Space Ape is ending development on Boom Beach: Frontlines – here’s why

 

Boom Beach: Frontlines is shutting down after a year in soft launch.

The arena battler is set in Supercell’s Boom Beach universe, and had been in development for four years. Frontlines hit 1.3m downloads over the summer as part of an expanded soft launch, but ultimately didn’t make the grade. Why?

Space Ape boss Simon Hade told us in a frank email Q&A that Space Ape was “not seeing the long-term engagement to justify a global launch.”

Other games in development at Space Ape were “showing a lot more promise”, he told us, and “with finite resources at our disposal, the team made the call to stop work on Frontlines and help the rest of the studio”.

Space Ape’s other two forthcoming games, a music title and a casual puzzler, “are extremely high potential and are much simpler to iterate, and we have the bandwidth to launch two games but not three right now,” he added.

At its peak, there were 30 people working on Boom Beach: Frontlines at Space Ape. It is now down to under ten, and those staff will move onto other projects at the studio.

Supercell IP collab Frontlines is riding into the sunset after over 1.3m installs.

In-game purchases are being switched off today, and tomorrow, November 29th, the game will be de-listed from Google Play, App Store and TestFlight. From December 1st, players will be able to claim the Premium Beach Pass for free, which will include some unreleased troops, and then on January 16th 2023 the game’s servers will be turned off.

Players can transfer their gem purchases to spend in other live Space Ape games by contacting support through the game’s menus.

Ahead of the announcement we took the chance to ask Hade a few more questions about Frontlines over email; read on for his full and frank thoughts on ending development of the game, what the Frontlines team have learned from the experience and some bonus insights into the origins of the title.

Talk me through the reasons for the game’s closure, and how you came to the decision.

Despite two big soft launches in a year we were not seeing the long-term engagement to justify a global launch. Meanwhile, other games on our slate were showing a lot more promise and so, with finite resources at our disposal, the team made the call to stop work on Frontlines and help the rest of the studio.

We have had two soft launches of Frontlines. The first was in Canada around a year ago when we gauged the community’s appetite for the game with a very thin vertical slice of gameplay. From that, we learned that it resonated really well with the core Supercell community.

This was an important first step since it was not obvious that we would be able to match the expectations of the art and UX of some of the most beloved and performant games in the world. So it was great to see the community respond so favourably. Players felt that this brought something new to the brand and met the incredibly high standards set by our friends at Supercell.

We built a passionate following on Discord and early stats were strong – by both Space Ape and Supercell standards. However, it soon became clear that we needed to add more depth to the game to keep people engaged over the longer term. Fans of this genre expected a lot more complexity and depth of content than existed in the game at that time.

So we spent most of this year adding features and content to address this. We introduced alliance gameplay and ran live ops throughout the year and did a big launch in the summer adding 20 countries and working with European content creators to make a huge splash with millions of people pre-registering to play the game on the day it came out.

The metric that we pay the closest attention to is our retention decay. For example, the percentage of people who play for one day, and then play after 7, or of the people who play for 7 days, how many are still playing 30 days later. We observed after the second soft launch that, whilst the game’s metrics stacked up well against our other games, we were still not seeing the long-term engagement necessary for a global launch.

We had many theories for why this might be the case. Liquidity is super important for a game like this as playing against bots is not much fun, and we were not pushing the game as hard as we would for a global launch so we wondered if that meant older players were not getting matched with other real players enough.

Some of the design decisions we had made to level the playing field and ensure that a spender couldn’t dominate a non-spender team meant there wasn’t this tight loop you find in mid-core games where you can work towards unlocking a powerful weapon or vehicle and then experience it immediately.

There were lots of avenues to explore but iterating on long-term retention metas is slow at the best of times. You need to make a change, then you need to wait for enough new players to find their way through to engage with it and observe if they engage with it the way you intended. Frontlines is a 9v9 game with high sensitivity to network latency. This meant that to test any long-term engagement feature we needed to acquire hundreds of thousands of new users on each server, just to understand if the change we had made worked.

You also need to manage the expectations of the existing community, for example when a change works to the benefit of one group of players over another, which meant we had to be very careful planning changes.

