How the emotional puzzle journey Link Twin went from failed free-to-play experiment to premium prize winner
When you think of global game industry hotspots, you could be forgiven for overlooking the city of Bucharest, Romania. But the youthful Romanian capital is home to a sizeable community of games professionals, with local studios for the likes of EA, Ubisoft and Gameloft all keeping busy. The city is also home to the unique firm Amber, which describes itself as “a development services agency built by a collective of artisans,” with clients such as Disney, NBC Universal and Epic Games.
Those artisans include Lorraine, a mobile-first game studio and the part of Amber behind Link Twin, a gorgeous puzzle game now live on Hatch with a unique mechanic – the unbreakable bond between the two main characters Tom and Lily, and the search for their lost parents.
To finish Link Twin and bring it to market, however, Lorraine needed help. They hooked up with fellow game industry veterans in the newly established Carbon, a games incubator and accelerator doing much to put Romania’s game developers on the map. I spoke with Gabriel Stancu, Creative Director at Lorraine, and Catalin Butnariu, cofounder and General Manager at Carbon about their unique collaboration.
What made Carbon and Lorraine decide to work together on Link Twin?
Gabriel: I've known Catalin for a while now and I really admire him. I first met him way back when I was working at Gameloft, and he's the kind of guy that gets things done. And his team at Carbon is the only team that actually does this in Romania, and they have big plans. It was an opportunity for Lorraine, as we had no publishing expertise and I knew we could work well together.
Catalin: It was an opportunity for us too, as our first project. This work can be quite difficult, and finding those first teams can be tough. I knew Gabriel, but I also knew a lot of the other people involved. So it just made a lot of sense to start on this together. We were looking for that first project with really great quality, and to work with an experienced team that could serve as an example for other future projects.
How did the game come about?
Gabriel: When we were starting Lorraine, we were trying to figure out what our products could be. We had a formal, organised ideation process, but then we also got it in our heads to just get together in a big space and make games for 24 hours, and see what would come out of that. We ended up with around six games. Then we invited a bunch of folks from the industry, including Catalin – this was before Carbon was founded – to offer feedback and help us pick the winner, as it were. And the game that would become Link Twin came out on top. Initially it was just a mechanic. The two characters were just clones – we used to call them clones – that would move around the board. We had seven levels that demonstrated how the mechanic works. Everybody was very enthusiastic about this new type of puzzle.
Catalin: We stayed in contact as the game evolved for a few months. And then when we started Carbon, it just felt like a really natural choice – not even a choice, it just felt really natural to work together on this game and publish it.
There’s a lot of market pressure for games that are developed for mobile first to be free to play with in-app purchases. What drove the team to go for the premium pay-once model?
Gabriel: In the beginning, everyone actually really wanted to do a free-to-play game. We even soft launched an early version of the game with a freemium model.
Catalin: Free-to-play was clearly what the market wanted and still wants. So we said OK, let’s do it. But it wasn’t a mechanic very suitable for free to play. And I think that was the trap that we all fell into.
Gabriel: This was a lesson from making Link Twin: Don't try to be who you're not. We tried to go free-to-play because we wanted to get our foot in the door and see what that world is all about. But we didn't pick the right kind of game to build the free-to-play foundation on. And we kind of knew that in the back of our heads. We soft launched anyway, and we got a beating when we saw the results. But we learned a lot of things.
Catalin: And in the end, we still wanted to release this game. If it made more sense to do it as a premium game, then so be it. So we said, let's focus on that and polish it further, improve the experience, develop the story and make it more premium. The game eventually won second prize at the Very Big Indie Pitch at Pocket Gamer Connects London in 2017, right before the official launch which was great timing. And then we had global featuring by Apple with really good placement, which I think proves that in the end it was really a quality game that we managed to release together. I wish we had decided to go premium sooner.
The story of Tom and Lily and their unique bond really helps elevate the game into something special, and adds to that premium feel. What’s your view of the role of storytelling in game design?
Gabriel: The way we initially built Lorraine was that we were a design-first kind of team. So we were doing a lot of form-follows-function type of thinking. So we focused on slices of the game as we built it. First we were focused on the concept, then we focused on the mechanic. But in playing around with the mechanic and building the game around it, somewhere along the way we decided that story was not important. And that was another major mistake. Catalin helped us see that the story helps the game stand out and give it personality, especially as a premium experience.
How did the story come in, and how did it integrate with the mechanic?
Gabriel: I was reading a lot of E.E. Cummings back then and his poem "i carry your heart with me" was a huge inspiration for how we decided to build the story. And then there were also some personal things happening with some of the members of the team that involved loss and grieving. We took a bunch of feelings that we had and kind of turned it into a story. And it worked. There is this link between Tom and Lily that cannot be broken, and it really makes sense that these two would be bound together by their emotions.
What attracts you to a distribution platform like Hatch? Do you see subscription models providing a way forward for games like Link Twin that don’t fit the free-to-play mold?
Catalin: I immediately liked the concept of Hatch when I first heard about it – it was actually at that Pocket Gamer event where we won the award when we first started talking with you. So yes, it's very tough for developers these days, especially indie developers, to break into the traditional app stores with free-to-play games. Premium is even more difficult, because people are so used to getting free stuff that they just don't want to pay for the game, even if it's 10 cents. The simple fact that you have to go to the effort of paying is going to drastically cut downloads.
I would love to see Hatch prove that there is room for premium games on mobile. If there is a way to show that, it's through this kind of subscription model. It makes a lot of sense, and we're very happy to be on Hatch with Link Twin for this reason.
Joseph Knowles is Hatch's director of communications.