Gardenscapes was released on August 25 and become the next hit from Playrix. A month later, AppAnnie revealed that the launch of the game helped the developer to enter the Top 20 mobile publishers in the world. We discussed Gardenscapes transformation from hidden object to match-3, changes that were made and first results with the Head of the Kyiv office – Tanja Evdokimenko.
We wrote that on the first day the game had more than a million downloads and got in Top 150 grossing games in the US. And a recent AppAnnie report clearly showed the success of the game.
Yes, the game rapidly broke into the tops of Europe, the Americas and many other regions. On the first day, Gardenscapes entered the Top 10 free games for iPhone and iPad in 100 countries. The game reached Top 15 grossing apps for iPad in the United States in the first week.
Top Grossing Apps US (App Store, iPad), September 7, 2016
How is it possible? The series was a HOG for seven years and suddenly turned into match-3? How and why did this happen?
This happened when ISpy-version of Gardenscapes was almost ready. After Fishdom soft launch we thought that “match-3 + garden” may also work. We decided to experiment and put together the finished garden from Gardenscapes and match-3 of Fishdom. The result convinced us that we should release this version of the game, though metrics of the HOG version were on the hit level too.
Top Grossing Games in Russia, iPhone / iPad, 3rd day of Gardenscapes release
So you transferred all the content from ISpy version to match-3 one? How much time did you spend on the first version and how much did the transition take?
Yes, we transferred almost everything, except some small things, which were strongly tied to the HOG mechanics. For example, there were story quests to find certain items in different rooms: screwdrivers to loosen something in the garden, etc. We transferred some of the quests, but some were simply removed. Anyway, it’s a drop in the ocean. You can say we used all the content except the levels.
It took around three months. It could take much more if we didn’t have Fishdom. In fact, we based the game on the match-3 part of Fishdom and redrawn its graphic assets. It happened during the soft launch stage. Then we decided to transform the mechanics so that it wouldn’t be identical to the Fishdom one and it took three months more.
Will there be ISpy anyway? Or you just have to draw too many assets for it and it doesn’t worth it?
We don’t know yet. We may decide to release such a game, but in any case, it will be a huge amount of work for us. All new graphics is not even half of what we would have to do. We do not seek to increase the number of games and are focused on quality. For us, it is more important to pay attention to already released games and those that are now in development.
The current project was initially developed as a hidden object game. How did employees embrace the change of the course? Did the change of root mechanics demand the change of its core team?
It’s not so simple to change the course of development when the game is almost ready. However, the purpose of Playrix is to create hits and when we saw that the match-3 version is better, it became clear what to do.
As for the transition, the company already had some necessary experience, so it was relatively painless. Our professionals can easily switch to a different task.
Work in progress
How many people worked on the project at the same time?
There were more than 50 people maximum, half of them worked remotely. As for functions, about one-third is programmers, next third – artists and animators, the rest – game designers and managers.
I am sure that the original Gardenscapes has a large community. Don’t you think it’s painful for users to accept the change? By the way, how do you see the target audience? Has it changed since the first games in the series?
There is a possibility that after the release of the game, some fans of the original Gardenscapes were upset. On the other hand, the match-3 genre is wider than ISpy. We felt that in the end there would be many fans of the new version. In addition, the audiences of both genres intersect, and the original Gardenscapes fans will be happy to play match-3. Actually, this is what happened after the launch.
The reason I ask about the target audience is that the protagonist of the game is a 50-year-old lonely man with a mustache and a receding hairline, who seems pleasant and frightening at the same time. He is nice, but as an archetype looks strange. What is his history?
If you look closely to the popular casual games, for example from King, you will notice that the main characters don’t have pure cuteness. A character doesn’t need to be perfect or beautiful to be memorable. Some creators successfully use aesthetics of ugliness. The main thing here is that the hero has to arouse emotions. No wonder, Austin evokes feelings and different associations or astonishment like in your case or sympathy, because he resembles a neighbor or an uncle.
Austin’s was created by one of our artists for the desktop version of the game in 2007. We needed a butler character with a slightly aristocratic appearance, the one that women 30+ would find charming. First versions of a character with a pipe in his hand or with a watering can weren’t quite on point. It is obvious that in the past century The Beatles dictated the fashion for a long time. The overall theme was the characteristic shape of hairstyles, mustaches, sideburns and whiskers… The artist left the whiskers and changed the hairstyle – he gave the butler a bald head, because he isn’t young, and time does not spare anyone. The rest was made along the way, and the audience liked him. The main thing in Austin is his character and memory, he feels alive. And by the way, the artist who created Austin is still in Playrix creating new interesting characters.
The very first version of Austin
Austin doesn’t look weird to me. He is an ordinary man, not without flaws – on the contrary, that’s what attracts. I think that all attempts to rationalize the nature of a character are to fail. You can’t make a perfect one, he would be “dry” and hard to believe.
