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Wooga has been making social mobile games since 2009, and it continues to do so under ownership of publicly traded Playtika.
And now Berlin-based Wooga is announcing its Ghost Detective hidden object game for Netflix Games today. The subscription platform is a new one for Wooga, but it continues to focus on games with compelling narratives. Ghost Detective is part of the hidden object genre where Wooga has been successful in the past with titles such as June’s Journey.
This title will focus on a story set in the streets of New Orleans as the ghost of a veteran detective attempts to unravel the mystery of her own murder. The game is included in the Netflix membership. Wooga has more than 300 people working for it.
I caught up with Nai Chang, managing director at Wooga, at the recent Gamescom event in Cologne, Germany.
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Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: So June’s Journey is by far the most successful game you’ve had?
Chang: Yeah, I think so. For Wooga, if I look at the history of Wooga games, the lifetime revenue of our games, it starts off 13 or 14 years ago in the Facebook era. Those were a couple of million. Then it got bigger and bigger. We had Pearl’s Peril, one of the games we launched nine years ago now, and that did tens of millions. Then we released June’s Journey, which did far more than our last game. We have a history of having higher LTV games. This one was a step change.
GamesBeat: How old is it now?
Chang: It’s been six years now. We’re having a big event for players to celebrate the six-year anniversary. We’re having a fandom contest to show how everyone expresses their fandom for the game. If you’re picked to win, you get to be a part of this kind of murder mystery event. I’m not sure about the term. But we’re inviting players to join, and we’re having some of Wooga’s people joining as well. We filmed the whole thing. It’s a big event. It’s going to be a lot of fun.
GamesBeat: Did you expect that particular game to do so well? How would you explain how it was a step above everything else?
Chang: If I look back at Wooga’s history, we’ve been very good at creating new games. Our new games would last for a couple of years and then kind of fade away. The life cycle of a game was a few years. With June’s Journey, after the initial success, instead of pulling the team away from the game to work on the next product, we increased the team size. We invested more into continued development of the game, both new content releases and the feature set. It’s a much more robust game now than it was five or six years ago. We’re continuing to do that.
That’s the big difference between the games prior to it and this one. This is a game where we’re building the team and the product for a 10-year horizon.
What’s it like doing your first game for Netflix?
At Wooga our vision is to be the players’ choice for story-driven casual games. In Netflix we have found a publishing partner who is very much aligned with this vision and we are excited to find a new way of putting our games in front of players who love good stories.
On top of that, this project helped us expand our capabilities to build a game with a different business model than what we used to do so far.
GamesBeat: How long did you work on Ghost Detective?
Chang: The initial concepts and ideation for a game like this started a few years back. Thanks to this foundation we were able to create this version of Ghost Detective for Netflix in a few months.
GamesBeat: Does it have some learnings from June’s Journey?
Chang: Wooga games stand for high quality gameplay. For Ghost Detective we took this even one level further by building it in 3D. This not only makes the game visually more realistic but also allows for variation of gameplay experience and difficulty; for instance, exposing the player to different time of the day or weather, which changes the difficulty of the gameplay.
Secondly, at the core of all our games stands a captivating story. For Ghost Detective we took all our story-telling experience and made sure to infuse the story elements in a way that they don’t interrupt the gameplay. So immersive gameplay meets captivating story if you will.
GamesBeat: Is it different creating a game for a subscription service?
Chang: The mechanics are different, particularly the session structures. Our objective is to leverage our strong storytelling skills to develop a game that keeps players engaged over an extended period, much like a Netflix show that spans many seasons.
GamesBeat: How do you keep it going while you keep more irons in the fire as well?
Chang: It’s a challenge, looking for ways we can increase revenue in the products we have, while also working on games for the future. A year and a half ago we had an organizational change where we tried to consolidate the group that’s operating our live products and continue to build on them into one division. Then the group that’s concepting and exploring new games, that division, we put more resources there so that we can try to have different ways of working and different types of people in the two groups based on what they’re doing. They’re very different skill sets. That’s how we’re trying to do it.
GamesBeat: Have you had more new games coming out of the pipeline that contribute to the bottom line?
