Ahead of the release of Idle Factory Tycoon, I spoke to Nate Barker, Director of Business Development at Fluffy Fairy Games, about the history of the studio, what makes the genre of Idle Games so appealing, and the company’s future aspirations of becoming the Supercell of the genre.
Can you tell us about your journey to Fluffy Fairy Games? How did you end up working there?
I was at Casual Connect in Berlin in February 2017 working for a live-ops company in the social good space. During a Happy Hour, I happened to sit down with a few folks from Fluffy Fairy Games, not realizing who they were.
The next day, I had made the terrible choice of a morning appointment (always a bad decision during a conference), and it happened to be with the same two people who I was talking to at the happy hour!
Over time, we talked more and more due to the project I was working on, and while it ultimately didn’t work out with them, the Fluffy Fairy team still wanted to work with me and offered me a job. I said, “That sounds cool, tell me more about the job” and they said it’s in Karlsruhe and I didn’t want to move there, but then they said I’d be working in Berlin, so there I moved! That was about 10 months ago that I made the jump from San Francisco to Germany. The story of the company is more interesting!
What can you tell us about the history of the company? Our understanding is that it was started by 4 students shortly out of university…
Basically, it was 4 guys working out of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology which is in southern Germany, and they had been working on a number of startups in various forms. They tried to do a technical consulting startup, they tried to do UberAchiever, which was a goal-setting app. There was one where you could license academic papers out, and there was a variety of different projects.
The various team members tried to do different startups, but they weren’t ultimately successful – when you’re a student, the ideas might make sense, but you’re not necessarily able to execute and bring the concept to fruition. They still had the bug to do something entrepreneurial, and they had a technical background so they could achieve it, so at one point they all concluded “we all play games, maybe we can do a game? Maybe there’s something about a game that’s easy” – in some ways that’s true, and in some ways that’s not true, but they decided to make a game.
What was the game they decided to work on?
The first game they decided to attempt was a hardcore strategy game on mobile. It was player vs player, and it was called Backyard Wars, and it was about cats with laser beams fighting dogs with jetpacks. It was pretty cool, and they got through 60% of the project in two months, but unfortunately they realised it would take another 2 years to get through the remaining 40%. They accurately surmised that it was entirely out of the scope of what was achievable by recent university graduates, so they went back to the drawing board.
So that’s how Idle Miner Tycoon came about?
Yeah! They decided the best game to do would be the simplest, and what made the most sense was an idle game. They’re essentially a spreadsheet with an interface, it’s very easy to add on incremental updates, and they could grow it over time. It also allowed them to make it within two months, release it, and see if anyone cared about it.
The big part of it is that the guys just wanted to make a game that was relatively easy to make in 60 days, so they kind of just picked Idle games as they had been playing some out there. There were some awesome predecessors that I think we looked up to, both as defining the capabilities of this genre and also companies that we really admired.
For example, Game Hive had a game called Tap Titans, and that was a game that when we were coming up with Idle Miner was really inspiring, but also because it was done by a small team that was nimble, running under the radar, and not trying to impress with flashy numbers or big IP, but just producing a very solid game.
Otherwise, there weren’t too many Idle games at the time when Idle Miner Tycoon was being developed. There were some joke ones like Cookie Clicker or Make It Rain which were kind of funny, but they lose their charm after a while because you do all the things you can. There was also AdVenture Capitalist, which is defining the genre. Idle Miner Tycoon was a title designed to emulate some of those, but because the core loop was so streamlined, it was something to experiment around with without feeling like you’re going to break the game. For example, adding in premium currency or additional mines, so it was something easier to wrap your head around for the first game.
What do you attribute the success of Idle Miner Tycoon to?
Well, the team released the game and it began organically to get about a thousand installs per day. It was appealing to work on because it was easy to add small parts to because the core loop was already done. They started with the very simple core loop that items are mined, the mined items are then transported above ground by an elevator, and from there they are transported to a warehouse where they’re sold. The money you make from selling you use to upgrade.
It’s a very simple loop and you can easily add in more things that people will spend their time on, simply by tweaking the payouts for the items that are being sold, but also by increasing the number of mines, workers, and the elevator loads. There were two variables you could tweak to make it harder or easier – the payouts and the time it took to get the payouts – and you could add on more content by increasing different kinds of mines.
It was a very simple game in many respects to wrap one’s head around, and because it was 2D and wasn’t demanding, it was a game you could get people to play, and it didn’t require a tremendous amount of art assets to start out with. You could repeat some of the art assets and it would still look good.