In an ideal world, the team would have continued to iterate. The team was clearly onto something since fans of the brand were showing up in the millions and engaging. However, even with all the resources of the most successful mobile game company in the world, chasing long-term retention features was prohibitively expensive, and since we were innovating in so many areas – there has not been a successful 9v9 team game before to reference – there was no guarantee of success.

Add to that there was a lot of pressure to support a couple of other games that we’re taking to soft launch early next year. One of those games is in the music category so benefits from a lot of learnings from our hit music game Beatstar. The other is in the casual puzzle space which doesn’t have the liquidity challenges of Frontlines. Both of those new games are extremely high potential and are much simpler to iterate, and we have the bandwidth to launch two games but not three right now.

Supercell upped its stake in Space Ape to 75% with a new $37m investment in July of this year.

What kind of conversations did you have with Supercell about ending development on the game, given it’s their IP? Whose decision was it, ultimately?

The decision was Space Ape’s. We operate a similar model to the one Supercell uses where all important decisions like this are made at the team level.

Of course, we’ve had lots of discussions with the Boom team. They’ve been involved in the soft launches and advising every step of the way so they certainly had opinions but the team had full autonomy and trust to make the call.

The relationship was not dissimilar to the relationship we have with Hasbro for our Transformers Game. In both cases, the team has a self-imposed standard that is higher than any bar the brand owners would impose on us. We wanted to not just make a game that Supercell would be proud of – we wanted to make a game that Supercell players felt brought something fresh and interesting to the brand. This built a lot of trust and gave the team a lot of leeway.

How do you as a studio handle this kind of news on a staff morale level? Does the team get some time off or space to regroup before moving on?

Every time we kill a game it is slightly different. Sometimes – rarely – games are killed because the stats are bad, or the team is not gelling and it’s obvious that they shouldn’t continue. When it’s obvious things aren’t working then killing a game is easy, but unfortunately, that is seldom the case. Inevitably there is some reason to believe we’re just one update away from everything coming together. In the case of Frontlines, the game had great marketing potential. We were able to acquire millions of players for new country launches by working with content creators.

The game also had decent early retention and great monetisation, so there is good reason to believe people wanted a game like this. So it was not obvious that just considering the state of the game and the team, it should have been killed. This is where transparency comes in.

Frontlines had “decent early retention and great monetisation”, says Hade, but the huge expense of launching, growing and maintaining the game loomed large.

Unlike many places we’ve worked, everyone at Space Ape has full transparency of each game’s performance, the company financials, funding arrangements, marketing and hiring budgets, etc. We work hard to keep that transparency through the good times and the bad so that when a team is in this kind of situation they can see the full picture.

In this case, it was clear we would struggle to continue to iterate on these long-term features and meet the financial goals of the business.

We’ve been through similar phases before. There was a moment in 2019 when we were working on over 10 projects. As a company of 120 people, that’s stretched pretty thin. We all went to a company offsite and had long discussions about what was holding us back from achieving our mission, and there was unanimous agreement that we were setting all these teams up to fail by spreading ourselves too thin, so we should halve the number of things we work on.

Unfortunately at that stage, there was strong disagreement about which projects should continue, because every project was so understaffed, none were able to execute to the point where they could validate or invalidate their thesis. So in that case we had to make decisions based more on resourcing than merits of the projects, which was tough, but out of that Beatstar emerged and went on to be our most successful game ever and gave us our biggest year ever (we’ve grossed over $92m in 12 months). But most of the time teams have all the context needed to see what is best for the company so that they can make the right decisions.

Beatstar has grossed over $92m in 12 months, and was the end result of years of iteration.

We set a rule a long time ago that killing a project should never mean laying off people. Once people start worrying about job security they are not able to make objective decisions about their game. Coming to terms with the fact a game you’ve poured years of your life into isn’t going to work is stressful enough, without the added fear of whether you’ll have a job on the other side.

We also find that our best work comes from teams who have failed and come out the other side wiser. That was the case with Beatstar – the team had spent three years slogging away at a rhythm RPG, but killed it and reconstituted around the skill arcade game we have today. If they’d disbanded after failing in their first attempt then we wouldn’t have Beatstar and we’d be in a very different place. Sometimes people will take time off between projects, or do secondments onto other teams to work on something different, but eventually, it is good for teams who have failed to re-form and we try to support that whenever possible.

