EMERGENCY – a Case Study in Globalizing a Niche German IP

EMERGENCY has come a long way in its 25-year history, transitioning from a pay-to-play title with a player base centered in Germany to an internationally acclaimed free-to-play app. Today, we delve into the remarkable evolution of this game series. We explore how the advent of touchscreens resulted in a decisive turnaround for the EMERGENCY IP and learn more about how the Phoenix Games Uplift Platform impacted on user acquisition and monetization combined with a dedicated internationalization strategy that ultimately paved the way for the IP’s international success.

On a Rescue Mission Since 1998

The EMERGENCY history began in 1998, with the release of EMERGENCY – Fighters for Life for Windows PCs. Developed by the talented team at sixteen tons entertainment, this isometric 2D game laid the foundation for a long-lasting series. Ralph Stock and his team’s primary objective was to bring a new flavor to strategy games – by using the work of a fire department as a gameplay metaphor the game tasks players to save lives. This sounds trivial, but the vast majority of games in the genre were all about attacking and destroying enemies in the Scifi and war settings that were so popular back in the 90ies. In EMERGENCY, the heroes aren’t soldiers but rescue workers. 

EMERGENCY – Fighters for Life Screenshot

The game found a particularly receptive audience in Germany, a country with only 35,000 professional firefighters but more than a million members in the volunteer fire service. This means that there is a strong community of people who have served as fire fighters sometime in their life and are very interested in the subject. These people became passionate players and provided invaluable feedback to the developers, which helped shape the subsequent titles in the series.

Numerous classic sequels and spin-offs followed, each keeping the core promise intact but adding to the formula – and evolving with the technology. EMERGENCY Police (2001) put a focus on different police units and their special tasks.  EMERGENCY 2 (2002) again brought together the fire department, police and rescue forces and placed an emphasis on the coordination of these different units. With EMERGENCY 3 – Mission: Life (2005) the series made the switch to fully zoomable and freely rotatable 3D graphics. For the first time in the history of the franchise, the game allowed players to survey their missions from all angles.

EMERGENCY 3 – Mission: Life Screenshot

The release of EMERGENCY 4 (2006) finally allowed players to cooperate and coordinate rescue forces in multiplayer mode. The Deluxe Edition of this title even introduced voice command controls for task force management.

The series, at this point in time still consisting of pay-to-play titles only, was gaining momentum in German speaking areas but also slowly grew into neighboring countries, yet the breakthrough was still to come.

From PC to Touchscreen: EMERGENCY’s Journey to Handhelds and Smartphones

After EMERGENCY 4, the development of EMERGENCY DS started. What was to come truly revolutionized the series: The game was built for the Nintendo DS and needed to be controllable using the DS’s stylus. This posed a challenge for the team but they embraced it fully and designed the game from the ground up for touch controls. They invested significant time and effort into developing a seamless DS experience.

It was the perfect time to move on to touch controls. When the team was working on the completion of EMERGENCY DS, Apple launched its iPhone with multi-touch screens on the European market. That was in November 2007. Although iPhones were initially not positioned as a gaming device, sixteen tons entertainment recognized the potential of combining EMERGENCY with touch, even though an iPhone version of the game was still years away. 

The first game in this series with touch controls finally made its debut in 2008: EMERGENCY DS was released.

Ralph Stock, founder of sixteen tons and creator of the brand, sees EMERGENCY DS as the best game in the series to that date, thanks to its groundbreaking gameplay. It didn’t get the success at retail it deserved, sadly – it was tough selling new genres on the DS then, a platform that was dominated by Nintendo’s first party games. And as DS cartridges were expensive to produce and had to be ordered months in advance, sixteen tons hedged their bets and had only a relatively small number produced. But it was successful enough to warrant a successor on the 3DS a few years later.

The introduction of the touchscreen controls for Nintendo DS marked a significant breakthrough for the series, opening up new future opportunities for expansion into the mobile market. But while the idea of a smartphone version began to form, the team worked on PC titles in the main series and spin-offs. EMERGENCY 2012 (release in 2010) was published with optimised graphics and controls for the core audience and comic-style game EMERGENCY Kids (2011) aimed to expand the market vertically and address the younger generation of players. 

By then, the iPad had hit the market and was hailed as the ideal gaming platform by many. That was what sparked earnest development on EMERGENCY Mobile. And while it built on the touch controls developed for the DS, another major paradigm shift occurred – the AppStore moved from pay-to-play to free-to-play. While many of the most notable games of 2012, Bastion, Angry Birds: Star Wars or The Walking Dead still adhered to the old model, Supercell burst onto the scene with Hay Day and Clash of Clans, changing the perception of mobile games forever.

And EMERGENCY Mobile was right there, the iPad version was even released before Clash of Clans in the summer of 2012. Other versions followed: iPhone, Android, even Kindle Tablets. But the game was not a free-to-play offering, it followed the price points common at that time: 3-4 Euros for iPad, 1-2 Euros for iPhone. It came with in-game-purchases, though. While the game saw some success and held its own on the new platform, it didn’t break through internationally.

The team continued to work on the mobile game but created PC games in the series as well, about one per year. But while the PC games continued to be (mostly) limited to five-figure sales and a Central-European audience, the mobile game continued to slowly grow even in territories abroad, not making much money, but providing the team with data and access to new audiences.

