Insider Q&A: Space Ape’s John Earner

Rocketing up the iOS and Google Play charts worldwide, Space Ape’s Samurai Siege launched less than two weeks ago and is already raking in $65K per day on 950,000+ installs.

“We’re also seeing massive retention numbers, with 25-percent of players who installed the game still playing the game almost two weeks later,” says John Earner, Founder and CEO of Space Ape Games. “Overall, it’s been a really exciting first two weeks, and probably the most exciting career ride that I’ve ever had.”

Not bad for a game critics initially wrote off as just another Clash of Clans rip-off.

“Without a doubt, Clash of Clans is the leader in mobile multiplayer real-time strategy games,” says Earner. “They’re a wonderful company and it’s really cool to see their success story in the news this week … it’s hugely validating for our industry. I think it goes a long way to remove the stigma that Zynga’s IPO cast upon gaming.

“So they’re the leader, but relatively speaking, it’s a new genre. Historically, RTS games go back a decade and were extremely popular on PC with Blizzard. There’s a lot of room for differentiation, but yes, we were inspired by games like Clash of Clans and Backyard Monsters. What we admired about Clash were the production values, and what we admired about Backyard was that they really figured this genre out and made it accessible. There’s a problem with the genre, and the problem is that there are too many knock-off Clash of Clan games. I think we’re going to get some of that heat, but the reality is our game is standing out, and the reason our game is doing well and the hundred knock-offs are not is that our game really is different. We think our game is high quality, and the differences are based on a lot of research and a lot of talking to players. Clearly, Clash is the winner of the genre, but we’re a strong number two. We’re already Top 50 grossing in the United States, we’re the number one strategy game in 14 territories, and we’re in the Top 5 strategy games in 50 territories. So there’s something players have found in this game that they believe deserves their attention.”

Inside Mobile Apps: What is it about Samurai Siege that’s been able to standout when there are so many games already crowding the build and battle genre?

John Earner: First of all, we spent a lot of time in beta, and that was hugely important. We developed the game for six months, and two months of that, every week we pushed out a new build that was more and more polished. You hear a lot of people in mobile gaming talk about how it’s no longer good enough to launch a minimum buyable product, and they’re right, you really have to have a good game, so we spent a lot of time getting this one right. We brought in maybe two or three players per week over the last six months, had them come to our office to play increasingly better versions of the game, and we have a massive online community of folks who are giving us feedback every day. It’s really just an attention to detail and making a game players want to play, that’s the first thing. The second is a lot of preparation. We were featured simultaneously by Google and by Apple. We launched on both platforms the same day, and they both pushed us, and that was months of behind-the scenes talks of us convincing them the game was good and people liked it. I think that’s driving our success a lot as well.

[contextly_sidebar id=”77c27431785c797cd2a2482a56fce2c2″]IMA: How do you hope to differentiate yourself in a market where instantly gamers think you’re just another Clash of Clans clone?

JE: There are three things that we think we are doing differently and are really paying off. First and foremost, we have a lot of focus on the single-player game experience. When we looked at the market, there weren’t any games like this that had a meaningful single-player experience. If you pickup Starcraft II, a good chunk of that game is going through the single-player missions, there’s a story that unfolds, and you learn how to master the game. At that point, you feel comfortable in PvP. So we really looked at the Blizzard games to learn what we needed to do. We have this huge eastern world with samurais and ninjas and you travel from west to east in that world, discovering all types of new content as you go through deserts and mountains. There are puzzles to solve, there are missions to complete in order to get premium currency, and it’s a really well thought out single-player experience. So unlike all of the other games in our genre, a player can’t walk into Samurai Siege, spend $1,000 and jump to the top of the leaderboards. No matter who you are, whether you spend money or not, you have to go through the single-player campaign if you really want to be a good player, and that really levels the playing field.

Another thing that separates us is our alliance feature. A driving factor in this genre are clans in Clash of Clans or guilds in World of Warcraft, but the idea of an in-game community where a collaboration of a group of players who then goes against another group of players is huge, and we’ve really focused on making that better. We took a nod from World of Warcraft where our alliances have levels, and as your alliance levels up, every member of that alliance receives new perks. Secondly, we discovered something during our beta period in New Zealand that turned out to be the single most popular thing, and that’s Alliance Wars. The premise is any member in a leadership role can declare a war against another alliances. Wars last 12 hours, so they’re quick, and wars pit four alliances against each other almost like Lord of the Rings, where you have four armies fighting simultaneously. And they’re fighting to get the most honor, and at the end of the war, the winning alliance members all get a lot of premium currency. What we found is that in other games, you can help each other and send troops, but in our game, the wars have really united people.

