Simon Watmough, Space Ape Games Technical Director, explains why a mobile game needs a famous script writer, how to get an App Store feature, and why does a game studio need venture capital.


Image Credit: Rival Kingdoms

Rival Kingdoms’ setting is rich. Ingame story was written by Rhianna Pratchett. Why did you make such huge setting background for the mobile game?

It was all about adding depth to the experience. We didn’t want to make another shallow Clash of Clans clone, if you get the reference. So we’ve put a lot of effort into the gameplay. We tried to improve everything!

One of the things we also wanted to improve – we wanted the game to have a backstory. We wanted to have the reason for the world to exist. We wanted all of the actions to be able to have, like their own personal identities. Something unique. Wanted players to interact with them so they could learn more about them and feel closer and kind of connected to them.

Usually, when someone makes a game without background and it becomes popular, users create a background of their own. Why not go that way? Why not say “We’ve made a cool game with some fancy art, now go and make your own stories”?

That’s really valuable. That’s useful to have that kind of community spirit – people wanting to make content and fill the world around your game. But I think you need to provide a scene for that kind of creativity. You can’t expect to build a shallow product with pretty pictures but no real depth and have people gather around and build a community. So you need to put some investment into that in order to foster it.

As far as I know, your previous game didn’t have such background. It has had a great art, similar mechanic – and it’s still been popular. So after a few month from the Rival Kingdoms’ release can you tell if the background is really that important?

It’s interesting seeing the contrast between the two projects, actually. Although we didn’t go to the same depth with Samurai Siege, we kind of internally within the studio had our own fiction about it, different characters, different motivations and that kind of thing.

When you look into the community and how it responded to Rivals, it’s really nice! One thing we were really impressed with – there was a bunch of guys that made some heavy rock songs based on the characters in the game. Those who have been played a lot around the office! There were lots of little examples how the seed that we’ve sown with the backstory influenced and inspired people to create things.

The heavy rock song inspired by Rival Kingdoms

Let’s talk about the game itself. It looks to me like Clash of Clans meets Game of War because of it’s hardcore features. Before the development – how did you describe the game to yourself?

Our intention was to make something a little less hardcore than Samurai Siege. We knew that we wanted to make it more easy and accessible in terms of gameplay, and it influenced our decision in running off some mechanic. Just ease the pace of play! We wanted to provide a slightly more casual experience.

When people write about your game or games with the same mechanic, they often say “Oh, that’s yet another Clash of Clans”. How can a developer build something new using Clash of Clans’ mechanic?

It’s about finding something that you can do which makes you different… Takes the game’s experience away from the Clash of Clans’.

When we developed Samurai Siege, one of the things that we – we did try to franchise Clash of Clans – was to leverage some of the knowledge we had from the companies we’ve been in before, like Playfish, about how players interact socially. We added the Alliance Wars so the players had that shared experience. Players really loved that! That was probably one of the greatest successes of the game.

With Rival Kingdoms, we wanted to continue that, cause that’s something we’ve had a lot of experience in. So the game has things like Kingdoms and Kingdom Wars. We’ve shaped that experience to give players a deeper social interaction. We gave them different roles to play within a kingdom, and different kind of projects to interact with. And there were also some simple improvements in a way that chat works, so you can chat with people you need to interact with.

Clash of Clans is a wonderful example of a real-time strategy game. But there are a lot of examples of real-time strategy games! So making another RTS shouldn’t be the goal, it should be the starting. You want to fit into a genre? Ok! But why a player is going to play your game as opposed to somebody else’s?

You’ve said that when working on Rival Kingdoms, you wanted to make a slightly more casual version of Samurai Siege. Two years ago mid-core games were on the rise. Are they still there? Or mobile developers should go casual with their games?

That’s an interesting question! My gut feeling on this is that probably you don’t need to worry. I think mobile is so terrific now, everybody has a device. There’s a market for almost any kind of genre that you want to go, and every kind of difficulty. So you pick the segment that you have the experience and the capability to do well in. If you’re small developer, you may need to focus on something large, so that you have the maximum possible market. Or the equally good advice – you can focus on a very small niche and make something very targeted because you know you do it really well. I don’t think I really have the best position to tell you exactly what to do, but that would be my gut feeling.

The next question is about marketing. Samurai Siege and Rival Kingdoms without a doubt are high-quality games. But would they become that popular without the investments in the marketing?

The thing about venture capital money is that it’s not inherently part of what makes your product. It gives you the ability to construct it.

Samurai Siege’s team, for example, was incredibly small. It was just a couple of programmers, and a few artists, and a producer, and a designer. They learned Unity and brought a project together in a very short time.

If you have the capability to be able to spend a longer period of time developing with fewer people, or more people in a shorter period of time, there’s no reason why you can’t do a successful game. But if you want to start a business, you need to get investment from somewhere. VC was very good for us, very beneficial. I guess we were in the lucky position because friends of the company were people who had a lot of contacts with people investing in startups.

After Rival Kingdoms entered the market it was featured by Apple. Was it luck or the result of hard work?

Featuring is always a hard work, in my experience. It takes a long time talking with Apple and showing them the product. Getting the review from them. Building that relationship with Apple to be able to start to rely on thinking about featuring has been something that we’ve been looking for with our game. We had to keep the high level of quality. So it’s definitely a lot of hard work. The guys in Apple are not picking games out of the hat to choose the featuring. There’re a lot of new submissions every week in the App Store, so you need to keep polishing your game.

There’s probably a bunch of things Apple are really looking for in the featuring. They are looking for the people who put passion in their games, they are looking for games that are polished to a fine shine, shall we say.

Thank you very much for the interview!