Let the product teach you.

Lessons from DragonVale. Building and maintaining a successful mobile game in an evolving market.

It’s difficult to distill what I have learned in the last 4 years of DragonVale development. I feel like this could be the subject of a series of articles or essays. I’ve learned a lot about myself, about working with a team, about the difference between a game and a Live Game. I’ve learned how to listen to the community, but not overreact. I’ve learned lingo, acronyms and abbreviations like ARPDAU, LTV, F2P, ECPM and more. I’ve worried about crashes, server stability, ranking algorithms, Apple, Google and Amazon promotion, D1, D7 and D28 user retention and load times.

All for the sake of some cute, animated dragons… and I couldn’t be happier about it.

In the early days, to my knowledge, we were the only Dragon Breeding game. There were a couple of other games in the market that involved collecting or breeding, but we wanted ours to stand out… to be more alive. We wanted our dragons to be animated, to have them breathe, literally. DragonVale was even briefly concepted as a dinosaur game but we quickly shifted our approach to the more fantastic realm of dragons, where we didn’t need to worry about science, real creatures or giant movie franchise reboots.

We believed in the game, but weren’t sure how it would do once people outside the studio got their hands on it. I think if developers are being honest, we’re never certain how people will respond. This was Backflip’s first foray into the free-to-play model. Due to the strength of our network of users, we believed we could help DragonVale rise in the Top Free ranks at launch. We thought it was fun. We liked it… but we weren’t sure what what would happen after making contact with the public. I remember the specific moment I realized that DragonVale resonated with people. During development, due to implementing some new features, we had to reset the data for everyone who was playing the game at Backlfip. The next morning multiple people walked into the office asking why we destroyed their work. They were frustrated. They were invested.

Island Themes allow players to build their dream park.

The speed at which DragonVale rose in the Top Grossing charts was a bit of a shock to us. It was the best kind of surprise, but success comes with its own set of issues. Another surprise was how quickly we needed to update the content. I remember Jonas (one of the lead designers) had a spreadsheet planning how much content we had, the expected pace of play and an idea of when players would reach the end. We expected to have roughly a month before needing to update. We were wrong. One thing I’ve learned is to never underestimate the player’s ability to consume content quickly.

Scaling up staff on a project after its release was a new idea for our studio, but it’s what we had to do. In order to support the players’ appetite for new content, we had to get to work quickly. Before we ever had time to reflect or pay attention to statistics and analytics, we were climbing up the Free and Top Grossing charts on Apple’s App Store and doing whatever we could to stay there.

As with all successes, we were quickly copied. At one point it made me furious, but I quickly realized that the entire world is an iterative place. I realized that if a studio simply carbon copied DragonVale, it wouldn’t work. DragonVale had both more mindshare and a larger network of players. If, on the other hand, someone took what we did and improved upon it, then it’s up to us, the DragonVale team, to be responsive. It becomes our responsibility to make sure we don’t rest on our laurels, get complacent and not innovate. The onus is on us to learn from the continuously evolving market.

DragonVale’s Star Fall Event brought lighting effects and a mysterious comet to the night sky.

This has been the greatest challenge for the DragonVale team. How do we continue to push the envelope of creativity while still maintaining the soul of the game? What can we do that innovates that doesn’t alienate? Good questions and ones we’re constantly working on. It’s silly to think we could keep everyone 100% happy all the time, but we really do care about our players. We might release a feature that really resonates with the collectors one update and then release a feature that hits home for our decorators the next. We care that our players feel like the time and energy they’ve invested has been worth it.

Ultimately we hope that our players have been able to see this game about a dragon-filled island in the sky become something more… We hope that, like our dragons, the game has evolved and is still full of magic and possibility.

Bryan Mashinter is DragonVale’s Director. For more of his observations on the industry, life, leadership and libations, check out his talks at GDC and PAX or follow him on Twitter @bryanmash

For more on DragonVale (and Backflip Studios) visit us here: https://twitter.com/BackflipStudios