The third thing is a little invisible to users right now, but they’ll see it in the coming months, and that’s our technology. We use Unity for our game engine, and we have a single code base, so that means we can have one team making one game and we can launch simultaneously on Android and Apple. Furthermore, because we do that, it means that our developers and artists can get stuff done. A player of this genre really expects a lot of new features and a lot of new content, and out technology means that we can deliver to them that content and those features at a really rapid pace. We made our game in eight months, we’re rolling out new builds every two weeks, and we’re really just fast because of our technology, and it’s one of the things that will really make us stand out.

IMA: What led you down the path of samurais and ninjas for your game?

JE: The answer is samurais and ninjas are cool. [laughs] It’s a little more complicated, but that’s basically what it comes down to. When we kicked this game off, we have a small team, and we made a short list of themes we were excited about. On that list included sci-fi, samurais, and fantasy. Then there were themes as a team that we were less passionate about, modern warfare being one of them. But that’s what we were interested in, so we went out to find out what users wanted to play. We did a lot of testing, and a couple things popped, with samurais and ninjas topping the list. This was something that the people wanted and we wanted to make, so as we stared at that list, we thought we could really make a game about samurais and ninjas stand out, so we went with it. People love the east, and I think we’ll see some dividends when we launch the game in Japan and Asia as well.

IMA: What’s the background of Space Ape?

JE: We got started about 14 months ago. I was employee 15 at Playfish. I’m American, and I opened the San Francisco studio at Playfish. I was the first product manager there, and shortly after I joined, I moved out to London where the main studio and all the action was. I’ve been here for the last four years. I learned a lot from the EA acquisition and how to make good games, but ultimately, I decided I wanted to do mobile and I wanted to work with smaller teams. So I left EA and I met up with some folks, one being Simon Hade, who was a senior product manager for our infrastructure at Playfish, and then another guy, Toby Moore, who was the CTO of Mind Candy, and the three of us got together and raised about $2.6 million in funding. One of our investors was Accel, the guys who backed Rovio and Supercell, and then we also raised money from Initial Capital, who again, they back Supercell and Playfish. We then hired about 12 of the very best artists and developers in the world. The reason why I stayed in London, even though I’m a San Franciscan, is London is where I knew these developers. Playfish gave me years of exposure to some of the best people in the business, and I had a ton of experience in free to play. So we hired the best people with the mission to be one of the best mobile tablet gaming companies. We didn’t think it through more than that. We just felt that if we put an amazing team together and we raised enough money to put out a few games and afford a few failures, we were confident that something great would come of it.

IMA: Did you guys start work on a new game yet, or is your focus just updating Samurai Siege?

JE: We are focused on Samurai Siege. We are going to launch in the rest of the world next week, and we will have it localized in six or seven languages. Turn it on in Europe, turn it on in South America, and then we’ll take care of Asia later. We’re entirely focused on making this game better, and we have some amazing updates and features planned. We’re really going to blow out that alliance aspect of our game, and we’re going to continue to put out great content, including a great holiday edition for the winter. The other thing we’re doing is we’re building out Space Ape. We have a new office that we’re moving into next year, and we’ve learned throughout all our experiences about the right way to grow a company. We want the culture to stay across all of our teams, so when we got started we intentionally hired two of everything, even if we didn’t need two of everything. So we’re essentially hiring in double what we have right now, so by January, there will be 40 of us. That way, with our existing client developers, one will stay on Samurai Siege, and one will go to the next title, and then they will each be augmented by a new hire, and so forth for artists and product managers and everyone else. That way, by January, we’ll be able to really focus on Samurai Siege, while at the same time, we’ll have a new team with the same culture and same knowledge ready to tackle the next title, and we’ll have that title ready by mid next year. We feel that this is the ideal way to grow. One of the hardest things to figure out as a gaming company is why you were successful with your first hit and making a second hit, and we think this is the formula to do it.

All images via Space Ape