Podcast: The Story of NimbleBit: Games that last decades

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This episode is hosted by our Founder, Ivan Trancik, and joining him as a guest is Ian Marsh, Co-Owner of NimbleBit. This really is a fascinating story as there aren’t many games that have stood the test of time and survived for over a decade. In fact, NimbleBit hasn’t just survived, it has thrived in recent years and one of their games has broken a 10-year-old monthly revenue record just last month! So, if you’re looking for advice or just want to hear this insightful yet interesting story, we recommend you give this one a listen!

Podcast Timestamps:

00 – Intro

1.28 – The history of NimbleBit

7.02 – Going against the grain and choosing the free-to-play model over a decade ago

8.58 – Where did they get the inspiration to choose a free-to-play model

9.50 – Choosing where to allocate resources with such a small team

16.23 – What options were NimbleBit considering in terms of growing /selling / partnering

27.48 – How you can leverage your community, especially when getting less player data

32.32 – Advice and learnings for up-and-coming new games or titles which are established / turning into a legacy game


We hope you enjoyed this first episode of the Leading Edge podcast. Remember to subscribe so you don’t miss an episode and from all of the team here at SuperScale, thank you for listening to the Leading Edge podcast.

Podcast transcript

Ivan:

Hi Ian

Ian:

Hello

Ivan:

Welcome to the first edition of our podcast. I am really looking forward to this episode. It was in my head for quite some time. So glad that we made the time to make it happen. The title of the story is How to Design, develop and then maintain Games That Will be Played for Decades. And I think it’ll be definitely super interesting for the audience to listen not only about the past that you’ve talk about <laugh> already couple times already, but how does NimbleBit evolved? What was the point where kinda you decided what to do with the still well-performing games but looking to actually develop a new one and think about how to make the community and the game still happy and also the recent successes and how the future looks like for name of it and how will it affect? Yeah, so

Ian:

Yeah, I’ll try to keep the history brief since it’s so long. We have definitely one decade under our belt helping us make it to decades. Another few years shouldn’t be that hard. So we started on the app store almost at the very beginning. I don’t think the app I wrote was on the first wave of apps approved for the app store, but I think I got in there within a couple months of it being open to all developers. But it really started with me making a really silly little puzzle game on the iPhone and put it up there just for the heck of it. I didn’t really even know anyone that had an iPhone at that point I don’t think. But after putting it up there, it ended up getting a million downloads or something like that within a few weeks and it blew my mind.

I’d never had anything get that much exposure before I was working a day job at the time. And so I quickly put up a plus version as they used to be called of the same puzzle app for 99 cents and it started making more than my day job almost right away. So that’s when I put in my two weeks, even though it was a job I had just gotten <laugh> <laugh>. So it was kinda weird timing. No one there really thought I was thinking clearly until I showed them how much money this app was making. So after that I made a few apps under my own name and then about a year or so later I would say joined up with my twin brother David to really start developing apps under the name Nimble Bit and that’s when things really took off. What was our first game? I think Pocket Frogs was our first game that was really a substantial game and not just a little side project.

And luckily all our apps got featured by Apple. We were very lucky and we were some of the first developers to really embrace free to play and it was just the right place, right time story of a lot of early app store developers. But after that we made a conscious decision not to grow too much. We’ve never been more than four people. And so really things just cruised along for quite a number of years at a pretty good clip. Our high point was probably when we got iPhone app of the year for Tiny Tower in 2011.

Ivan:

So nice. And again, it’s an obviously amazing history. It’s good to be at the right time at the right place. I remember still when Ester launched I was studying and <laugh> my friend came to me with this article about the farting app made 1 million in the first 24 hours and

Ian:

Kinda outrages or the beer-drinking app <laugh>,

Ivan:

The beer drinking, the soda drinking, it’s all the crazy stuff making just millions and <laugh> as I remember my friend who is still in close contact to this day it’s like this righteous anger. How come we’re studying computer science? We obviously can program better than these guys. And you know, <laugh> could see that the apps could be programmed better for sure. We deserve also a bunch of millions in our pockets, but even though we liked obviously an iPhone or <laugh> actually any legal means back then to earn money from Thes cause it wasn’t really supported Central we still managed to actually register a completely made up company in Austria, which is the closest country which <laugh> could receive payment. So you could develop out of, but you couldn’t really receive money. But yeah, the first experience just tried to get there, whatever like a first tutorial you download it, I put 99 cents, didn’t expect anything and actually it bought us our first iPhone out of the tutorial.

