression and those more mechanical gameplay elements. Then obviously, that feeds into the more meta structure. How did you come up with the product from that point of view? Because obviously, you have gameplay where people are merging stuff, and they’re getting new elements, and that’s cool, but then how are you keeping people in there for a week or a month?
[00:13:25] Sergey: First part here is that the merge gameplay is good at entertaining players and retaining them. The gameplay itself is addictive. It provides you with enough goals. You don’t need, if you know how to make your first merge game, you know what’s next. First are games we released in 2011 and 2012; they were really simple, just game board, merge gameplay, and all you have to do is to merge, and it worked. Just pure concept of merge game works well. On top of this, you add exploration, daily objectives, quests, and additional goals. Then you get the game where you have a variety of things to do and a variety of things to play.
Then on top of this, you add events and all those activities that you can find in EverMerge. In this case, you get EverMerge. This game gives you lots of goals and directions to progress in. You have enough freedom, but it’s linear enough not to get lost in this. If we look at the first experiments with EverMerge, no one will enjoy playing with our early prototypes. It was a game board separated into two areas. The left area was supposed to provide the player with farm merge gameplay where you merge carrots, crops and so on. The second part was about the building aspect.
Players were so addicted to the merge gameplay they ignored anything else. We had to find ways to force players to leave the merge gameplay and go to the city builder aspect. It was a nightmare because if you, as a game designer, are doing something like this, stop and then maybe you’re doing something wrong. That was when we decided, no, we needed to have everything in one place and provide players with the city-building aspect and merging pieces in one game board.
How Neskin Games worked out who EverMerge’s audience is?
[00:15:46] Jon: Can you talk a bit about your audience? Because for people developing and running games, there are lots of things you can do and do some of those things well in terms of game design, but often once your game launches and you have an audience, it takes time to shift that audience around. Because some people have chosen you and like what you’re doing, you have to give them more of what they want rather than some clever idea that your game designer wants to provide them. Please talk briefly about your audience and how you worked out who they are.
[00:16:17] Sergey: Yes. The appearance of the game is essential. It works as a funnel for the audience, of course. We saw many male players who were playing our game. They complain, “I love it, but I’m not sure I like it because it’s a game designed for little princesses?”. We have some limitations. I refer to them as the DNA of the product. Some game design decisions and visuals restrict what we can do in the future. We have freedom with newer products. We will be able to cover more people, more male players and so on in the future. The focus is clearly on the female audience, and we work with them.
[00:17:15] Jon: Because you’ve made a lot of merge games before, that wasn’t a surprise to you that that casual audience is likely to be predominantly female.
[00:17:26] Sergey: That’s what we saw in our previous game. In Robin Hood Legends, we also came up with Robin Hood as a woman going on adventures against the Sheriff. We noticed that in Robin Hood Legends and the games we released previously. That’s because there is something from Merge-3 games and hidden object games. After all, in merge games, you have to find two similar objects, and then you have to collapse them. It’s part of Merge-3. These games were, again, targeted at a female audience.
Are Merge games mainly targeted at female players?
[00:18:14] Jon: Kalle, have we got any examples of merge being used in a more predominantly male audience? Does anything come to mind?
[00:18:23] Kalle: Yes. The first thing that comes to mind is the example I already mentioned, the Top War example. Top War is a 4X strategy game for those who don’t know, but it also has incorporated some merge elements where you merge, for example, certain troops. Then you create something new. Top War also uses that as a mechanic in their user acquisition activities. If you’ve seen some Top War ads, you have also seen some merge elements.
Post-IDFA, all the titles, especially in 4X strategy base, consider how to enlarge their audiences. Using various kinds of UA assets to introduce new types of players to the gamer base is something that these games do. At least we’ve seen Top War doing that, so that’s been interesting.
[00:19:27] Jon: That would be an outlier because we do not see widespread adoption of merge at the moment.
[00:19:35] Kalle: That’s true. Another genre that isn’t quite dominant, but we’re seeing a sort of sub-genre in Tower Defense, where games like Rush Royale are using it. The entire gameplay is based around merging things and then using that in the PVP core gameplay. That’s another example.
[00:20:03] Jon: This all makes sense because in Tower Defense, generally, you’re levelling up as you go along. You can imagine instead of levelling up; you merge up. It fits into the flow that’s already existing there, but yes.
