At this year’s BIG Business Forum, one game more than any other captured the mood within Brazil’s flourishing games industry: Horizon Chase, a supremely polished, gleefully retro arcade racer that, for its developer, Aquiris Game Studio, has opened up a bright new future of raised ambitions and greater creative control. Every emerging development community needs triumphant tales around which to gather, drawing boldness and belief from the knowledge that success is possible even when obstacles and impediments are in such plentiful supply. For Brazilian developers attending the event in Sao Paulo, Horizon Chase is very much one of them.
When I meet Aquiris’ business director, Sandro Manfredini, he’s still buzzing from a perfect manifestation of that admiration. At the BIG Festival awards the night before Horizon Chase was voted Best Game, and Manfredini received an individual honour. This isn’t the first occasion that Horizon Chase has been celebrated in this way – from other awards ceremonies to glowing reviews to being included among the App Store’s “Best of 2015” – but Manfredini admits that recognition from the Brazilian industry as a whole is a new high point.
“It’s the first time we invested all our own money into [a game], the first time we self-published, the first that we developed our own IP,” he says, smiling. “There’s a lot of things that we’re proud of. It’s been a wonderful year after Horizon Chase.”
It has also been the culmination of nearly a decade of hard work. The Brazilian games industry in 2016 is an exciting prospect. Back in 2007, when Aquiris was founded, opportunities for new developers were limited to work-for-hire, mostly on promotional games for brands and advertising companies. According to Manfredini, the first three years of Aquiris’ existence were spent in this way; not the most creatively stimulating work, perhaps, but an invaluable introduction to the pragmatic reality of making and shipping products.
In emerging industries like Brazil, many studios struggle to get beyond that point, but in 2010 Aquiris was handed a gilt-edged opportunity by David Helgason, the co-founder and (at that point) CEO of Unity Technologies. Aquiris was one of the first developers in Latin America to use Unity’s increasingly popular engine, and Helgason invited the company to make a game for version 3.0. The resulting demo, Bootcamp, was distributed to each of Unity 3.0’s army of users.
“We went to GDC the year after and a lot of people recognised us,” Manfredini says. “That project helped us a lot. It helped us start a relationship with The Cartoon Network, Dreamworks, a lot of important companies.”
The games that resulted from those partnerships – among them The Great Prank War and Wrath of Psychobos with Cartoon Network, and Dragons: Wild Skies with DreamWorks – boosted Aquiris’ revenue and its profile. The mobile market was already showing signs of the overcrowding that would eventually become endemic, and Aquiris now had access to the kind of brands that could make a difference. In 2014, the company’s consistent work attracted an investor, which Manfredini describes as “very rare” for a Brazilian game developer.
“They [Cartoon Network games] did very well,” he says. “They succeeded in terms of marketing, reviews, a lot of things, so we knew we could do games of global quality. When we got VC funds from a Brazilian investor, we thought we were ready to take the next step.” That next step was Horizon Chase, and a first attempt at self-publishing. Aquiris had enjoyed the security and advantages of working with publishers, but Manfredini describes a desire within the company to, “have our own experience, and to learn from it.”
Perhaps it was this embrace of risk that led to the early decision to make Horizon Chase a premium-priced game, cutting directly against the prevailing trend on the mobile app stores. According to Manfredini, the decision was taken based on its work on The Cartoon Network’s games, all of which had been premium releases. Aquiris’ strengths were, “not the science part of the business, but the gameplay, the game feel.”
“To do the free-to-play model, we’d need to develop a lot of content, much more content,” he says. “We had no experience doing free-to-play on mobile. We needed more people doing metrics, analysing the numbers, behaviours, a lot of things we didn’t have. We decided to do a safer bet – again, thinking about our first step. Let’s make our money back so we can take a second step, and so on.”
However, it soon became clear that the commercial potential of Horizon Chase was limited. It launched for iOS as a premium game in August 2015, but the Android launch in November brought some helpful advice from the team at Google Play: make it free-to-try, giving players just enough content to get them hooked and charge one price for the rest. “We were confident to do that because the reviews were so good,” Manfredini says. “We thought, if we give an opportunity to the player to try the game, there’s a lot of chance they will buy.”
The impact on revenue was immediate. “Yeah, a lot,” he says, grinning. “It’s past $5 million right now, with a very good conversion for a premium model. We never thought the next step we be as big, as good, as this one.”
The fact that it was, though, has exciting implications for Aquiris’ future. It will continue to partner with publishers, Manfredini says, but in a broader variety of ways. There is a new Cartoon Network project in development, and another with Scopely due in 2017, but it is also working with iDreamSky on a version of Horizon Chase for the Chinese market. “We are a small studio, we are 60 people, and it’s hard for us to support [a game] in China, or Korea, lots of things… We’re thinking of good ways to partner with publishers, but at the same time we took the opportunity to do a production by ourselves.”
One thing that will certainly change is the company’s headcount, but that’s where Aquiris’ eminence in the Brazilian industry has an obvious downside. The reason that so many developers admire what it has accomplished with Horizon Chase is the very reason why expansion is difficult. “If we want to grow here in Brazil we need a stronger environment,” Manfredini says. “If I want to grow to 120, I need good people to come and work for us.”
This is why Manfredini is a board member for the Brazilian Game Developers Association; to improve the environment for the country’s aspiring developers, and for Aquiris as a company with the desire to expand and improve. To that end, it has recently passed another milestone: the day before our meeting, Aquiris secured funds from the Brazilian Development Bank, which exists to strengthen private companies that could improve the country’s economic position. It is the first time a game developer has managed to do so, Manfredini says, with no small measure of pride.
“This will probably be the first of many deals that come after us. This is going to help other developers. We are now a reference for Brazil. That’s good to be. We are proud to be.
“But everybody here needs to be proud – to see that this is possible.”