Independent UK-based developer surpasses 3.5 million downloads on Windows devices in less than one year

I love seeing developers succeed. So when Judge Dredd vs. Zombies recently surpassed 1.55 million downloads on the Windows Phone Store, I couldn’t wait to talk with James Valls, Senior Producer at Rebellion to ask about the strategies he used to produce such strong performance. I quickly discovered that they’ve surpassed 3.5M downloads of all three of their games – Judge Dredd vs. Zombies, Zombie HQ and Guns 4 Hire- across the Windows devices this year. In this interview, Valls elaborates on their strategies.

Can you talk about your gameplay?

“The game experience needs to be different enough each time that it attracts repeat players

Image of Dredd vs. Zombies game play
Dredd vs. Zombies

We wanted our first mobile game to build on one of our own IPs; since we’ve owned the famous UK comic 2000AD for over a decade now and have made Judge Dredd games before, making a game based on Judge Dredd was an obvious choice for us.

From a marketing perspective, with the release of Dredd 3D films in cinemas worldwide, there was an opportunity to release our new game at the same time, inducting many more users into the 2000AD universe.

Image of Dredd vs. Zombies game play
Dredd vs. Zombies: Max Dredd Bonus!

Judge Dredd vs. Zombies offers gamers the opportunity to fight four deadly zombie archetypes in thirty levels of game play across three episodes. The game experience needs to be different enough each time that it attracts repeat players. It’s important that our gameplay pleases users because keeping gamers engaged is at the crux of our business model; allowing gamers to choose from seven special upgrades gives them an edge over their ‘undead foe’, thereby enhancing their gameplay experience.

What’s your preferred platform?

“Guns 4 Hire is performing favorably on Windows compared to other platforms”

Asura, our proprietary development engine, supports nearly every platform, including Windows Phone, Windows RT/8, Android, and iOS. We’ve been developing Asura for nearly as long as we’ve been developing games, so with every game, we’re able to improve it. This year, we’ll use Asura to power our marquee title, Sniper Elite 3, which we will release on five platforms, including Windows and the new Xbox One console.

We are PC developers at heart, so developing for Windows is second-nature to us, and since Asura already supported Direct X9 and Direct X11, it was pretty straightforward to get it running on Windows Phone devices. Developing for the Windows platforms also allows us to reach people using Windows 8 desktops and laptops, which is a considerable audience. We love that Microsoft is working to bridge the mobile-desktop divide. When we can remove that barrier, we can incentivize people to engage with games, since they will begin to understand that they can start on one device and carry on where they left off at home, on another – rather than playing as a “quick fix” on the commute.

Image of Guns 4 Hire game play
Guns 4 Hire

Our CEO Jason Kingsley recently said, “You can see positive reaction to our various games on Windows. For example, Guns 4 Hire is performing favorably on Windows compared to other platforms. Different platforms offer different advantages, and one of the great things about Windows Phone games is that they’re also available on Windows 8. Guns 4 Hire currently has more players and better average revenue per player than on other mobile operating systems.”

Which monetization model has worked best for you?

“A user has to want to make that first purchase, so we have to offer gamers something valuable at a low introductory price.”

We have experimented with different business models, and we picked a model to support our desired user experience.

Image of Zombie HQ: Escape the Rooftops
Zombie HQ: Escape The Rooftops!

We learned that to convert a user from free to paid, they have to feel that In App Purchase (IAP) has value. That involves getting over the ‘chasm’ of making a first purchase, and the entire experience has to be easy. We offer gamers something valuable at a low introductory price. We’re not the first developer to discover that once a user has bought one IAP, they are more likely to buy more in the future. Compared to Dredd vs. Zombie, we doubled the proportion of paid users playing Zombie HQ.

Image of Zombie HQ game play
Zombie HQ

We have premium apps and subscription apps too. We pick the app and design the experience, and that drives the business model, not the other way around. We define our business while prototyping the app. We’ve increasingly chosen a freemium model in order to get the app into as many hands as possible, but we always make that decision on a per-project basis.

How much importance do you place on the user experience?

“Players invest nothing to play a free game, so they won’t continue playing if they are not enjoying themselves right away.”

User experience is everything. It is critical that you understand your audience and their input method. When developing for mobile, and particularly if you choose a freemium model, the player has to enjoy your game as soon as he boots it up; every second he waits is a second during which he might turn off his device or choose another game. Players invest nothing to play a free game, so they won’t continue playing if they are not enjoying themselves right away. It’s something we pay a lot of attention to in our games and always try to improve upon.

Your audience targeting approach?

“Before we even consider pursuing an idea, we ask ourselves if there will be an audience for it.”

As a relatively young platform, Windows Phone has garnered many tech-savvy users because they understand that the Nokia Lumia hardware is very good. Fortunately, these young, tech savvy users also like to play games on the move, so they sort of select themselves on Windows Phone.

We’re constantly collecting data to help us make these decisions, and of course, the answer is never definitive as there are many factors involved. Being able to reach your full audience is partially dependent on whether your game is available in the user’s language, so we try to translate our games into as many languages as we can. One of the advantages of digital delivery is that we can update the game regularly, and we can collect data every time someone downloads the game that tell us which regions and languages we should localize for based on where it is popular.

As you’d expect, our biggest markets include the US, UK, and other English-speaking populations, but we’ve been pleasantly surprised to find large markets for our games in India, Thailand, Vietnam, and Turkey. These territories regularly grace our list of ‘top five’ in terms of downloads and revenue.

Elaborate on your marketing strategy.

“You can spend advertising dollars to acquire each player, but they won’t be worth the investment if they don’t come back”

It sounds cliché, but marketing starts with the game itself. Players have to like it from the beginning. According to Robbie Cooke, our Marketing Coordinator, “You can spend advertising dollars to acquire each player if you like, but in a freemium model, those new players won’t be worth the investment if they don’t come back, so good game design, merchandising, and support all contribute to retaining and converting users.”

Image of Zombie HQ icon 
Zombie HQ icon

‘Marketing apps’ means many things these days. When possible, we A-B test important artwork such as icons and key art to catch a player’s eye, but sometimes—like with Zombie HQ—you just come up with an icon that is hugely successful, and you can’t quite explain why. It just resonates. We would suggest you optimize copy and keywords for the Store too. Cooke believes that, “You can do all these things, but your success still has a lot to do with the game. The game itself has to get players talking and sharing it with friends. Windows Phone is a relatively young platform with lots of evangelists, so we’ve found that word of mouth has been incredibly beneficial.”

Also, find designers, developers, analysts, and marketers who are confident enough to pitch in wherever and not think ‘I’m only in charge of advertising’ or ‘I only design the GUI’. Everyone on your team should be able to understand the game and how players interact with it. Everyone should be providing feedback on how to improve the features, gameplay, retention, and conversion—all the things you have to think about and execute correctly to make an app successful.

Finally, we’re very fortunate in that Microsoft and Nokia have supported us. The gamers amongst them really liked what we did with Judge Dredd vs. Zombies and helped merchandise the game in their storefronts and gave us a little PR help too. Right now, the Judge Dredd vs. Zombies icon is on hundreds of Lumia adverts on London underground, which is pretty cool.

Parting advice to developers?

Gameplay is key, and putting users at the core of your business model is an important decision, but if your game isn’t fun and engaging, you aren’t going anywhere.

Watch the Rebellion success story, captured by Nokia.

Image of Guns 4 Hire game play
Guns 4 Hire