We recently had the opportunity to speak with Nick Baicoinau, the CEO of Mean Freepath about their upcoming iPhone title Turf Wars.
TheGameReviews: Nick, tell me a little bit about your history. How’d you get involved, what did you do before your started working with the IPhone?
Nick Baicoinau: I spent most of my career working as a web engineer,, primarily with social applications, social music. My most recent project was Playlist, where I was the lead engineer responsible for site availability. I built our Facebook and Myspace app, both of which were really popular. So I have some background already from working in the social networking scene and social music scene.
The way I got involved with IPhone was that I got an IPhone early this year, my girlfriend got one through a deal with her school, so I was playing around with it for a bit. I liked the idea, I downloaded the dev software , was playing around with some little app ideas, and then I did a couple with GPS, like finding weather in a certain location or finding your location, what’s nearby, and basically one of the problems was there was no map component at the time. This was before OS 3.0, and when they announced that it was like, “Wow, this really fits everything together, I can really build something with location” – because with a lot games, not just games, but with apps in general, outside of navigation, did not really use the GPS feature of the IPhone. All you really had was Google Maps and a couple Nav apps and that was the end of it so I was kind of excited thinking, “How can I make something fun out of the GPS?” People obviously have a very strong affection for where they live, a lot of people represent where they live whether it’s their area code, their zip code, or whatever. So I thought what if I was to take that natural tendency of people and turn it into a game where they could claim parts of the city, this is my favorite bar, this is my house, this is where I get coffee every morning and how we can turn that into a game that people would actually enjoy and want to download. That’s my long winded explanation of how I got here.
TGR: Right on. So is this the first app you’ve created for the IPhone and published, or did you create something prior?
NB: I’ve created a couple apps that I didn’t release, mostly playing around with SDK. I do a lot of sailing up in the bay in San Francisco, so one of the things is getting reliable forecasts for the weather so I did something where I combined national forecast data with your location, where you could get a real time idea, “it’s kind of calm right now, I don’t have any wind in this spot, maybe if I go six miles or a couple miles this way, maybe the wind will be better and the sailing will better”. That’s the first stuff I did, there were a couple minor apps like that, but I didn’t want to leave my job till I had the Turf Wars idea. That’s what really set things in motion.
TGR: So leading into that, what was the inspiration would you say behind Turf Wars? It looks very similar to the Mafia and iVampire, such games which have been really popular over the past year.
NB: Yeah, so I thought one of the best ways to get people into this idea, because it’s a very new concept, I think most people, until recently, aren’t used to the idea so I wanted something that people were familiar with, something that’d be similar to something they’d used before with an additional element. Basically that’s how all games have evolved in general, look at all those old Atari games, there’s a sort of progression where you start with a certain concept and it’s sort of refined and revised as things go on. So that’s why I took the Mafia idea and added the GPS element to it.
TGR: Right on. What do you feel, beyond the GPS element, what do you feel differentiates your apps from the more established apps?
NB: Well, they’re relatively similar in gameplay, you do missions, and you buy property except that the property is real life turf. The overall gameplay starts off similar to these other Mafia-style games, so really the GPS is what sets it apart. It’s not like owning some fake sports stadium in other games, it’ll be like I own a bar and you’ve already got a pretty big connection right there because people have an affection for that and defend it. I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff with how people will respond to that kind of thing, but that adds a scarcity aspect too, because in a lot of these Mafia games you can own 500 sports stadiums, and there’s no sense of scarcity in the economy, there’s no real economy at all. So you’ve really got a more complex game that people can get into more. The GPS adds a lot more than just “I own my neighborhood bar.” There’s a whole other level of gameplay that sets it apart quite significantly from the other games out there.
TGR: One thing I noticed when I was selecting the area that I was in: I was over at the CVS pharmacy just doing some shopping, and as I was sitting in the parking lot I basically bought the CVS, at least the land around the CVS. What is the distance that somebody is purchasing a piece of land?
