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Creativity VS. Marketability in Hyper-Casual: Interview with Umut, Game Lead at Sunday

Umut Önel — the Head of Sunday’s Team Coconut — is a master at developing highly successful yet creative games. With 7 years in hyper-casual and a portfolio of smash hits to his name, he knows how to give players what they want. In this chat with Umut, we touch on the importance of understanding the players’ perspective, and try to understand whether it’s possible to balance marketability and creativity in a highly-competitive hyper-casual market. Spoiler alert: it is! And who’s more well-equipped to talk about this than Umut, who’s proved this time and time again by making games that are both highly imaginative and profitable?

Hi, Umut! To start things off, could you tell the readers a little bit about your background in game development?

Well, back when I studied Material Engineering in Ankara, my roommate was working on a game and asked me to help him out with art and game design. I never considered making games before, but I loved making 2d art and I had some experience in software development. So I decided to give it a try. And I never looked back!

Since then, we started producing indie mobile games and even won the Mobile Game of the Year prize at Crystal Pixel Awards in 2017, followed by making it to the final selection for Indie Prize Kyiv. One thing led to another, and I dedicated myself fully to game design and making hyper-casual games. I’ve worked for big publishers, solo and in a team, and now I have quite a number of hits and stable, profitable games.

In the last article, we learned that for your team to make a successful game it’s especially important to understand the player’s perspective. Could you explain it further? 

Actually, when it comes to hyper-casual, you need to understand the perspective of all users at once, because we’re trying to reach the widest audience possible. If you want to make a marketable product that’s widely enjoyed, you need to consider everyone — a 7 year old kid, their 40 year old engineer-dad, and even the 70 years old grandma. If we want to reach them all at once, we need to make everything in the game — from gameplay to art — as easy to understand as possible. 

That’s why we, for example, use simple humanoid characters. Everyone understands them in the same way and it allows us to reach common perception of the game. When you start to add too many details to your game art or gameplay, you increase the chances of it being misinterpreted, and it’s never good for your KPIs. That’s why we stick to making things that are simple and intuitive.

And how do you make sure that your team achieves that?

It’s a process, a team work, and a lot of testing too. When we aren’t sure that our ideas are easy to grasp, we go around the office asking people what they think of our design. If one out of twenty people in the office doesn’t get it, it means that potentially 5% of users won’t understand the game like we imagined and designed it. Then we know that there’s a problem and we have to change it.

You are trying to make the most marketable product possible, the one that would appeal to most people. With this in mind, is it difficult to still be able to express your creativity?

Striking a balance between creativity and marketability is a challenge, but with experience you can overcome it. We, as developers and artists, all have a passion for games, and we want to make beautiful, high-quality products. Sometimes this attitude translates into overcomplicating things, like making the gameplay too complex or art too detailed. The truth is, though, beautiful doesn’t mean complicated. You can make things that are both simple and beautiful. These are the ones that will reach the widest audience, and this is what we’re doing with Team Coconut.

To “sell” your game you need to make sure that within the first five seconds of an ad, every potential player can understand the gameplay. If it’s too complex, they just won’t download it. Yes, it’s definitely a limitation, but you can still be creative within it. After a couple of years in the industry, you just start thinking about simplicity from the start. This not only makes the final product more marketable, but also make the process more efficient. 

When working on a highly marketable product, how do you and your team find ways to add personality and creativity to your games? Do you have an example?

Most of the time, we start by thinking big. Then we take small steps back, but we always keep it creative. A great example here would be Dozer Miner, our game where you dig layers of ground uncovering gemstones and coins that you can spend on upgrading your dozer to dig faster and deeper.

When working on Dozer Miner, we were thinking: “How can we make this loop better and more creative?”. That’s when we decided to hide some collectibles underground for players to discover them. But we also wanted to make these items more special, so we broke them down into pieces. This way, finding one piece encourages the player to find the rest. We also created a museum where players display their artefacts for tourists to see. And if you tap on a tourist, you collect money from them to spend on upgrading your dozer to find other collectibles faster and make more money. This is a loop you’d find in indie games, actually, and we successfully implemented it and upgraded our game. This has impacted the KPIs very well, too.

In the environment where everyone’s trying to make the most marketable product and everyone’s using the same references and trends, what’s the way to stand out among the competition?

It’s a difficult one. I guess, we’re standing out by stepping back from this trend-based race. We’re working with our product strategy and a special (very secret) formula. It helps us find a niche inside a popular genre that we can sneak in and make games with a higher chance of success. Focus genres that we ideate on switch every month, and it actually helps us stay creative by giving us a direction that’s already more easily marketable. The two last games from Team Coconut, Dozer Miner and Mr. Pain, came out of this product strategy, so we find it pretty successful.

Do you mind sharing some tips for aspiring developers to help them create marketable games?


  • First of all, don’t spend too much time on unnecessary details, both in coding and art. There’s no need to spend many hours over-engineering a joystick, when there are amazing ready-to-use assets available. Make use of those, and spend your time on polishing your gameplay and making it deeper. 
  • Keep your concept simple to reach the widest audience. A hyper-casual game should be easy to understand from a single screenshot. You can even test this: show a screenshot of your prototype to people around, and if they describe it similarly to the concept you have in your mind, you’re on the right track.
  • And, finally, you shouldn’t work on the idea you don’t believe in. If you don’t believe that the market will accept your idea, it won’t. Same goes for your team — everyone should believe in the project you work on. First, it increases the motivation. Second, it’s simply a good sign when people from the industry love the idea. Then there’s a high chance that the market will love it too.

Thanks, Umut!

We’re definitely sharing the Sunday way of thinking. Despite hyper-casual being a lucrative business with a focus on driving revenues up, we still find ways to express our creativity and vision in games that we make. Next time we’ll be sharing more pro-level insight from everyone at Sunday — stay tuned!

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