Star Chef: How to cook up a storm

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Once upon a time a certain game called Farmville commanded your undivided attention, be it night or day. If the crops were ready for harvest, one would have to log-in even if they were at a funeral.

With times, the games have changed and with a more hands-on experience now available, the craze has surpassed new barriers with the biggest being accessibility solved by smartphones.

With this India has become the land of first time gamers and people are loving the new past-time to the core. The casual genre being the ‘King’ in the country, download numbers is not a problem but monetisation is. Which is not the case globally; games which check mark a certain quality and polish accompanied with a strong back-end support and community inputs is bound to taste success.

One such studio out of Udipi – 99Games – is following the best practices, and in the course has also created its own for others to follow. Speaking with 99Games, senior producer, Shilpa Bhat on the success of studio’s cooking game Star Chef, we got a better understanding on how an Indian gaming studio too has managed to break into the big leagues and make its game monetisable globally.

The Story so far…

“With Star Chef, we wanted something in the cooking genre, being a universal theme, for our catalogue as we believed this could appeal to a large set of audience. The genre having games like Diner Dash and other such Dash games, players become time pressed and have only a minute or so to complete certain tasks,” informs Shilpa.

The cooking game genre is currently cramped up with many time management titles already vying for user attention but none have been in the space which is well paced.

“That was the case in the farming games genre too. With SuperCell’s HayDay, it changed the meaning of farming games in the industry with a very well-polished gameplay making it as realistic as possible. We felt we needed to do something similar in terms of refining the game and featuring real life setting of a chef.”

One starts their career as an amateur chef and has only one appliance and eventually have to grow their business. You initially began as a station chef, then go on to become sous chef then you become chief chef. The game has 8 to 10 cuisines like American, French, Korean, Italian, Asian and over 100 recipes to unlock and appliances which can be downloaded. There is a pride factor in the game of you growing to become the master chef.

ShilpaBhat_99Games

The Approach

At 99Games, it is always been about the global approach when it comes to development of its IPs, be its addictive word game Spell Up or one of its first time management games Prison Mayhem.

“Since our inception we have thought about the global approach and through the lessons we have learnt what is right for us and what is not. That being said, at 99Games – our strategy is two-fold, one being a global approach and other is a more local approach. We did the Dhoom 3 game which was targeted at the Indian diaspora but Star Chef was solely aimed at the global audience. We wanted to break the stereotype, saying that Indian game development studios can also deliver a globally successful and monetisable game.”

The game currently serves 187,000 daily and 1mn monthly active users, with Average Revenue Per Paying User (ARPPU) being $35. During the conversation Shilpa also reveals, that the ROI (return on investment) has to make sense for continuing the marketing spend and user acquisition. “50 per cent of our users are organic. So for every paid user we are getting one user free, so that is the kind of virality the game has. The game is quite social and also has some features where it becomes more fun when your friend is also playing with you.”

The game – when in development – was targeted towards women aged between 20 and 55. One of the reasons is that there are not many games targeted at women. “There is not much content for this TG and that is also one of the reasons that the game has fared so well and that is the age group which is the highest paying audience globally.”

Community: The Real Hero

The biggest contributing factor towards the success of the game is the large community it has built. Having soft-launched in Australia and Canada before releasing worldwide, the company took many a learnings during the 6 month pilot period to further help polish the game; during which the updates were from the features perspective, fixing the retention funnel or introducing differentiated tutorial funnels.

“Now the game has reached a stage where the retention numbers as well as monetisation levels are good; so now, the idea is to look at user engagement and take it to the next level. What we are trying to do currently is to build this as a ‘Super Fan’ game. The people are showing strong signs to build a community. What we want to build is fan features where the game can be much more fun as a community,” further adds Shilpa.

Player Community

According to the studio, a super fan is someone who is spending hours in the game. He doesn’t necessary have to be a payer, but a super fan – a person who is evangelising the game by inviting friends to take part in playing hours and months on end. “We have a community page and there some players who make it a point, if there is an issue, they come on the community page and solve the issue before our community support does for other players. There are also players who when the update comes comment in the community about it before us. These are the super fans, who are so passionate about the game that we keep asking these people what are the features they would like to play in the game.”

“When we pilot launched the game, we were constantly looking at user feedback, it could be reviews on the app store, or the mails that people sent us writing back a few pointers where we could improve the game further. We provided the mailing facility system at a very prominent place in the game which allowed a user to write to us directly. When we launched it in Australia, our game was not as polished as it is now. Some of the Australian women were taking pains to write page long mails to tell us that the game was beautiful but this was the problem that they faced and this could be improved, we were responding to them immediately and would take care of these problems in the next update.”

The Strategy

After being on the iOS platform for a year now, the game has a massive player base but an android port would not only increase but cement the IPs sustainability.

“The strategy to be on iOS was a well thought one. Being a freemium game, it progresses slowly so there is a good enough content that the players can play over months. We have an average lifetime of this game for more than 6 months. For a game this old, there can be retention drop or a player drop but the numbers for Star Chef are only increasing. It works like any Freemium model, where you can accelerate your game with IAPs but what eventually drives players to IAPs is the quality of the game.”

Human psychology is something game developers should tap into more often and social media acts as a great catalyst to propagate their ideas further. Once you see that your friend has reached a certain level, you also want to level up quickly. Then there is also the joy and pride factor, the joy of creating something in the game. “People write to us that how the game is relaxing after they come back from work and they spend couple hours on the game and expect to get maximum out of it thus wanting to accelerate and reach the next level.”

Shilpa further mentions that the game is showing strong potential when it comes to numbers. When compared to the popular TV show Masterchef, the numbers are startling. Where the most popular cooking show has a run time of 40 minutes, Star Chef has an average game time per day of 42 minutes including different sessions.

Culturisation is the key

“India has a very vast cuisine and has food is very much in our culture. But in India, localisation is just translating into different languages. What we stress upon is culturalisation. It is easier to localise, but it is important for the developers to culturise the game. When we bring a game to a particular geo then it has to culturise well according to that geo. There are certain nuances that you have to bring to the game.”

Star_Chef_Culturalisation

When Star Chef released in Asia, studio artists drew a bowl of noodles with two chopsticks dipped inside it but that way of keeping the chopsticks implies that you are presenting the noodles to the dead. These are minute details which can make or break the game in the global domain. Such instances may not be of much importance in some regions but could be highly offensive in another. “The colours, the decor change according to different geos and where the player is playing the game. The Chinese want different decors in their restaurant, so all that has to be brought in and that is what we have taken care of. Even the people who come into the restaurant are of different cultures. So when one opens the game in Asia, it looks different then as against when played in Europe or other western regions.”

What next?

99Games is planning to pilot launch the game this month for android in the same regions which it attributes its success to, namely Australia and Canada followed by a global roll out early next year. The studio is currently working on a number of games but that is for another day.

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