Chang: Ever since June’s Journey launched six years ago we’ve had more than three products launched. We haven’t had a success that’s nearly as big as June’s Journey. But we have had multiple products launched, and we’re working on another product now in the pipeline. We have things happening at different stages of the development life cycle. But we haven’t had a success like June’s Journey. This is where our focus is more than before, when we scope out our products. We think through, “Is this a game we can build for an audience that will be interested for 10 years?” That’s part of the criteria we use.
GamesBeat: What has it been like doing this with Playtika?
Chang: Playtika has a number of strengths that, since Wooga has acquired, have been very helpful for us, especially in live operations for our games. Part of the reason June’s Journey was able to grow so fast to the run rate it has now, which was significant growth over the last couple of years, is because of the knowledge from Playtika and the other games they have. This operating knowledge has been very helpful for us.
Playtika, on the other hand, has also been learning from Wooga. We do workshops with them. We go over them and talk with the game teams there, specifically around more creative designs and dealing with narrative design, which is one of the strengths we have. We do this knowledge exchange program pretty regularly, both with them coming here and us going over there.
GamesBeat: How many people do you have now?
Chang: We’re officially a little over 300 people. We’ve been growing somewhat over the last couple of years, gradually. This is one of the key things we’ve tried to emphasize since I started at Wooga three and a half years ago. We should make sure our growth in people and our growth in product are at the same level. We need to make sure we have the foundational layer of sustainable business before we expand the team, and not go the way of greatly expanding the team to try and make the products grow faster.
GamesBeat: What’s your view of the mobile game industry right now?
Chang: The industry faces a couple of big challenges. One of them is obviously on the user acquisition front, both the platform changes from two years ago with IDFA and then Google following suit. These both changed new user acquisition for games. Everyone’s facing this. Part of what we’re doing is making sure we have even more focus on a strong community, strong word of mouth, so that the people we have are advocates for the game, and also play the game for a long time.
On the other end, we’re trying to think about how we extend the IP we have from the games we’ve already created, so that we can go up the funnel and attract more users by making them more aware of the product. This is something we’re shifting resources toward. But that’s one of the big challenges.
The other challenge for a subset of mobile game companies that are leaders in their specific genre–we’re one of those, in the hidden object puzzle space. When we’re a leader in the genre, the way to improve the product is through deep user understanding. One thing I say is that the product will keep growing, the user base will keep growing, as long as we keep up with innovative ideas to add value to the player experience. Once we start to run out of good ideas, that’s when we start to lose the interest of the players.
This is a challenge and it’s going to continue to be one. The more mature the game gets, you need an even better understanding. How do you build more value for the players?
GamesBeat: I do wonder how much the world economy matters. The notion was that mobile gamers were maybe the ones that would spend less compared to hardcore gamers who keep spending whether they’re in a recession or not.
Chang: In my experience of what we’re seeing, we don’t see that reflected in performance. We still have a very strong, growing game. I will say that there was a definite uptick throughout the pandemic. Then, when things reverted back to normal for most countries, there was a softening in the industry at large. We felt it less. Part of it, we believe, is because the specific users we have–if you look at the core users in the game, they behave kind of like hardcore gamers in terms of how much this is a habit in their daily routine.
GamesBeat: How many games might you be launching over a period of time? Where do you think you are now?
Chang: I can’t comment very specifically on this one. We do have a project in the pipeline. When we think about the next product, I’m taking a step back and considering what the next generation of story-driven casual games on mobile might mean. Our mission is to be the player’s choice for story-driven casual games. We had a very good strategy for approaching that, but given the changes in the competitive landscape, as well as the performance marketing challenges, I’m re-evaluating how much of a step we’ll make in our next game, how big a step we’ll take in terms of innovation. We’re still discussing what that looks like. If we do that, depending on that conversation, the development timeline may be longer or shorter. We may do more exploration and validation.
GamesBeat: Is AI proving useful for you yet?
Chang: We’re still in the earlier days of this. We haven’t said, “Hey, we as a company will leverage AI to revamp these processes.” It’s not something we’re focused on at this point. We’re still at the step before that, understanding what’s out there, the implications for the industry, and how to do this in an ethically, morally, and legally correct way. This is the point in the conversation we’re at. From there, some time in the near future I think we’ll have more clarity on how the changes and advancements in AI technology might speed things up or make things more efficient in our development process. But right now we don’t have any solid plans.
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