Hive: little war, deep strategy, strange GameDev



    In one of the schools near Moscow, a psychologist was faced with the fact that children have very poor concentration. According to the tests of the 90s, designed for normal students of the USSR, our modern children did a little better than nothing. The teaching staff also complained about this, blaming computer, console and tablet games. Throwing a pig at a bird is obviously nicer than proving the equality of triangles.

    The psychologist asked us for logical games so that children could play and think at the same time. We poured a little different. The story of the Hive is especially revealing - after six months, the group of students playing it showed the largest separation from the control in attentiveness and concentration.

    I told this to John Yanni, who designed the Hive. And thereby introduced him into an attack of tenderness and nostalgia. And he shared the story of the development of the game from the first desktop steps in 1982 to an unexpected jerk on Steam, Android and iOS in modern times. Below is a cozy fairy tale about a geek who suddenly met with reality, and a few of my notes on this story.

    First steps and game without bugs


    In 1982, John Yanni was as much as 18 years old. He traded clothes in the family store and was a bit addicted to chess. One fine day, he saw a film where two friends played chess every day in the park, each bringing half of the field and half of the pieces. This strongly hooked the young mind, and he decided that he needed a game without a field. And so that all the figures can be carried in your pocket.

    The first version was about castles, dragons and knights.Some monsters survived: for example, giant rats walked like ants in the base Hive. There were also stones just blocking the road, and wild boars pushing other pieces. Instead of the queens of the hive there were kings. The field was rectangular, not hexagonal. Unlike the modern game, starting with two chips at the beginning of the field, the old version had a full starting position (in modern Hive every move has a choice: move one of the existing insects or introduce a new one into the game).


    Party initialization

    After about 18 years (when John turned 36, and he worked as an all-around webmaster), he suddenly remembered a game from childhood. And he slowly began to cut out figures from plywood during lunch breaks. The theme of fantasy was no longer so popular, and he switched to biology. After tests with friends and family, the square chips were replaced by hexagonal ones. After a heap-heap of alterations and improvements, it was possible to get a more or less stable release with a converging balance. Since John was not a professional, he needed feedback from real desktop geeks. And he decided to contact the Finchley Games Club for tests - this is a club in his city that he found on the network - and did not even imagine what was there and how.

    He explained about his game, and he was very warmly received. But they immediately stopped: there is no need to explain the rules. Sit and be silent, they say, we will read and try to understand how the players will understand without you. A few hours later they said: “John, we hate you. Because of you, we will play it tomorrow instead of work. ” And they were upset, because testing the game and not finding any bugs in it was somehow unusual.

    Garage production


    In 2001, John decided to cut the first 1,000 games with his hands. Together with his wife Maria, they made wooden hexagons, printed stickers and glued them. 22 thousand stickers is not as easy as it may seem. The latter finished off the crowd of friends and acquaintances in the local KFC with friends, John was affixed.

    Then they started sending out games to stores. The first 6 things took a man who heard about this game from friends from the club. Later, his store became one of the largest buyers of the Hive - but in 2001 sales were measured by units, not thousands of games per month.

    John went to his first Dragonmeet game convention - it’s something like Techcranch, only for desktop gamers and role players. There were few sales, but there were a couple more stores ready to put the games on the shelves. Next up is a collection of comic book fans, a science fiction fair in London, and so on. The game was liked by everyone who tried it, but there was still little sales.

    Success, failure, failure, success


    In 2002, Essen happened. Essen is a city in Germany that hosts one of the healthiest board game exhibitions in the world. Mike, the owner of the store where the Beehive was sold, advised taking as many boxes as fit into the car. John and Maria were able to pack about 500 pieces in the trunk and interior, plus they took posters. At the exhibition, it turned out that most independent publishers sell 20-30 games each, which was frustrating.

    On the first day, a huge crowd of geeks burst into the exhibition with lists of games that you must buy. The well-known desktop gamers started selling well, but the Hive didn’t go: it was simply not on the list. Toward evening, when the mood was below the plinth, the first sales began. The geeks calmed down, seizing the scarce games, and began to calmly walk around the exhibition. They stopped by, looked at the game, read the rules, tried at the tables nearby ... By the end of the day, almost all the tables played in the Hive. And suddenly, somehow, unexpectedly, the circulation began to be snapped up like hot cakes. Already the first hundred seemed real magic - and ahead were still the main days of the exhibition. I must say, they sold 400 boxes in total.

    On the second day, Klaus from German Publishers Zoch approached them. He offered a contract for publication, but John did not understand anything from the conditions and decided to wait out, gaining experience. Year after year, Klaus then approached his stand at Essen, until he signed an exclusive in Germany.

    John left home with an offer from Cosmos, a major international publisher. And Essen’s Audience Award.

    I must say that despite the sales of about 1000 units in two years, some UK stores for desktops and hobby goods already knew about the game and placed pre-orders. A little later, applications began to arrive from Europe.

    The problem was that for John, like for many beginning manufacturers, the cost price of the box went through the roof: it was urgent to work on reducing the cost of circulation. With difficulty, through friends I managed to find a manufacturer of wooden toys who could organize everything in series. So, it was decided that the minimum circulation is 5000 pieces. A lot, but less was simply unprofitable. Our heroes received a circulation and began to slowly sell it to stores - but all new contacts took 5-10 pieces, not counting on special sales. The circulation threatened to stay home for another 5-8 years at such a pace. The mood “what the hell did we do” began to soar in the air. In 2004, the Nuremberg Toy Fair, where major contracts were signed, was the last step. Everything turned out so that either the game shoots there, or you have to drop it all and return to the boring office.

