Interview with Alawar Games

If you play casual games, chances are you have played more than few games developed in Russia. Aside from the US, Russia is the top nation for casual games development, and the top casual games company in Russia is Alawar Entertainment. We spoke with Andrew Postnikov, Director of Publishing, to learn all about Alawar Entertainment, and secret behind the Magic Ball series, and why Russian companies are so successful at creating casual games.

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If you play casual games, chances are you have played more than few games developed in Russia. Aside from the US, Russia is the top nation for casual games development, and the top casual games company in Russia is Alawar Entertainment. We spoke with Andrew Postnikov, Director of Publishing, to learn all about Alawar Entertainment, and secret behind the Magic Ball series, and why Russian companies are so successful at creating casual games.

What’s the story behind your name? What does “Alawar” mean?

Once upon a time, a fantasy book fell into Alex Lyskovsky’s hands by pure chance. He wasn’t our CEO at that time, and in fact hadn’t even thought of starting a casual games company, so no one remembers the author or the title of the novel. But it mentioned an elf town with a name that sounded similar to “Alawar.” When we launched our company, we loved the idea of naming ourselves after a town of elves, and the rest is history.

Of which of your games are you especially fond?

It’s difficult to choose favorites from among our games because each one requires lot of work and represents months of blood, sweat and tears on the part of a team of developers. That said, we’ve published many titles of which I’m especially proud. Among my favorites are the Snowy the Bear and Magic Ball releases. These projects offer a unique experience.

The original Magic Ball, for example, was one of the first successful and most popular (if not the most popular) 3D Breakout games in the world. As for Snowy, a sketch of our popular polar bear first appeared on a napkin, and now we’ve developed and published seven games featuring his adorable smile. With each new release, we strive to make his games more engaging and of a higher quality. Just wait until you see what’s next! I’d also like to single out Hyperballoid and The Treasures of Montezuma as exceptional.

What about other developers’ games? Has anything new and interesting caught your attention?

I’m a big fan of World of Warcraft, so you can find me hacking and slashing my way through The Burning Crusades. But if you’re asking about casual games, it’d be unfair of me to not mention Mystery Case Files: Ravenhearst from Big Fish. It’s a genuine masterpiece made in the best tradition of the I Spy genre. And as a Breakout fan, I’d also like to give a shout-out to Fizzball. Its very original and its production values are top-notch. Flower Shop from Tik Games also caught my attention. It’s very cute and provides an extremely positive experience.

Alawar is the leading casual game publisher in Russia, one of the largest and fastest growing markets for casual game development. How did you start Alawar, and what accounts for your success?

Alawar Entertainment was founded in 1997 as a company which specialized in large games sold on CD through retail outlets. We also did some outsourcing. But in Russia in 1999, an economic crisis that affected the retail market for games made it risky and unprofitable to develop large titles. As a developer, we received only a few cents for each copy sold. Fortunately, we found a niche we believed had great potential — small games distributed and sold via the Internet.

At that time, the downloadable games market was just taking shape. Regardless, we decided to reposition and focus on what are now called “casual games.” Alawar became one of the first Eastern European companies to focus on this niche. After several tries, we made a casual game the public enjoyed. (Our first few games were too hardcore for the audience we were targeting.)

The success of our games encouraged other developers to try this new format, and they began asking us for help and advice. In 2001, besides making our own titles, we launched a publishing department. One of the things that helped us as well as those whose games we published succeed is that we were always ready to learn from our partners and share our knowledge and experience.

What impact do you think Russian developers have had on the casual games space? In what areas do Russian game developers excel, and how can they improve?

Today, more than 25 percent of all casual games are developed in Eastern Europe. That number is probably higher because we don’t count the games outsourced in Russia and launched under an American trademark. This happens quite often because development in Eastern Europe is less expensive than in the U.S. Programming and design schools in Russia are of a very high quality, but our developers lack the understanding of what will or won’t do well in the U.S. because of our different cultural backgrounds.

How has the casual game market changed in Russia since you started and what are your predictions for the future?

We established the Russian casual games market in 2002. Although several companies in Eastern Europe were already specializing in the development of casual games, all of them were aimed at the U.S. You couldn’t buy a casual game in Russia at that time.

So we localized about 30 games from our collection and started marketing them. It was difficult to build the market from the ground up. People didn’t know about casual games, the infrastructure of the Internet was poor, broadband connectivity was limited and no one used ecommerce. The idea of buying something online was strange to people, as they thought they wouldn’t get their product. Plus, credit cards were rare. These things compelled us to make the purchase of casual games more suitable to Russians. Currently in Russia, you can register a game by means of more than 20 methods, including sending an SMS message. Now the casual games market is developing at a terrific pace. It grew 500 percent in 2006, and we expect the rate in 2007 will be the same if not higher.