So I think you were definitely a couple of zeros more advanced by the day. But yeah, at the time it also earned more than my day job uploading tutorials to <laugh> apps or so I think you were already basically a more experienced developer if bunch of games. What I was thinking about considering when you chose, and I think this is a big thing that all of the apps at the beginning were just premium or whatever, 90 x percent either completely free or premium for the 99 cents give or take. So the decision go free to play. I think it is one of the I guess in the hints, one of the best guess business decisions you could have made at the point and was in revolutionary one of first, if not the first that do it with games iPhone. But I was wondering if you thought about the whole life cycle going forward. So we’ve seen how the premium apps including the, because anger birds just blew up and they went down and you need to release a new one, new one, new one. But if you thought about the kinda durability or have some expectations how the life cycle for free-to-play could go differently compared to the premium apps that you before, if you already have some, I know in mind actually for sure will maintain it for, I don’t know, year two, three at least, or it was also a bit of a learning curve for you.

Ian:

If you could share a bit about that. Definitely at the time I don’t think we were considering that much in our decision. We had always just been the ones to try new things because we didn’t have much to lose. We had no overhead. It was me and David in a crappy office so I before Free to play was even a thing. We would do this thing a lot where we had paid apps, they were all 99 cents or two bucks and we would put the app, change the app to free for a weekend every couple weeks and everyone thought we were crazy because why would you just be giving away your premium app for free? But we got so much word of mouth and so many downloads from this free periods that more than made up for the lost sales over the next few weeks. So I think that gave us our first taste of what the power of free could be I suppose. And so once the free-to-play option was available on the app store that’s when we designed Pocket Frog specifically to be a free-to-play game from the beginning. And I don’t think we were considering that free-to-play games potentially had much longer lifespans and would need more support and updates. That’s something that we learned <laugh> ourselves later years later when people were still playing the games.

Ivan:

No, so I think this is one that’s get really interesting because I guess also from your side of the way how you experimented actually the free weekends did you get by inspired by, I dunno, the steam free weekends

Ian:

What was huge? Yeah, what was huge back then was a free app a day. Do you remember that?

Ivan:

Yes, yes. There was this massive app that you can get featured. Yeah, absolutely. We did that as well. That’s true. But I think they got banned after sometimes I guess by probably after <laugh>.

Ian:

Yeah

Ivan:

No, but this is interesting. So considering, you know, were always kinda a pushing, trying and you think you didn’t really want to scale the company too much so was, and obviously you get a lot of support from platforms from the get go as the games were where featured lot, you get a lot of downloads during these times when it comes to this point that hey actually you still have a very healthy game very healthy community drawing loads of traffic, but at the same time you’d like to develop new experience, something new. I know new games, new apps, maybe even new platforms. So when did you started, how long it took that you kind started to think about, hey I need to really choose where I put resource in and I could be maybe living something on a table consciously, but still what was the motivation was the challenges or what was the moment

Ian:

If you could? It took a surprisingly long amount of time to get to the point where the ongoing support became, I’d say overwhelming <affirmative> with pocket frogs. Just supporting one or two free-to-play games seemed to be manageable and we still had time to play with new ideas and develop new titles. I would say things kind of got to be unmanageable once we had probably our four current free-to-play titles of Pocket Frogs, Tiny Tower Pocket Trains of Pocket planes. That was a point where seemed like all we were doing is working on updates for one particular game at any time. And it wasn’t even exciting updates, usually exciting new features, it was just fixing whatever the latest version of iOS or Android broke through all the titles every year and <laugh> trying to get in bug fixes and small feature requests from the players.

So about the time, David was thinking about leaving it was already overwhelming. So once he left the company and I was literally spending all day for almost a year straight just updating our existing games, that’s when I started to realize that it’s not how I wanted to spend the rest of my development career. I did enjoy working on new things and coming up with new things. So that’s when I started to think either I have to let these things kind of die on the vine or I need to find an alternative. And luckily that’s when Lego, who we were working with at the time introduced us to you guys.

Ivan:

So this is getting really interesting. So what was that? So if you could just put in the timeline. So from actually the launching, so there’s a prayer history almost with the premium titles of the apps so on then you have this free to play moments launching bunch of your titles of all of get all the features, attention and then what was so year wise. So what was the point? It was like five years into the life cycle when it started being really manageable. Five, six

Ian:

And then Yeah, so I mean Pocket Frogs was 2010 and then we kept on adding a new game. Tiny Tower was 2011, pocket Trains was I think 2012 or 13 and then Pocket Planes was 2014. So it took a couple years of having that full portfolio going and growing till things finally started breaking down to manage them all around 2018 is when it probably really got overwhelming. So we managed for a long time but took David leaving I guess to make me think about how I wanted to be spending my days.

