Appdevelopermagazine.com | Interview with Alexander Vashchenko, President of Production at Game Insight
Alexander Vashchenko is President of Production at Game Insight which has offices in Moscow and San Francisco and consists of 15 development studios spread out across Eastern Europe.
While working in the game industry, Alexander has launched a number of financially successful products, such Legend: Legacy of the Dragons and Juggernaut, which garnered millions of users. Mr. Vashchenko is a mentor, advisor, and one of the co-founders of Farminers Startup Academy.
Mr. Vashchenko began his career at IT Territory in 2004 as a designer, then in 2007 became Head of Game Design, and later became Chief Producer. After Astrum Online was created, Mr. Vashchenko continued to manage game development, first as Deputy CEO and then as CEO. In 2012, he founded NARR8, a company focusing on web-based and mobile interactive content series.
ADM: How long have Game Insight been developing apps?
Alexander: All key members of our team have a long record in developing apps and games. In earlier years, we were responsible for making massively multiplayer online (MMO) games at Astrum Online, which was the largest online gaming company in Eastern Europe, and was later acquired by the Mail. Ru Group. Right after this merger, the Russian tech giant successfully launched its IPO.
Later in 2010, Game Insight was founded by Alisa Chumachenko, with the belief that the best games in the world should be free. The goal was to become a world-leading game developer and publisher in the freemium games category, starting with popular city building and hidden object games such as Mystery Manor and The Tribez. The GI family has continued making popular mobile gaming apps ever since.
ADM: Do you program the apps or do you hire development companies?
Alexander: While we have been known to publish some externally developed games with partner studios, we otherwise do all of our own game development in-house through our studios. However, our approach is unique. As I mentioned, we’re lucky to have a great team of studios who are much like family to us, and each enjoys a great deal of production and marketing support from the home office, as well as a good amount of creative freedom. We find this to be an excellent arrangement that encourages our teams to produce the best and most successful games they can.
ADM: How large is your team?
Alexander: Game Insight has more than 900 employees. This includes the development teams at our studios throughout Eastern Europe, which is home to many talented and well-educated developers. Famous for having brilliant professional engineers, Eastern Europe is home to many gaming companies and a vibrant gaming culture. We’ve grown rapidly from being a small startup to having nearly 1,000 employees in four years.
ADM: What languages or SDK’s do you typically use for development?
Alexander: Every Game Insight studio has its own skills and is in and of itself unique. Several of the teams utilize such tools as the Unity Game Engine, Cocos2d-x, and our own proprietary in-house, cross-platform C++ game development engine. The studios have their own shared set of tools between teams for server engines and a client-side SDK for a variety of things. For web games, developers more often than not use Flash and ActionScript 3. The teams are happy to evaluate new technologies out there and are excited about “native” web gaming trends.
ADM: How many apps have you published?
Alexander: We’ve produced more than 40 games for major mobile platforms (such as iPad, iPhone, Android, Amazon, and Windows Phone 8) and for major social networks (such as Facebook and VK. com). These run the gamut from popular casual games like Mystery Manor to in-depth “mid-core” titles (games that offer more of the in-depth challenge of traditional “hardcore” titles, but maintain mobile games’ traditionally lower barrier to entry) such as Tank Domination.
ADM: What is your most popular app?
Alexander: In terms of casual games, we’re best known for five specific titles: Airport City, which has garnered more than 35 million players; Paradise Island, which has more than 25 million players; My Country, which has more than 17 million players; The Tribez, which has more than 11 million players; and probably our most well-known casual title, the hidden object game Mystery Manor, which has more than 34 million players. Our recent casual games like Tribez & Castlez and Cloud Raiders are also becoming very popular.
More recently, our company has expanded its focus beyond casual titles into more core gaming experiences. Within the past year, we’ve launched new “mid-core” titles such as the spaceship role-playing game Starborn Wanderers and the multiplayer tank simulator Tank Domination, and will be releasing our next mid-core titles, the hybrid running game Running Shadow and epic turn-based strategy game X-Mercs: Invasion in the near future. We’ve broadened our portfolio to include such titles to embrace the growing mobile gaming audience, which we know is ready for more in-depth gaming experiences, while also continuing to support our existing casual portfolio and release new casual titles regularly.
ADM: Which market is more profitable for you?
Alexander: iOS and Android are extremely profitable for us. We love iOS for many reasons, and we also love Android for many reasons. Both are excellent platforms to develop mobile games and both have proven to be highly profitable and to have many loyal players and fans. I can say that now both platforms are almost the same in terms of revenue share.
ADM: What is your most successful way of earning revenue with your apps?
Alexander: We have had all our success with free-to-play monetization. Every single game that Game Insight has launched since we began operations in 2010 has been a “freemium” title that has no up-front cost to download and offers players the opportunity to unlock 100% of each game’s content without paying anything. It’s clear to us that free-to-play is absolutely the most successful business model on the market for mobile games today. It lowers the barrier of entry for players, who might otherwise not be interested in paid downloads, and also lets mobile gaming companies acquire larger numbers of users.
