INTERVIEW: MAD HEAD GAMES - The Passion Behind Pagan Online

April 6, 2019
INTERVIEW: MAD HEAD GAMES - The Passion Behind Pagan Online
Uroš Banješević, Founder/CCO at Mad Head Games

All the media is fired up about a new game everyone can't wait to get their hands on, called Pagan Online. It is an RPG game developed by Mad Head Games from Serbia, and it will be published by Wargaming.

Mad Head Games' story began back in 2005 when four guys decided to dip their toes in developing their first game. But, as most stories go, the original scenario didn't entirely "develop" as planned.

Additionally, they thought it would take six months to finish the game, but it turned out that, in the edit, it took them three years. They weren't satisfied with the final product, so they began outsourcing up until they found out about Big Fish.

Uroš Banješević - In 2011 we actually found out about Big Fish, a Seattle based publisher and one of the biggest publisher of casual and HOPA games. We started by doing the prototype to showcase to them, and to compete with all the other teams to be chosen as one of the developers who will work for them.

After the first one, which kind of took a turn in being more Disney-like and applied more for the younger audience, we did another demo that was actually funded by them.

After a while, it was the game of the year back in those days. So that was a big breakthrough. Since then we've made… I can't even count them, something like 50 HOPA games for them and this is the biggest part of our portfolio. But we're doing many many new things now.


From Casual To Core Games


As their story begins to grow, it introduced new characters, new storylines, new twists and turns. Actually, one of the "new things" Uroš is referring to is their switch from casual to core games.

Uroš Banješević - When anyone asks us how did we come up with making core games now when we started up by doing casual games, we say that it's not easy to apply all the knowledge and the experience that we gathered from the casual industry to the core industry.

And when they insinuate that we won't be as successful, I say to them: "Well, the core business is something that we are interested in and that we know by heart. And if it turned out that we know how to make games for elderly women in the USA, we are pretty sure that we can actually nail how to make games for the gamers such as ourselves."

After waiting for me to stop laughing at this witty response, Uroš excitedly explained what core games mean to their team.

Uroš Banješević - I think that the new project we are making right now, which is called Pagan Online, is the closest to something that can be called "a dream come true" for us.


Pagan Online

I didn't want to be pushy, but as soon as he mentioned Pagan Online, I had to take the opportunity and fire up a bunch of questions that, at the time, he didn't yet have permission to answer. So I started at the beginning.

GameBuz - How did the collaboration with Wargaming happen?

Uroš Banješević - We started by making a demo game called Kingevich back in those days. It was done in Unreal engine, so after a while, guys from Epic Games, who make Unreal engine, found out about us and they chose us two times in a row for The most perspective Indie game in Unreal engine.

They showcased us on their booth on different events. One of them was Brighton, that was a really cool event, and from there they invited us to DevGAMM Moscow where we won Best Desktop game award for the demo that we showcased over there on the Epic booth.

After that, Wargaming guys stumble upon us. They wanted to visit us and to discuss the game. And after some months of talk, they realized that we are hungry for knowledge, passionate about the project and that we can deliver. And that's how we began the collaboration with Wargaming.


GameBuz - How the idea for Pagan Online came to you?

Uroš Banješević - First of all, it was an idea for a smaller project, which is completely based on Slavic mythology and Orthodox myths, actually pre-orthodox myths from around here. It includes all the Slavic deities like Svarog, Perun and stuff like that. And Kingevich was a kinda funny pun of Marko Kraljević, who's Serbian hero.

Kraljevich means "king," he was a son of a witch and the king, and we started with that, but it escalated quickly, and it turned out to be a game of many heroes and many stuff happening in the game. So, basically, the first idea was a small contained project, and right now it's "hell broke loose," and it's way bigger than we anticipated at the beginning.

GameBuz - How was the experience of making an RPG game?

Uroš Banješević - It is the most difficult, rewarding and the most compelling thing that we've done so far. This is our entrance to the core world.

Pagan Online is the biggest project so far, the biggest project we have right now. But the cool thing is that we are gaining experience in the core business and we want to run game as a service. We want to continue developing and expanding that theme, which makes it harder because we are not just developing the game, we are developing the whole infrastructure around it, the theme-structure and ourselves as individuals.

But the rewarding part is when you see gamers playing it, when you see guys from the studio actually playing our games and when you see how much we've improved our skills over the last year. It's rewarding to take a look back and be like: "Wow, we accomplished something! Good job boys, good job!".

I was mimicking me patting myself on the back, and laughing about that, so we kinda needed a few moments for me to get serious again, but then I remembered something that happened in January.

GameBuz - So, I have a question. In January, media was talking about "the fire set to the servers by the unexpected turnout for the trial," so is that the real reason you shut down your servers?

Uroš Banješević - Yeah, that's right. First of all, we had a couple of trials so far. That was the trial no. 3. In trials, we are kinda opening the game of Pagan World for the weekend to test out certain features, to showcase it, to get some feedback from the audience and to see how the game performs and what's happening when the game is live.

So, we've been doing that three times so far and the third time was a stress-test for our servers. That was the first time when we wanted to invite as many people as we can to test out how our servers work. And we anticipated a certain amount of users over the weekend, but it turned out that in 12 minutes after servers were open, we reached like five times bigger number than we thought. So the servers went down, and we discovered that we cannot support that many people. So, yeah, we had to buy a lot more hardware to support all of these guys.