What do you as a team and company feel you have learned through making this game?

We’ve learned so much from Frontlines and our previous arena game attempts.

From a product standpoint, we’re now very much aware of the importance of testability. All of our previous games were social but in the asynchronous sense which is relatively straightforward to test. Once you have real-time PvP, let alone 9v9, it gets exponentially harder to test features because of the liquidity requirements.

We’ve also learned to front-load a lot more audience research into the early stages of a project. In the past when the mobile games platform was expanding so quickly it was easy to find an audience by just copying something that was working elsewhere. These days finding product market fit is more of a science and super important to front load so you don’t learn things about your audience late into development when it is hard to pivot.

Here’s an example of Frontlines’ in-game survey which revealed that Space Ape’s assumptions about its target audience were off.

For example, we started Frontlines with the assumption that we would be introducing the genre to an older audience. We jokingly called it “Dad’s first dual stick” referencing the fact that the genre typically skews quite young, but we felt that people whose defining gaming experience was Boom Beach or Clash 10 years ago should enjoy these games but were just not being served games that spoke to them.

So we pitched all our features to this older audience only to find that it was Gen Z’ers who were our primary audience for the game. Of course, by then we had committed to an art style and a play pattern that wasn’t catering to them and that was an expensive mistake.

There were a lot of parallels with Beatstar. There we had a whole strategy built around rap and hip-hop artists because we felt that the game should speak to young gamers. But what we found in the soft launch is that it was Blink182 and Avicii songs that were performing best. Turns out we were making the game for their moms.

One of the tactics we now have in all our games is a survey in the FTUE that seeks to obtain demographic data and learn about the players’ expectations coming in. Now that it is hard to get that data from UA sources post ATT, this is a great way to learn about your audience and I highly recommend it.

What will that team move onto now? Are you looking to build upon what you learned for another realtime PVP game?

Some of the team are having some time off to recharge. Many have moved on to other projects either temporarily to help them get to the launch milestones next year, or permanently, and a few are incubating new game ideas and hopefully we will get the gang back together in the future.

I don’t know whether we will attempt another real-time PvP game but we are definitely very interested in the midcore space. That is our heritage with games like Samurai Siege, Rival Kingdoms, and Transformers Earth Wars (which has grossed over $100m) and the core of this team was involved in making Transformers so I’d expect that if not PVP there is certainly a midcore game in our future.

Talk me through the history of the game and how you got to play with Supercell’s IP – am I right in thinking there was a crossover with what was once Rumble League?

Rumble League was our first attempt at the arena genre. It was a 5v5 team Brawler, more of a skill game with an Overwatch / Team Fortress 2 vibe. Fun fact: the original game name for Rumble League was Brawl Stars! We found out about Supercell’s game before we joined them when we went to register the Twitter handle and found it was owned and followed only by Supercellians. So clearly we had the right idea but failed in the execution. In that case, we invested heavily in South East Asian esports tournaments and a lot of local event marketing, but it just didn’t come together. Meanwhile, Brawl Stars came out and defined the genre, and players’ expectations changed with the rising popularity of shooters and battle royale.

Towards the end of that project, one developer and a designer started prototyping a slower-paced style of arena game inspired by games like Foxhole and early Battlefield. The gameplay was slower and more strategic, as opposed to the skill shots of Brawl Stars and Rumble League. The map was huge and created this sense of a large-scale battle. The use of vehicles brought something new to the genre and it felt really good to get in a tank and be OP for a short period.

The game was interesting but it looked really drab. It was a World War 2 setting using a lot of Unity store assets, so our artists came up with a pitch to make it more fun and cartoony. They built out a style that was inspired by the likes of Pixar and Supercell including Boom Beach. As it became obvious the game wanted to look more and more like Boom Beach eventually someone had the idea that we should just pitch Supercell to make a sequel.

The Space Ape team spoke to the Boom Beach team. They had long discussions about the time period and style and brand issues and it was instantly clear that we shared similar visions at least on the brand side. So that helped us gain confidence for us to be allowed to run with it. Later we would develop troops in Frontlines that the Supercell team would add to the original, and cross-promote the game when we turned on new countries. It was all very organic.