Business Development Director
Bet you have heard about hidden object games such as Dreamland, Mysteryville 2 and Million Dollar Adventure, all of them crafted under the same seal, Nevosoft, a leading Russian casual game developer and distributor headquartered in St. Petersburg. Although those three titles are just a little sample of what the company has in its catalogue: more than 40 games and each of them translated into more than 10 languages. To achieve this volumen of work, Nevosoft has two offices in St. Petersburg and third development studio in Moscow. Together, these teams deliver downloadable and online entertainment for various platforms, including Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, and Xbox. Julia Lebedeva, Business Development Director of the company dishes with Appszoom on the Nevosoft’s secrets that you didn’t know, the insane speed of the mobile industry and she also dives into the development process of their latest release, Hypnosis, that comes out today avalaible for iPhone and iPad. A darkish adventure inside of people’s minds with a taste of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks
AppsZoom: How did Nevosoft get started? And how did you make the transition into mobile games?
Julia Lebedeva: This is a remarkable story about a few guys who had a crazy idea and created something that took them to the top. It all started a long time ago. In the early aughts, the video game industry in Russia was on the rise. At the same time the Internet was coming of age. The Internet and video games existed in different dimensions. Selling a game via the Internet sounded like a very weird idea. After all, people only had dial-up internet connections, so it was only possible to download tiny unpretentious games like Tetris or Lines. But at that time in the U.S., where the Internet was faster and more widespread, the casual games industry was in its early stages of development. The four founders of Nevosoft, Vitaly Romanov, Pavel Ryaykkonen, Alexey Serebrov and Alexandra Ryabchikova, were young and enthusiastic friends and decided to take a risk and start developing casual games in Russia.
Today more than 100 people work together under the Nevosoft flag. All of them are true professionals devoted to the idea of making the world better by creating and publishing great video games. In 2011 we decided that it was time to start developing mobile games. The mobile game market was growing very fast and we understood that there were and are lots of opportunities. We can’t say it was really difficult at first because basically our audience was the same – people who played our PC games, who bought new devices. The market audience is much broader, of course, but since our target audience has always been casual, we easily found a way to expand our user base. So that’s why we started with porting our PC titles to iOS and Android.
Later new problems appeared. The mobile game market is constantly expanding and its audience continues to grow in numbers, and as a result the meaning of “mobile gaming” is also changing. Mobile games are a phenomenon that have forever changed the culture of digital content consumption. This is something that has forced developers and publishers to search for new ways of interacting with mobile gamers. Today mobile gaming is more about the gaming service you can provide for players, and less about the product itself and this means a different approach to development. With a PC game you had to finish the product then pass it on to marketing specialists who would make a nice box and try to sell it. When users purchased a casual game on web-sites, they’d get a copy of it, play it through to the end and that was it. If we look at the mobile landscape, the most successful games are those which have an endless gameplay (or have lots of regular updates) and which are free-to-play. A developer can’t stop working on the title after it’s released – on the contrary this is when the real work begins. You have to continually work on the game, add new features, analyze players’ behavior, and make new content. And this is the biggest problem for those who are used to working the old way. We had to change our way of thinking. I think we succeeded, because a lot of our new upcoming games are taking this gaming as a service approach. We are going to continue working on them for a long time, so that our players will be happy to come back again and again.
AZ: As a Russian developer, what is it about Eastern European smartphone users that the app market is blooming in such a great way over there?
JL: The market is growing very fast. That’s mostly because more and more people here are now buying smartphones and tablets. Smartphones have become more affordable and when people buy a new phone, they just choose a smartphone over a feature phone. Some smartphone users are new to games, because now you don’t need to be a gamer to play – basically you don’t need anything except some time, moreover game sessions can be very short, but regular. You don’t need a computer, to visit a web-site or buy a disc. The entrance barrier is very low. It’s easy to start playing and app stores offer lots of various content. And then there are the people who are used to playing games on other platforms/devices and these folks are also going to mobile. They are the same people, but now they are playing on new mobile devices.
AZ: Magic Academy, Pirate Adventures, Dream Sleuth, Mysteryville… All of these titles share the same tag, hidden object. Why are you choosing to develop this genre of casual game and not platformers or first person shooters? Is this decision motivated by the market itself or by your own interests as developers?
JL: We have many hidden object games in our catalog, this is true. We started to make them when players got really interested in these types of games. Our first game in this genre was Mysteryville and it ruled the top chart of the biggest casual game portal of that time. But we also have different kinds of games. One of our most famous game series is My Kingdom for the Princess, and we were the first who introduced such a genre. Basically it’s a combination of time-management, simulator and strategy. Another title, LandGrabbers, which was number one in many countries including the US and Russia, is a rather casual strategy game, but also very interesting for midcore players.
AZ: Can you describe the production process of any of these games, from mapping the storyline to putting it into graphics?
JL: Let’s talk about our new one, Hypnosis. The development started during the heat wave of August 2010. The idea was to create a game that will stand out from the casual crowd, a game where the emotional world of the lead character will be in the spotlight.
The primal causes
The player experience in most hidden object games is, essentially, an exploration of the game’s world. A simplistic image of the main character, say, a heir of an abandoned estate, is easy to project and causes no cognitive dissonance. Our goal was to inject the game with drama, a sense of real conflict that would have the player empathize with the protagonist rather than play the part. We hope that through empathy the player will be able to appreciate the unperplexed notion of how different our visions of reality could be. That’s how we came up with the idea of a classic third-person adventure with accessible puzzles. However, already at the conceptual stage it became clear that the adventure core alone didn’t quite foot the bill. Tension between characters, conflicts of opinion sometimes spill over into an armed confrontation. Therefore we decided to give the game a full-fledged combat system.
