Bringing a game back from the dead: How Brainz saved its quirky tower defense title Vampire Season

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By Kathleen De Vere

Columbian developer Brainz’ debut game Vampire Season is shaping up to be an unlikely success, even after launching, failing, seeing its publisher implode, going back drawing board, and making a counter-intuitive switch from free to paid. The new version of the game has found its footing, and is seeing higher engagement, retention and better monetization than the old one. Much like its cast of zombies, mummies and monsters, Vampire Season seems to be back from the grave.

One of the first mobile developers to sign a publishing deal with 6waves, Brainz’ had high hopes for its first mobile game. Its tower defense title Vampire Season combined quirky humor, solid gameplay and high production values. Unfortunately none of that can guarantee a hit — although the game received overwhelmingly positive reviews upon its release, it didn’t find much of an audience, and the audience it did find didn’t pay.

Then things went from bad to worse. As Brainz was trying to fix the game, its publisher was collapsing. By September, 6waves had laid off everyone Brainz worked with, including the SVP of publishing and the associate director of products. There was a new version of the game, but there wasn’t a publisher. Brainz did the only thing they could; they took the game back, releasing the new version as a paid title on Oct. 16.

Rebuilding for retention

“We were very happy with the critical reception,” explains Jairo Nieto, Brainz’ head of games. “But we still found that across the board there were certain things that could be improved.”

With 150,000 downloads under its belt from the first version of the game, Brainz began doing a deep dive into Vampire Season — seeing where users churned, what levels seemed to be too hard, and how people behaved while going through the game’s story mode. Brainz took what it learned and used it to revamp the tutorial. Pinch zoom gestures were added improve the controls, and the whole experience was made much more epic.

“We were falling short of giving users an experience that felt rewarding when they unlocked new units,” says Nieto. “Stuff like that makes people go from level to level and enjoy the game more.”

Brainz also took a big gamble by rebalancing the gameplay. The toughness of each enemy was reduced by two thirds, but the number was increased substantially in order to make players feel like they were constantly under siege. Player units were overhauled to make them seem more powerful and exciting to use.

“I wanted the player to feel powerful, that he’s constantly killing stuff. We really wanted to have the sense of accomplishment you get in Diablo when you kill a big horde,” says Nieto.

The results were immediate, reports Brainz’ CEO Alejandro Gonzalez. The game has gone from having 30 percent retention on day two to having 50 percent.

Bucking the trend and going from free to paid

Brainz also completely overhauled the way they tried to monetize the game, switching from a pure free-to-play model to making the game a paid app with optional in-app purchases.

Even though it’s now far easier to earn money in the game, generosity seems to have boosted Vampire Season’s average revenue per daily active user (ARPDAU), not reduced it. According to Brainz, the game is actually seeing much higher ARPDAU as a paid title than it was when it was free-to-play.

“I think it was a big mistake that we were making the first time around, telling people to monetize all the time,” says Gonzalez frankly. “Finish a level, why not get more coins? You did this, get more coins. More coins! more coins! It’s not about the coins, it’s about the user feeling that they can move faster through the game by using the store.”

“Maybe it’s just me, but maybe there’s a relationship between paid players and high ARPUs,” muses Nieto. “Something in my head makes me want to finish the game because I paid for it.”

On publishers, and hindsight

Brainz doesn’t hold any ill will towards 6waves for the initial performance of Vampire Season. The two companies parted ways amicably, knowing each tried their best.

“The market changed very quickly and I think that was the biggest issue. A lot of what we managed to do was no longer viable because acquisition costs are so high,” Nieto says when asked to comment on what happened with 6waves.

Nieto also feels that Brainz inexperience in the mobile market was a factor. Without knowing what they were good at, they didn’t know what they needed to look for in a publishing partner, he says. Its not enough to just get a cheque and some analytics. In his opinion publishers need to fill expertise gaps as well.

“We were expecting them to teach us everything, and no publisher knows everything,” he says. “You need to find a publisher that will let you know what’s going on with the product. You cannot give away your product to a black box and wait for something to come in.”