NB: You can claim any land, I think, within a 1 kilometer radius of your current location and you can claim land within a certain radius of your existing turf. So if you fly out to New York and you claim Times Square – even if you fly back – you can claim turf in that area and branch out, so if no one was competing with you, you could branch out and claim all of Long Island, or all of Manhattan.
TGR: So that’s great; so it’s about a 1 kilometer distance from any point you’ve already claimed. But when you’re actually claiming the initial piece, it’s a 100 foot radius you’re claiming or is it a block’s worth of space? Is that taken into consideration?
NB: Initially it starts you off covering roughly a little under of block and as you buy upgrades for it covers between a quarter of a mile and half a mile roughly.
TGR: Gotcha, okay. So hence, for instance, in your screenshots of having the larger circles versus the smaller circus. As your character levels up you can acquire increasingly larger amounts of turf.
NB: Mmm hmm.
TGR: Now, I was talking to Chris earlier and he was saying there was a story that someone drove 150 miles to claim a spot that somebody else was on?
NB: Yeah, basically, when we started we started off with a few hundred players – mostly through blogs and forums that me and some of the other people who worked on the game knew – so at that point it was somewhat sparsely populated. In order to interact with other people’s turf you had to do that and we had a couple people who would literally do that. Most of them would start off doing it when they went to the grocery store, basically working their errands around turf, and we had one guy who drove from LA to Santa Barbara to go and claim some turf, so some people really get into that idea of owning real world turf.
TGR: Have there been any privacy concerns that have brought up around marking turf, but not necessarily letting people know that’s your turf?
NB: It’s pretty important from the gameplay standpoint to let people know who owns the turf, but from a privacy perspective, one thing we don’t do that a lot of popular location apps do, is broadcast your location. If I wanted to know where you are now there’s no way through the game mechanics to figure that out. I mean, if you went to Miami last month and claimed a lot of turf I’d know you were in Miami, but actually we make it a point not to broadcast your location because some people aren’t very comfortable with that.
TGR: I also noticed when I signed up initially for the app that you didn’t ask me for my e-mail address, and I thought that was a really good stride to the transparency as far as that goes. Now I haven’t gotten to that point where I need to enter my e-mail address, but I imagine that is kept private.
NB: No, no we didn’t and we don’t broadcast any information about that.
TGR: Just a little more on the privacy aspect of things; it looks like the app is a native app, of course, but it looks like it’s driven through webpages really so is all the information stored on a server?
NB: Yeah, all player information is stored on a database on our server. Basically most of the actual content is webpages.
TGR: Okay. So, as far as that goes, if I have the app but don’t have any Wi-Fi connectivity at the moment, can I play the app in an offline mode?
NB: You can, if you don’t have the GPS and can’t fix your position, you can do certain parts of the game. You can run missions and certain things like that, but because it is a GPS game the location is important. That’s why we don’t run it in the browser, because it’s a security thing and people could easily say “Hey, I’m in Colorado” or “Hey, I’m in New York”. That kind of thing.
TGR: What about no Wi-Fi access? Let’s say that I’m playing an IPod and I have no signal but I have the GPS turned on; would the game still function for the most part or does it require Internet access to play?
NB: Yes, the game requires Internet access to play.
TGR: Okay, that was the main question there. Do you want to share who you’re using for web hosting?
NB: Actually I run it myself; we use a provider, but we do all the maintenance and everything ourselves.
TGR: Really? Well, the reason I ask that question is that there is crossover here, because we own TheHostingNews.com so we’re in the web hosting industry as well. So, on the note, does a game like this take up a lot of bandwidth in terms of each user?
NB: You mean network bandwidth?
NB: Not really; we really strive to make it as little as possible specifically because the phone network is not as good as a typical broadband network, so we use very little bandwidth.
TGR: I noticed it was very light on imagery as well; would you say that was more of a design choice, a lack of in house skills, or just version 1 and in later iterations are you going to be upgrading it graphically?
