Trailmix climbs the Ranks
Let's set the scene. It's summer 2017, and after developing and growing Farm Heroes Saga into a $1 billion hit, King VP Carolin Krenzer and Game Director Tristan Clark leave the company together to explore other ventures. Half a year later, Trailmix sees the light of day. The startup introduces a strong and ambitious vision: "To make experiences with richness and depth, while remaining accessible, long-lasting and built to fit into a player's daily life. All while combining great storytelling with the best in free-to-play mobile."
This story is ultimately about how a two-person startup evolved into a Supercell-backed, 30+ people team studio with a mobile hit so wholesome and beautiful that it won TIGA's Best Casual Game award last year. Like any success story, it's not without struggle. The studio's casual-merge hit, Love & Pies was in development for three years before launching mid-2021, and for most of that time it was not even a merge game!
More specifically, Trailmix has been partners with Supercell since its $4.2M seed round in February 2018, after which the Camden-based team started scaling up slowly but steadily. Check out the company's website for a more detailed timeline on how Trailmix brought their first game, Love & Pies, to life.
Before diving into the details, it's important to distinguish the casual-merge core game from the rest of the merge market segment. The traditional merge-3 gameplay popularized by Merge Dragons in 2017 inspired casual game developers like Metacore to create a more accessible, puzzle gameplay variation based on a merge-2 mechanic. This resulted in 2020's Merge Mansion, which is still the top dog in the genre (when excluding the merge-3 games). Merge Mansion's sudden success led to a gold rush in 2021 with everyone and their mother jumping the bandwagon to take advantage of this fresh core mechanic's high retention rates. Interestingly, the only thing Love & Pies and Merge Mansion had in common when the latter came out was their meta game, classified as Puzzle & Decorate or Invest & Express, depending on who you ask.
During the merge craze in 2021, lower fidelity games like Merge Villa and Merge Life that use hypercasual, ad-driven monetization popped up and raked in a good share of downloads (and therefore revenue). More recently, after the mania cooled off at the start of 2022, a select few other casual merge games managed to achieve some ROI on their user acquisition spend. For example, Mergedom: Home Design, which uses a hybrid monetization model with the option to remove ads through an IAP, has seen some traction. Love & Pies is also part of the mid-section of the market in terms of downloads, together with other perseverant competitors like DesignVille, Merge Inn, and Travel Town.
From a revenue perspective, not much has changed in the casual-merge segment over 2022, as Merge Mansion is still the game to beat. In fact, the only two other games that have been able to meaningfully capitalize on their players in terms of IAPs are Love & Pies and Travel Town. Both games are currently earning more than $1M in monthly revenue, which is a nice achievement for studios with a headcount of <50 people. For the sake of comparison, though, Merge Mansion will hit the $10M monthly revenue mark for the first time most likely come September or October.
Last May, Supercell drew a similar conclusion regarding Love & Pies' achievements, which led to another $60M (majority stake) investment in Trailmix to grow the game. Especially since Metacore's Merge Mansion isn't so much of a competitor for Trailmix (as they are both funded by Supercell and therefore perhaps knowledge-share) Love & Pies is in a pretty good spot.
On a more personal note, to me as a game designer, the most interesting part of the Love & Pies story so far is the bold pivot Trailmix undertook to transform their beloved puzzle game into a less risky product. How did the company find out it was the right decision to so dramatically change course? To answer this question throughout this piece we'll also have a look into the game's old mechanic, the innovation of it and its pitfalls, because as Trailmix has proven: It's never too late to pivot and change the core mechanic of your game!
To truly understand Love & Pies' ins and outs, this essay will reflect on:
- The level-based puzzler Trailmix switched from before the game became casual merge-2
- Deconstructing its core, gameplay strategy, metagame, live-ops, narrative, board balancing, end of content & monetization
- What aspects of the game drive its strong retention
- How Supercell's investment is being spent and how the revenue is being returned
- What the game is still lacking and what improvements could be made
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