Back to Insights

How to Enable Success: Interview with Balaji, Sunday’s Head of Publishing

Balaji’s schedule is packed: as the Head of Publishing, he is one of the busiest people on the team. Switching between meetings, studios, and Sunday’s offices, he’s the spark plug that keeps the hyper-casual hit machine running. That said, he found some time, met us with his regular genial smile, and we started to chat. Keep reading and learn what Balaji thinks of hyper-casual’s future, what his plan and motivations are, and more — directly from the man behind Sunday’s many successes.

Hi Balaji! To kick things off, could you give us a little overview of your journey to being the Head of Publishing at Sunday?

So, I’m kind of a bridge between the old mobile era and the new hyper-casual era. I joined the software industry in India 18 years ago, after I had trained myself to be a developer. Since then, I have had many jobs. I was a product manager for an open-source JP Morgan project back when open-source was just emerging. However, my day-to-day job wasn’t challenging enough for me — I used to learn fast and plateau out. Then I realized that I had always loved games and wanted to know what went into making one. After that, it was never boring! I’ve worked on mobile and console games for many Western publishers, including big players like Sony and Microsoft. And thanks to working with early free-to-play leaders like Zynga and King later on, I went deep into casual free-to-play mobile games.

A lot of things that were relevant in the early days of casual free-to-play are relevant now. And this, I think, really helps us. People say I have a cool head, and it’s because I’ve been in the industry for a long time and I’ve seen many current scenarios before.

What would you say is different about the hyper-casual industry today?

We are pivoting from the times when it was easy to make hit games. The player behavior is changing. Today’s hyper-casual players require more depth and better product experiences just because the competition is high and the offerings are too many. Anyway, this is not something that bothers me or keeps me sleepless. I’ve seen it time and time again when companies have successfully come out of a similar transition. 

People ask me regularly “What’s the future of hyper-casual?”, and I have two counter questions to them. The first one is “Do you see a scenario where mobile advertising is dead?” If the answer is no, there is a business and a monetization model for hyper-casual. The second one is “Do you see a scenario where people stop playing games just because they have to watch ads?” If the answer is no, and I think it’s a no, then why would this business model die? It doesn’t matter what you call it — hyper-casual or hybrid-casual — but if the answers to these questions are negative, then the games we make do have a market. It’s as simple as that. The big challenge now is that we need to give better value for the players’ time than before.

How do you plan to achieve more depth in the games?

It is the challenge we are working on and there’s already a success story. It’s Spinner Merge. To develop it, we took a well-performing concept and reimagined it by introducing new and better elements to it. 

This case follows the “proven-better-new” framework. Luigi De Curtis gives a great example of it in his LinkedIn post: “Zynga’s Farmville was a hugely successful video game on desktop, becoming the most played game on Facebook for a couple of years in a row. It is a farming social network game, where players go online and engage in farm management activities. Some years later, Supercell launched Hay Day, a similar farming video game on mobile. The concepts were already proven. What was new was the new platform and adaptation for mobile.”

Coming back to Spinner Merge, we followed a similar path. We took a proven concept and broke it down to find elements we could improve on and features we could add. As a result, we added more depth to the D0-D7 engagement. I saw the numbers today, and we increased every metric: the revenue by 50%, and the engagement by 30-40%. The revenue is what really matters, and as long as our LTV>CPI, it shows that we know what we are doing. We are not afraid of experimenting and we are ready to share the learnings with the studios on a daily basis.

Is this success story a part of Sunday’s new product strategy? Could you tell me more about it?

It’s not a part of it, but it has the same focus on familiarity.

For our new product strategy, we analyze the market and search for games that share core gameplay elements. Then, we see if they’re familiar to a large number of players, and then think of what new aspects we could bring to this so-called focus genre we’re adapting. It’s the tension between familiar and novel that can engage hyper-casual players and result in hit games. Well, at least it’s one way of making hit games that’s been proven time and time again.

We came up with focus genres because when we used to rely on blue-sky ideation, we often had a lot of marketable ideas that we couldn’t make a game out of. With this new product strategy, we start with a scenario where there are many successful hit games in the genre we focus on. For these focus genres, we use a taxonomy which is unique to hyper-casual and based on our expert read on the market. This way, we will never get in a situation where we have a marketable concept but no game.

We have already come up with a set of documents about focus genres that give studios clarity and direction. Actually, we already have some early pilots with really good results. I know we are on the right track, and it means more initiatives for our product strategy are coming, like extra educational content and workshops.

Normally, people come from hyper-casual and move forward to console, but you went from console to hyper-casual. What keeps you motivated to stay in this field?

I have two reasons for that. I come from India and I grew up poor, with people for whom entertainment was a luxury, even TV or going to the cinemas. And, now, it’s the golden age of mobile in India. People who don’t have access to other forms of entertainment, still have smartphones with hyper-casual games — you can pay with your time by watching ads. This gives access to free world-class entertainment to this big part of the population that many don’t even think about. If you make console games, it’s great, but you will still be serving a niche luxury. That’s why I work in a company that helps make accessible and affordable content for people where I come from. It’s really close to my heart. 

Second, hyper-casual has the lowest entry barrier for gaming studios in any part of the world. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the USA, Germany, India, Turkey, or Pakistan, the playing ground is leveled. For the first time in the history of gaming! Before that, if you wanted to make content for the West, you had to be in the West. People in India were simply out of context and had a geographic and a cultural disadvantage. Now, to make hyper-casual games, you don’t have to be in a specific area, you just need to know the market. 

Today we see chart-topping games coming from Turkey, Bangladesh, India… And this is what we at Sunday are enabling — making games for the whole world with studios who sometimes don’t even speak English. For me, this is the kick. This is what led me here and this is what keeps me here.

Is there a particular case on your mind?

On my journey with Sunday, I met so many game designers who started a studio for the first time in their lives, and still made profitable games with us. When I went to Turkey earlier this year, I met with one of our partner studios. I remember, when they first contacted Sunday, they were just two students making games from their parents’ homes. When I finally met them in person, they were proudly showing off their new studio with around ten new employees. Of course, this achievement is thanks to the huge amount of hard work they’ve put in. I’m just happy we could become the enabling factor for them to make this transition to studio owners able to provide employment in their country.

And to wrap things up, a piece of wisdom from Balaji?

Sure, I have 3 tips here:

  • First, when you are testing the marketability of your new concept, ask your publisher if the metric you’re testing will be applicable while scaling the game. Only test for metrics that are relevant down the line when you are scaling your game. 
  • Second, take some time to evaluate whether your concept allows room for depth. You have to have it if you want players to come again the next day or again on D7. For example, it’s an FPS game and you tap on the enemy’s head to get a kill shot. This may be thrilling the first time, but why would they do this again and again? Without the depth you will not have the LTV required for the current high-CPI market.
  • And finally, don’t be afraid to ask your publisher for help in the areas you lack expertise or experience in. If they can’t provide it, the chances of making a hit game with them are pretty slim. 

Thanks, Bala! 

Can you see why we often call Balaji Sunday’s secret weapon? Our Head of Publishing’s vision of hyper-casual is rooted in his heritage, and his drive is fueled by the desire to empower global talent. Mixed with the thorough knowledge of the industry, this makes for an unbeatable asset when it comes to publishing. We’re stoked to have Balaji on board, and the best part is that you can benefit from his expertise too. Publish with Sunday, and you could be the next big success for Balaji to rave about!

Interested in publishing with Sunday?

Ready to begin your success story?