Playrix Gardenscapes—Part 1
Senior Marketing Manager
In this first blog of a two part series, Maxim Kirilenko, Chief Business Development Officer at Playrix, chats with Samsung Developer's Senior Marketing Manager, Jeanne Hsu, about Playrix and Gardenscapes TM.
Jeanne Hsu (JH): Welcome Maxim. How did your professional journey lead you to Playrix?
Maxim Kirilenko (MK): Thank you. I've been in the gaming industry since 2007. I started off at the Korean company Gravity, working on PC games like Ragnarök Online and Requiem Online. I've come a long way in the industry since then—from Quality Assurance Manager to Executive Director at a game publisher in Russia. I also worked as Director of Business Development for an IT company doing Internet advertising for a while. For three years, I helped the company penetrate foreign markets and launch new services in Indonesia, Brazil, Poland, and Thailand, to name a few.
I was always fond of games and had played Playrix's Gardenscapes. While I was working in IT, I was recruited by Playrix. I realized I had wanted to return back to gaming, my passion. So in 2018, I joined Playrix as Head of Marketing Growth. I worked in business development in marketing originally until I combined it with business development in general. Now I lead the business development and M&A (Merger and Acquisition) teams.
JH: What's the history of Playrix?
MK: Our team has been developing games since 2004, but the founders of Playrix, Dmitry and Igor Bukhman, started making games even earlier, back when they were still in school. By 2010, the company had released several successful PC games. Around that time, they started developing social network games. The first Facebook game, Township, was released in 2012 and immediately made the top 50. It was also the first project to be released as a mobile game later on. The mobile version of Fishdom came out in 2015, which is when the company became the leading mobile game developer in Eastern Europe.
JH: I like your strategy. In 2004, your focus was PC games and then you switched to mobile in 2015.
MK: In 2016, Playrix released Gardenscapes, which was the first game in our famous Scapes series. The company was actively growing, and in 2018, we came to the conclusion that it was time to build new partnerships. So we started developing our M&A [Merger and Acquisition] strategy, and over the past four years, 13 studios from Armenia, Serbia, Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus have joined the Playrix group of companies. In 2020, Playrix placed in the top three for leading game publishers worldwide according to App Annie, and last year we climbed to second place. [App Annie has been renamed data.ai]
JH: That's amazing! What do you attribute to your success?
MK: It was not random. We originally started with PC games, then social and web versions. Next we switched to mobile. The switch to mobile really accelerated our rapid growth. Growing with the M&A strategy and adding talented people really helped create AAA titles which accounts for our rapid growth. We want to keep focusing on creating more innovative games and new genres.
JH: Where is Playrix located, and where do you live?
MK: Playrix employees can work remotely from anywhere or from one of our 17 offices located in Ireland, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Serbia, Kazakhstan, and Armenia. I live in Dublin, Ireland, Playrix's headquarters.
JH: How many employees work at Playrix?
MK: Playrix now employs more than 4,000 people, and that number continues to grow.
JH: How did Covid impact the team?
MK: Playrix has a hybrid approach that people can work from anywhere—the office, their home, the beach, anywhere in the world. Our department had 50% were working remotely in their home offices or in other countries. We wanted to maintain that culture. After Covid hit, we maintained the same approach.
In Dublin only 30% of the staff works in the office, others could be remote. They may decide they didn't want to commute during the winter when it's rainy season here. People could decide to work from home or other remote places and we didn't really have to make many changes to our work environment. We believe people can innovate in whatever space they want.
JH: How did your relationship with Samsung start?
MK: In 2018, we met and befriended the Samsung team at a local game dev conference, White Nights in St. Petersburg. We met the Samsung U.S. and Korea teams, which has resulted in a fruitful cooperation; five Playrix games, including Gardenscapes, were released in the Galaxy Store in December 2020. I'm in touch with a lot of Samsung teams from the U.S., Korea, and Europe.
