Two years later, Backyard Monsters continues to thrive on Facebook

Last week, Backyard Monsters — developer Kixeye’s bloody, goofy Facebook strategy game designed for hardcore video game fans — hit a major milestone: its second birthday.

Backyard Monsters made the developer what it is today, allowing the studio to grow from only a few friends working together to over a hundred employees in downtown San Francisco. The game is an anomaly, having lasted well past the point where most titles on the Facebook platform would be winding down toward sunsetting. Backyard Monsters also proved that hardcore gamers are a viable market to target on Facebook.

Currently, our AppData traffic tracking service lists the game at 2.5 million monthly active users and 580,000 daily active users for a very healthy retention rate of 23 percent. While that’s lower than the game’s all-time high of 4.5 million MAU and 1 million DAU, the numbers have been holding relatively steady since October.

Kixeye co-founder Dave Scott walks us through the past years with Backyard Monsters, sharing the lessons learned during the game’s continual development to apply toward the developer’s future — both on and off of Facebook.

Humble origins

Backyard Monsters’ story begins before Kixeye was Kixeye. Originally, the  company was called The Casual Collective, a portal for Flash games founded by friends Dave Scott and Paul Preece. Aside from a healthy amount of startup money provided by an investor in the United States, Scott and Preece had been using video ads and paid subscriptions to generate cash. The Casual Collective was able to bring in money with these methods, but it wasn’t enough to be profitable. The subscription model was especially problematic, even though it was bringing in more money than ad sales.

“We’d unfortunately capped how much money we could make from players,” Scott said. “Even if a player wanted to give us $6, the subscription only let them spend $5.”

The final two games created by The Casual Collective for its portal — Minions on Ice and TSG: Missions — featured virtual goods, which proved to be an eye opener for the developer. The original belief was that gamers wouldn’t spend more than what a retail game cost (roughly $50 to $60), but it turned out that some players were willing to spend up to $200 to proceed through a game with a finite length.

Even though company funds were running low,  Scott and Preece had enough left to move out to San Francisco, build a development team and start working on a game that would appeal to hardcore gamers: Desktop Defender, a tower defense game that tasked players with defending their desktop from invading creatures known as “creeps.” The game launched on Facebook in December 2009, peaking with just over 675,000 MAU and 930,000 DAU. To say that the gamble paid off is an understatement. Desktop Defender was making more money in a day than The Casual Collective could bring in over an entire month.

Secure in its newfound profitability, The Casual Collective began work on Backyard Monsters, a deep strategy game that could be played on Facebook. One of the key design ideas was that the title would include all elements that PC strategy fans loved, including making building placement integral to a base’s defense, as well as dynamic battles that were affected by which direction invaders came from and the order they attacked in.

From cute to crazed

One of the main concerns with the game during its development was that it wouldn’t be cute enough for the audience on Facebook. The game went through a number of working titles, including “Desktop Creatures” and “Gnometopia” before the developer settled on “Backyard Monsters.” Six months after launch, the developer decided to overhaul the art style, ditching the family-friend visuals for more blood, more guts and more intimidating creature designs.

The style change proved to be a well-received decision. Kixeye didn’t provide specifics about the results, but the company noted feedback from existing players was extremely positive and both average revenue per user and player retention increased.

Another concern was how deep gameplay could be without alienating a wide spectrum of strategy fans. Original plans included a skill tree that allowed players to upgrade different body parts of monsters, like improving legs to increase speed and adding brainpower to improve units’ AI. Ultimately, though, Scott realized this feature wasn’t going to work. He deemed it too hardcore for even hardcore players and decided to remove the feature from the game.

“Something that a lot of game developers have trouble doing is knowing when to cut something,” said Scott. “Cutting something out is still making progress. Even though it feels like you’re taking a step back, knowing that the game is going to be better without something that you just spent two weeks working on is going to result in a better game.”

An early success with lasting appeal

The game proved to be a hit, but it took almost three months before things really took off. Both MAU and DAU began gradually climbing; three months after launch, the game had roughly 500,000 MAU and 175,000 DAU. Shortly after this point, the developer started investing in advertising, which accelerated growth. By the end of 2010, Backyard Monsters broke 3.5 million MAU; the following July, it climbed to just over 4.5 million. The company also re-branded itself as “Kixeye” in April 2011 to help establish its identity as a developer of “core” Facebook games.

Since then, Backyard Monsters’ traffic has dropped off, but the game proved the developer’s point: that older women weren’t the only market for Facebook games. Even though 97 percent of Backyard Monsters’ core player base is male, the average play session is roughly 30 minutes. On top of this, the average player will put in three or four sessions a day. Meanwhile, the company was eleven times as profitable in 2011 as it was in 2010. Monetization comes from players purchasing hard currency called “shiny” and then spending it on virtual goods. Scott says 85 percent of virtual sales in the game come from players purchasing speed-ups to complete unit production. With this model and at this rate, Kixeye predicts that its revenue will break nine figures in 2012.

Brandon Barber, Kixeye’s senior vice president of marketing, explained how the hardcore gamer mentality works with Backyard Monsters’ monetization: “You see a type of user come in to play the game that is very, very, focused on winning. They don’t want to lose. If you give them the tools to ensure they have a strategic advantage over their opponents, they’ll take it. Sometimes it’s monetization, and sometimes it’s just smarter gameplay… most people don’t want to be on the losing side, so we offer them tools to help stay on the winning side.”

Weekly updates also keep players coming back and Kixeye made a point of providing major upgrades to the game. Last year, it was a map room addition and the implementation of powerful “champion” monsters that can’t be killed; more recently, the Inferno expansion added a strong narrative players could follow.

New games, new content and a new platform

Backyard Monsters’ success has allowed Kixeye to continue growing. Over the past year, the company launched two other strategy games: Battle Pirates and War Commander. While neither of these games enjoys the same level of traffic as Backyard Monsters, they’re both steady at nearly a million MAU and  around 200,000 to 230,000 DAU. Both of these games are also strategy titles, yet they feature more in-depth combat systems that allow players to directly control units during a battle — as opposed to Backyard Monsters, where the creatures act of their own accord once they’re dropped into an enemy’s base.

Even as Kixeye expands its games catalog, work continues on Backyard Monsters. The next big upgrade will include a new champion monster, based on the recent Inferno expansion. Scott tells us that Backyard Monsters currently has an indefinite lifespan; whereas most other social game developers cut staff on a game down to a handful of people after a year or so, Kixeye currently has nine people working on the game (according to Scott, this is, “the largest development team in the entire history of the game”).

Aside from the regular weekly updates, Backyard Monsters is also expanding to a wider audience in the near future. Barber tells us that Kixeye is working on building its own platform to launch in the next six months. Much like, the new platform will likely allow players to sign in seamlessly and carry over their information via Facebook Connect, or play the games directly on the platform without having a Facebook account. Barber explained that the platform will primarily appeal to gamers who don’t have Facebook accounts and don’t want to play games that are tied to publicly available information.

“For us, this is less about trying to extract ourselves from Facebook and more about experimentation,” Barber said.

This new platform continues Kixeye’s legacy of taking chances and testing new strategies in order to appeal to an audience that is often overlooked by other developers. We’ll see if it the strategy works as well off of Facebook as it did for Backyard Monsters when it first launched on the platform two years ago.

Publish date: March 20, 2012 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT