City-builders, Battlers, Strategies and Farms
Alexander Pavlov, co-founder and CEO of mobile gaming company Playkot, talks to GOLD about how it has evolved from being a small studio developing games for social networking sites to making it onto Deloitte’s inaugural Technology Fast 50 list for the Middle East and Cyprus.
By Adonis Adoni | Photo by Giorgos Charal
Let’s start with a trip down memory lane – what are your first memories of playing games?
I remember a friend of mine had an old ZX Spectrum. The games were stored on regular audio tapes and you had to rewind them manually on a tape recorder – this is something you can never forget! I would not have called myself a gaming fan back then since I didn’t play more often than my peers and, by the time I got my first computer, I was more interested in programming than gaming.
How did Playkot initially come about?
In 2009, my business partner Oleg Sysoev noticed that it had become possible to put apps on social networking sites. We tried making the simplest and most obvious app – a game – which turned out to be a perfect platform to reach an audience. Our planning horizons were short-term back then. We created some simple games that gave us a small but steady income but we wanted to do something more complicated and were constantly striving to up the scale. The most inspiring thing was – and still is – the fact that you can get feedback right away. In the first 15 minutes, you can see how the audience reacts to an update. It is fascinating! In other businesses, people tend to get feedback from end users only months or even years later.
Where did the focus on mobile games, and specifically the city-building genre, come from? Why not focus on PC and console games?
We started as a company that makes games for social networking sites but, after five or six years, this market stopped growing so we changed our direction. The mobile gaming market was the best fit for us – we are using a free-to-play model, which works best on mobile devices but we are now working on launching our mobile games on other platforms and devices. As for genres, we have a quite diverse portfolio: city-builders, battlers, strategies and farms. As a guide, we have always followed a triangle: market or audience needs, team desires, and company capabilities. Any new product we create lies at the intersection of these three points.
How long does it take to develop a title from idea to market?
We began with small and fast-to-produce games but game development now takes three or four years and includes several steps. We first determine what the gameplay, visual style, history and technical architecture will look like. We then prepare the game to be launched to a limited audience in order to obtain the first response and understand what needs to change. When we are satisfied with the key metrics, the game launches globally, opening it up to a broad audience before we start marketing. The game will then go through the growth and development stages. At this juncture, it is critical to check if we are heading in the right direction; if a product seems unsuccessful, investment in the game needs to stop. While making this decision as soon as possible is crucial, it is equally important not to miscalculate and close the game too early. We aim to develop a game with a 5-10-year life cycle after its launch.
Take us through your most successful current games. Also, what is your target audience and what is the audience for each title?
We have a city-builder called SuperCity, which has been on Facebook’s Top 20 best-selling games list and keeps growing, 11 years after its launch. It is available on social networks, desktops and browsers and is mainly played by a female audience, with many users coming from the USA. Age of Magic is our mobile hit that made it into China’s top 50 highest-grossing games. It’s a turn-based RPG about battles in a magical world, with 70-80% of its audience being men who like elaborate game universes, challenges, and competition with other players. In May, we launched Spring Valley, a mobile game targeting women, with a mix of adventure, farm and relationship gameplay. The metrics look very promising. We are also currently working on Protectors: Shooter Legends. Our most ambitious project yet, it is a shooter game for an audience that can’t enjoy existing shooter games due to the limitations of the genre.
In recent years, we have seen a great number of mobile gaming companies from the CIS region, including Playkot, opening up in Cyprus. What are the drivers here?
The combination of its laws and business conditions makes Cyprus a perfect fit for IT companies, mobile game developers included. We have chosen Cyprus out of many locations because we are building a global company and nowadays, condition-wise, it is one of the best places in Europe or even worldwide. The IT community in Cyprus has an incredible networking environment and the opportunity to exchange knowledge and experience is extremely valuable.
A few months ago, Playkot was included in the inaugural Technology Fast 50 list by global consultancy Deloitte, as one of the fastest-growing companies in the Middle East and Cyprus. Can you give us a clear picture of what this growth looks like, as well as the main reasons behind it?
As our team expands, so does the audience for our games, along with our revenue. In 2021, 3.6 million people installed our games and that figure rose to 4.9 million in 2022. The growth of the market facilitated our own, so going with the flow has helped us advance even faster. Secondly, we have built a strong team that can outpace our competitors and, finally, our ability to understand the market and choose the products the audience needs has helped us develop faster than others.
There are some big players with relatively bigger teams and financial muscle than Playkot’s in the mobile builder-producer genre. Yet, you still manage to go toe-to-toe with them. How have you managed to bridge that gap?
Being a medium-sized company gives us the advantage of having greater flexibility and the ability to respond to market needs more quickly and take faster decisions.
At the same time, our team keeps growing – from 230 people in 2020 to 330 as of today. Despite changing our management approach, we are trying to maintain this flexibility and avoid turning into an inert, bureaucratic company.
Do you worry that the inflationary pressures and the cost-of-living squeeze will find their way into mobile gaming spending by consumers?
For now, we are not seeing people cutting down their expenditure on mobile games, but inflation affects us in a different way: the cost of production and marketing is rising. We will have to adapt to those changes in the market so that our revenue will not slow down more than inflation.
Do you see any upcoming technologies radically changing the mobile gaming industry?
Within a three-year horizon, blockchain and associated technologies will have the most influence, and as AI technologies are applied more and more often, they will, in turn, lead to technological breakthroughs in production and gameplay. In a few years, it is possible that these capabilities will expand so much that players will get their own individually customized gameplay inside the game.
In your personal life, do you still have time to play games? Mobile, desktop or tabletop?
Not as much as I would like to but I still play games, mainly to understand the market and the audience’s needs. I am trying to pick up on trends as they start to emerge. I play desktop games far more rarely than mobile games. The last game that got me to spend many hours in front of a computer screen was Cyberpunk 2077. While an exciting game, I couldn’t help but think about what might be useful to our business from it.
Let’s end by going back down memory lane – how does the Playkot of today compare with the one that started over ten years ago, in terms of size and vision?
At the very start, we saw game development as a short-term pursuit. But the more we became immersed in the industry, the more we understood that games had huge growth potential. We are now becoming a more mature company and the more successful the company is, the more opportunities we have to attract talented people. Every year, a growing number of professionals join our team and working with people from whom you can learn a lot is inspiring in its own right.
And finally, what’s next for the company?
At the moment, the market is facing major challenges. Clearly, the growth of the last ten years has finished and the next two to three years will be a time for searching for new models, approaches and products to ensure the company’s future and that of the market. We have arrived at this moment in quite a sound financial state; this will allow us to innovate, change our methods and reorganise, which is extremely important at the present time.