Mind Candy has an interesting problem – a problem most developers would love to face. In 2007 the company launched Moshi Monsters, a bright, beautifully designed online multiplayer game, filled with weird characters and silly puns.
It was clever, it was stylish and by 2013 it had 80 million subscribers as well as a vast merchandising empire, including a music CD and a movie. The problem is, how do you follow that?
On Thursday, the Mind Candy blog announced a new project, World of Warriors, an "epic battle strategy game" featuring the fiercest soldier clans from throughout history. Although it retains the slick cartoon styling of Moshi, it looks to be something a little bit different, something not quite as child-focused.
"We had all sorts of ideas bubbling away," says Mindy Candy founder and CEO, Michael Acton Smith. "We've been thinking about new characters, new stories... but we've been very selective about what to go forward with. Rather than doing lots and lots of new things, we think it's smarter to focus on a very small number, but make each one as epic as possible."
Ideas from everywhere, from everyone
As with a lot of smaller, more experimental studios, Mind Candy organises regular in-house pitching sessions, where staff can put game ideas to the rest of the team. Double Fine has its amnesia fortnights, Bossa Studios up the road from Mind Candy in Shoreditch, has weekly game jams. Mind Candy has mini-festivals.
"We held an event about a year and a half ago that we called CandyStock," explains Smith. "The whole company went away on a retreat for a couple of days. We had a party and various speeches, and as part of that, we encouraged people to get up on stage and present any new ideas they had. Our art director Johnny Taylor had an idea based around his son's obession with warriors from throughout history – he thought it could be turned into a game. Everyone was really excited by the concept, so we put a team to work on it at our Brighton Studio."
In typical games industry fashion, he's not saying much about the new project just yet. But apparently it's not a kid's game, it's a family game – "there's a lot of depth and complexity to it. It's nearer mid-core than casual." But is it nervewracking entertaing a smartphone sector that is hugely dominated by a handful of extremely successful titles? "It's tough out there - I'll be honest," says Smith.
"The market has evolved a lot over the last two years - there are a small number of players who are doing extraordinarily well, but a very long tail of developers who are finding it tough. This is particularly true in the kids' space. There is so much competition and so much great content that kids can play for free, so monetising content is extremely difficult. And kids have access to Clash of Clans, Candy crush Saga... those games are highly polished they have large development teams - so kids are less likely to be excited by content that's made just for them. The economics are tough and I'll be honest, we are finding it very challenging."
Partly then, World of Warriors is being written for a wider audience because, seven years after the launch of Moshi Monsters, the children's market is a lot more crowded and complex. Moshi was a subscription game and that worked at the time, but now mobile has introduced the microtransaction model and that's a tricky area – every other week there's a newspaper story of some parent complaining about a £1000 phone bill after letting their child play a freemium title. No one wants to be on the wrong end of one of those stories.
"Developers have to be responsible," says Smith. "We're building a business for the long term, so we don't want to make short term profits that damage our reputation in the eyes of parents. It's a tough one. Which is why creating games that appeal to a broad audience is the way to go. Making games for kids is such a challenge - it's really hard to justify the costs involved.
But also, there are opporunities in the way the mobile games space is maturing. There will always be casual hits like Candy Crush Saga, but the success of more demanding simulations like Clash of Clans has hinted that "mid-core" titles – ones that push toward the complexity of mainstream console games – are a major growth area.
"More and more people are becoming gamers - they're carrying these amazing games machines in their pockets," says Smith. "The on ramp is usually light casual games but once people get used to that and realise they enjoy gaming, they look for meatier more complex challenges and that's exciting, it's wonderful for the whole industry. And one thing we learned from Moshi is that kids are really sophisticated - they don't want to play simple games, they love games like Clash of Clans, they love the complexity. It's a mistake to dumb down."
As for Moshi Monsters, subscriptions are falling since last year's high. Some feel there's been an over-saturation of brand extensions, but this sort of decline is also natural for a game that's been around for so long. Can the core success be maintained? "It's a challenge," concedes Smith. "The kids space is littered with fads that burned brightly then faded away. We want Moshi to be an evergreen and...it's easier said than done. It may not be as big as it was during its peak, but we still believe it can be a success over many years. It's our responsibility to keep introducing new stories, new characters, moving on to new platforms when they present themselves."
Cloning the Moshi Monsters
The question plenty of developers will want to know is, how do you replicate the success of Moshi Monsters. What did Mind Candy do right? "I wish it was an exact science," laughs Smith." It's more about art, it's a gut feeling, and there's a whole combination of factors and people involved.
"We never think of our projects as just games - the games are the starting point; they're the heartbeat of the franchises that we create, so we have to envisage something that can be built into an amazing game, but also the characters and the story have to be strong enough to expand offline into books, cartoons, toys and everything else. Moshi has been a great blueprint for that, but it's not straightforward. Very few ideas have got to the stage where we felt we could devote such a large team and financial resources to the development."
The mobile gaming market is not Mind Candy's only target. It has other projects on the go, and there's a particular area that Smith is interested in – something he feels is being under-explored at the moment.
"We're looking very closely at the trend of children becoming more interested in social media," he says. "They are signing up to Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook in their droves, long before they're supposed to – legally you have to be 13 to sign up. This begs the question, why isn't there a safe, creative community for these 7-12 year-olds?
"That's a big opportunity that we're spending a lot of time thinking about at Mind Candy."
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