Mojang, the study that was valued in $2.5 billion dollars by Microsoft in 2015, the studio responsible for the great success of Minecraft, which has been shipped 70 million copies He is also responsible for another game. That game is Scrolls, one that Mojang would probably prefer to forget about.
Minecraft’s long lost brother Scrolls couldn’t have had a more conventional start to life than his big brother. It was designed with a specific plan in mind, for a specific market, by a well-funded development studio, and with an eager audience waiting for any opportunity to play it. Minecraft lacked all these advantages. So why was Scrolls such a big flop?
Announced in early March 2011, the creative minds at Mojang described Scrolls as a mix of ‘collectible card games‘ Y ‘traditional board games‘, something that they considered was missing in the market. At the beginning of December 2014 it came out of the Beta development phase and was officially released. Then just six months later, in 2015, Mojang announced defeat. They revealed that active development of Scrolls would be halted and that they could not guarantee that the the servers would work after July 2016.
So where did Mojang go wrong? On the surface, Scrolls had everything going for it, from a development studio literally awash with money to a massive audience that was excited to try anything Mojang could produce. It should have been a sure hit. However, what we have seen is evidence that, regardless of endorsement, no development project is a guaranteed success.
The development behind Scrolls was stretched for a game of its size, not an overly ambitious project, spending four years in development or ‘beta’ before being considered ready for release. The release itself perhaps hinted that the game wasn’t experiencing a perfect start to life. Mojang suddenly announced the release date of December 10, 2015. Regardless of any preparation period, they decided to release it just one day later, on the 11th. At the same time, they lowered the price to only $5 dollars. Usually the price would go up, or at least stay the same coming out of beta…
Then there’s the highly publicized lawsuit with Bethesda over the trademark for the word Scrolls. Obviously, this isn’t necessarily a sign of poor development, but again it demonstrates problems with planning and development behind the scenes. It certainly would have been an unnecessary strain on the management team.
Ultimately, the problem that caused Scrolls to fail is a simple one. They did not have enough players to sustain the game. As the post describing their decision to stop development says “the game has reached a point where it can no longer sustain continuous development“. This is a clear indication that their player base, along with any profit generated, was not enough to justify continued spending on the game.
The sudden decision to release the game reinforces this theory, as his hope would have been to generate interest in the game by announcing a change outside of beta. But as seen in the announcement half a year later, it did not provide the result they had hoped for.
We don’t have hard numbers on how Scrolls sold, other than a tweet from developer Henrik Pettersson that it had shipped 100,000 copies on July 21, 2013. This is during the game’s beta period, and we can only assume it grew per release. But is 100,000 copies enough to support what is essentially a multiplayer board/card game?
Assuming a very rough one week retention rate of 15%, based on PC gaming figures here. we would be looking 15,000 players continue to play after one week. After several months, the figures are described as a 3-5% player retention rate. So hopefully we would be looking at 5000 players playing Scrolls for more than a few months. Obviously this is a percentage taken from a game, very different from Scrolls, so the rates are likely to be very different. Still, it goes to show how 100,000 copies doesn’t necessarily mean a healthy player base.
A multiplayer game requires enough players to facilitate matchmaking throughout the day, and at the time of writing, the online player count is around 25. This is no different from when they announced the cessation of development. The number of copies of Scrolls sold could have been considered a success for a single player game, but ultimately, for an online game like Scrolls, the number of active players is more important. Unfortunately, this number was too low..
The lack of player retention and overall low player base can be due to a number of things, firstly, while Scrolls received mixed to reasonably positive reviews from critics, it was plagued with issues with balance and missing or missing of aspects that for many turned it into a less than pleasant experience. Released content patches such as ‘Echoes’ were designed to some extent to address this issue, but were too slow or missing.
Second, a lack of clear communication of the developers and leadership in getting the game going. Minecraft is a very open game, one that thrived with both a single player mode and a player-driven multiplayer mode that required no developer leadership, it grew organically with players creating mods, building servers, and creating adventures themselves. However, Scrolls, being a multiplayer, semi-competitive strategy game, meant that the developers had to take a different approach, something they may not have experienced or expected.
Third, he did not receive the extensive marketing it was required as a multiplayer strategy board game. Minecraft was a game that went viral, for a long time it was the game on YouTube and as a result Mojang never had to market it. On the other hand, Scrolls did not receive this free marketing and Mojang was not ready for it. They didn’t anticipate that in order to keep a steady supply of new players for an online game, you have to market it. A very similar game from much more experienced Blizzard, Hearthstone is still heavily marketed with ads, something Scrolls always lacked.
Finally, Scrolls was a strategy game, a competitive game. Mojang perhaps expected the larger Minecraft community to keep Scrolls marketing-free, but the communities largely did not agree. Scrolls’ initial success came from excited Minecraft players who tried it out, but what they found was a very different type of gameplay. Scrolls needed a different audience, but Mojang did not seek this audience.
Scrolls wasn’t necessarily a bad game, and it’s found a small but devoted fanbase dedicated to keeping it alive. Maybe they will. In the end though, what we’ve seen is a studio that doesn’t appreciate the full scope of what needs to be done to produce a successful multiplayer game. Maybe making it free-to-play would have been the way to go…