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Data and creativity to drive innovation: Art Director André Forni talks about creating new stories and characters based on what players want.


 

Data-driven innovation has been one of Wildlife's pillars since day one – that's how our games have reached 2.6 billion downloads globally since 2011. André Forni, Art Director who joined us two years ago, can attest to the importance of research to make successful games. 

Forni has a lot of experience in creating characters, but at Wildlife he started to use data and research to make his work connect in new and effective ways with the public – and that's how he makes Zooba so much fun. The game, an electrifying game that combines MOBA and Battle Royale, was born during a company Hackathon, and Forni joined the team a few months later. "The results help us not only to know our public, but also to offer innovations based on relevant data," he says.

Innovating with research, after all, is one of Wildlife's greatest values, so this applies to all areas of the company. But why exactly do creatives need data? At Wildlife, this happens quite naturally, because creative work needs intelligence like any other. That's why Forni focused on developing creative, entertaining characters and outstanding personalities, based on what the team discovers in their analysis.

Read the full interview below and learn how Wildlife manages to grow based on data, and what the role of Art Director means in the company:

Forni, do you feel data is part of Wildlife's culture?
Yes! And Zooba has a special aspect, because of the connection the characters can make with the community. But the use of research and data also happens in all our games, like Tennis Clash and War Machines.

Does the data you use on a daily basis come from community research?
That's right. Some data is provided automatically, while others are collected through qualitative surveys. With this, we discover, for example, that the global ranking matters less than the ranking of friends. We've also tried out surveys offering rewards in the game, which has been very well received by the community. So those are the kinds of research we do, and the results help us not only to know our audience a bit better, but also to offer innovation based on relevant data.

What has changed in Zooba's gameplay based on research and data?
For instance, we realized that players tend to play more with one or two of their favorite characters. And based on this we created a rotation of events that offers rewards players who indeed love playing with specific characters, but also encourages them to test new ones – that's how we created daily missions like "play eight games with Finn".

Another curious thing is that some fanfics (stories created by fans) end up turning into reality. People sometimes comment about one character being in love with another, for example, and these connections have developed the story. This theory has emerged that the reptiles Larry and Lizzy would be connected as brothers, or that Larry and Shelly were a couple. So we can use that.

It's very interesting to keep players' comments in mind so that we keep developing the characters and the relationships between them, promoting this kind of interaction between the players and the game's universe.

What else has changed at Zooba since you've become its Art Director?
The focus of Zooba's team has shifted in terms of character production. We have screenwriters working on each one of them, we create comic books about them to dig deeper into their stories, and we launch progression rewards. The characters have become the most important aspect of our relationship with players. That's why we created more depth for each one of them. Today, we have, for each character, special skins and themes, such as Christmas skin, and recently, we also made an election to choose which character would be released next, which involves the community in the creative process in an unprecedented way.

For Zooba, data has always helped us to create unique and fun characters. When we created Henry, who is a bat, we looked for inspiration in nature – more specifically in hematophagous bats, commonly known as "vampires". They bite a prey to suck its blood and they numb their victims, so we used that in the gameplay. This example shows that the research helps a lot in the creative part and gameplay data helps us in the process of evaluating the project performance or trends that arise from the players.

But it's not all about the story and the characters. Speaking of hardware, for example, how do you guarantee a good gaming experience for different devices?
Zooba is an action and reaction game. So, the performance of the game is very important. Our decisions always take into account the performance and the look. That's why we try to put a minimum hardware requirement, because the game has a large number of people online. The higher the number of players on different devices, the better for the game. And that's only possible because we ran many tests, trying to understand what harmed the game performance, to solve the problems. In fact, many aesthetic decisions were made based on this, because we know that having poor performance spoils the player's experience, and we want to take fun to as many people as possible.

Another important issue is the duration of the matches. How is it possible to find the ideal time?
We decided at a very early stage that we would have short battles at Zooba, and we've always looked for balance. The game needs to engage the player, but it can't be a heavy commitment. Since we use the Battle Royale model, the length guided our development, and after many tests, we found the ideal time and format, with a few minutes long battles. 

What is it like to create a game with the fans?
Creating with the public is one of the things I fell most in love with in the creative process of games. After you release an animation, it's done and you can no longer change it. If you notice that the soundtrack could have been better, there is nothing you can do, except take this knowledge to the next project. In the game, the audience can suggest changes and you can shape the game based on the players' opinion. Creating a game is like telling a story to a group of friends and shaping the next steps according to their reaction.

In your opinion, what makes the connection between the audience and the characters?
I think it's the character development and how deep we work on it, because people feel it. They call them by their names, which is great and shows the degree of their connection with the players.

I'm gonna use Finn as an example. We started thinking about which zoo animals we would like to transform into a character, so we decided to create a shark – but our shark could not be the cliché of the movies. So we bet on humor – since he lives isolated in his aquarium, the only other animals he had contact with were the dogs of the people who visit the zoo. That's why we incorporated in him characteristics of the dog. He breathes with his tongue out and his special attack is to run out and bite, but at the same time, we did this as if he was playing and had no notion of his own strength.

What is an Art Director's job at Wildlife? And how much time do you dedicate to Zooba?
Today, I spend 70% of my time dedicated to Zooba and 30% to new games. My role is to manage the team and keep it clear to everyone what the vision of the game is. This is a role of creative direction, not just art itself. A lot of the art and audio aspects of a game are under my final decision, although there is an amazing team with me. I try to keep everyone on the same direction, and much of my work is seeing everything the artists have produced. I follow the concept of the characters, the 3D modelling ing, the textures, the visual and sound effects.

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How was your transition to the games market?
I came from the animation market and directed animations for big studios, and although the creative process was very similar, the proximity to the final audience is greater in games than in an animation. When I joined Wildlife, I faced big challenges because I had never worked with games before. For starters, I was a bit worried about that because I thought it would restrict me. As artists, we're always afraid that data will get in our way, so we don't see it as something helpful right away. But I believe that we can only be creative when we are placed within limits – nothing is scarier than a blank canvas, so having some kind of restriction helps to create. But I soon understood that data helps us understand what works with our audience.

Besides "We Innovate With Research", which other Wildlife values are most perceptible to you?
Certainly it's "We Care For Each Other", we feel it all the time. There is a special affection among the project teams, and it impacts on our work. For instance, we created a super cute character for Zooba, Lizzy, who was inspired by Elisa, who works in Engineering at Wildlife. The character's name was a tribute to her, and this connection between them led us to invite Elisa to record the character's voice. Now, she's forever part of the game.

"We Are Candid" is a very important value for me as well. People are always committed to the project and the communication flows in an assertive and direct way, so the result is professional growth and trust among team members. The openness to be candid is very important because it helps us bond.

What has changed the most through the years since you joined Wildlife?
So much has changed. Before joining the company, I had worked in two types of studios: those that had great dreams, but little power to make them come true. And the ones that had a lot of power to accomplish, but just a few dreams. At Wildlife, I started aiming much higher, the studio inspires us to dream big. So one of the greatest things I've learned here is that I can always aim higher, and the unlimited potential inspires me every day.

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