Today, Helsinki-based Grey Area -- recently a recipient of $2.5 million in funding from a trio of firms including Index Ventures, London Venture Partners and Initial Capital -- is launching one of the first MMOs on the Apple's U.S. App Store.
Having already hit number one in both free apps and top grossing apps in Finland, where title launched late last year, Shadow Cities is a free-to-play MMO that re-envisions the player as a mage who can battle for supremacy in a hidden struggle in his or her own real-life city, interacting with and battling other players there -- and around the world -- in real-time.
Gamasutra spoke with Grey Area CEO Ville Vesterinen about the game and team recently in San Francisco to find out more. Vesterinen, one of the company's four founders, is the only one to not have a background at mobile phone company Ericsson.
This background gives the developer a "very strong infrastructure level" understanding of mobile devices -- while he himself has "always been fascinated with cities and what you can build around that."
The company has a total of 15 staff members, primarily based in Finland -- all working on Shadow Cities. "Weíre going to do fewer games but invest a lot more into them, so you look at it almost like a server development," says Vesterinen. "Investing heavily into one title and expanding the lifespan... iteratively building it."
In fact, he says, "going forward weíre looking to enabling people to build on top of Shadow Cities data, even building APIs for it."
The team, he says, is innovating on how it handles issues such as concurrency of players and having the game "run on a mobile and make it fast and snappy, with the networks that we have in place, so kind of really sit on the leading edge, also regarding that, and really push it."
The hometown success of the game, so far, has beat the team's expectations, but the server infrastructure is designed with scalability in mind, and Grey Area is updating the game approximately twice a month with new content, too. "People loved it, so they came through doors and windows and now weíre, we have developed more content for it. Weíve been making sure that scalability is there."
Vesterinen says that while the game has attracted some very hardcore players in the Finnish market -- the goal was to create one of the "deeper games, which you donít necessarily see so many in the mobile space at the moment" -- the game is primarily designed so it can be played conveniently, as an iOS game should: "it runs wherever you go, whatever you do on your daily life."
For most players, he says, it's "background context for a lot of the stuff they are doing during their day," and as it offers both direct synchronous interaction with other players and the ability to set up defenses and traps -- offering asynchronous interaction, too. "You donít get the feel that, 'Oh, I canít play at all if I donít play all the time,' which has worked really great for us."
All the same, says Vesterinen, the dark fantasy and PvP aspects mark it as something for "real gamers" -- Shadow Cities' target audience is "not necessarily your average mom... so itís a bit different from, say, Zynga, or one of those social games who try to capture almost everybody."
The game has also met the developer's hopes for both session duration and engagement over time. "When it comes to retention itís really great," says Vesterinen. While some do play for hours, "on average" players play "tens of minutes a day, and people [are] logging back 10, 15 times a day.
"We believe thereís much more value when you go after real gamers... The level of engagement is on a totally different level," he says, and that translates to conversion rates that "look good," though he declined to offer specifics due to the fact that the game is only operating in select territories right now. "Right now... weíre observing that closely because weíre looking at only most of our data still comes from Finland, and that might be a bad proxy."
The game is free, but is monetized via potions that recharge player mana at a faster rate than it naturally accrues, simple avatars (non-humanoid 2D icons, apparently for both privacy reasons and since the player is supposed to envision him or herself as a mage, says Vesterinen.) Players can also pay to capture real-world areas within their city.
The game also engenders a strong community, he says. "Social games... in our point of view, arenít that social, really. But Shadow Cities, the community part of it is really, really strong. From day one people wanted to meet up. The social aspect is really pulling them in... I think when you look at the industry average, you know weíre like way beyond that, so it looks really nice."
Players can chat via the game, he says, and "they might engage in battles, organize raids in different locations every now and then, but still they might have the game running with messaging the chats all the time wherever they go." They can also interact on the game's official forums, which attract a lot of activity, he says.
"We want to develop it further and enable people to interact in the way that they want," says Vesterinen. "weíve been really conscious and paying attention how people want to create the battles... thatís what people want to do: strategize, plan, raid locations together, and all of that, so itís definitely in the works, if you will."
Vesterinen sees Shadow Cities somewhere on a continuum from gamified GPS app to full-fledged MMO. "We want to deliver the excitement and the engagement that World of Warcraft is doing for the players, but on a mobile handset," he says. At the same time, "I love Foursquare, and itís a great application, but itís hard to say itís a real game, you know?"