In what countries besides Russia are the best casual games being made? In other words, what country is the next “Russia” of casual games?

Perhaps the U.S. There are some smart guys and gals over there! Great casual games are being developed not only in Russia but also Belarus, Poland, Romania and Ukraine. I believe these countries will remain leaders in the development of casual games, and that many games will be outsourced there.

Your best-selling franchise is the Magic Ball series. Though it doesn’t get as much respect as Bejeweled or Diner Dash, Magic Ball is one of the most successful casual game franchises so far. How many Magic Ball games have you sold? And can you provide insight into the development of Magic Ball 3?

As for Magic Ball 3, it’s too early to examine the results. However, we sold more than one million copies of the first two installments in the series around the world. (The games have been localized for the major European and Asian languages and ported to mobile phones.) This success motivated us to create Magic Ball 3. Development on that game took about two years and cost around $150,000. That’s far less than Bookworm Adventures, but today, Magic Ball 3 is the most expensive casual title developed in Eastern Europe. And I believe it’s one of the best casual games created in Russia.

What were the challenges in creating a sequel that retained the magic of the original while adding new features?

We always try to offer people who play our Magic Ball games an innovative experience. When we released the original Magic Ball, it was just about the first 3D Breakout game in the world. Magic Ball 2 took the visuals to the next level. When we started work on Magic Ball 3, it was difficult to come up with an original concept. Since we wanted to make an Arkanoid game, we had to work within certain boundaries, such as having a paddle and a ball. So to offer something ground-breaking, we focused on realistic physics and incredible graphics.

We also set out to create a Breakout game that didn’t use traditional bricks, but divided realistic scenes into smashable pieces. That’s why when you hit an apple tree, dozens of pieces of fruit fall to the ground and bounce around. Or when you grab the Tornado power up, you might see a castle crumble and be blown off the edge of the playing field. We wanted to create a lot of moments where the player would scream, “That was cool!”

Alawar publishes and releases up to 35 games a year! What are you looking for when you decide to publish a game?

The main thing which influences our decision is the nature of the company itself. Finding a common language with a developer is the most important part of making a game. But the studio must also have its own unique point of view about its product AND be creative. As a publisher, we try to preserve the unique vision of the developer while investing their game with our experience and making the changes necessary for the title to succeed.

What’s the audience for Alawar’s games? Do you see that changing?

While the majority of casual gamers are women, I don’t want to quote statistics because each person is unique, and whether or not a person likes casual games doesn’t depend on his or her age, job or marital status. I believe more and more people are playing casual games, mainly because the experience is improving. The majority of new casual games feature high quality graphics, audio and physics, so they’re attracting more people. Plus, casual games offer unique challenges and help people relax. That’s what most players are looking for!

Casual games aren’t played only on the PC anymore. What non-PC devices are you most excited about and why?

Placing casual games on Xbox Live Arcade is the first and, in my opinion, the most successful experiment with a different platform. I believe that service will continue to expand and become even more popular. The Wii is another excellent device. It offers a nice casual experience and provides great entertainment, especially when you’re with your family or friends. I believe casual games will continue to appear on new platforms and become even more popular. But the PC still has a strong position, as it’s available to the majority of people all over world.

What can you tell us about your Alawar Game Box technology?

Alawar Game Box is a new program that gives you access to our entire library of games. The client was designed to help you organize our games on your computer, to inform you of our new releases and to enable you to download updates for our games automatically.

After you install Alawar Game Box, it receives updates from us. Before doing anything, though, the program will ask for your permission. Alawar Game Box is convenient because it makes all of our new games available to you without visiting our website. Everything else you need is inside the program, too, including special offers. Basically, all of our games are in one place on your computer, allowing you to easily find your favorites.

Finally, we made Alawar Game Box easy to install and use. You can also remove it from your computer whenever you choose. Of course, we don’t require you to use it. You can still download all of our games from our Web site. Currently, you can download the beta version of Alawar Game Box. If you do, please provide us with feedback so we can improve the program before its final release.

Can you give us hints on the games you’re planning to launch in the future?

We’re making sequels to our most popular games, including Hyperballoid and Arctic Quest (see exclusive screen shots on the left hand side). We’re also continuing the Snowy the Bear line. In addition, we’re developing some new game series with unique characters and gameplay. Although we’re excited about our upcoming releases and can’t wait for our fans to play them, we want the quality of each one to be superior.

Five years from now, I’m playing an Alawar game. What’s the experience like?

To answer this question, we’d need to first speculate about what the casual games market will be like at that time. Everything will depend on the new technologies available and how the makeup of our audience has changed. We’re making games for them, and what they want will affect the kinds of games we’ll make in the future. If I knew what I’d need in five years, I’d buy it now!