Ivan:

So actually we were also gonna right place right time because around that time we actually started working with Lego. You started working with Lego so I guess it was a happy go coincidence and maybe if you would maybe looking back, so okay, one thing is, as you said, not really creative but more tedious kind of work. Mostly technical updates and whatnot. I guess the some technical debt you didn’t design and program the games so they would be <laugh> managed ticket, take it later, but, but between the technical and let’s say also kind of a motivation problem, maybe getting a bit burned out by the content is all contributed to okay, I need to find solution one or another so you can I guess get more satisfaction out of the work and get new stuff. So after eight years of this, actually it’s actually a bit longer than I anticipated, honestly. We’ve seen a couple of developers,

Ian:

<laugh> during those eight years it was just a repeated cycle of us launching a new game, it not doing that well and pretty much failing and then us going back to the catalog doing some updates on the portfolio, get distracted by a new idea, develop that it doesn’t do as well as the old game. So it was just a lot of back and forth. And then towards the end of that eight year period, we had come to the realization that our safest bet was really this catalog of games that have survived the test of time and that’s where the majority of the value of the company was. So that’s really where we should be focusing all our effort if possible. Yeah, that made me think, well geez I are we never gonna create anything new again which kinda freaked me out and made me try to think of possible alternatives to that fate.

Ivan:

So what was essentially the option that you were considering and pros and cons of between growing the team to have some kind of a live ops maintenance capabilities in-house versus selling the portfolio or setting up with some kind of a publisher versus some kind a long term partner such as us. What do you think where the <affirmative> a major points when you are waiting pros and cons, why not sell? Why grow the team?

Ian:

Yeah, so I mean we definitely had a handful of options I think that we could have pursued the one that maybe most business owners would’ve taken was to grow the team because we had the resources to do that. But if you look at our history and see that we’d never been more than four people over 13 years, you’d probably guess that I don’t enjoy managing people really <laugh>. Both our employees are longtime friends of ours, so there’s not a lot of management requirements there. So that was pretty much off the table from the beginning because I didn’t wanna spend my energy managing the company. I’d rather be managing products and developing new things. So the other option would’ve been to sell the entire company, but I definitely wasn’t ready to do that. I love everything that we’ve dealt over the past 12 years and I still think there’s more to come from Nimble bits. So it seemed a little premature to sell off the company and retire or start something new. So the other option would be to sell the apps off individually, but I felt like that was pretty much selling the company because that is where all the value of Nimble it was in those apps and they’re kinda tightly connected with our brand and have a lively and active user base that might not survive the transition.

So I was kind of out of ideas until we started talking to you guys and well we had initially worked with Super Scale after being introduced to you by Lego on just picking up some of the tasks that I wasn’t Excel at or didn’t wanna do. So it was a lot of the ad optimization ad management stuff and that went so well and took so much off of my plate that that’s when we started looking at the possibility of managing entirely the games in our portfolio. And it took a while to figure out what exactly that was gonna mean and what we wanted it to mean and what would work the best for everybody. But in the end it turned out to be a far better option than anything else available to us and it lets us keep control of the company and the brand and still steer the direction of the app and keep the games going and growing and potentially adding even more games to the portfolio over time. So I’m really happy that we fell into each other’s lives at the exact right time. I think for both of us,

Ivan:

No looking back at how we I choose and how we got started, it was also a big revelation for me and the company a super scale and the whole mission of super scale is to understand and realize the maximum potential of games. And historically we worked essentially from the beginning we always relied and our partner has a dev team that is actively working on a game and maybe is not optimizing app or getting most out of different parts of his business, whether it’s from the user acquisition side to monetization side and to really understand how these two are able to really bring back, bring scale up. But the first time that we’ve kind of looked at look at your games we’ve <laugh>, even just looking at the normal numbers we’re like, wow, these games are here. Basically at its point more than a decade for some of them and still very strongly performing the core community, very active.

(21:28):

There wasn’t really much as you say content or even somewhere excited <laugh> update for a long time for a lot of these games and still bringing a lot of new downloads on some revenues while obviously kind of stagnating and slowly slowing down. But there was something obvious for me that hey actually there could be so much more stuff that could be doing besides the content and technical obviously updates there. We could actually put in all the parts of what made super scale the full final analytics and optimization part. And then it was just about putting the pieces together. And actually I need to say you pushing us that, hey guys, it’s great that you see a big potential in the titles, but if it’s me <laugh> to implementing all this is the case and <laugh> all this job, it’s not really gonna happen. I <laugh>, this is why I, I’m looking for something else after basically 80 years <laugh> of doing it daily.