NB: It’s a little of both. Part of the reason is that we didn’t want to be loading too many images on every page for the network reasons, we wanted the game to be responseive, and also from a design point of view, it would be more minimalistic. I wanted people to be able to play the game without too many distractions in terms of graphics: I think graphics are important for a game but I think that, for this game, graphics aren’t the be all end all of everything so that’s why it’s got something of a minimalistic look.
TGR: Now how long has the app been out at this point?
NB: The initial version was released on October 1, 2009.
TGR: So it’s been out a little over two months. Tell us a little bit about the progression; you’ve recently signed up with Reverb Communications so what was your experience before working with Reverb? You said you did a little bit of a social aspect, you know, friends, family, etc, getting it seeded out there and I’m assuming you did things like forum activities, Twitter, etc. How the initial pickup and response of the game and what was have you done to keep that interest going?
NB: The initial pickup was largely through the social end of things – friends of friends, etc. Part of the reason I went with Reverb in the first place was that I didn’t necessarily want to spend my own time on the marketing and PR aspects of things. I come from an engineering background, so I choose Reverb so I could focus entirely on the gameplay aspects and technical aspects of scaling the game as a group.That’s part of the reason I chose them. I know they represent a lot of pretty serious contenders, in the IPhone world as well. I know they did Rock Band, so they came highly recommended. I wanted to handle the gameplay aspects while they handle the PR aspects.
TGR: Gotcha, that’s a great idea, focus on doing what you do best and let others take it from there. So, can you tell us a little about the progressions that lead you to Reverb and, as a developer, what were the criteria that lead you to outsource and choose a company? What was your main driving thought?
NB: When I was initially researching the idea of marketing the game, when I first released it, I was coming across a lot of articles that said it was fairly difficult to get noticed in the IPhone App Store these days. Specifically there’s a 100,000 apps out there and, unless you know what to do, you’re going to have a hard time getting to the top. So that’s part of the reason I wanted initially to go with a marketing firm. I could have done it all myself, but that would have meant a lot of missed opportunities or spending a lot of money on the wrong thing and getting very little return. That’s why I went with Reverb.
TGR: Now the app, it’s totally free, so anyone can download it. Before you started working with an external company, what was the average amount of downloads you were getting during the first 30 days?
NB: I can’t go into too much detail about the numbers, but it was enough where the app was paying for itself, even at that level. So it was doing well, but I thought it could do better in terms of what I’d read about the higher level apps, the ones that made it to the top.
TGR: Anything you can divulge about the numbers would be great for an iBuzz perspective, so anything you can share if you want to share, what about the conversion ratio from normal average Joe downloads the app to actually paying and putting money out of their pocket to pay turf points?
NB: Should I explain the way we monetize?
TGR: Oh yes, please explain.
NB: You can basically go through the whole game without paying, but what you can pay for is advantages. It lets players get a jump on people, especially if they have a buddy that’s been playing for month, and let’s them compete. They can pay 1 dollar, 5 dollars, they can get an advantage, level up quicker, and compete. So going back to your initial question about what our conversion rate was, it’s actually very high, and we’ve been increasing our revenue from 50% month over month. I think it comes down to people are defending and working with real world territory and there’s a sort of tangible feel you don’t get with your 500 sport stadiums.
TGR: So in month 2 versus month 1, as more and more people started using the app, what about the attach rate of free users?
NB: I haven’t checked those stats lately, but per user it’s stayed steady and has actually increased slightly since the game has been out.
TGR: Since it’s dealing with GPS and real world property, in a sense, would you say that your app has a higher amount of usage when compared with IVampire or a Mafia game?
NB: I’m not sure how they would compare to those sort of games, but I know that once they’ve gotten really involved, players tend to check in every few hours. If I check out top players, the ones who’ve gone the farthest, they’re checking in every hour or less. So there is certainly an incentive to check in frequently, specifically to see what’s going on around you, because in the time you were gone there’s a chance that someone built a turf nearby and you want to know about that.