[00:20:18] Kalle: That’s true.
“Successful mobile games now are as much about liveops as the foundation they launch with”
[00:20:19] Jon: Perhaps we’ll see an opportunity in a future episode where we’ll talk about the explosion of merge in hardcore or mid-core. Sergey, let’s focus a bit now. We’ve gone through the process, and you’ve taken us through some design considerations. Something like soft launch is something that’s key to mobile games. One of the reasons mobile games are so big is they now have this period where they can put out a product in certain territories and gain this audience feedback, then use that to iterate and hone the product or come up with something different. Was soft launch a big thing for you guys? Or because you’re experienced, you knew what to expect? Or did it throw up any surprises?
[00:21:03] Sergey: When we released the game in soft launch, we saw great metrics, and it proved that our hypothesis worked, but along with this success came responsibility because we knew that players, especially those who are paying aggressively in the game, will be progressing through the content rapidly. We had limited time to develop suitable event types for the game. Then we had limited time to test different AB tests, a sample game economy, and some features because we came up with numbers, but we needed to figure out if these numbers were correct.
Some tests took about two or three months to see results and then be able to fix this. We worked in a constant rush to release the game in November. This didn’t happen. I appreciate Chris Mahnken; he was a producer of this game and helped me navigate several challenges. His advice was to wait to release the game in May because we’ll have more events, features, and content. We experimented, developed new features, and experimented with existing tests like any other company. But we felt like there was something big, and we didn’t want to fail.
[00:22:30] Jon: The extra six months of development was a fairly significant extension of budget and everything. It’s one of those clichés that a bad game’s always a bad game, but a late game’s only late for a short period. That’s the freedom: if you think you’ve got something that’s doing well, then you need to spend the time to invest in the processes that you need to fulfil that potential.
[00:22:57] Sergey: Yes. You have no right to fail. You need to support the game and get out as much content as possible. The biggest nightmare was after release because we were naive and thought it would be easier because we had so many events and things planned. It wasn’t. Later, we had to come up with short-term, midterm, and long-term events and other types of events. Now, we created an R&D department in our company, and we’ll be working on new kinds of features and events where we connect different genres. We should have thought about this more. Small studios need to scale up and manage their success.
[00:23:44] Jon: Kalle, we’ve mentioned many times that successful mobile games now are as much about live ops as the foundation they launch with. Unless you have an extensive department doing live ops, live ops is a real challenge for people who make games because it’s the beating heart of a successful game now.
[00:24:09] Kalle: Exactly. They’re just getting increasingly essential tools to create excitement, engagement, and, thus, monetization. That applies to merge games as well. For example, I recently looked at merge’s performance at the Halloween event. They just had helped the game reach record-high revenues and end up in the top-grossing position. That’s interesting.
Monetization in Merge games
[00:24:33] Jon: Actually, you raise a good point. We’ve yet to go into monetization. We skated around it a little bit, but sometimes in the casual space, that’s the challenge. Because billions of people play casual games, you can always get games downloaded and played. The monetization bit is tricky because these people like to play. There are many of them, and you need monetization because of your business, but how you balance that is tricky. How has that changed over time? Has it not changed over time? Were you always sure how you wanted to monetize?
[00:25:12] Sergey: Yes, our approach for monetization in merge games is slightly different from other genres. We can be softer than other games because gameplay in merge gives you better retention, and we rely on this audience who is in love with the game and who plays with us for a longer time. That’s why we focus on this type of player. We don’t force you for short-term monetization, and then later, if you feel like it’s the right thing to do if you want to boost your progress or if you want to get more items, you are free to do this.
Of course, events work well in terms of monetization, which makes a big difference in any game. The longer the player stays in your game, the better service you have to provide. You need to come up with a variety of events, and you need to entertain this audience to monetize. This is how it works. You put in events and long-term monetization features; that’s it.
[00:26:29] Jon: Am I correct in that you also have a battle pass system?
[00:26:32] Sergey: Yes, like in any other games, you can find a battle pass in our game. We have two options. This is one of the biggest differences between us and Merge Dragons because we have timers; you have to skip timers if you want to get gems. That boosts gem sales as well.
