I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Leonard Lin, Co-founder of Singapore-based company Tyler Projects and all around nice guy. The game development studio developed Battle Stations, a Facebook-based game that has become the longest running and most successful MMORPG to ever come out of Singapore.
In early 2007 three Singaporean university friends decided to create a game in their spare time. Using their collective programming skills and undertaking design and artwork responsibilities they created Mobile Weapon, a downloadable PC role-playing game (RPG). Although the game had limited success, the experience taught the team many valuable lessons, which helped spur them on to create something bigger and better.
With support from Singapore Management University the friends formed a company, Tyler Projects, and reconsidered their business model. As Leonard Lin, CEO and Co-founder notes, “you can put a lot of effort into making a really great game but if it’s a single player experience you can only sell it once.” It was at that time that Facebook opened their platform to third party developers and Tyler Projects saw an opportunity. Lin recalls “there were only a handful of games but they had a lot of users. We decided that we would give this platform a try because if we were going to make a multiplayer game we needed some kind of distribution system. There was no revenue or profit share required.” The developers also realised that an online multiplayer game provided many opportunities that single player format could not accommodate and would allow the developers to keep adding and varying content over time.
When asked why the team decided on a free to play versus subscription model Lin replies, “in retrospect there’s no way we could have known which model would have worked. But back then, the company was only five people so it wasn’t possible to produce the kind of quality content that players would have paid a subscription for.” The team reworked Mobile Weapon into a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) called Battle Stations. They did that in three days and had a working prototype uploaded to Facebook within three weeks.
Today Tyler Projects has 34 staff spread over three offices located in Singapore, Taiwan and Yangzhou in China. Although the company has since released several titles to the Facebook platform, Battle Stations remains their largest success with 3.4 million registered users across the globe. Surprisingly only 17 percent of players are from Singapore, with the majority of players based in the US and Taiwan. This is largely attributed to the fact that back in 2007 most Facebook users were based in the US. However Battle Station’s expansion into Taiwan was part of a deliberate strategy. “We partnered with a Hong Kong-based company who acted as a publisher for the game. They helped to market the game to users of different languages. But we later found out that the overwhelming majority of those users were Mandarin speakers from Taiwan. When the contract expired, we took over running the server.”
The pros and cons of a niche market
As one of the earliest games on Facebook, Battle Stations grew organically with the platform. But make no mistake, this is not one of those casual point and click games. Founded on a genuine love for RPG games, the team developed an MMORPG that rewards players who invest in strategy and planning. As Lin points out, “There’s nothing quite like it. The pvp [player versus player] combat system alone is unique, based on the old algebra problem: if car A is travelling at X miles per hour and car B is travelling at Y miles per hour at what point do they meet? That combat system is not seen in any other game”.
It’s a difficult balancing act to fine tune game mechanics in a way that caters to a variety of players from those who want to be entertained to those seeking a real challenge. Battle Stations been able to cater to these desires, to an extent, through a variety of features that players can choose to optimise or not. “I would like to think that the combat is simple enough that if you don’t really want to think too much about it, you can just use your best weapons, go as fast as possible and try to beat the other guy. But if you want to strategise a little more, you can, by varying many different parameters.” But Lin admits that the game doesn’t appeal to everyone. “If you put Battle Stations next to the average Facebook farm-type game then the learning curve and barrier to entry is a lot higher. It’s a trade off. In taking this direction we do alienate the so-called mass market…. There a lot of games that face the same issues that we’ve had to face: high average revenue per user, low mass appeal and low user base.”
Compared to other popular Facebook game titles, Battle Stations has a lower number of active monthly users at 30,000. (Currently Zygna’s CityVille and FarmVille have around 47million and 28million monthly active users respectively, as reported by AppData.com February 13, 2012). However, Battle Stations has a significantly higher average revenue per user generating approximately SGD100,000 per month across all players.
Revenue from the game is through the sale of virtual currency called Ochos, which players use to purchase virtual goods such as weapons, armor, ship upgrades and add ons for avatar customisation. Virtual goods were introduced to the game in July 2008 and payments are currently processed through several partners including PayPal, Cherry Credits, MOL, IndoMob and MyCard. However, in the case of Battle Stations, high average revenue per user is not the only marker of success in the social gaming arena.
Markers of success
Longevity, especially when it comes to Facebook games, is not something that comes easy. As Lin notes, “when Sims Social came out it shot up to 70million monthly active users and looked poised to take over CityVille as the number one Facebook game. But now if you look at the figures CityVille is down to 47 million and Sims Social down to 21million.” The fact that Battle Stations is one of only a handful of games that were launched in those early days that is still running today, is a testament to their loyal customer base.
Lin believes that the appeal of Battle Stations lies not only in its unique game play but also the company’s emphasis on quality. “Everything from the artwork, names of items, story writing, to the values and stats of items has to be very balanced and consistent. We put in a lot of effort to make the art and animations as high quality as possible… I really think there’s a market that appreciates this level of quality.”
Battle Stations was also one of the first games to introduce team clans. “Right from the start, we planned for the community to be a very integral part of the game… Clans are something that set us apart to almost all Facebook games until about a year ago. Prior to that Facebook games didn’t really have a concept of player clans or guilds. Definitely we pioneered that concept on the platform.” In fact, player engagement through clans, forums and discussion boards has created a very strong community within the game. As any game development company can appreciate, this requires a deep and ongoing commitment, forcing the company to learn a lot over the years. “At the beginning we were extremely involved in the community and perhaps over involved. Being a hard-core game, the players can be very emotional. At the same time, I think we have a very unique community. There are plenty of forums and discussion boards that are more moderated than ours but our community environment has developed a very unique culture where it’s mostly unregulated… I’m quite pleased that we’ve created this community that has its own personality, is largely self-sustaining now, and that new players can come and enjoy it.”
Although Facebook has driven much of the success Battle Stations has had to date, the social gaming platform is not without its drawbacks, particularly in the early days when both the social network and game developers were still navigating a very nascent landscape. “One of the things that held us back was that we weren’t as aggressive as companies like Zynga in forcing users to invite their friends. Being a smaller and self-funded company we didn’t have the resources to implement the spamming techniques as quickly as we hoped… There was an old feature that allowed users to receive notification from games. I think that really helped companies to grow. By the time we implemented it our monthly users shot up to 300,000. But two weeks later the feature was removed. Had we implemented that a lot earlier it would have been great.”
Singapore gaming environment
When Lin was interviewed in 2007 he believed that there was a lot of societal stigma holding back people from entering the games industry in Singapore. Did he think that it was any different today? “I don’t think its changed that much,” he said. “There still aren’t that many Singaporeans going into gaming. Its still not one of the top preferred professions… Having travelled a lot within the region, it seems to me that anywhere outside of Singapore, they have a much stronger game culture. There are more people who play games. Obviously, if you have more people playing games and interested in games, then there will be more people who go on to work in games but we just don’t have that in Singapore.” Although there are a number of tertiary institutions that currently offer game development courses and training, the majority of those are focused on developing games for consoles such as Microsoft Xbox360 and Sony PlayStation. Lin says, “That’s not helpful for what we’re doing which is web-based, mobile and social games.”
From small beginnings to a proud representative of Singapore on the international gaming scene, Tyler Projects looks forward to continuing its expansion internationally. Growing on the strength of Battle Stations, the company already has a number of other titles on Facebook and is planning to develop games with a more casual style of game play on alternate publishing platforms.
This post was first published on RecognitionPattern.com