Zombies are lurching across the pop culture landscape in record numbers this Halloween season, but The PlayForge is proving there's still a lot of life in the walking dead. The mobile gaming startup just released Zombie Life, the much-anticipated sequel to its tongue-in-cheek iOS blockbuster Zombie Farm--where its predecessor satirized social games like FarmVille, Zombie Life raises the stakes, enabling players to assume the role of a young zombie grappling with "life" in the real world. Gamers must navigate their zombie avatar up the corporate ladder, graduating from fast-food chain Burger Kong or the local grocery store to wealth and happiness--the zombie's mood fluctuates in response to his progress, rising when he earns a promotion, chills with friends or devours human flesh, and falling when the community learns his true nature.
Zombie Life follows the freemium revenue model The PlayForge helped pioneer with Zombie Farm--when the game first launched in early 2010, few mobile titles had embraced the freemium approach. Fast-forward 18 months (and 20 million Zombie Farm downloads later) and freemium titles now account for 65 percent of App Store revenues according to recent Flurry data.
It looks like The PlayForge has another hit on its hands: Launched on Oct. 13, Zombie Life topped the App Store's Free Apps countdown days later, also serving its one millionth session within its first 40 hours of release. Days after Zombie Life made its debut, FierceDeveloper spoke with The PlayForge founder and CEO Vince McDonnell about his transition from console gaming to mobile, building a business around freemium downloads and the challenges of leading your own development team.
Vince McDonnell on The PlayForge's origins: I started working for a console game developer called Double Helix. I saw the App Store was releasing a lot of success stories, and that turned into a gold rush. I wanted to take part in that. I decided to drop everything and start developing a mobile game. It was easy--I wasn't happy with what I was doing.
I didn't put much thought into the transition [from console to mobile]. With mobile devices, you don't have much real estate, and you have to make it work. If you make a simple game, all of those problems go away. That's why I chose to make casual games. They're best suited to mobile--it's a lot easier to figure out how they work for smaller screens and mobile devices.
McDonnell on developing Zombie Farm: Zombie Farm was the first game I made by myself. Prior to that, I built a chore management product called Chore Hero, and following that, I decided to make a game. Gaming is why I got into development in the first place.
Around that time I started to play more casual games as a result of being a lot busier. I was learning to pick up iOS and it was very time-consuming. My passion is playing videogames, but I didn't have the time to do it. But I still found time to play social games. FarmVille was the big thing then--it was very satisfying to play, even for just a few minutes. It's a game you can keep coming back to. I never felt compelled to a return to a simple game like that before--it was really magical. I wanted to take that to the next level. I was also playing a lot of Plants vs. Zombies, and that gave me the rest of the idea.
McDonnell on making Zombie Farm a hit: It was simply the best efforts of a single person. There's nothing I did that anyone else couldn't do. It's largely about making sure you put your heart into making a great game.
When I released Zombie Farm, freemium was not a big thing. I was very apprehensive about making a freemium game, but it turned to be the best decision I ever made. I looked at a lot of data--I didn't know if it was worth the risk. What volume of users would I need to have? Would I be financially fine? I don't remember pattering the game off anything anyone else was doing--freemium wasn't a big buzzword back then. There was not a model to follow. But when you look at the top apps now, most are freemium.
I didn't spend a lot of time on marketing. I posted about Zombie Farm on all the forums and drafted up my own press release, but that was it. I didn't spend any money on marketing support for over a year.
McDonnell on the pressure to follow up Zombie Farm with Zombie Life: From my perspective, there was no pressure. Zombie Farm was such a huge thing--from that angle, it's scary. How do you make something bigger? But I just want to make the games I want to play. If I follow that approach, success will follow. If I start making games that are not what I believe in, that's when I'll be afraid whether or not I can make something better.
With Zombie Farm, the zombies were like your friends. Now you're in the shoes of the zombie. You have to think about blending in with humanity. You have to make sure people will treat you nicely. Both games are about zombies, both are cute and both are for general audiences, but that's where the similarities end. Zombie Life is a life simulation game. The challenge was figuring out the revenue model. How do you make a life simulation free? Freemium doesn't apply to everything. Consumables were a logical choice.
In a lot of ways, Zombie Life was the first time I learned about a lot of things--it's the first game I built with a team of other people, and that managing process was a big challenge for me. I've never been in a management position before, and I'm learning as I go along. That's only part of it. How do you build a company? How do you get [employees] interested? How do you hire the right people and sell them on your vision? These are all things I had to learn along the way. It's very difficult to transition from doing what you love into being more of a director and telling people what to do.
McDonnell on porting Zombie Life to other platforms: Zombie Farm is on Android, and we want to see the results before we port Zombie Life. We built this studio to revolve around iOS--I believe that kind of focus wins. We want to focus on making great games for one platform. We can't spread ourselves too thin if we want to make the games we want to make. I learned that during my console experience--we did one game for six different consoles, and when that happens you end up reaching for the lowest common denominator. The game experience really suffers.
McDonnell's advice for aspiring mobile developers: Create the games you want to play. Put your passion into it. Also, don't be afraid of not shipping the game because it isn't everything you want. Don't ship it until you believe in it.
Developer Workshop is a series of profiles exploring the current state of the mobile marketplace from the point of view of the software developers mapping out its future. Each profile focuses on a developer with a compelling story to tell, and offers their perspective on what the industry's doing right, what it's doing wrong and how to make it better. Check out our previous workshops on Shazam, InfoMedia, Viigo, Meet Now Live, Shortcovers, Pint Sized Mobile, Geodelic, Spark of Blue Software, Tarver Games, People Operating Technology, Booyah, Bolt Creative, Thwapr, Monkeyland Industries, Rocket Racing League, Vlingo, Advanced Mobile Protection, PapayaMobile, Taptu, GameHouse, Avatron, aisle411, Crowdstory, Outfit7, ADP and Locai.