It was fall 2010 when the three initial prototype developers, the Nevosoft’s battlefield crew, started to experiment with the quest component, trying it out on various platforms. We wanted the game work on both mobile and console devices so instead of introducing full-blown action elements we opted for a separate combat mode.
We started the project with the concept similar to Final Fantasy series in mind. In most games of this series the player travels across locations interacting with NPC characters. When it comes to combat, a separate combat field appears where the fight is played out. Eventually this approach led us to create a whole mini game based on the mechanics of our hit, the LandGrabbers.
From concept to first release
We welcomed 2011 with operational fight mechanics and an original engine in place. By this time the basic features that would make it to the project had been selected and we made our choice of the storyline: a female psychiatrist wandering through the mental worlds of her patients. Professor Einbock, a character that ended up in the final version as one of the NPCs was originally cast as the game’s protagonist. Over the first few months of the development we were following his adventures in the prototype. He was a sort of a funny, slipper-wearing nerd, with looks resembling Einstein’s, and actions closer to that of detective Columbo who, while coming across as a complete slugger, cracks one detective puzzle after another.
Einbock, however, had eventually to give up his place to Maya. A female character can provoke wider response than an amusing old professor. Apart from that, we wanted to add some romance to the game. Had we kept Einbock, it would be much harder to achieve. One solution could be based on Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, but as the Strugatsky brothers would have put it, ’that’s a whole different story’. A psychiatrist as a lead character together with our idea to pitch individual perception differences laid the ground for another bold experiment: we decided not to keep the unified style in the game. We have different styles not only in the setting and locations imagery, but the very artistic manner in which our artists worked on them varies between locations. A programmer’s universe is portrayed as pixel art; Einbock’s mind is inhabited solely by formulas; the ‘real’ world is inspired by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.
By the summer of 2011 the plotline and dialogues were completed and by late fall all of the content was ready: characters, locations, enemies and the rest. Winter saw us putting it all together. Now it was a much smoother path: the larger team (counting eight) had already finished their regular brain storming for puzzles, location styles and character images.
Gradually, week by week, the game elements were assembled. Locations were connected by trails, phobias were trained to fly and the combat mode was fine-balanced. In the spring of 2012 we translated the game into English and started the voice work. Simultaneously, we were presenting Hypnosis to our colleagues, studying their reaction with great attention. In-company testing revealed an unexpected problem: the combat system turned out incongruent with the rest of Hypnosis. While both female and male audiences were happy with the adventure component, the combat mode didn’t play quite as well with the better half of the humanity.
That’s what led us to make the actual fighting with Maya’s opponents optional. Not an easy decision to make, we nevertheless believe it to be the best given the hard choices we faced. Now the player is free to choose between spending some time solving the puzzle (and thus fighting the phobia) and, a solution for the less patient, a prompt return to the quest to find out what was the reason of mass hallucinations in the mental hospital. In July 2012 a Russian language PC version was launched on Nevosoft.ru. By the time, however, we already realized that it will be only a trial. The main platform we aimed for was iOS followed by a console version.
Technically, converting to smartphones and tablets is a relatively easy job. While you obviously have to optimize, cut out the download screen animation, simplify an effect of two but these are run of the mill tasks for cross-platform projects. Game controls and monetization presented a real challenge. We wanted the game to be intuitive and easy to grasp. Moreover, we didn’t want to make the players pay for some small in-game goods: Hypnosis is a premium game, a good old adventure quest, so purchasing the game once should give the player the complete package. Crystals, the in-game currency, are only valid for battles which, as you remember, are optional. While completing all combat missions does require additional combat skills, the player won’t have to spend any hard cash on them. A ‘three star’ level completion of every mission early in the game gives you enough crystals to purchase the necessary skills. And crystals of course can help Maya get new outfits. Out of Maya’s outfits the Forbidden Dream was the most expensive but App Store editors asked us to remove it so it didn’t make it to the final version.
Converting the game controls was an adventure in itself. It is generally believed that point-and-click quests are easily transferrable to mobile platforms when the player simply uses a finger instead of cursor. And it well might seem easy until you compare the size of the cursor relative to the game screen to that of a finger. The latter not only covers half the game screen but is also, quite unlike a cursor, not sensitive to active screen objects. These are, indeed, minor problems, but when they add up to several dozen you have to put in a lot of effort to fix and tweak the interface so that the game does not cause more irritation than pleasure. Such adjustments and rigorous testing took just over six months. We are convinced that the game will find its audience – players who are keen to uncover the heart of the matter, those who share our interests in the secrets of other people’s minds.
AZ: Let’s focus a bit on the art. Nevosoft’s hidden objects games have a special trademark, with neat and recognisable human-character animations and illustrated, highly detailed backgrounds. Other games from the same genre prefer a more cartoonish style. Do you pursue bringing some realism to the gameplay with this approach?
JL: It’s more about the overall style of those games. We’ve always had great artists on our team and they were able to create very detailed realistic backgrounds which is extremely important in HOGs. That determined the characters. By the way, here’s an interesting fact: the characters in the first part of Mysteryville use the faces of the team members that worked on the game!
AZ: What’s in store for Nevosoft’s future? Can you talk about your upcoming releases?
JL: At the moment we’re mostly focused on social mobile games. We have about 10 games like this in various stages of development now and they are all different and cool. One of my personal favorites should go live in the end of spring or summer – it’s an endless runner with a cat that’s jogging on the roofs buildings in different cities. You’ll be able to compete with friends on Facebook and take part in tournaments! Here’s a quick sneak peak: