How an HTML 5 mobile game reached millions on Mxit

It’s a hit on Mxit, millions have played it and HTML 5 powers it. This is Moonbase from Maxxor. Gearburn spoke to one of the directors at Maxxor, Adrian Frielinghaus and found out how this cross-platform game hit the big time.

Presented below is an extremely off-the-cuff conversation with Frielinghaus and as per his request, we won’t be using his image in the interview. Frielinghaus, “hates corporate images” and would prefer that we show a picture of Moonbase instead.

Gearburn: So, who are you and what do you do?

Adrian Frielinghaus: Well, I’m Adrian Frielinghaus, I’m a director at Maxxor, a games studio which is my responsibility to run. We produce titles such as Moonbase and a range of other games for Mxit and other mobile platforms.

GB: Let’s start with a summary of the app. What is it about, what is it?

AF: It’s unfortunately a very long story, but I’ll keep it as quick as possible. Well, it’s a game. But it’s not a casual game, it’s quite an involved, complicated massively multiplayer online, virtual world type of game. So it’s the kind of game that you start getting involved in and you start making connections to other players in the game.

GB: And the game’s called Moonbase?

AF: It’s called Moonbase, yeah.

GB: I know that a developer is loath to compare, but if you were to compare, what could you compare it to? What would you say your influences were, which games?

AF: There’s quite a well established genre of PC based browser gaming. It was all kicked off by Tavium back in, I don’t know, 2004, 2005, by a German company. They actually based their game on a board game called Settlers of Catan.

GB: Ah, ok, I know that one.

AF: Yes.

GB: It’s on Xbox Live.

AF: Oh, is it? That’s right they’ve gone digital. It started out as a board game, and they decided, well what if you took the same concepts and turned it into, not just a four or five player game, but, you know, a hundreds of thousands of player game. So they adapted a lot of the elements in the game and game mechanics and turned it into an online game. And it became quite a big success for them, and they’re still going. There are a lot of other games, which have sort of developed on the genre. One of the famous ones is called Evonyy.

GB: Evony?

AF: Yeah

GB: I know that too.

AF: It became famous a few years ago for its advertising campaigns, which started out depicting the game. Then it became a sort of damsel in the game, then it became a hot damsel, then a scantily clad hot damsel, then it eventually became just a bra, hahahaha, with hooters. So they became famous for their ad campaign to get users for the game. There’s another one called Tribal Wars. It’s a massively online, real-time strategy genre, basically.

But nobody had done it for phones when we looked at the market, which was back in 2009. I’d personally been frustrated because I was playing these games and I could never access them on my phone. In those days South Africa was quite advanced in mobile internet, so I was quite used to browsing the web and getting news and staying connected. But every time I wanted play, you know, Travian or Tribal Wars, I couldn’t do it on my phone. And I thought there’s no reason why you can’t. Because it’s not a game that really needs lots of complexity in the user interface, it’s just a really sophisticated bunch of server-based, data relationships, that’s what the game is.

So, I spent some time building user interfaces that were phone specific and taking the genre and making it into a more mobile friendly game; simplifying it and stripping out a lot of unnecessary stuff. And also adding in some new elements that would be useful for mobile; putting together a whole bunch of screens and trying to see how it is going to work on a screen that big, where people usually play a similar game on a much bigger screen.

So we built it initially as a mobile web game as I said to you earlier. I was chatting to a colleague of mine, and he said, ‘why don’t you put it on Mxit?’ I’d never used Mxit; I’d never been an actual user, so I didn’t understand what it was all about, and I thought, well it’s a chat service, so how am I going to put a game inside a chat service?

But then of course I downloaded it to my phone and started looking at all the things that are inside Mxit, besides chat. And you know, you can browse content, you can download stuff; it’s really quite a varied content portal. And I thought, well, having designed the game for mobile, it will fit perfectly well inside Mxit as a text-based game. At that time they were just starting to think about maybe opening up their API to game developers, because Facebook had just started grabbing headlines with it’s third-party games, which were starting to take off.

So all the mobile networks were starting to think of the same thing. We engaged with Mxit and got chatting to their R&D guys and we managed to get a prototype up very quickly on some of their pre-API type of interfaces. They only launched their formal API in October, I think, 2010. We went life with Moonbase in June.

So we were using different technology that predated their formal API, but it worked. And it just went game-busters; it just took off.

GB: Obviously, you get a million downloads and more than ten-million players.

AF: I think it was about ten-million views. No, we used to count page impressions, because it started as a web-based game, so we’d track every page impression. And we were doing something like 400-million page impressions per month, with a very core group of users, which shows you, not that we had a massive reach, but that we had credible levels of activity.

We actually launched during the World Cup and I used to sit there watching the hourly activity graph, and it would peak in the morning on the way to school, and come down again as the kids had to turn their phones off. Then after school, it would gradually start going up. Then there was the four O’clock game, and it would go boonk, and the eight O’clock game, it would go boonk, and then peek again until 12 and then drop.

GB: So, who is your market, then, 16-21 years olds? Or everybody?

AF: It tends to appeal to a younger demographic then the core Mxit market, which is actually a little bit older than it used to be. The Mxit market is now mainly 20-30, whereas Moonbase as a game appeasl to school kids with a lot of time, you know, sitting there doing their homework and playing Moonbase on the side.

GB: The game is free, it’s a freemium title, so you make money from purchases.

AF: That’s right.

GB: Do you think it’s the only way to go?

AF: Well, we haven’t tried anything else. Some of our other games have also implemented a freemium model and they haven’t worked as well. So I don’t really think it’s the revenue model that determines your success, it’s the quality of the actual game, and how deeply it engages with the user. The reason we’re able to sell things in the game is because people really care about what happens there. If they don’t care about what happens, they’re not going to buy anything.

So we’ve tried some other games, which haven’t been as successful at pushing those psychological buttons and the same kind of revenue model doesn’t really work as well. Freemium is a great way to monetise a really highly engaged player base. You just have to be careful that you keep the right balance.

GB: So the game is perfectly playable without having to ever spend money?

AF: Yeah.

GB: But you can’t have the same experience as a person that has if they bought all these things with money?

AF: It’s a different experience. Maintaining the balance is key. You want to make it so you get something for your money, but you don’t want to make it that if you don’t pay money you get nothing. So, you kind of want to have products so that people with a lot of time and no money can still advance in the game, and people with no time and a lot of money can buy time, essentially, by buying some things in the game which they would ordinarily spend a lot of time doing.

So, the most popular product we have is a very simple thing called a Q-build. Your Moonbase can only build one thing at a time, and it may take between 5 minutes and two days to build a particular thing. Once it’s finished, if your Moonbase is lying idle then nothing’s happening and you’re falling behind. So Q-build is a very simple thing, it says, as soon as this thing is finished; build that thing and then that thing and then that thing. And it costs 50 cents each time you add something to your production queue. And, as amazing as it seems, that is still our most popular product.

GB: It makes sense, saves time.

GB: From the stats that I saw regarding the success of the game, do you think you’ve actually tapped into and created one of the most successful games in the South African market? When I think of South African games, nothing comes to mind, as sad as that sounds, because everything is located overseas, that’s where the big developers are. But you’ve managed to make a success out of a project that costs, how much?

AF: I would hate to do the numbers. Hahahaha.

GB: But if you were to thumb-suck, what do you think it cost?

AF: It cost a couple of million to build.

GB: A couple of million? And have the returns exceeded what you put in?

AF: Well, we could break even at any point. But we continue to invest in further in growth because the South African market for us is hopefully only the start. So, rather than just trying to make money out of it, we are reinvesting further growth on other platforms such as Apple and Android.  So it could break even, but it doesn’t because we choose to continue to reinvest in growth.

GB: Well what do you think, in your opinion, are the games that South Africans want?

AF: Look, this is a very interesting question, actually, because a lot of people will tell you that to succeed in a market you have to localize; you have to create a locally relevant product. Yet Moonbase is a game that has become a South African success story, where 90% of its players are South African, but it’s set on the moon. It’s got absolutely nothing to do with South Africa. It’s just that, it happened to take off in South Africa, so lots of South Africans play it. So it has a South African character. We also have players from overseas, and it’s funny how they become South Africanised. We got Americans saying ‘howzit’ and ‘lekker bru’, because they just pick up the language from having to chat to all these Mxit kids all the time.

GB: So ten percent is all international?

AF: Roughly, yeah.

GB: You’re not looking to grow that side?

AF: Definitely looking to grow that side.

GB: But right now, we’re the focus?

AF: Well, the majority of the player base now is in South Africa because of Mxit. But the reason we’re looking at iPhone and Android as target platforms is because we want to grow outside South Africa.

GB: So it’s all built on HTML 5, so it was equally as easy to put on Android, iOS, whatever; what about BlackBerry?

AF: BlackBerry, yeah, hahaha.

GB: It’s just the its most popular entry-level smartphone in this country.

AF: It is. Yeah, a lot of our players play on BlackBerry through Mxit. Developing for BlackBerry is really challenging. We would have to build a native app for BlackBerry, because HTML 5, even in theory, only works on BlackBerry OS 6 and 7, and the majority of South Africans have got the 8520, which is OS 5.

So it’s a very complicated thing to do. You have to go native and you have to duplicate your code base and you kind of have to create a specific little solution for BlackBerry, which is only really a South African phenomenon, and the BlackBerry users are playing anyway, on Mxit. So, we expect the Mxit guys to improve their application on BlackBerry radically, because at the moment it’s not that great.

But we know they’re working very hard at it, so we’re hoping that will kind of secure the BlackBerry base, because it’s something that is very difficult for us to go after, given we’re trying to grow internationally.

GB: Why did you decide on HTML 5? Just because it is cross-platform goodness?

AF: Yeah, look that’s another tough question, choosing between all these different platforms.

GB: And it’s also still growing, HTML 5. Like the amount of HTML 5 experts could be count on one hand.

AF: Hahaha.

GB: Here’s a question: Where’s Flash now? Now that Apple’s mandated that Flash is useless, HTML 5 is what everybody wants. How long ago did you start developing Moonbase? Was HTML 5 still an option then?

AF: Well, this is one of the hardest things about being in mobile, is how fast the technology changes. So, having started out as a mobile web app using Facebook as a login, we always wanted to build a PC app on Facebook, and we always wanted to build it in Flash, and we started building it in Flash. But that project sort of died.

GB: When did the Moonbase project begin? How long ago?

AF: When we started writing code?

GB: When you said let’s start writing Moonbase, When did that start?

AF: That started in January 2010, that’s when we laid the first brick.

GB: Two years is a quick cycle for a game, it’s not bad.

AF: We went live in five months.

GB: Five Months? Ok.

AF: And we’ve been live for just over two years. We had our second birthday the other day.  So we originally wanted to do it in Flash, but in the time between when we took that decision and when we actually wanted to restart the Flash project, Flash had been killed. So we sat around the table and thought, well let’s rather build it in HTML 5, because then we can actually not just reach the PC, but we can also reach mobiles. It started as a PC mobile cross-platform thing, and it’s working out extremely well for us.

We’ve got one code base running on all the different platforms. It’s not as easy at it looks in the box; HTML 5 is not for sissies, it’s very complex.

GB: As long as it’s not Java.

AF: Yeah, as long as it’s not Java, but Flash, interestingly, is making a comeback.

GB: Really?

AF: Not the Flash player, but the sort of Flash development environment; the Flash builder and action script, because you can actually export as a native app for both platforms using Flash. So we are also experimenting with that. We’re building a new game in Flash and keeping our existing game in HTML 5, because we don’t know which way it’s going to go. Six months ago when we decided on HTML 5, Flash was dead.

And now, Flash is sort of making a comeback, so you always have to keep an open mind. It’s very expensive and costly and frustrating to keep an open mind, but the alternative is death.

GB: I wanted to actually ask you about the app stores. How is the approval processes?

AF: Well, for Android it’s sort of, submit, wait five minutes and it’s live. For iPhone it’s seven days and eventually you see it go into review and then a few hours later it gets spat out when they don’t like it, or it get’s approved for sale. We were rejected once.

GB: Why were you rejected?

AF: We were rejected because we required the user to login with Facebook; it was the only way of actually accessing the app.

GB: And now?

AF: And now you can play anonymously, you just say: play now.

GB: So if you have both options it’s fine?

AF: Yeah.

GB: But if you only have one…

AF: Correct. Yeah.

GB: Alright.

AF: I hadn’t realised that was in conflict with their terms, but if you look deep in the dark depths of their terms, you can’t force them divulge any information in order to play the app, and by their reasoning, logging into Facebook is divulging information. So you have to provide a more anonymous method of identifying yourself.

GB: Even when you start up your iPhone now, there’s three search engine options, but they certainly don’t let you use anything else besides Safari. Bastards, bastards

Ok, where was I? Out of all the platforms you can play this game on, which one do you think is performs the best, or has got the slickest experience?

AF: iPhone.

GB: Definitely the iPhone?

AF: Actually Mxit is a close second. Hahahaha.

GB: Really?

AF: Yeah.

GB: And Android, why not so much?

AF: HTML 5, as with any technology, looks really easy and simple on the outside, but once you start getting into the nitty-gritty, things become a little more complicated. And the Android browser just isn’t as powerful as Safari. So, when you’re rendering stuff in Android using HTML 5, the refresh rate and the frame rate and all that stuff is slower. Added to that, you’ve got all the different handsets that Android runs on.

GB: Must be tough.

AF: It was nerve-wracking going live on Android because you immediately get guys giving you a zero rating because they can’t even download it.

GB: The app store is very rigorous on iTunes. Actually, he is on South African app store and I’m on the American, and he couldn’t find it on the South African store.

AF: There isn’t even a Games category on the South African app store.

GB: So you don’t care that it’s not there? It’s better to have international?

AF: We didn’t specifically choose which markets to go live in, we just said, make it live. It’s live in China, you know. We get Chinese people playing Moonbase and figure out what the hell to do.

But we’re not allowed in South Africa purely because of the way that Apple’s iTunes market is structured. There’s obviously some dark and mysterious licensing issues around content in South Africa, which means we can’t.

GB: Licensing here is a bitch.

AF: I thought everyone in South Africa had a US account. Hahahaha. When I target South Africans in my advertising campaign, you know, I just assume they’re going to download it from the US.

GB: What is next for you then? What games are you working on now? Or are you just consumed by Moonbase?

AF: We spend a lot of time on Moonbase getting it live, but we have filling the pipeline again with new stuff. We’ve got a portfolio of games on Mxit, which we’re now looking at revitalizing, because the Mxit guys have become a lot more serious about developer’s support and helping developers to get traction in their market. So, we might pick one or two of those titles and give them a bit of a facelift and put some thought and time and grow them. It’s our backyard, we should be looking after it.

But in terms of iPhone and Android and that type of thing, we’re looking at a bingo game. Plus, a couple of others.

GB: A bingo game.

AF: Bingo’s huge.

GB: It is pretty huge, yeah. It’s a real money spinner.

AF: There’s lots of games out there, it’s kind of hard to pick what to do.

GB: What are your favorite games?

AF: I’ve just become horribly addicted to a rugby game, where all you do is kick a ball through the posts. Did you ever play Paper Toss?

GB: Yeah.

AF: It’s like that, except way more interesting because it’s a rugby ball and rugby posts, and lots more variation in how you kick the ball. So, I downloaded that last week and I’ve been playing it ever since. But I like those types of casual games. Obviously I like Moonbase as well. Hahaha.

I’m constantly trying new games to see, you know, what kind of mechanics they’re using and how they’re using the different app store techniques and Facebook techniques.

GB: Well, where does Moonbase play into: the casual or hardcore market?

AF: It’s pretty much a hardcore game. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea. It tends to appeal to a certain type of gamer. We got very interesting combination of people: it’s like an 80-85% male gamer population, which is what you might expect from a game, but actually a lot of games are 99% male. So, we’ve still got 20% female gamers. Because it’s such a social game it requires lots of relationship building and alliance building, women actually do extremely well. Often you find you’re being attacked by some crazy guy going, Raahhh, attacking you with everything he’s got, and usually there’s a puller of strings in the background, and a number of times you find out it’s a woman. It’s quite frightening, hahahahaha.

So it’s a game that does appeal to men and women, but in different ways, and it’s a game that appeals to the youth in particular, but I’ve also found servers where there’s 25-35 year olds all in an alliance together and dominating because they’ve actually got more life skills and a better ability to do long-term planning and strategic thinking, alliance building, you know, people management and manipulation. It’s takes quite a lot of skill to win.

GB: Yeah, it definitely does. Well, unless there’s anything else you haven’t told me, I can’t think of what else to ask you. I’ve squeezed you for as much as I can.

AF: Cool, man.

Download Moonbase for iPhone, Android or play it live on Facebook.

Steven Norris: grumpy curmudgeon


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