Versus Evil is a publisher perhaps most known for helping to bring Banner Saga ($9.99) to the world, but the self-styled indie publisher – and it’s a small outfit, comprised of three principals right now, including general manager Steve Escalante – is looking to make a bigger footprint beyond that. They’ve had a presence at gaming shows such as the PAX events. And the studio has multiple titles from multiple developers in the works, with mobile a core part of their strategy. Guild of Dungeoneering ($5.99) has just released on mobile, Like a Boss is in soft launch, Let Them Come is planned as a cross-platform release, and oh yeah, Banner Saga 2 exists. I spoke recently with Steve Escalante to discuss Guild of Dungeoneering‘s mobile release, and how a publisher like Versus Evil can find a way to operate on mobile with not just free-to-play games, but also in the risky premium gaming market.
Guild of Dungeoneering is out now on mobile, and it’s been interesting because pretty much from day one, the idea that it could fit on mobile was in the cards. Developer Colm Larkin was excited about it, and Escalante was as well. “We’ve been excited for it on mobile since we signed it. We kind of feel like mobile for Guild of Dungeoneering could potentially overtake the PC, because it’s so much fun on mobile."
But was there any temptation to perhaps try something free-to-play? Escalante says no: “We’re fully committed to premium gaming on mobile. That doesn’t mean we’re not going to flirt with free-to-play, because we have a couple of free-to-play titles. But premium just seems to be where we are more as a company."
Guild of Dungeoneering is following a similar pricing strategy as Wayward Souls ($6.99) has done: it starts out at a low price, in this case $3.99, but as new updates roll in, the price will increase. Escalante says that Versus Evil will be experimenting with all sorts of pricing models on mobile. “Some of our titles will be premium, but then we’re going to add a bunch of content, and we will gradully increase the price over time. Some of our titles will be a lower premium up front, but then we’ll have in-app purchases if you want. So we’re gonna be looking at the full spectrum of premium, and we’re excited about it." This doesn’t mean that Versus Evil won’t be releasing free-to-play games – Like a Boss is published by them and will be free-to-play. But the idea is that instead of just trying to shoehorn free-to-play into a game that wasn’t built for it, like Banner Saga, it is instead to use the business model with games where it’s appropriate. “I don’t think Candy Crush Saga (Free) users are necessarily Banner Saga users. Even though the word saga is in there!" And lest we forget, that was a bit of a scandal, and the Banner Saga fans weren’t happy with King after that.
So why did it take Guild of Dungeoneering so long to reach mobile? The game has been out on PC for about a year now, I first played it months ahead of time, and there was excitement for the game on mobile ever since then. Escalante explains, especially for such a slim operation, there are many challenges of doing multiplatform releases. “When I started at Versus Evil, mainly teams were so small, that it was really hard to do some same-date-shipped titles. As we’ve gotten more mature in our processes, we’re able to help teams better from a simultaneous launch, or launch within the same proximity. It becomes a question of balance and budget to see what we can do there."
“Our first kind of entry into the market was Banner Saga for iOS and Android. That was a premium title, and the most interesting thing there was that premium on mobile is this weird black box. Very few people talk about it, it’s really hard to figure out best practices. There’s very little information that’s out there about what’s successful premium, what’s not, as it relates to price points, adoption rates, and how you acquire customers. We approached a lot of user acquisition companies. They were claiming to be able to grab users for an economical amount of money. But as soon as you say premium to these guys they go ‘Whoa. Well, I can’t do that on premium.’ So it does create an interesting dilemma, that it turns into almost more traditional type of marketing."
Speaking of marketing, Escalante discusses the role that a smaller, indie publisher that Versus Evil fashions itself as, can play, and why some things may work differently with them and releases instead of a bigger operation. “Our value [as an indie publisher] is basically, bringing in all of our experience and marketing expertise as well as strategy and things like that. We’ll stick with developers through the good and the bad as much as we possibly can. When we look at a game, we say, this game would be great on mobile, let’s talk about it. And with Guild of Dungeoneering as an example, when we launched this game last July, here we are a year later, we’re getting ready to launch the next phase of that in mobile. If you look at triple-A, [the attitude is] you have to launch all the games on the same platforms at the same time. And that certainly does have a great marketing impact and you can’t deny that. But for an indie company, I feel that it gives us a legitimate reason to reach out to the press again, and influencers, our customers, and our fans to say hey, here’s this new version of the game. You’re familiar with it. You’ve loved it. You’ve played it. It’s on mobile, what do you think? We’ve found pretty good success with that strategy thus far."
But what about the idea of Versus Evil and pricing of games? Guild of Dungeoneering and Banner Saga can both be had for a fraction of their cost on PC and console. Do the more expensive versions released first establish a value for the game to sell on mobile? Escalante doesn’t necessarily agree with that assertion, but that perception does exist with developers. “What happens if you roll out a PC and mobile game, and the mobile game is just inherently cheaper than the PC version? What happens to your audience? Are they upset? Maybe. Of course they have a choice; they don’t have to play it on PC, they don’t have to play it on mobile. I don’t know that we’ve necessarily been able to kind of put the finger on the pulse of what is the best strategy moving forward, that we were certainly going to be experimenting and seeing how it goes, and adjust accordingly."
“We’re certainly realizing that price is a big deal as it relates to mobile. It also relates to Steam, but saying it differently, like the PC market has bigger drivers as it relates to sales. And sales do help with mobile, don’t get me wrong, but having the right price point on mobile is far more critical, than say having a sale. Because there’s just this huge barrier to entry when you start talking about premium. There’s no way to explain it. There’s no way to justify it. It’s this catch-22. You either price your game so that it moves on mobile, knowing that it’s not the same price potentially that you’re selling it for PC and console. Or you price it all the same and really just not sell as much on that platform. You put $20 on mobile, people go ‘whoa.'"
But Escalante does have high hopes for Versus Evil on mobile as a publisher of premium games: “There is now I think a consumer that does think ‘I like buying the game, knowing that I’m getting everything, I’m good. It feels good, as opposed to what are they gonna be hitting me with along the way?’ You kind of go into it with a little bit of apprehension depending on the mechanics that these free-to-play games have, of whether or not that’s something that you’re willing to do. There are many very obviously very open to that. But there are some people that really just prefer, yep, if I pay this, I get everything, that’s great. So that’s where we are with some of our premium titles. I think as we launch each one, we will have a lot more data that I’d love to be able to share with people with what works, what doesn’t from a business perspective."
And for sure, it will be interesting to see what Versus Evil can do. Certainly, the rewards of premium gaming are lower – even Minecraft ($6.99) grosses way less than the most popular free-to-play games. But Escalante and Versus Evil have seen some signs of success with premium on mobile, it’s a significant part of what they want to do. Premium is a niche on mobile right now, but who’s to say that a company couldn’t find a way to capitalize on that niche as part of their strategy going forward?