Grumpy Rhino Games is the brainchild of Sebastian Davies, an indie developer who currently specializes in idle games. After the success of Idle Armies, which made Tapper of the Year’s Top 10 in 2016, Sebastian continued to refine his click-based formula. Idle Empires expanded the concept into a kingdom conquering strategy game, while Sebastian’s latest release - Idle Apocalypse - introduced hilarious death cults and monster management. In this Mobile Champions interview, we asked Sebastian about his monetization strategies, how game design can produce engaging mobile ads, and why signing a publishing deal with Iron Horse Games was “one of the best decisions” he’s ever made.
Hi Sebastian. Can you begin by telling us a little about yourself and Grumpy Rhino Games?
I’m the “CEO” of the one man studio Grumpy Rhino Games. I’m based in London. I previously worked for Jagex as a developer and then as a designer. I started Grumpy Rhino Games in 2013 - where I spent the first 2 years working very long hours to lose a fair amount of money… all in the name of finding my feet as an indie. In more recent years I’ve focused on idle games. My three most successful games to date are “Idle Armies”, “Idle Empires” and the recently launched “Idle Apocalypse”. But I have a soft spot for my platformer “Five Hopes” which was wildly unsuccessful.
It’s worth noting that whilst I’m a one person company, I do work with amazingly talented contract artists, musicians and with a publisher: Iron Horse Games.
How does someone with both a BA and MA in Political Science and Government end up in gaming?
Turns out there aren’t as many jobs for political theorists as you might think! I played games a fair amount as a teenager, but never considered a career in it. In my early 20s I started playing around with RPG Maker which taught me coding logic, and eventually I found myself making this big un-wieldable beast of an RPG called “The Prince” that I had no chance of ever finishing let alone getting published. Off the back of that I applied for a developer job at Jagex and somehow managed to get it. I’ve been in the industry since.
Tell us about your latest game, Idle Apocalypse. How did you come up with the idea for a “cult simulation game”?
Idle Apocalypse sees you helping head cultist “Sid” build a cult in order to summon powerful demons (the Idols) destined to destroy the world. The player must fight off heroes, raise hordes of monsters and build a tower high into the sky - all in a quest to end the world. It’s an idle game, with a fair amount of resource management. It’s designed around the idea that the player plays multiple very short sessions a day.
Probably the most popular aspect of Idle Apocalypse is the dialogue. As the player builds their tower they can watch Sid interact with his cultists. The dialogue is a mixture of fourth-wall-breaking inane babble and a bit of dark comedy.
I love writing and designing from a villain’s perspective and cults genuinely fascinate me. It’s all meant to be a bit stupid and I think I achieve that at least.
How are things going for Idle Apocalypse so far? What metrics do you use to track the health of a game when it first launches?
Idle Apocalypse has definitely been my most successful game so far. By a long shot. Both in terms of quantitative metrics but also in the player response. This is the first game where I’ve been able to build a bit of a community and engage with the playerbase properly.
In terms of metrics... I think player response is important, if people are taking the time to write you feedback and engage with you, you’re probably doing something right. That can be a very good early indicator.
ARPU and the whole conversion funnel from icon impression to download are very important for high level analysis.
If your funnel from impression to download is weak, it could be because your store listing needs work (icon, name, screenshots… which is fixable) or because there’s something inherent in the game that’s not so appealing (wrong market, theme, look… which is probably less easily fixable, unfortunately).
If your ARPU is weak you can dig down and work out why that is - is it because players aren’t converting to spenders or do you have a low ARPPU. If it’s a low ARPPU you can try to work out why that is, are people not sticking around long enough to have a good depth of spend (is your retention weak?).
I think for a small studio you have to be pragmatic with your metrics, you could easily spend all your time analysing your game and get no work done. So these broad strokes are useful. I rely on ARPU as a general measure and dig down deeper where necessary.
The game monetizes through a combination of IAP and rewarded advertising. What is your strategy for balancing the two?