It's the sweetest problem that you can have in the gaming community. It was kinda disastrous, it lasted about 12 minutes, but even with that in mind, it was kinda cool because we found out that people are interested and a lot of people came and wanted to play.

GameBuz - So, when can we expect the release?

Uroš Banješević - It depends on the outcome of these trials and the architecture at the backend. We want to get to the market as quickly as we can because we want to hear the feedback. We want people to know that we are in heavy development right now and we want to improve the game on a daily basis after that. So, we will be running the game as early release, which means that we are continually going to keep growing the theme and adding new features regularly around something that people would like to see and around something that we hope will work for them.

As soon as possible means as soon as we can fix all problems that games in such early stages in development have. We want to make sure that server side is stable and that bugs are reduced to something that's not bothering you all the time in the game, but happens occasionally.


The dark side

Doing such a great job developing, there's no question about the passion and skills these guys have on making games. Naturally, the next step was to try self-publishing. I was curious how did that experience effect following the progress of the company.

GameBuz - Adam Wolfe was the first bigger game you self-published. How was the whole experience of self-publishing and why did you decide to do it?

Uroš Banješević - It was super stressful, but also a super nice experience. It turned out that this game performed quite good on many different levels that we didn't anticipate. It was kinda hard because we didn't just make a hidden object game, we wanted to make the first episode of the hidden object game. So it was different from all the HOPA games that we have worked on previously. This one is certainly the best game that we have made in that genre so far. I mean, in terms of the amount of polish and overall quality of the game.

Besides that, it took us months to release the game on all the platforms and all the portals that we did. We actually made like hundred-something builds of the same game. It was quite stressful, and it took us some time to realize how to do proper marketing, how to do all the publishing activities. But after a while, it turned out to be not just a successful story, but it was a cool story because we got something that we didn't know exists.

For example, we've been featured on Chinese app store like three times as "New games we love", "Best detective games", "Best casual games". It turned out that the majority of users are coming from China, which actually is not the audience which is penetrated by marketing from Big Fish, that we got used to previously.

GameBuz - Is that why you made a deal with the publisher ZPlay for "Taponomicon"?

Uroš Banješević - Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. We actually wanted to enter the Chinese market and to see what's going on.

Taponomicon is a game that came out of our internal GameJam, which we're organizing in our company once a year. It is a week of everyone working in different teams than they're usually working with. They stop doing anything that they were working on at that point, and they have a week to make a game on their own and to compete against other smaller teams in our studio. Each year we produce about ten different prototypes, and people are having fun and learning how to work in new technologies and new team setups.

So, Taponomicon is the first one which went from the prototype and just winning the internal GameJam, towards the finalized product. We are super happy about it because anytime you give it to someone, he just becomes addicted. We got some great KPIs, and we believe in that game, and the expectations are quite huge.


Something that you might not know yet, Mad Head Games also came to the dark side *heavy breathing* (Yes, I'm talking about the company becoming the publisher of other developers and Uroš was kinda amused by my reference.)

Uroš Banješević - Hahaha! These jars [pointing to the jars he's keeping in his office - picture above] are where I hold their souls. Yeah, it was different from anything that we've been working on previously. I think these games haven't performed that well, because I still think we're not a great publisher.

We invested tons and tons of time, sweat and tears in bringing Adam Wolfe to life, but we didn't have that much manpower for all the other games. It's not just investing money, putting it on the market and just doing the user acquisition and stuff like that. It's way beyond that, and it's a much bigger system and infrastructure that you have to build around.

That experience taught us that we're developers and that's what we are by heart. Turning into a publisher is not a bad idea for us, but it's bad at this point because we don't have the manpower to do it and we don't have enough know-how at this point.


If you're truly passionate...


As the time I got to harass Uroš was coming to an end (not that kind of harassment), a question about young developers appeared out of nowhere. Well, not out of nowhere, I ask that every successful developer I got a chance to talk to.

GameBuz - Do you have any advice for young developers just entering the Gaming Industry?

Uroš Banješević - Well, I'm boring myself with repeating the same thing, but I think the greatest thing that happens in this industry is a passion that drives you. Most of the people tend to talk about passion, but they are not ready to stay until 4 am in the studio. [He was laughing, but you got the point.]

Are you ready to commit yourself towards something that's not easy at all? I mean, in my TED talk - "Story about one idea", I talk about how many times we failed before we did anything right. But if you truly believe and if you're truly passionate, then you're going to make a living out of it. If you don't, then you don't get to blame the country or anyone except yourself. If you haven't had enough passion, maybe you should be doing something else. That's the biggest thing.

Also, just try to listen as much as you can to everyone who has any experience that you don't. We didn't have that when we started in 2005 when YouTube didn't exist. Right now you basically can't imagine doing something without YouTube. I actually can't fix anything in my house.

We were basically cut off the world, and we were the ones who had to do everything by trial and error. You don't have to do that right now, that's why we formed the SGA - Serbian Games Association to start sharing all information and experience and making it common knowledge. There are much more people who can help you out right now in Serbia than before, which young developers should use to their advantage.