TGR: Any plans for, as far as notifications, e-mail notifications, SMS, or utilizing the push notification feature of the IPhone is there any plans to be able to notify me when someone is encroaching on my turf or I’ve been attacked, or options like that?
NB: That has been a very common request from our players and it’s something that we’ve been definitely looking into implementing.
TGR: Very cool. So back onto the business side of things how long have you been working with Reverb now?
NB: A little under a month.
TGR: What has the impact been since you started working with a professional PR and marketing company?
NB: It’s been a very significant impact; we’ve been running at a much higher install rate since before we started doing any publicity. Our press release went out last week and since then we’ve seen roughly a tenfold increase in downloads.
TGR: With a lot of app developers that’s one of their primary concerns and questions is if they invest any money in PR and Marketing is it going to have any effect for them, especially with a free app when you’re dealing with a free app where you’re depending on conversion rates to any kind of monetary system they don’t know if it’s going to pan or not and most don’t have the income for that. So it’s good to hear that working with a company is getting some good results for you. I noticed that you have a way to get people a vanity URL or a vanity invite code: I haven’t seen that in that many games so what drove you to that decision?
NB: I’ve played a lot of other games which had invite codes that were kind of hard to remember, and they got assigned to you and there was nothing you can do about it, so I thought that might appeal to people. People love the idea of vanity URL, Facebook, Myspace, that sort of thing so I thought the concept would work well.
TGR: Right on. So do you find that people spend their points on these vanity codes?
NB: Yeah, I mean if you look on the reviews on ITunes you’ll see that a lot of people have custom codes like AAA or Turf Wars or things like that. So I think that as more people have started playing the game other people have seen that too and have thought it gives them an advantage.
TGR: You mentioned you were into social media; are there any social media components built into the game already?
NB: Not at this time, no, but we are definitely looking into it as another channel of people sharing what they’re doing in the game.
TGR: What do you think about doing some kind of implementation that has to deal with Looped, or Four Square, because Four Square uses GPS location very heavily?
NB: In terms of a fully fledged social network, probably not, because this is a social game and is intended for people to get together to have fun and enjoy themselves, so the standard social networking features won’t add much to the game. People have contacted me asking about role-playing features, so that’s something we’re looking into, but Looped, Four Squared, and the others seem to have a pretty good lock on that.
TGR: Can you say anything about the features you’ve got up and coming?
NB: I don’t know if you’ve played any of the standard Mafia games on the Facebook and the IPhone, but there’s not much in the way of intrigues, alliances, and the way people can group up and utilize their combined power to affect change in the game. Your Mob number in the game is usually just a number, it doesn’t matter if you’ve got 100 Level 50′s or 100 Level 1′s, you’ve got the same power in combat. So we’re actually looking into a way of adding an alliance feature in the game where you want to choose your allies carefully, and with the scarcity idea, I think it will add a lot of the game with having allies who will defend your turf. Or if you get too big, they’ll likely want a piece of you. We do have some very cool features coming out that will make the game extremely interesting, especially for the more established players, and give the little guy a fighting chance against the big guy in the neighborhood.
TGR: One of the upgrades I noticed was graffiti, so is it going to be Turf Wars as in urban Turf Wars vs. the more Mafia style?
NB: It’s a bit of both because Mobs have turf wars over certain parts of the city, that’s where the name and the concept came from.
TGR: I did find it interesting to go into the game and add friends without knowing their code or anything and finding that they were local to me and invite them to my crew so it’ll be interesting to see as you develop these other features. Is there anything else about the app you’d like to talk about?
NB: Well, I think we’ve covered quite a bit of what’s going on. I think the most exciting thing is the social features that I just mentioned, as well as the GPS feature which is still an extremely new concept, these social features have never been done by any social game before and they really takes the social element to the next level so I’m really excited to see where they take us.
TGR: So choose your friends carefully in Turf Wars, right on. Thanks very much for your time, we appreciate it.
NB: Thank you.