It was also appealing because you couldn’t lose the game – you didn’t have to worry about making a game where people would get annoyed or frustrated, and wouldn’t require constant balancing between one person or another like you would with a PvP game. In this case, it was just about making a game that felt right as players were creating their empire, and because everyone was winning, it was easier to maintain a positive sentiment about the game.
Once they started doing marketing on social media, it’s easy to market to people because everyone’s a winner. You don’t need the competitiveness; it definitely helps drive certain marketing, but when you’re trying to drive something that’s functional, you don’t want to get lost in trying to make something that’s egregiously hard for some people and turns other people off. It was just a game that everyone could win.
So as the game started off, it only had about a thousand installs a day, but eventually it was featured at various points by the iOS App Store team, primarily in central Europe, and the Google Play team. This was enormously helpful in bolstering the number of daily active users, and ensured there were enough players in the game to make sure it was financially viable project, rather than something they would have to work on in their spare time while they had to get real jobs.
How much of a help would you say being featured on the App Store was? Do you think word of mouth would have eventually seen the same level of success?
I think being featured was definitely a pretty big help in terms of getting total volume up. I think eventually word-of-mouth would have helped get enough players into the game, but I think my worry is that by the time it would have been effective, I don’t know how strong the team would have been and how strong their resolve to continue would have been. It was definitely the right marketing event at the right time, and I cannot downplay that too much.
On the other side of things, our one guiding light, our North Star, is that we want the highest possible rating for the game. For some, rating is important but monetization is moreso, or they do a different calculus in their head as to what defines success for them, but for us it’s simple: it must have a day one retention of 70%, and the game must be as close to 5 stars as humanly possible.
For example, if the rating moves from 4.9 to 4.8 stars, it’s a very bad day, and it means something bad has happened. Given that we’re focusing on those kinds of goals, we probably could have pushed the game to get more users virally. You need a certain amount of volume to make it sustainable as a business.
We are doing a lot in terms of social, so we’re working with GetSocial who handle a lot of our invites, so it’s becoming more and more important to us, but it’s a tough question to be asked to be honest. I don’t know what would have happened had we not been featured, I don’t know if it would have done as well. I don’t want to downplay the talent of the team working on it, but I’ve seen talented game developers fail, so it might have been a rocky ride.
What made idle and incremental games the most appealing to work on, in comparison with other genres?
For a young company that’s just finding its footing, Idle and Incremental games are helpful because you have a little bit more leeway in terms of introducing and testing new features – it’s still a developing genre so people aren’t expectant of an incredibly high amount of polish. For instance, if I was playing a PvP-based building and raiding game like Clash of Clans, I would expect any competitor to be really, really good or really, really unique. It either has to replicate the experience almost exactly, or it has to be something so different that I’m not consciously comparing it to Clash of Clans constantly.
The same can be said for any genre, there’s already an established norm and any deviation may have to improve the gameplay, or be experimental, otherwise people aren’t going to be into it. I think because incremental games are so new, in certain ways, the players are very forgiving of how it looks or how it feels, and what the progression is, and if it’s necessarily hitting some of the norms of what an Idle game is.
For example, there’s a feature in Idle games called ‘Prestiging’, which is when you develop your world or business or system to a certain point where it’s outputting so much money, but to get to the next level is hard, because you’re not making enough money that you can do this in a reasonable amount of time. It starts to feel like grinding. So what you can do is you can prestige, where you restart the game, but you have a base modifier, such as 1.1x, 1.2x, 10x, 30x, that increases every time that you prestige, but also makes it easier to hit the next prestige.
That’s an essential part of Idle games, and it’s something we have in Idle Miner Tycoon, but it’s not something that we’re pushing players into doing. Some games try to twist the vice until people prestige and get to that stage because it’s an essential part of the game loop, but it’s not something we feel is necessary to push people to so it’s not something that we’re spending a lot of time working on.
When we started off it was extremely helpful to have this flexibility in terms of designing the game, but now we’re more polished so we’re not going to release something that’s half-finished because our players expect the game to be good. We still have some leeway when it comes to trying out new things, which makes things super fun.
I think the other thing that makes them really appealing to work on is that it’s not a genre, it’s a whole philosophy. We believe an Idle game is something that is constructive rather than destructive. It’s not like games where you’re going around trying to blow up someone’s base, you are almost entirely focused on building a world up, and putting in more than you’re taking out in this world. It’s a game where you are always winning, there is no losing.
