There’s nothing quite like a Super Bowl commercial to put a little-known product on the map, and uCool has learned that very well indeed. Their game Heroes Charge was one of the three mobile games advertised during the Super Bowl, along with Clash of Clans and Game of War: Fire Age. Those two games have some serious advantages when it comes to getting attention — both games have been at the top of the Top-Grossing charts for both iOS and Android for months, and both have been running massive television ad campaigns for months. Both games also have star power — the Clash of Clans Super Bowl ad was a 60 second spot featuring actor Liam Neeson, while Game of War: Fire Age‘s 30 second spot featured supermodel Kate Upton. How can a game from a small studio compete with a 15 second spot with no celebrity power in it

The answer, it appears, is very well indeed. Heroes Charge has gotten a strong boost since the Super Bowl ad appeared, and their TV campaign continues. The game is currently at #2 in App Annie’s US Top Grossing chart for iOS roleplaying games, and at #10 for overall games. Heroes Charge is #2 in the US Google Play store for roleplaying games. The title is #11 overall Top Grossing for US iOS apps, and #29 Top Grossing for all US Google Play apps. That all translates to an exceptional performance that much larger publishers, with much greater budgets, have been unable to emulate. The game has over 12 million players worldwide, and it’s garnered over 250,000 player reviews on Google Play that give it 4.5 stars on average. What’s going on here

Jim Ngui

The [a]listdaily sat down with Heroes Charge producer Jim Ngui to find out some of the answers. How does the game’s design influence its marketing, and vice-versa Who is getting this game, and why

The game has several elements that help make it compelling. Heroes Charge is a mix of card battle games, old-style Japanese RPG combat, questing, and strategy. It’s all presented with attractive animations and sounds, and that helps attract a broad audience.

“We have a very small studio,” said Ngui. “We have about eight of us, sitting there daily looking at the game trying to see how we can improve it. We’re constantly talking about the game, and it helps.” The essence of uCool’s approach is an integrated one between functions. Product development isn’t separated from marketing — the two disciplines are intertwined. “Marketing sits next to me, and that makes me very happy,” said Ngui. That lets Ngui communicate about game elements with marketing and go back-and-forth quickly to make decisions. “This particular item, how is it positioned in the store What’s the call to action How does it fit into the user experience ” Ngui said, by way of example.

Like other game companies, Ngui said, uCool looks at the ARM — Acquisition, Retention, and Monetization. “Marketing is always concerned with the Acquisition part, I’m concerned with Retention, and together we have this nice cyclical relationship,” Ngui said. “We want to get quality people who we think would enjoy playing the game, we want to get them to the table but make sure they have a really nice setting. They’re offered everything that they’re expecting, but also more. We’re constantly doing things in the game.”

“Free-to-play has taught me you want to have a very large offering of features and content for people to stay within the game,” said Ngui. “I treat everyone the same — people who play for free and people who monetize are just as important to me. That’s the way we want the game mechanics to be set up. You don’t want to design a game that specifically monetizes — you want to design a game that everyone plays.”Â

That’s really a key point to remember. Many marketers and business people fear that designers are only concerned with the game, and aren’t interested in how it makes money — in fact, designers might be actively against the idea of asking for money or being pushy about getting paid. Designers, on the other hand, fear that letting marketers and business people into the design process will result in a worse play experience, turning the fun into a dreary shopping experience. Certainly, one can find examples of games out there where both of those fears have been realized.

Heroes Charge, and other successful free-to-play games, are good at keeping players around for the long term, where the opportunity to generate some revenue from those players becomes greater over time. “It’s true, that’s why everyone is looking at the Day 1 versus Day 7, Day 15 versus Day 30. I’m more concerned with Day 30 retention because I feel that’s where people have gone past the churning out,” said Ngui. “We are 24% retention at Day 30, and moving closer to 30%. Because that’s creeping up, I know people are finding enough to do.”

What’s the demographic “This surprised us,” admitted Ngui, ” because if I pitched you Heroes Charge as a high fantasy setting, and MOBA mechanics, multiplayer, these are traits that would skew male.” That’s normally what you’d expect, but Heroes Charge does not resemble other games in how it’s played. “Our play sessions are usually four times a day, and an hour and a half per session, which is superlong for a mobile game,” said Ngui. “Seeing that, you would definitely say it’s male-dominated, but our numbers are very close to fifty-fifty.”

The length of play sessions for Heroes Charge is amazing, and it resembles a typical console or PC game much more than a typical mobile game. The general idea among mobile game companies seems to be that mobile games need to be “snackable” — play sessions that last for a few minutes. Heroes Charge certainly has many things you can do that just take a few minutes, but obviously when you really get into it you can play for a long time. Other mobile games are starting to demonstrate some longer play times, too. That speaks to a depth of engagement and involvement with mobile games that may keep players around for a much longer time.

“Free-to-play is really about selling emotion, because if they don’t have an emotional attachment, there’s less chance for them to stick around because it becomes just another game,” Ngui said. Looking at how Heroes Charge is bringing in players and keeping them around, it looks like the company is doing a pretty good job of selling emotion.