ADM: Which mobile ad networks do you prefer?
Alexander: We work with a variety of different ad networks and mobile marketing partners to bring our games to players everywhere.
ADM: What is your development process?
Alexander: While the development process varies from studio to studio, it often starts with brainstorming from our extremely creative teams, who are both very passionate game developers and also longtime game players themselves. The process also takes into account current and future market trends and from there, a full game concept is formulated to be pitched to studio leads and producers.
On receiving the green light, teams move into preproduction, putting together concept art and design documents while also researching and testing the best tech and engines to use for the project. Then, of course, comes production, which includes in-game artwork, interface and animations, as well as programming for both the client-side game and any server-side operations, plus in-game writing, text, and localization.
After production comes the testing phase, which, of course, focuses on bug testing and general playtesting within the studio and with friends and family. Once testing is complete, we prepare to launch our games, preparing, as always, to monitor adoption rates and player behavior, as well as to produce post-launch content updates.
Each of our new games comes from creative collaboration with groups of people whose ultimate motivation is to make the best games possible. Our goal with all our games is to make the best, most fun, and most compelling free-to-play games out there.
ADM: Which development platform do you use most, any favorites?
Alexander: As mentioned, we tend to develop natively for individual platform releases, and also use Unity, especially for larger-scale projects that require 3D graphics, such as Tank Domination, which is a fully 3D, competitive multiplayer game that puts up to 20 players into battle in real-time, 10vs10 tank skirmishes, and our upcoming game Running Shadow, a unique hybrid game that combines the deep story and character development of a traditional role-playing game with the ease-of-use of a running game—and also uses beautiful, fully 3D graphics. We’ve noticed that mobile gaming audiences are now prepared for games that are deeper and more visually spectacular, which is why we develop much more in-depth experiences.
ADM: What are the biggest challenges in mobile development for Game Insight?
Alexander: Of the challenges we face, these are probably the three biggest ones.
First, our challenge is always to balance out every game so that it offers a fun, compelling experience, is completely free to play, and will draw in a large number of users. Thankfully, as a company, we’re very experienced in tackling this particular challenge!
Second, as I mentioned earlier, a new challenge we’ve encountered recently is developing “mid-core” titles to appeal to a maturing mobile gaming audience. This has required us to make games that are larger in scale and often require heavy-duty 3D graphics, such as Tank Domination, which offers competitive, real-time, synchronous multiplayer matches for teams of up to 10 versus 10 players. These new titles definitely require more time and effort to create, but as a company full of people who love to play all sorts of games, including mobile/social titles, as well as hardcore console games, we’re extremely excited about the opportunity to make more of the types of games that we ourselves love to play.
Finally, one of the biggest challenges that any mobile gaming company faces is how much more competitive the market is getting. This is why our teams all work extremely hard to produce the best games possible. Still, we think that the competitiveness of the mobile game market is overall a good thing — it means more growth for the market in total and more good games to play.
ADM: How do you market your apps?
Alexander: We do a great deal of traditional mobile user acquisition and we’re also always looking for new opportunities to creatively market our game apps. One of the most exciting additions we made to a recent game is the debut of actor Michael Ironside in Tank Domination as a voiceover artist. We also regularly seek additional innovative means to reach out to new and existing users about our games, such as the tattoo contest we held for our game Dragon Eternity — a contest that was nominated by Game Connection in its 2013 Best Social Media Campaign awards.
ADM: Do you do your own marketing?
Alexander: Yes, Game Insight has its own internal marketing and advertising teams, which are constantly monitoring the changing mobile gaming landscape. To be quite honest, mobile marketing is very competitive and certainly not easy. There are no university courses on mobile marketing best practices — instead, there is simply a market that rapidly shifts in different directions, especially for free-to-play games, which can be especially tough to market for, since it can be difficult to forecast financial results for apps like these.
ADM: What do you think is the single most important factor in app development?
Alexander: As with any other business, to truly succeed, you need to love what you do. All of Game Insight’s team members love games and we’re all passionate about making them—when we’re not making them, we play them. (All day long, sometimes!)
ADM: Do you have any developer tips from things you’ve learned?
Alexander: Work hard, love what you do, and never take anything for granted. One of the reasons mobile gaming is such a competitive space is that there are so many people who absolutely love doing it.
ADM: What is your latest favorite app?
Alexander: I’m a hardcore gamer myself, so I’m really excited about our upcoming project, X-Mercs: Invasion, which we just recently announced for iPad. The game is a deep, turn-based, tactical game that challenges players to lead squads of futuristic mercenaries into battle against hordes of invading aliens. As a hardcore gamer, I can’t wait for the game to be finished, and I can’t wait to share it with the rest of the world. In terms of casual titles, I’m also a huge fan of our recent game Transport Empire, which is all about creating a transport network by land, sea, and air. It has a great combination of deep strategy and accessible play.
ADM: What device do you use personally?
Alexander: I own and regularly use mobile devices of all platforms. Being the president of production, I personally check and use our game apps on all platforms.