I think my rewarded adverts are pretty generous and give strong bonuses especially in the early game. I think it’s important to make them attractive as a sizeable number of players are happy to watch an advert (whereas, obviously, only a tiny fraction will spend any money). The danger with this approach is that you risk cannibalizing your IAPs (why bother buying something with money when you can just watch a few generous adverts instead). Ultimately a player buying any single IAP is likely to generate more revenue than watching adverts for the next month, so dissuading players from making a purchase may not be savvy.
To combat this I ensure there are bonuses that you can only unlock from IAPs. A lot of the benefits you get from IAPs could be earned from adverts or gameplay but some are ring fenced just for IAPs.
Got any tips for the best ways to integrate rewarded ads into a mobile game?
Don’t just slap a button for 5 gems on the top of the screen.
I think the most important thing is to make the mechanics surrounding watching an ad as fun and engaging as possible and turn it into a bit of an event.
With Idle Apocalypse I have a timer in the corner that tells you how long until the next reward blimp comes, when it hits zero a massive blimp flies across the backdrop and lands at a drop off point where the player has sixty seconds to claim a mystery reward. The reward can be gems, resources or spin tokens (it’s actually the main source of spin tokens). The spin token let’s you spin a wheel for a number of different prizes. I feel this gives more gameplay and turns it into a bit more of an event.
It’s worth offering different types of rewards in different contexts. Advertisers tend to offer diminishing revenue the more adverts a player watches. So it should be far more beneficial to encourage a player who hasn’t watched a single ad than a player who has already twenty today. Different types of rewards appeal to different people.
What is your approach to game marketing? What’s the best way to generate installs for a developer that doesn’t have the budget of a King or Machine Zone?
At a smaller scale it’s easy to get bogged down in marketing. I’m a big advocate of focusing on the game. Try and build a good game, that there’s a market for, that can generate revenue. As an indie you often don’t have much control over downloads as you lack the infrastructure, the IP, the budget and the knowledge to affect these things efficiently.
However, you can affect what happens when people download your game. That’s why ARPU is so critical. If you’re making a couple of cents per download, you’re going to need to get a load of downloads to make any money.
The other critical thing about focusing on the quality of the game is that it’s much easier to advertise a game that is strong and generates revenue. For paid user acquisition the ARPU is essential (if you make more money per user you can bid more to acquire users). But even if you’re not doing UA, if your game is better more people are going to download it.
What’s critical is choosing the right genre/market and making sure that the game fits into that market. It’s a decision you make very early on and has a big impact on the success of your game.
Beyond making a good game I think it’s also worth spending a lot of time on the icon. It’s the gateway to your game. Screenshots, description and the trailer can all have an impact too, but I’ve changed my icon before and seen a big overnight difference in daily downloads.
You signed a publishing deal with Iron Horse Games. What went into your decision work with a publisher, and how are things working out so far?
The thing that really affected my decision was it being pretty low risk. The contract we had meant that unless the game met certain targets at launch, I wouldn’t need to pay Iron Horse anything. No win, no fee? Ha. I felt there was a lot of potential if things went right, and not much cost (just my time) if it went wrong.
I’d say it was easily one of the best decisions I’ve made. As a solo dev, you’re making a lot of important decisions primarily on your own, having someone who’s invested in your success helps a lot for decision making. I definitely realised there were fundamental things I was overlooking either through lack of “headspace” (eurgh, hate that term) or just a lack of challenging my own decisions. Downloads and monetisation are considerably better now.
What advice do you have for other indie game developers who are looking for a publishing deal?
I think it’s important to make sure you’re getting something of value from the deal, I’m sure there’s plenty of companies who are willing to take a cut of your revenue without doing all that much. Maybe get a commitment on marketing spend or on downloads?
What games are you playing right now (aside from your own, of course)?
At the moment I’m not getting much time to play, but I do download a few featured games from the App Store each Thursday. This week I’m playing Hungry Dragon and Trexels II.