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If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: how we rolled back all updates and ended up with a hit on our hands

We chose an unusual case for our blog. This is a story about the time we discovered that we didn’t need to refine the prototype in order to achieve success. On the contrary, we needed to roll back all the changes. Usually the development process for a new project looks something like this:

Prototyping > testing > iterations until we’re sure it’s safe to buy traffic > game design > implementation > testing > scaling marketing campaigns > new updates, tests and improvements.

Now imagine that we had to roll back all gameplay and visual updates to the initial prototype stage in order for one of our projects to get to the top of the stores. Yes, that happens.

Our Publishing Manager Evgeny Tatonkin will give you a detailed account of the events.

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My introduction to Bars Studios, a small team of three from Austria, happened in early 2021. I found their portfolio and sent them an email. I didn’t get a reply right away, since the developers were busy making changes to the Sword Play game — the very changes that we completely rolled back later.

Sword Play is a hypercasual action game about slicing enemies into pieces and fighting off flying projectiles on the way to the finish line. According to David Barsan of Bars Studios, they saw that first-person action games were becoming a trend and made several prototypes with different core gameplay (slicing, shooting, hooking and beat’em up). Sword Play seemed the most promising because the rest of the mechanics had a higher CPI.

By the time we met, the game was already being tested by another publisher, but they weren’t satisfied with the metrics they saw after all iterations. The project was returned to the developers and they brought it to us.

At first, we couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw the numbers: the metrics indicated that the project was ready for a commercial launch already, at the prototype stage. CPI was below 30 cents, retention was over 40%, and the playtime was about 7 minutes. Despite these numbers, the developers were trying to change every aspect of the game, from visuals and level design to gameplay and NPC behavior.

Every time the first publisher tried to improve the metrics, they got the opposite result. For instance, the CPI almost doubled. The metrics were literally getting worse with every change the studio made. As a result, the publisher decided that the project wasn’t scalable and dropped it.

The first thing we did when we got the game was to completely roll back all the changes to the very first version with the best metrics. We signed a contract and immediately released the game. In three weeks, Sword Play was #1 in the United States on Google Play and AppStore for five straight days without features. It almost never happens, since the charts are updated daily.

After that, we had a few small iterations that didn’t really impact the metrics. The CPI increased ever so slightly, but there were objective reasons for this — it’s been more than three months and the competition in this genre is nothing to mess with.

The core gameplay almost didn’t change. We decided to go another way and achieve improvement in (mostly) level design with minimal intervention and without touching the custom visuals. We added just a couple of touches because we didn’t want to risk messing up the metrics: new weapons for enemies, bosses, armor mechanics and a little diversity to the skyboxes. We mainly focused on marketing and showed honest gameplay in the creative materials.

In the beginning, we also had a desire to reskin everything, make detailed skyboxes and add more enemies. Thankfully, we managed to come to our senses and didn’t get into the same old trap.

Even without all these iterations, the game reached 25 million downloads in just a few months and is still a hit. To name one example, it remains one of the top 10 Action games on Android to this day.

Worldwide metrics haven’t changed much either:

  • CPI is around $0.5;
  • R1 is about 40%;
  • Playtime D0 has increased to 8 minutes.

This suggests that the first thing a studio should do is pay attention to the audience, the analysts and real metrics instead of blindly trying to bring the game designer’s vision to life.

We’re currently working on our second project with the studio, and the guys also keep making games on their own.

David: “The publisher is not pushing us to work on games that we don’t want to. In fact the only difference here is that you can focus on development only and you know that once you have a potential project, you have the expertise and budget of a publisher to push it to the top and get the most out of it”. 

And if you want to know how we updated Sword Play without messing it up — stay tuned for our next post!

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