And I think that pushed us also to the moment we realize like, hey, let’s create something together. We really do believe in the portfolio, we do believe that the community that you build, and this is something which I think not that many developers publisher realize like that you are really the core fans will be if the game is good, the game will never die, right? They may stagnate, may go down slowly over the time, but they will never die. Your best true hardcore fans will just keep playing when they run out of content. Just <laugh>, uninstall the game, delete the app, download it again, do it again for 10 years in a row. So there’s obviously something, and it was the first time that we actually thought about pulling everything together, using all the parts of, Hey, let’s try the UA on different channels, try this.

So let’s try updates, content updates let’s try relationship with platforms to figure let’s do something like that. And before that we mostly work with games with established titles bringing extra 30, 40% on top of the baseline. And this is honestly something that I’d expect, I dunno at least this could be like if you like 50% it would be great. It absolutely blew my mind that <laugh> with as yours, it could be not 30, 40, 50% could be a hundred percent, 200%, 300% and still not really running out of ideas or hitting the limits of what you’ve built so far. So definitely a big learning curve from our side at how game design that well and launched a ago at this Core Mechanics and being True Fund if we implement all the stuff that as an industry and also has learned in the last decade and actually try to apply the best practices and all the visit we’ve done, we can get back. I think the first time that we broke the seven-year revenue record was, I think it was June or July <affirmative> then we had with the tweaked Halloween event, we broke the old time in the purchase record on Tiny Tower and actually for a portfolio. So this is something that honestly I don’t think, and I have ever seen this,

Ian:

It’s impressive because to break the all-time record for Tiny Tower, tiny Tower had a huge launch when it was blown up by being App of the Year. And so that’s something to achieve this many years <laugh> after it

Ivan:

<laugh>. I know. So yeah, and we haven’t really stopped, right? We see just understanding the title working closely. So it’ll be soon it’ll essentially year when we started this full corporation after some kind of a kind of let’s say pilot, a pilot period or the partial musician that we did before. But also what we understood that really the core value and I think you absolutely even I guess intuitively understood that yeah, this is your community, this is your players, if you just sell it by parts or sell it somewhere else and maybe it’s not the right time because also we understood based on the patterns that we analyzed that you really do have majority of players just extremely loyal writing their reviews that how they use it. I think it’s extremely satisfactory and happy about genuinely happy community by the title. It’s also that the urgency.

Ian:

Yeah. And I think on the whole, they’ve been very excited by the huge amount of updates that have suddenly started coming through the apps because before we would go years sometimes without updating one of ’em. So regular content is very exciting to longtime players who don’t wanna see the app

Ivan:

Then. And again, I think that the whole community will be tuned for the next big thing and especially the end game content which by the way, we haven’t done yet. We’ve done a bunch of seasonal content. I think it’ll be great getting your input as to somebody who obviously understands the titles and the feedback and the overall vibe. But I’m definitely looking forward and expect the next record to be broken after we actually introduce the end game content for the Chinese Tower players. So all these core fans who need to <laugh> delete the app to start again could have actually something to do. Mm-hmm <affirmative> very soon as a end game content. So yeah, definitely looking forward to break some new records with Portfolio. Definitely looking for some new maybe titles coming soon.

Ultimately, how do you feel about this connection with the community players and something that you ultimately, I guess the direct channel was Discord or I do believe you build up the most, I guess real time managed community for years to come. So how do you feel about the future as a community of a player that would be nurtured and you would essentially able to give them having a more even more direct relationship and being able to send them announcement better than just pushups into the ads. But how do you feel the future about when we see that platform, they kind of still getting tighter a grip of owning the players. Mm-hmm <affirmative> getting less data about what they do. Have you thought about how can you leverage in the following years the communities that you built except for the Discord for disco channel?

Ian:

Yeah, I mean that ended up probably being one of the luckiest or smartest things that we could have done is embracing our community of fans. And we didn’t even go out of our way to create the community ourselves. I think, I don’t remember how many years ago Discard Discord started being popular, but we started stumbling upon these Discord servers full of our players for our different individual games. And they were great sizable communities, well moderated by dedicated team of amazing people. And so we didn’t really take over these servers, but we embraced them and ended up putting direct links in some of the games to grow them even more. And I mean that just supercharged the communities.

