Rollic has had a billion downloads for its hypercasual games — those that you can play in a minute or less.
And seven of its games have reached the No. 1 or No. 2 top free downloaded game spots in the U.S. app store on iOS. Three games — Hair Challenge, High Heels, and Tangle Master 3D — have reached more than 100 million downloads.
The knack for coming up with hit hypercasual games is why Zynga bought Rollic for $168 million in August 2020. Rollic has also acquired four studios of its own — Uncosoft, ByteTyper, Cresear Entertainment, and ZeroSum — as it expands in the hypercasual market.
And the company is launching winter-themed customizations for 16 titles with in-game events this month. Players will be able to deck out their characters in winter wear, strut on a snowy runway and snowboard to the finish line across Rollic’s top titles. That’s all part of keeping the games alive and humming. It also did a partnership with fashion designer Kenneth Cole to celebrate Pride Month in High Heels.
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I talked with Burak Vardal, who cofounded Rollic in 2018, about the success and his expectations for one of the fastest-growing segments of the game industry. He wants to make “runway-style,” “TikTokable” games that shoot through the charts.
Looking to 2022, the company plans to evolve its portfolio by delivering more new launches and bold beats to players around the world.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat:What is a hypercasual game versus just a casual game? Or a better question might be, what do you think works for hypercasual?
Vardal: Hypercasual is simple gameplay, simple and fun gameplay fitting the consumption habits of our current audience and our current world. That’s hypercasual. But as for what works, you shouldn’t think too deeply, because the users should be able to understand your game in four seconds from when they see the ad. They have three or four seconds to understand your gameplay from an ad for the game. User acquisition is very important for all mobile games, and it’s no less important hypercasual. You need to be able to explain your game in three or four seconds. If you can think like that, you’ll start finding the best mechanics to work in hypercasual.
If there’s too much detail, you’ll end up scaring away your users. But that doesn’t mean that retention is necessarily low in hypercasual. I can’t share hard data right away, but High Heels and Hair Challenge have retention that’s comparable to more mainstream casual titles. The two-day retention, four-day retention, it’s compatible. To do that you don’t have to go too deep. You need simple, but sharp and catchy level design. You need fun character animation and gameplay animation. That’s what will help you explain it in three or four seconds.
This year also showed us how important it is to be TikTokable, as I said. It’s a word we coined earlier this year to define some of our titles. I think the word says it all. It gives you an understanding of what it is. People scroll through TikTok very fast, right? People spend about three or four seconds watching those videos, too. You need to catch their attention in a very short time. That fits well with hypercasual.
At the same time, I couldn’t imagine a real online leaderboard in a hypercasual two or three years ago. That’s why I think it’s best that we don’t define hypercasual too firmly. Next year we might be coming back and arguing again about what it is. If you asked me this question two years ago I would have said that anyone putting up leaderboards for a hypercasual game would be crazy. But now it works. It’s a very fast-moving genre, and it creates its own rules, even from quarter to quarter.
GamesBeat: Looking at the hypercasual market from a kind of year-in-review perspective is interesting. Thinking back to a year ago, what was the environment like, and how do you think it’s changed?
Vardal: It’s been quite an amazing year for us. We had a lot of great news coming in. The most important part is we launched a new game design trend in hypercasual. That’s changed the course of the business a lot this year. That was these–starting from High Heels, one of our games surpassed 100 million downloads, followed by Hair Challenge, in Q1 and Q2 of 2021. Both of them were the most downloaded games in the United States for two consecutive quarters. They started a new trend in what we call “TikTokable” runway games, which has had a huge influence on the next generation of mobile gamers, on Gen Z. We’ve had huge organic traction on TikTok with the unique design and character animations.
After the launch of High Heels and Hair Challenge, the whole industry followed that same game design trend, trying to create new hits. That was the big highlight for us. As a result, we surpassed 1 billion downloads for the year. It’s a very competitive environment generally, but the key to being the leader is to be the trendsetter in game design. That’s what Zynga and Rollic have done this year.
GamesBeat: What year did you get started in hypercasual?
Vardal: Rollic was founded in January of 2019. We were always a hypercasual publisher and developer. It’s going to be three years in a month. We’re pretty young, but hypercasual in general is pretty young. It didn’t get started until 2016, 2017, at least at a bigger scale. We started quite late compared to our competitors, but now I think I can say we’re in a leading position.
GamesBeat: How many titles do you launch in, say, a given year?
Vardal: In total we’ve launched more than 60 titles, and we launched more than 30 in this year alone. Seven of those titles were ranked in the first or second place in the United States app store, which was a huge success for us. Sixteen of our titles reached high positions. But in total we launched more than 30 games this year.
GamesBeat: What’s the audience like? I would guess you have a more diverse player base than some games.