[00:26:56] Jon: Interestingly, you’re saying “of course, we have battle passes”. Is that something that every game should be having now? We have had many games use it, but some games still don’t. Are battle passes now understood by the audience as something that should be in there? Because that’s an obvious way of monetizing in a big way.
[00:27:16] Sergey: Yes, but it’s not a problem for players to understand how battle passes work. It was a prerogative for mid-core games, but now you can see more and more of this stuff in casual games, and that’s fine. Other trends as well are coming to casual games. That’s interesting to see.
How to keep the right content balance for players just joining the game and elder players
Because sometimes, you get to this stage with over two years in, and some people have played you since day one. They know how to do it. They want more complicated things, but many new people are still coming in. Some games get very complex for new players because they come in, and there’s a whole bunch of stuff going on there. They’re like, “Whoa, this is really complicated. I thought it was a simple merge game.” How do you work at that balance between existing players who love it and have been playing it every day for two years and new players who are like, “Let’s try this out”?
[00:28:25] Sergey: As I mentioned, keeping the right balance for players joining the game is crucial because we have plenty of them. We also must remember that elder players have their own needs and need to be entertained. Our company has a game design department, and they work hard on any additional feature that will appear in the game to ensure that it will maintain the two-year and first-timers’ experience. It will not negatively affect any part of our audience, but we need to feed the elder players as well.
[00:29:09] Jon: The good thing about free-to-play mobile games is you have all the data about, you can look at all the cohorts and see very clearly how the changes you make impact differently.
[00:29:21] Sergey: Yes. Even some features that we release work for some players and don’t for others. We have to decide, do we leave this in the game as it is, or we go to another iteration of AB tests and rebalance this feature. This is a part of our job as well. With every year, it’s more and more complicated because, as you mentioned, the product matures, and then you have to double-check every aspect of every feature and so on.
The market is full of new games and new titles. It’s a pleasure to be in this market. Of course, we saw many unsuccessful clones because they just tried to rip off the game without thinking, but some games look promising. I’m playing some clones of EverMerge and enjoy doing this because games like Merge County iterate fast on events. They were braver and more creative in this aspect of the game, which worked well. That’s one of the right approaches. So now we have to be fast, hence why we have this R&D department.
There is constant competition in other genres, but it’s a pleasure to see because when we entered this genre, there was no genre. There were just one or two games, a few hour games and nothing else, just silence, but now we see lots of games, and there is a promising future not only for EverMerge but for new products on the market as well.
The future looks bright for Merge genre
[00:31:08] Jon: Kalle, do you want to take that one on with your looking into your crystal ball? How do we see merge? Is merge already a very large subsection of casual? Is that going to grow linearly, or is that going to jump over and become a key gameplay option for almost every mobile game?
[00:31:31] Kalle: I agree with Sergey that the future looks bright for merge. As we already discussed, new entrants are constantly coming to the scene, some finding their way to the top charts and sustaining them there. There’s also a fair amount of innovation. For example, it was in Playtika’s build and battle merge game. That was quite interesting. There are some makeover merge games that I’ve seen in the scene that could be something that we will see more of in the future. As I said, we see merge also in non-merge games. That trend is going to continue. One thing that needs to be added to the market is an IP-based merge game. At least I haven’t seen any. It would be fascinating to see the merge gameplay combined with some exciting IP.
[00:32:30] Jon: There we go. Your prediction, will Kalle be right over the next six months? I’m sure somewhere someone is working frantically on some IP-based because, boy, wouldn’t they be. Good. Something to look out for. Lovely. Thank you very much to Kalle and Sergey as well for their expertise. Thanks, guys.
[00:32:49] Kalle: Thank you.
[00:32:49] Sergey: Thank you.
[00:32:51] Jon: Obviously, your homework is to immediately download EverMerge, check it out, and see how Sergey and his team have been getting on. If you still need to do your other homework, I’m sure you have already subscribed to the podcast. We’re available as an audio podcast and as a video podcast as well.
Every episode, we talk to people building out this mobile game sector, the largest single sector of the games industry, and still very vibrant and still new. We talk about the hybridization of what’s going on and these matters, gameplay elements being put together like little Lego blocks and these fantastic products being created. We hope you are enjoying the podcast. Come back next time, and thanks for watching. Goodbye.