I mean, I don’t know if developers realize this, but if you have a group of super fans, they do so much for you. I mean, they’ll do customer support for people that stumble into the discord with a problem, they’ll do word of mouth for you. I mean it’s been gratifying too to see more than just angry reviews on the app or you get a window into people who love your game enough to be part of this community, part of creating it or just being part of it. So I think it was someone from Spry Fox that where I heard the quote you have to Build a Village I think was the guide to success for a small developer was building a village because a community can see you through a lot of dark times and propel you to even bigger things. So that’s definitely one of the things that I think was key to our long term success and keeping these games at such a great level for so long.

And that, by the way, is also something truly amazing. I don’t think it’s still under Utilize, underdeveloped, the fact that even more casual games can have really hardcore fans and really a super engaged community, as you said, helping doing customer support for you.

Oh my gosh. When we first came across these servers and we saw all the pin spreadsheets and guides and strategy guides, I mean it was stuff that we had never even thought possible or thought of ourselves. We were just like, and then we ended up referencing all their materials for customer support, whatever. Cause they had more detailed calculations about how the game works than we did. I also mentioned kind of getting involved the community even like a testing, new bills, new launches, like yeah, I think you really were ahead of time with embracing, and again, I think it goes back to this kind of a note, being afraid of experiment, embracing this court early on, building out the community, leveraging them in a certain way. So I think that’s something to definitely to take in mind as a coherent strategy going forward. So maybe in last couple minutes if you could maybe sum up some set of advice or learnings about what you think you did or you think decade ago it could influence and are available now for whether it’s the new games that are coming up and that could potentially end up as successful as for such a long time. Or also product owners and managers of titles, which are this on a bring of being established, turning into legacy. What are the things that you think that developer publisher, when it’s honestly already border likes motivation to be or likes the scale, if the company also grew to another level, that’s another reason that we see of the companies kind of a sense, I think, and giving up the titles. What do you think they should first <affirmative> think about before they do the decision either to stop supporting the title or outsource it or sell it and whatnot.

Ivan?

Any piece of advice?

Ian:

So on the first part of trying to go back and think of what we did, obviously the app store and the mobile landscape is just totally different than what it was back when we started. A lot of people ask me for advice and usually I tell them to invent a time machine and go back to 2008 <laugh> because I would hate to be, I’m very glad that we didn’t try to break into the mobile market in the last few years because it’s such a mature market and there’s so much more you need to be good to have a good chance at success. So for anyone starting out now or developers who have had success in the past and are wondering what to do now with their stagnating app, I would say, you know, really have to, it’s more of a personal advice perhaps, but you really have to think about what you wanna be doing.

Obviously you have to wear a lot of hats. You can’t wear every single hat, so you have to figure out which couple hats you really enjoy wearing each day. Focus on those things and then really you have to get some help in some way or another to handle everything else. Otherwise you’re just relying on luck which works for a small amount of people, then we’re discount luck. But if you really wanna grow or launch something with a better chance at success than just relying on luck, these states you do need expertise and it would be rare for you to have all that expertise in your own head. So definitely don’t be afraid to reach out to people who know what they’re doing.

Ivan:

<laugh>. Okay. So yeah, thank you very much Ian for your time. I think it was amazing a couple of insights that we got through the time. And again, I do believe that we’ve published the case study a couple weeks ago. That’s that how Nimble Bits kinda get back to Numbers a read. And it’s exciting that the extended we meet will be talking new records going forward. So I think we’ll be able to also show the industry that there’s a lot of value in older games in legacy portfolios that you honestly didn’t thought about because the techniques and the knowhow available how to do it just wasn’t back in the day just available or you got other priorities going forward. So I think this could be really a way to show that as we see on PC console, <laugh> of Games, successful 10, 20 years, movies, movies, obviously looking at Age of Empires to getting to record numbers with bunch of, I actually got two remastered, kind of three I guess the hd, the Remastered and the Ag and so on.

And altogether it’s actually became back then Top 10 game on the team. So I think this is also kind of a pattern that we see around. And I do think that actually, the good mobile free-to-play games are actually the ones that are actually getting the least of it. So getting to back to record numbers like Engagement Baru, I think the limb bit is the one again, showing the way <laugh> after a decade on mobile. So again thank you very much for your insights. Again, a pleasure as always. And yeah, thanks for listening to our first Ever podcast, so stay tuned for next one. Bye bye.

Ian:

Thanks for having me.