JH: Playrix won the Best of Galaxy Store Award - Best Casual Game 2021 for Gardenscapes. What does it mean to win this award?
MK: We were surprised and thrilled to receive this award. It's the result of close collaboration and hard work from both the Samsung and Playrix teams. It's really a mutual award between Playrix and Samsung.
JH: In what ways have you promoted winning this award?
MK: We announced this across our social channels on Facebook and Instagram, even on Austin's page! Austin, the butler, has his own page on Instagram. He's very social with the players and actively posts about his life. He shared news how his favorite game (Gardenscapes) received this award from Samsung. Players were excited. It increased player loyalty too. Internally, we were all excited and congratulated each other. It was really good news for all of us!
We also displayed our Samsung badges and redesigned our website. We use our website to talk about our company, promote our awards, and recruit others. But we don't promote the award on mobile; we want our players to have the best experience possible, focused on the game. We have one unified loading screen no matter what the country or platform.
JH: What drives your team at Playrix?
MK: Our development team is focused on making the highest quality product that brings joy to millions of users around the world. We try to maintain players' interest in the product on a daily basis with additional content like themed events.
JH: How did Playrix come up with the game Gardenscapes?
MK: Originally Gardenscapes was a PC hidden object game—to beat levels, you had to open rooms, and search for items to help Austin the butler restore the dilapidated mansion and garden. While developing the mobile version, the visuals of the game changed, but the mechanics stayed the same. The user still had to open rooms and could even change the outfit of the game's main character, Austin the butler.
During the soft launch, the metrics were alright, but they weren't groundbreaking. Around 2014, at our annual company conference PlayrixCON, one of the teams suggested combining Мatch-3 mechanics with the Gardenscapes storyline during a creative contest. We decided to test the idea. The first game prototype was named Green Dream, and it was later soft-launched. The metrics were off the charts! In just six months, the hidden object mechanics were replaced with Match-3 levels. The mobile game was later released in its updated form, in July 2016.
With more players using their smartphones, we noticed hidden objects were more difficult to find in the condensed space vs. on a large PC display. We realized we could bring in more players by shifting from hidden objects to the Match-3 concept. This was a major turning point for us.
JH: How did you come up with the character Austin the butler?
MK: Initially, the technical assignment was rather vague: "A butler, colonial style, should appeal to our target audience." The first sketches of Austin were rather clichéd, so we started thinking about what would evoke warm feelings in players. We decided to draw inspiration from icons of the 60s and 70s, namely The Beatles, to resonate with our target audience's memories of their youth. So that's how Austin got his mustache and sideburns and started looking a bit like Ringo Starr. The suspenders, bow tie, and baldness added to his aristocratic image. But looks aren't the main reason why Austin is so popular. He's mostly beloved for his personality—he has his own opinions and desires, he makes mistakes just like everybody else, and he can get nostalgic or crack a joke.
JH: That's interesting Austin was inspired by The Beatles. That would appeal to many gamers. [Austin was created 10 years ago by the game design team.]
JH: What inspired the Scapes series?
MK: We wanted to create a game that would bring joy to millions of users around the world and distract them from the monotony of daily routines. It's our idea of a warm and cozy place, where you can relax by tending to the garden and renovating the surrounding area. And I think we achieved our goal. [Playrix has Gardenscapes, Homescapes, Farmscapes, and Wildscapes as part of the Scapes series.]
Game Ideas, Discoverability, and Reach
JH: How many games has Playrix published, and how many are in Galaxy Store?
JH: Where do you get game ideas?
MK: Our game producers are open to new ideas that appear in the market—we keep track of new games of various genres, not only casual ones, and we are always ready to experiment. This applies both to game events and mechanics. Our strategy is to stay abreast of what's going on in the market, explore the ever-changing preferences of users, and not be afraid to try new things.