Vardal: We surpassed 1 billion downloads, and to do that you need a mass audience. But the game-changing audience this year was the TikTok audience. That’s what really kickstarted mobile gaming this year, the newcomers from Gen Z. That was a big achievement for us, to unlock that audience on a bigger scale with organic traction. That was the game-changing news this year in terms of audience reach.
GamesBeat: When it comes to the way hypercasual game companies operate, it reminds me of the way a lot of the early mobile and free-to-play game companies worked, where they had lots of launches and then narrowed them down. Kabam was an example before, where they started with a lot of different games and then narrowed down to spending all their time on Marvel Contest of Champions. When that launched it became one of their only important games. They foresaw that the top 10 mobile games were going to command this tremendous audience. But hypercasual seems to have opened it up far beyond just the big-budget games. All of a sudden companies are publishing 30 games a year in this space, going through lots of ideas. Do you think that’s going to narrow down, the way it’s happened in other emerging areas of gaming?
Vardal: The difference now is the consumption habits around the world. Now, hypercasual fits that place a lot more. The attention spans of the users are very low right now, especially with this newcoming Gen Z audience. The new trend is giving them fun new concepts and new designs back to back. That’s what they want. It’s very hard to believe that the current audience will spend a lot of days, months, and years on one game.
That’s where hypercasual comes in as a new kind of gameplay. We give users a game, they play it a lot of times, and we know what they like, what they want. That helps us to create more of that in the following months. We have a huge amount of data. We’ve launched 60 games, and we’ve learned from our users’ behavior. We know what they like, where they spend their time. That gives us a lot of insight to create new projects and produce more hits on a bigger scale than our previous games.
This year’s example was High Heels. It was a huge game in the beginning of the year. It had huge organic traction on TikTok. It passed 100 million downloads. Hair Challenge, which again passed 100 million downloads, it was an idea generated from the core values in High Heels. Again, it was a woman character, a very Gen Z-style character, a very specific character animation, and very simple but fun gameplay. But games scaled big in the same year, and even in some of the same months. That means our audience wants more content.
Production in our business is very important, and it’s very important for the future of mobile gaming. Live services, live game updates, that’s a topic that very few companies can deal with well. One of them is Zynga. If we can merge that live services culture with this production method, that’s the future of mobile gaming. We’ll know what concepts are scalable, the ones we can re-create. From Zynga’s culture we already know a lot about live services. If we can merge that, we don’t need to stick to one game. We can replicate that in many games and dominate the market in the coming years. That’s the future of mobile gaming.
We’ll always need new concepts and we’ll always need live services. Hypercasual is what’s bringing those new concepts to mobile gaming.
GamesBeat: What was interesting for a lot of companies this year, and what was often difficult, was the Apple privacy push around IDFA. Frank Gibeau mentioned that one benefit of acquiring Rollic was that Zynga would have this much wider funnel of people coming into the Zynga game ecosystem, and the company could share other games with them. Those games could take off in a more viral way through cross-promotion. Has that turned out to be a benefit, that the customers you bring in through Rollic wind up spreading throughout the Zynga universe?
Vardal: The effect of the Apple privacy changes on Rollic’s business have been minimal. Our audience is a mass audience. We don’t do a lot of targeting. We target the whole universe, basically. It’s easier for us to do user acquisition and monetization with our current audience, even after the privacy changes. Rollic kept its growth even after that.
And yes, we have helped to bring a mass audience to Zynga. We’re working with their teams on our cross-promotion technologies. We’re testing new things, seeing new results, and planning more for the future. But that’s all I can say right now.
GamesBeat: We saw a lot of industry-wide activity like that. Acquisitions of companies that became, in some way, more vertical, as a way to deal with this change in the ability to target. Deals that made sense in terms of access to more gamers.
Vardal: More than 600 million of our total downloads were unique downloads, which means that are unique users. It means that about one person out of every 10 in the world has played a Rollic game. That’s a huge number. That’s why you’re very right. This audience scale, coming mostly from hypercasual games, is bringing a lot of value to the company, and a lot of data especially. You can create something like a mini-game in a bigger franchise if you use that data, or use it to develop a new production method. For the future of mobile gaming, especially after the privacy changes, these mass-audience games are going to play a huge role to determine the strategies of big companies.
GamesBeat: Do you think it makes sense for every game company to have hypercasual at the top of its funnel?
Vardal: If it’s as successful as Rollic has been, yes. But I think hypercasual is not a business that you can take on at a small scale. It doesn’t make sense at a small scale. The hypercasual business, you should have a mass scale with your games. You should be prepared to produce the best games in this competitive environment. We’re producing our games in three working days. We’re updating and launching them in two weeks, mostly. That’s why your team needs to be very agile. You need to be able to operate very efficiently at great speed. If you’re not ready for that in your company culture, then you shouldn’t make a move into hypercasual.
What Zynga did with Rollic helped a lot. They respected our culture. Our way of thinking is very different. They respected that and gave us a huge space to continue our business as it was. We found a very good environment within Zynga to scale our business and had a great year in 2021.
GamesBeat: Getting more into predictions about what will happen with hypercasual in 2022 and the future in general, what are some things that come to mind?
Vardal: We’re in a good position, because I think the future of hypercasual relies on live services. Right now what Rollic is doing, we’re managing all of our titles as if they’re franchises. Even if we have 60 games, we believe we have 60 franchises to manage right now. I think that’s a key part of the future of hypercasual. For example, this year we launched the first-ever real online leaderboard for Hair Challenge, where users can interact with each other and compete with each other while playing a hypercasual game. That’s a very casual update considering the game genre, but it worked well with Hair Challenge. People loved it.
To create long-term revenues and long-term scale, you need to also start doing deep dive live services updates to hypercasual games. For us, the first key part, with the help of Zynga and their culture, is to keep doing these live service updates. The second part, it’s all about the new trends. This year’s trend, these TikTokable runway games, we created it. That will continue in the next year, but the most important thing for Rollic – or for our competitors – is to find that new trend for 2022. To do that you need a lot of production.
GamesBeat: If gaming history is any hint, then maybe it’ll be sequels to hypercasual hits.
Vardal: To find that trend you need a lot of data. You need a lot of testing, a lot of prototypes to test. If you don’t have that power in hypercasual then you won’t be able to scale your business. That’s why Rollic is in a great position to create the trends for next year. To sum it up, we want to merge new scalable concepts with quality live services. That will be the key for 2022.
GamesBeat: If you do so much experimentation, do you have a lot of failures? Is it only a small percentage of prototypes that become hits? Or have you been able to find a better batting average, so to speak?
Vardal: Three years ago our prototype to launch average was much lower. It’s growing better every month, because we have more data every month. We know what to produce. Our ideation quality gets better. Our update quality gets better. In total, our games are getting better. That’s why our ratio is growing better every month and every quarter.
GamesBeat: When it comes to quality level, how are you able to access the best game development talent? Especially if they might think of hypercasual with some stereotypical impressions. “You can’t possibly make high-quality games in this space.”
Vardal: This year was a game-changer in that area, I think. When somebody saw High Heels, they knew that was something special for the gaming world. It was in the top three games in the Apple awards at the end of the year. It was a hypercasual game, but it had a huge game-changer effect. Everybody tried to create new concepts like it. I feel like that proved that in the hypercasual genre, you can create something for the whole gaming world. This year was very important for creating that understanding. I’m very happy about that.
GamesBeat: It certainly surprised me, because I played it a lot over this year.
Vardal: We had a very successful collaboration with Kenneth Cole and Pride Month. The game was in Times Square and everything. It became a huge brand, the game itself, even as a hypercasual game. It’s not so often that you see that happen with a hypercasual game. After that, the relationship with our developers has changed a bit. Now they know they can create something that’s a trendsetter for the whole game industry.
I do think there’s still a misperception around developers who work in hypercasual, at least from a further distance. When you’re in it, it’s very competitive. You need to be very fast. You need to be agile. You need to have great talent to create those kinds of games in a very short time. But right now, looking at the number of inquiries coming to Rollic from developers around the world, the number is higher than ever. It’s growing very fast. We’re getting emails from Indonesia, from France. We have a lot of partners we work with in Turkey. We get a lot of requests from Scandinavia, Russia, Ukraine, everywhere.
The newcomers in the industry, the less experienced developers with fresh talent, they want to start with hypercasual. We have a lot of partners who used to produce bigger casual games, but now they’re partnering with Rollic to create more hypercasual titles. A lot of our partners come from the PC, from the casual mobile market, and even from VR games. Hypercasual is becoming a trend among developers right now. Whether you’re at a big scale or a small one, you need to take a look at hypercasual and at least try to understand the value of it. It can help you in whatever you’re producing.
I see a lot of PC games, for example, top sellers on Steam, which are basically hypercasual games. But as soon as it’s on PC we just don’t call it that for some reason. It’s important that developers are acknowledging the importance of hypercasual more and more. 2021 was the best year so far in terms of attention from our developer partners.
GamesBeat: Is there anything you’d like to close with today?
Vardal: We did a lot of acquisitions this year. We acquired four of our studio partners. Next year we’ll continue to look for more partners, because we’re in the publishing business and we know how these teams work when it comes to data, production methods, and culture. Publishers like Rollic can have a huge advantage when it comes to scouting new talent in mobile gaming at an earlier stage, and that’s why we’re acquiring more talented partners. We’re creating a successful new funnel for Zynga by acquiring more talent at an early stage. Both companies are on board with this strategy, and I think it will play a huge part in our business next year.
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