    Unlike Essen, strange things were happening on Nuremberg. People came up to neighboring stands, and signed pre-orders for ten thousandths, twenty thousandths and (oh, horror!) Fifty thousandth draws of games whose boxes were not even seen. By the end of the exhibition, John realized how little he knew about this business - and almost miraculously received a contract from the American store for 5,000 units of the game. Phew!

    Board games - serious business


    In 2005, John redefined his strategy and began to do the following smart things:
    • From direct orders to small shops, he switched to working with distributors and agents. They immediately gave him good sales both in England and in Europe.
    • It turned out that England is one of the most difficult markets. The same Germany was much more profitable. The rest of the European countries and the United States also gave great returns.
    • The production was transferred to polymers (we call this material “bakelite” - an artificial stone, something between ceramics and plastic, you can know it by dominoes, cases of old city telephones and escalator steps). According to John, this immediately gave a very tangible increase in sales. The chips were extremely pleasant to hold in their hands, and they banged loudly on the table. Plus, they have become much heavier and more solid.
    • He began to be nominated for prizes. The American prize in one of the categories of toys immediately allowed us to sign new contracts with resellers in the United States.

    In 2007, one of the agents suggested releasing a promo chip specifically for fans of the game. John took and came up with a mosquito, able to "steal" the ability of other insects. When the print run was over, at all exhibitions they began to ask for a “supplement with a mosquito,” and John decided to release two mosquito tokens in a separate package. This was important enough, because around this moment the Hive had an optimal winning strategy, giving strong players a clear advantage. Mosquito increased the variability of strategies and introduced the necessary depth. Much later, the additions “Ladybug” and “Mokritsa” will appear. By the way, Mokritsa was needed for players who prefer a psychologically comfortable deep defense strategy.

    Switching to the online version


    In the same year, John hired one of the trainees with a degree in Computer Game Development, and together they made the first implementation for PC. The requirement to play online is basic. There are plugs with AI, but in the end we get a kind of “average robotic player” who teaches well before going to tournaments. Until now, John believes that making a good AI for the game is an unrealistic task.

    In 2009, it became clear that geeks play well in the Hive, but it's hard enough to tell about it to those who have never played something complex logical. The marketing company was reoriented from "Little war, deep strategy" to "take with you on the road." The game was transferred to iOS.

    In 2010, iOS users proposed many new ideas, additions to the rules (for online) and, in general, formed tournament principles for the game. An important point was that one of the users asked for a black and white version for a visually impaired child. Understanding how this is needed, Gen42 (the so-called John’s company) not only added this mode to the application, but also released Ule Carbon - a black and white version of a board game that suddenly began to sell more than the base version.

    A compact version of the game with a bag and reduced chips has been released. She added some sales.

    In 2012-2013, versions of the game on Android and Xbox were released. The hive hit Steam.

    New additions in real life began to be sold both with the basic set, and separately.

    Summary


    In general, the story is very revealing. Look: at first John does not understand anything about the market, but leaves for wild enthusiasm. Then he formed the first network of commercial contacts - club friends and 3-4 stores. He goes to exhibitions, gaining experience and begins to understand how everything works. Then he goes along the path of the geek, thinking that his goods are needed by a narrow audience. The transition from the need for a “logical game” to a “cool game on the road” dramatically changes the situation. Then John understands another simple thing: not only the game itself as a mechanic and setting is important, but also what kind of sensations the box leaves. He switches to a bakelite from a tree, makes the box bigger, adds a convenient bag inside and generally makes sure that all this together looks like a good gift, and not a geeky handmade. And it works. The next step is that he learns the principles of the distribution system and instead of “I'm all by myself” begins to work with agents. Of course, this creates additional margins, but just in time, John compensates for them by cheaper boxes due to serial production at the factory.

    For obvious reasons, with the development of the mobile market, it goes there with a good desktop, already known to the country. The hive is very good for the phone both in the game with AI and in the game with a live opponent over the network. A tournament resource is formed where you can play through the browser and applications on different platforms. In parallel, it increases the assortment, segmenting the market (color version, black and white version, compact version, add-ons, a large set with everything at once). He does not forget about new and new exhibitions, the press and competitions (awards in Europe, unlike domestic ones, mean much more).

    Let's go over the story again. What has become the main success factor? In my opinion, there are three important points:
    1. That John was able to make the game with incredible replay value and just wildly tested it with a perfectionist mania. Initially, a cool product is very powerful. Later, he supported the main quality - a variety of strategies - both by advertising and by issuing add-ons.
    2. That the correct setting has been chosen. Abstract tactics became a “game with grasshoppers and spiders,” which certainly pleased a wide audience. The game has some kind of plot. In our market, by the way, this determined the love of girls (who do not really favor strategies on average, and even complicated ones) specifically for the Hive. Although I did not expect this at all - still the spiders are there, ants ...
    3. And the third is that he received an order for 5,000 pieces from the United States. This made it possible to immediately transfer a hobby to the field of business and taught him to think not in sales units, but in processes.

    Please note that in 2007 he no longer organized an online tournament himself, but did it through boardspace.net, a major player capable of gathering an audience. Since then, they have been inseparable like Boyle and Marriott. Coverage of iOS, XBOX, Android and Steam gives new players to tournaments. The simultaneous development of the online version and desktop supports both directions. Online players buy a physical game when they want to make a gift. Table players go online to participate in tournaments.

    As a result, John is now happy and sends greetings to all Russian players. And we just got the Carbon Beehive and already drove it to the shops. Well, they also gave hives to a number of schools - for those who wanted to check and continue tests. You got the opportunity to see the world a little through the eyes of an ordinary non-geek user. I hope so.

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