We have a fairly large game development team, which includes game designers and producers—these are creative people who not only draw ideas from their own imagination, but also closely follow trends and audience interests, and are not afraid to experiment. They could have mini-brainstorms, major brainstorms, thinking about new games. Our goal is not to produce as many games as possible, but rather we are focused to create AAA games, games with high quality. That's why we don't focus on brainstorms as much.
We also see Gardenscapes as not just a Match-3 game with decorations and a story line, but as an entertainment platform. For example, within Gardenscapes, players can also play other genres as a mini-event; they can play mini-games like mini puzzles, collapse mechanics, merge mechanics. It's an entertainment platform.
JH: So people could be online all day! Those mini-games increase even more engagement.
MK: Yes, that's true! People could spend a whole day gaming. About a year ago during the pandemic, we received a lot of thanks from our customers. They appreciated our games. They didn't experience mental problems or depression being in stuck at home and started to get involved with Austin's story and his family. It was a mini journey in a fantasy world. They were able to derive a lot of positive energy to overcome the tough lockdowns in the real world.
JH: That's a great message, a very positive experience. The growth of Gardenscapes and the other Scapes games must have exploded.
MK: Yes, since people were in lockdown, they were looking for other things to do. We had "free to play" games. New customers started to play and joined our established core audience. With the Samsung team, we were able to offer Gardenscapes, Homescapes, and other games at an opportune time via Galaxy Store. We feel we've brought a very positive input to the whole gaming world.
JH: That's excellent. What was your ranking before and during the pandemic?
MK: We were in the top 5 before and now we are in the top 2 or 3! One day we hope to be #1. It's definitely going in the right direction.
JH: What is the workflow when designing, developing, and publishing a game?
MK: Our work processes don't differ significantly from those adopted by other companies. When our producers come up with an idea, they pass it on to the development team. They then implement a prototype of the game, which we first test internally to see how interested we are in developing it further.
We do "soft launches" to a small external audience to test the games. We also use different marketing tools during internal testing to assess how the user will play the game. If it successfully passes this stage, we create a plan to support and develop the game—we plan new levels, in-game events that can be timed to national and international holidays, and launch the game.
JH: What's your criteria for success? How do you determine if a new game will become a AAA game?
MK: We measure the basic metrics of the game. We look at retention metrics: at day 1, 7, 14, 30, etc. Based on these metrics, we can predict how many will continue playing the game after 30 days after download. We also look at pay metrics: the number of players who will pay in the game, the number of payments, login frequency, etc. Plus, we look at the metrics from our established games and compare them to predict the next AAA game.
JH: How long does it take to go from concept to published?
MK: At Playrix, we want to develop very high-quality games that will bring players joy for a long time, which is why we don't set any internal deadlines for development. It all depends on the specific game—we spend as much time on each title as we need to make it a AAA hit.
JH: With all the competition for games, what has been your strategy for discoverability (for a new game) within Galaxy Store?
MK: We use in-store support from the Samsung team to show a new game will be visible and promote it at the maximum level in Galaxy Store. We also use promotional activity outside the store using our resources, such as social channels like Instagram and some marketing campaigns.
JH: How many downloads/users has Gardenscapes had?
MK: Today, Gardenscapes is one of our top hit games—more than 50,000 people play it every day on Samsung devices, and the number of MAU [monthly active users] has reached 250,000 users.
JH: On your website, it says Playrix is the 2nd successful mobile game developer in terms of revenue. What has been your strategy for generating revenue?
MK: When the game you're working on is fun to play, its financial success depends on two factors—operation and marketing. The most amazing game with the perfect narrative won't succeed without good marketing. However, even if you invest a bunch of resources into marketing a bad game, it will still fail, which is why we pay close attention to both aspects. We're constantly looking for new creative concepts and testing marketing hypotheses, and the metrics tell us that our approach works. We also frequently introduce successful mini-game mechanics into our games that were previously only used in advertising.
Find out more about Playrix in part 2 of this series.
Additional resources on the Samsung Developers site
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