In the tumultuous world of gaming, few indie studios survive a change of platform—much less if they’re located outside the major game development hubs. But in Belgrade, Serbia, a studio called Nordeus has sailed through almost a decade of development, breaking norms along the way.
Top Eleven, the company’s football management sim, was originally launched on Facebook, where it became so popular that it beat EA’s (Electronic Arts) renowned football franchise, FIFA. When the mobile platform eclipsed Facebook games, Nordeus brought their hit over to smartphones and kept growing, reaching 180 million registered users—making it the most successful sports mobile game in the world.
In this exclusive interview with the Fyber Blog, Nikola Čavić, Nordeus’s head of business development, shares the story of the studio’s rapid rise, hands-on growth tactics, and clever monetization using rewarded ads.
Going against the grain, and striking gold
Nordeus was founded in 2010, and has operated without a publisher or investors since day one. Being an indie developer gave the studio the space to experiment, and the autonomy to build the way they thought best—but staying so independent wasn’t a choice. “When we started there was very little game development being done in our country,” Čavić says. Nordeus had to find their own way.
The result of their early efforts, Top Eleven, thus looked both similar to and very different from existing football management franchises. Top Eleven is a management sim where you get to coach matches, train players, sign sponsorships, and trade for more skilled athletes. But it was also built around sharing and social from the start, and, unconventionally, aimed at players in countries such as Turkey, Indonesia, and Brazil, where the conventional wisdom said there was no money to be found.
Image via Nordeus
Nordeus also took unconventional routes to growth. “We invested in the community, signed up with local football clubs, and put a lot of effort into localizing,” Čavić says. “As a result of that we had massive activity in the game. And we had very little cost.”
Full immersion into developing markets helped the studio succeed through sheer scale. When Nordeus had 100,000 users in the U.S., they had over 3 million players booting up in Turkey.
Over time, Nordeus has also experimented with many paid user acquisition ideas. “We’ve had to go through many strategies over 8 years,” Čavić says. From experimenting with rewarded ads to working with influencers and celebrities, Nordeus always made sure to test new techniques and ideas.
Scoring big with rewarded video and offer walls
Having a large player base for a free-to-play mobile game isn’t enough if they don’t provide revenue. With millions of players spread across multiple low-yielding markets, Nordeus couldn’t rely solely on revenue from in-app purchases. Today, of course, the answer would be obvious: in-game ads, particularly rewarded video advertising and offer wall.
In the years Nordeus was growing, though, rewarded a small trend, and developers who monetized off ads often relied on annoying pop-ups and banners. Nordeus was one of the first to realize that players shouldn’t be forced to interact with mobile ads. “We never ran traditional advertising like pop-ups, it was always an option for the user whether to watch an ad or not,” Čavić recalls. In the days of Facebook, that meant offer walls, which let users choose from promotional offers by outside companies.
Rewarded video ads eventually outstripped offer walls. Instead of only rewarding users for completing offers through just an offer wall placement, Nordeus gave rewarded video ads more entry points, raising revenue by 25%.
Getting the most out of rewarded video
After nearly a decade of ad-based monetization, Nordeus has learned many lessons along the way, which helped them develop a well-oiled system. Čavić says that the keys to mobile ad monetization are personalization and frequency. “I remember at one point, we limited how many videos a user can watch, and they complained. There was a vocal part of the community that felt that way of interacting with the game was important to them, and they wanted to have it back.”
Image via Nordeus
So the studio listened to users, and integrated rewarded video ads into many key in-game moments. At the 2018 Game Developers Conference (GDC), Nordeus’s senior product manager Nebojša Đjurić showcased the many different rewarded video ad placements seeded throughout their games: ads that appear after players run out of lives, and ads that encourage longer play times with boosters and doubled rewards, amongst other buffs—increasing ad revenue another 25%. All the ads are built around the natural flow of the game. “When it comes to introducing new placements or changing them, it’s about optimization and granularity in terms of triggers, and what type of award is given to what players,” Čavić says.
And with Top Eleven so firmly entrenched, Nordeus has been able to finally work on new games. Spellsouls, a card game, has soft launched in over 10 countries. The studio also found success with Facebook Messenger Instant Games in Golden Boot, a flick and shoot football game with over 30 million players that, like Top Eleven, is monetized through ads.
Nordeus went into development with the odds stacked against them: no local dev community for support, and no dollar-lined runway from investors. But by looking to the community’s needs—whether those were rewarded ads, or tips from legendary football managers such as Jose Mourinho—the company was able to kick their way to the top. “We made it work with zero experience in a place that nobody was making games,” Čavić says. “One thing that really helped us was, we always looked into what the players want. If we could do it, everyone else can, as well.”