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NaturalMotion CEO Explains How to Make a Hit App (Or Three)

TL;DR: Design for word of mouth, and test like hell.

Clumsy Ninja/NaturalMotion

When I first wrote about NaturalMotion’s game Clumsy Ninja last year, I mentioned that, at the time, it was my go-to app for when people asked, “What should I play?”*

Turns out, I was playing right into Torsten Reil’s plot.

In a recent interview with Re/code, the NaturalMotion CEO attributed his company’s recent string of free-to-play mobile hits — two car-racing games and then Clumsy Ninja — to two things: Designing for word of mouth, and testing like hell.

“We generate games that people talk about,” Reil said. “Everyone is cloning existing games that work well. That is not sustainable.”

He has a point there — so many developers angling to be the next Supercell have made so many mobile games that look so similar to Supercell’s Clash of Clans that a tongue-in-cheek subgenre has emerged: “Clash of Clones.” But simply saying that one won’t clone someone else’s game is far easier than finding something novel that works.

In the early days of the App Store, NaturalMotion initially made paid games, including the then-popular football game Backbreaker. But Reil said there’s effectively zero chance that it will go back to the paid download business model.

My Horse was our first free-to-play [game], and we did a lot of things wrong,” he said. “But it still did better than all of our paid apps put together.”

He splits his time between San Francisco and NaturalMotion’s home base in Oxford, England, but Reil talks of games like a true Silicon Valley guy. Just like seemingly everything else in the Valley, games can be disrupted, he said. The next Clumsy Ninja or My Horse can build off an old category but do something new with mobile technology.

A corollary to that, one of the new things that has become a modern must: Testing, testing, testing. NaturalMotion convenes a six-person focus group three to four times per week, soft-launches all of its games in smaller app markets like Singapore, and then keeps testing new features after launch by pushing A/B tweaks out to a small subset of players.

Reil is careful to say that he doesn’t want his company’s family-friendly games to leave some nasty surprises on mommy and daddy’s credit cards. “We don’t chase whales,” he said, using the industry slang for big free-to-play spenders. But NaturalMotion still counts monetization as a goal.

The result: Clumsy Ninja increased its revenue per user fivefold, thanks to what the company learned from testing during a Singaporean soft launch, Reil said. So maybe those 14 months of limbo between its unveiling and official release were good for something, after all.

* A distinction that has since passed on to Blek. Seriously, have you played Blek yet?

This article originally appeared on

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