It’s a companion game. It’s something you can play in-between levels of Call of Duty. The whole principle is that it’s a game for everyone, for younger people and older people, it’s not something where we’re trying to target a tight demographic of 18 year old males who are going to spend $60 on a game and expect this and that and another thing. It’s a very universal audience, and that’s what makes it very appealing to work on when you’re starting off.
You have quite a small team in comparison to a lot of mobile games companies, what can you tell us about the company culture at Fluffy Fairy Games?
We’re 46 people, and we’re a very interesting office. We don’t use some of the trendier tools like Slack, we try not to email internally, and the reason being is that we want people to be focusing on what is immediately achievable. We use a tool called Telegram, which is kind of like Whatsapp in terms of a messaging tool, and we use it because it arrives on your phone like a text message, so there’s a level of immediacy.
We don’t like to have a bunch of chat rooms where people are talking but not a whole lot is actually getting done. We don’t like a lot of chatter – we will basically create a room with the three people that are immediately impacted by the thing you’re working on, invite them, solve the thing you need to solve, then delete the room. It’s more important that people are focusing on actual things.
We’re not as focused on documentation all the time, or strict record-keeping, it’s just more important that the thing gets done. I think that sense of urgency has translated well with our production schedule. So we do one week sprints, focusing on the biggest issue we can solve in one week.
We’re not going to spend a week trying to swap out different concept art to see what works well, we’re going to spend a week trying to fix day-one retention for new players who are confused because we don’t have a tutorial, which is philosophically by design that we don’t have those.
I think that contributes to the culture, it’s about getting your head down working – “done is better than perfect” is one of the sayings that we probably use more often than not.
In terms of the sprint cycles, how do you prioritise certain tasks and features over others?
A lot of what we’re doing is actually based on player feedback. We have a very active community management team, we try to answer as many messages as possible directly. A lot of players, instead of using an email ticketing system which we also have, also ask things on Facebook and Facebook Chat and Twitter, and we respond as much as we can because we believe it creates a closer community feeling. It also means our community managers are very active and getting feedback, and once a week they’re meeting with the entire game team for each game and providing the feedback for developers.
It’s kind of rare in the fact it’s completely community driven. Somebody might have the idea of “oh, why don’t we have a bank in the mines”, and we’d say “yeah that might be cool, but most of our players are asking if they can mine cheese”, so why don’t we see if there’s a way we can mine cheese since we’ve had people ask about that more, and we can focus on a bank when it makes sense.
Now we still have game designers, so they’re interpreting player questions and issues and solve them through game innovations and game design in a way that they think will provide the needed returns. For instance, if a player says they want to mine this material or that material, the designers might interpret that as to mean that they need to add in more variety. Or players are getting to a certain level and saying “Hey, you need to increase the number of mines that I can get”, and sure we can increase that and it’s the easiest solution, but there’s a chance that we need to add in some other element of the game to keep the 5% of players who are playing to day 60 and keep them playing until day 180.
The perk is that it’s really community driven, and I think that’s the biggest strength. We try not to have the ego that a lot of people going into game design have. I try to say that not being controversial, but there are games where ego makes sense and there are ego driven projects that I think result in really beautiful games. I think a lot of story-driven games need to be driven by someone’s internal personality entirely, but I think for Idle games part of what make them successful is that we can let players be drivers and we can deliver the things that they ask for. It makes it much more simple, they’re asking for this thing, let’s just do this thing, you know? It’s a very democratic method of updating.
Do you imagine that, with the hindsight of working on other titles, that Backyard Wars could ever come back in a new form?
The project was dropped because the type of team it would take to make, you would need like a massive publisher-sized game team to achieve it. It’s not because it’s difficult. It’s not insurmountably difficult, it’s just incredibly work intensive. As we’re scaling up our team, we’ll very shortly have the number of experienced developers we would need to build that type of game, but I don’t think we’d ever go back and try to do it.
It now violates all of the things that we believe make our games so successful; it wasn’t a game about completing or collecting everything. Idle Miner Tycoon right now is a game where you’re driven by the desire to complete all of the different islands and get as many mine shafts in as many different mines and islands as possible. You’re driven to complete the 30 shafts per mine, and you’re driven to complete it.
Backyard Wars was a multiplayer PvP base-builder, and philosophically we’re opposed to building them. We still play them, but we’re philosophically opposed to building them. We just don’t think it’s something that we think will make us a successful game company. We have a higher chance of success if we stick to what we know and try to iterate from that!