I see. Let’s get back to the project. The are 2 basic components in the game: match-3 mechanic and the storyline. And here is what I noticed while playing: You collect fruits in match-3 games and get coins and stars for it. In metagame you are constantly building something. It seems a bit illogical that you have to collect apples and pears to build something? Didn’t you think about collecting bricks or something like Cradle of Empires from Awem?
After selecting the setting of the game there is a temptation to make all the elements in one style. You also try to use all usual elements for this genre: chocolates, crystals, vegetables, flowers, and so on. But we must understand that the setting of Gardenscapes is not so simple. Austin has a garden, why not use the fruit theme? In my subjective opinion, it is much more important to make all elements attractive instead of indifferently building them in the setting. I think we got it right, and bricks look less logical and hard to be tied to the story of the game. Anyway whatever we collect: apples, bricks, flowers or something else – we get stars after completing tasks on the levels. We consider this scheme to be totally logical.
The general idea of the game remains the same, only star earning mechanics changed
By the way, you didn’t fully adopt Fishdom match-3 mechanics. For example, there are gnomes, the analogue of stones from Sky Charms… What else is in the root mechanics?
As a hardcore match-3 gamer, I disagree – Gardenscapes and Fishdom have different modes and different elements of level design. We don’t seek to reinvent match-3, but we try to take the best of this genre and add new things.
Yes, we have gnomes. We planned to introduce such kind of mechanics for a long time. We also added water streams which make the game more dynamic, each move shifts a certain part of the field. It is, however, sacrifices a strategy part a little – everything becomes more unpredictable, but it is an interesting element.
Also, in Gardenscapes it’s possible to order tiles – there is no such thing in Fishdom. This is not a game-changing difference, but some unexpected levels or elements can be created on its base. You can order tiles, which do not fall on the field and appear under different circumstances. For example, we have a flower-bed that can create random flower tiles on the field if you make a combination near it. These elements allow us to create tons of levels different from Fishdom.
When we talked about Fishdom release, your colleague Anton Andreev mentioned that the game uses FUUU-factor. As far as I understand it is also a new thing. Can you share some info about level balance? For example, you’ve increased the difficulty or made it curve?
Behind the apparent simplicity of the match-3, there is always a lot of work. We don’t take Fishdom and its difficulty as the basis. The team worked hard on Gardenscapes, tried to make it more balanced with an optimal amount of peak levels. We make corrections all the time. Quite often the level seems perfect, but players show that it’s not good and we change it or fully reconstruct.
One of the things that unite Gardenscapes with Fishdom is self-sufficiency of the match-3 mechanics. The player can ignore the rest of the game. Is there any data on how the plot affects retention? How do you encourage players to come back (maybe those users who play the story are spending more money and so on)?
In general, the game logic is simple: you develop the storyline, decorate the garden while playing match-3. Gardenscapes is just an example of how short-term, medium-term or long-term goals are set for the player. A short-term goal is to finish a level, medium-term goals are about decorating the garden and solving some specific problems and help Austin, a long-term goal is to build a beautiful mansion.
We didn’t experiment launching the game without meta because it will be simply another game. According to our internal statistics, almost all active users play the storyline. This is an important part of the game, which directly affects retention.
Do you have information about how many players ignore the storyline and play only match-3?
The number of players who ignore the story tends to zero. According to our data, even those who originally play only match-3, gradually get interested in the restoration of the garden.
Let me ask another question about the storyline. I was struck by the amount of the optional in-game content. It’s huge! Can you share the ratio of the total budget spent on this part, comparing to the match-3 part?
Obviously, it doesn’t require a lot of time and resources to make match-3 content comparing to the storyline, which has a huge number of elements, characters, animations, etc. We didn’t estimate it, but the creation of the garden went way expensive.
The last question is about metrics. Successful both soft-launch and global release. Can you tell us DAU and LTV at that time and now? Roughly speaking, what numbers should other match-3 developers long to?
We focus on such numbers of retention: 1 day – 50%, 7 days – 30%, 30 days – 20%. It’s necessary to say, that the retention depends on the quality of traffic, so these measurements should be done carefully. However, this numbers means that the game is successful.
I can’t give any specific number for LTV – it all depends on the country, the device, the quality of traffic and how popular the game is in general. DAU as a metric isn’t so simple too, it depends on the number of users you attract to the game daily and long-term retention strategy. I can say that currently, Gardenscapes has more than 3.5 million DAU.
I felt proud and inspired reading the recent study by App Annie: after Gardenscapes release we became one of the Top 20 game publishers in the world and occupied the 2nd place among mobile game developers in Europe. We have huge plans for the development of our current and upcoming projects. We will keep on monitoring the ratings further to see our growth in the list of world leaders.