CSR Racing was up there among Candy Crush Saga, Hay Day, Clash of Clans and The Simpsons: Tapped Out in the free to play explosion of 2012.
There was one slight problem, though. As SVP and head of racing at Zynga-owned NaturalMotion Julian Widdows explains, the first CSR game was not what you’d call a live service game. Far from it, in fact.
“If we roll back to 2014 and 2015 when we first started building CSR 2, we were in this really interesting position where the first game had been wildly successful, but also it could be completed in 30 days,” says Widdows. “It was a game that you could play and finish.”
With the sequel, which launched in 2016, Widdows said the goal was to create a digital hobby that could “connect people who shared a passion for cars and car culture”. CSR 2 was built for constant updates; not just on the content side, but also from a technology point of view.
“If you went back seven years to look at the game then, it really is a very different graphical experience today,” says Widdows. “But because we’ve just kept incrementally improving it over that period we have a game today that looks beautiful.”
“Nearly every day there’s some type of event running in the game that’s bespoke, that’s themed around either a manufacturer or a specific car type,” Widdows says of today’s live ops-led CSR 2. “We’re always trying to think of innovative and interesting ways of working with our manufacturing partners.”
Now well past its seventh year on the app stores, Appmagic data suggests that CSR 2 has earned NaturalMotion well in excess of $500m in IAP during that time, and generated around 140m downloads.
But of course, plenty has changed since 2016. The marketing landscape, in particular, has caused many mobile studios to handbrake turn into new genres and onto new platforms. But Widdows says CSR’s hobbyist nature means it has been less exposed to platform policy changes.
“We’ve always had a closer relationship with brand marketing than maybe other mobile free to play companies out there because it’s part of our DNA – you want to see the real cars and experience collecting them in-game. It’s that fantasy that we’re immersed in.”
“So I think our relationship with [UA] hasn’t really changed that much actually,” Widdows continues. “That’s only one half of the mix,” he says, noting that CSR’s social media channels have been active right from the beginning.
Seven years in, CSR 2’s rhythm of live ops and community moments is established, but the core game continues to evolve too. NaturalMotion is increasingly thinking about how to make player progress more bespoke, for example.
“I think the future personalisation of experiences is a critical part of how we deliver content to consumers,” says Widdows. “The reality now is that we try not to do that too soon. We want all players to get into the game and enjoy the core experience.”
“Certainly as we look to the future, there will be more personalisation and making sure that we’re aware of what type of player they are and what they’re going to enjoy. That it’s not a universal one-size-fits-all experience for players is really important, so there’s more work to do there.”
Another twist and turn in CSRs history is its (latest) new owner Take-Two. The CSR brand has now been acquired by NaturalMotion, then Zynga, and now Take-Two, but seems remarkably unchanged by any of that.
“Candidly, not a lot has changed for us,” affirms Widdows. “We’re encouraged to be ambitious with the way we run our business, to focus on the player experience and to focus on product quality.”
When the Take-Two/Zynga takeover happened there was some loose talk of a kind of cross-pollination of mobile and triple-A expertise – but it’s still early days on that front, it seems.
“We have really good open conversations with studio leaders and companies like Nordeus and Small Giant,” says Widdows. “And we try to be really open and talk with those leaders and share best practices. I think over the weeks and years where it’s appropriate conversations between studio leaders at the traditional premium triple-A studios will happen.”
Widdows says Bioshock creative lead Ken Levine has been speaking to the CSR team, for example, not about any specific project but more generally about the craft of game development.
“It’s a real privilege having him talk to our mobile developers and having those conversations about the craft of entertaining people,” says Widdows. “It’s something that I really believe will continue to happen – in both directions, actually.”
Now housed within Take-Two, CSR 2’s seven year road trip is running at a steady clip – Appmagic figures suggest NaturalMotion earns around $3.5m per month from the game on average, based on the last few months of data.
But will there ever be a CSR 3? We’ll leave Widdows to carefully negotiate that final question:
“The focus and the whole focus at the moment is CSR 2 when it comes to our players, and we’ll continue to service that game and will do for many, many years to come,” he adds.
“It’s still a really vibrant business and game experience. Just look at the the speed with which we deliver new events, new content, new features to market – we’ve never changed our level of commitment.”
“And of course we have eyes on the future as well and what else we might do within the racing category but unfortunately, no news at the moment about that. I don’t think we’ve maxed out what’s possible with that fantasy of collecting and playing with the most beautiful cars in the world with CSR 2.”