We put a lot of emphasis on iteration as a process; develop a prototype, release, collect feedback, and iterate. Backyard Wars is something that I don’t think lends itself well to that process. It’s more of a “spend two years developing and get the balancing perfect then release it”, and that style or mindset is better suited to companies like Blizzard and Supercell where that’s part and parcel of who they are.
Do you ever think you’ll reach their level of success?
Our objective is to be the Supercell of Idle games! So I hope we will reach that level of success and we have a lot of good things going for us to get there. I do however think we don’t need to be those companies to be as successful as them. We can still be ourselves and develop games like we know how to make games, and be equally successful by financial and notoriety means, but without having to go down the route of having to spend 5 years in secret development of the next big project – we can do it our way and see the same kind of returns.
You’re releasing a new game this April. What can you tell us about it? Where did the idea come about, and do you think it can become more successful than Idle Miner Tycoon?
We’re releasing Idle Factory Tycoon in April. Right now, the metrics behind it are pretty good. We have higher retention, there’s good ratings, the engagement is good. I think it is slightly more hardcore than Idle Miner Tycoon so we might get a slightly different audience.
It’s taking the very simple core loop of that game which is resource extraction and resource transportation and then selling the resource, but it’s adding in the element of crafting. So in it, there’s a feature where you can take the component pieces of various items, and you have to have an assembly line where you can deliver those items. It requires optimising on the process and lets you get into the nitty gritty of min/maxing items you can produce.
All of the signs right now point to the game being really successful in terms of engagement, and that’s one thing that’s been very helpful with working with GameAnalytics. The tool sets that are provided in order to do analysis of retention and early stage KPIs like DAU and install rates effectively and quickly, and let us share them quickly throughout the organisation very legibly.
So based on the information we’re gleaning, we can see that Idle Miner Tycoon did a certain degree of pretty well at this stage in the process, but Idle Factory Tycoon is exceeding a lot of the KPIs and benchmarks that the previous game set. Things look good and we’re pretty confident at this point, so it’s a very optimistic period shortly before release!
Thank you for the kind words about our software!
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention our partners as well, they have been super important for us!
Beyond Idle Factory Tycoon, what are your plans for the future, and do you think that in a few years time we’ll be talking about Fluffy Fairy Games in the same breath as Supercell?
After the release of Idle Factory Tycoon, I think we’re going to continue to explore in the Idle games space, out as far as we can go, and try to push the envelope in terms of genres and demographics we might be able to focus our games on.
For example, Idle Miner Tycoon is a productivity game that tends to skew more towards younger males, and it’s very straightforward and continues to play when you’re not playing. I think in the future we want to see if we can reach other demographics that have maybe been underserved by Idle games, see if they can blend with other genres. I’ll throw this out because we’re never going to do this, but if we did something like an Idle Match-3 game, something that might work there so we can hit 60-75 year old gamers, what’s the kind of Idle game they want to play?
It has to exist out there and there has to be a way to nail it, so I think we’re going to stay in this space and try to hit every single corner of it for as long as possible, and eventually become a team spoken of in the same breath as some of our heroes. I think one thing that makes the genre very interesting is that the games are so universal in terms of demographics playing it, they’re like the whale sharks of the gaming space – they’re picking up so many players at once. Out in the great ocean of mobile games players, you have your baleen whales scooping up all the krill – that’s your Match-3 of 5 years ago, like Candy Crush – and you have your octopus of hardcore strategy games – that’s super advanced and only there when you’re looking for it – and that’s one end of the spectrum.
I think the nice thing with Idle games is that they’re a bit smaller than a Match-3, while they’re not something you see every day, they’ve got a bit of a kick. They’re extremely effective, particularly in the industry of driving value for partners, such as advertisers or third-party partners who might be interested like brands.
I think because we’re so focused on it, it would offer a lot of opportunity within the industry. It might reach more fame – just like people on the street will recognise Candy Crush Saga but won’t necessarily know who King is – that’s probably the reasonable level of success to aim for, but fingers crossed, that’s a pretty high bar for us to be shooting for!
That’s a fantastic aim, and for what it’s worth I love Match-3 games, so if you find a way to do the Idle Match-3 I don’t think I’ll ever end up playing another mobile game!
Hopefully, fingers crossed! I’ll see if we can make one for you.
Editor’s Note: Nate Barker and Fluffy Fairy Games can be found on Twitter @Kneyght and @FFG_tweets respectively.
Great stories about great game developers, and how they thrive in the era of data.
* You get our industry report the minute you sign up.