The EMERGENCY IP at a Glance

Game: Release: Available on:
EMERGENCY – Fighters for Life 1998 PC
EMERGENCY Police 2001 PC
EMERGENCY 3 – Mission: Life 2005 PC
EMERGENCY DS 2008 Nintendo DS
EMERGENCY 2012 2010 PC
EMERGENCY Mobile 2012 Android, iOS, Kindle Tablet
EMERGENCY 2013 2013 PC
EMERGENCY 2014 2013 PC
EMERGENCY 2016 2015 PC
EMERGENCY 2017 2016 PC
EMERGENCY HQ 2018 Android, iOS

Embracing New Business Opportunities

By now, in the late 2010s, the mobile market had evolved into the biggest segment of gaming and sixteen tons felt ready to tackle it again, half a decade after their first attempt. This next offering was fully designed for free-2-play.

Sixteen tons entertainment was perfectly prepared. The touch control experience of EMERGENCY DS for the handheld and EMERGENCY Mobile for iOS and Android devices served as an excellent basis for following the trends of the mobile games market and releasing a title suited to it. So the team developed their first true free-to-play game for smartphones and tablets in this franchise. 

After a successful soft launch in Sweden, the team released EMERGENCY HQ worldwide in 2018 – and while the power of the established Emergency brand surely helped initially the game found a new audience outside of its core territories in Central Europe. It was downloaded 6 Million times in the first year alone, reaching more players than all the previous games combined.

But games as a service, live ops, user acquisition and monetization in the free-to-play mobile business – all were completely new for the studio, whose main expertise in publishing was with pay-to-play titles for PC. And with typical German emergency vehicles, villages and events, the game was still primarily aimed at a German target group.

The internationalization of the EMERGENCY IP

Nevertheless, the free-to-play app was well received by players, but there were still opportunities for optimisation and for fully tapping into broader target groups.

In January 2020, sixteen tons entertainment was acquired by Phoenix Games. Since then, Phoenix Games applied its own developed Uplift Products to leverage the international success of EMERGENCY HQ – all this with IP expansion strategy in mind. Phoenix Games didn’t meddle with game design or studio decisions but gave access to the wealth of F2P experience of its team and access to their suite of proprietary Uplift Products which use machine learning, automation and AI to conduct much more efficient user acquisition (UA). 

These are four efficient methods that helped make sixteen tons entertainment more profitable with the game EMERGENCY HQ than ever before in their 30-year studio history.

1. Expanding the Games as a Service offering

The idea: Constantly create new game content with a strong focus on the international audience for high long-term motivation of the player base. 

Since joining Phoenix Games, sixteen tons entertainment has experienced a significant increase in development and release of updates. This can be attributed to the expansion of the live ops team, which now consists of 16 developers solely dedicated to delivering new content for EMERGENCY HQ.

A relevant update for the game is released about once a month – and by the way, this is in complete contrast to the past, where only one update was released every nine months. Now there are the Summer Games running with special missions. In addition, the NBC teams for combating radioactive and biological catastrophes and the Rescue Alliance Duel, a new mode, have been introduced. Seasonal events such as snow with matching missions or the International Soccer Tournament have also greatly enriched EMERGENCY HQ.

2. Enhancing UA strategies

The idea: The Phoenix Games user acquisition algorithm maximizes the game’s profit based on dynamic forecasts and optimised bids and budgets. 

Phoenix Games provided valuable support to sixteen tons entertainment through the implementation of their machine learning user acquisition algorithm. This system utilizes dynamic forecasts to optimize bids and budgets across all user acquisition channels, ultimately maximizing profits for EMERGENCY HQ. Automated UA campaigns are adjusted in real time. Audiences and assets as well as messages are manually selected and modified to suit the target groups. Following the implementation, the automated system enabled user acquisition to scale profitability, resulting in a higher return on ad spend (ROAS).

3. Strategizing optimal monetization approaches

The idea: The Phoenix Games’ machine-learning algorithm for optimising ad inventory and ad mediation, enables a more efficient and effective monetization of the game. 

This second product by Phoenix Games to uplift free-to-play titles is also decisive for the fact that sixteen tons entertainment has never been as profitable as it is now.Ad monetisation is the first pillar of these strategies. Behavior targeting strategies are employed to deliver in-game ads tailored to specific markets, further enhancing the overall experience. These strategies have succeeded in monetising more than 90% of non-paying users. Utilizing the Phoenix Games’ smart machine learning real time optimization of ad waterfalls significantly increases eCMP (effective cost per mille) – in other words: higher advertising revenue per 1,000 impressions.

The monetization of in-game items is the second pillar.

4. Localizing game assets to enhance player retention

The idea: localized assets including visually adapted cars for the respective countries, making the game seem much more authentic, even more appealing to players. 

After having firetrucks and other vehicles specific for each country on ad creatives for user acquisition and seeing relevant improvements in performance, those were implemented in the game as well. Ralph Stock notes that this attention to detail resonates with players, making the game feel genuine and familiar: Players from Germany look at cars that resemble German cars, while players from the USA go out with cars that look US-American, specifically adapted for each county. 

While fire engines are predominantly red across most countries, there are notable variations in individual components. Take, for instance, the American vehicles, which bear a striking resemblance to long-haul trucks. Another differentiating factor is the distinctive sound of the sirens, which varies across numerous countries. Chinese variants are currently being worked on.

Leveraging the acquired knowledge as a springboard for future projects

EMERGENCY HQ has now reaped the rewards of improved data analytics, an optimized monetization strategy, and highly successful user acquisition. The game has undergone remarkable enhancements, and there is still further potential for optimization. Continual improvement is ensured through the utilization of the Phoenix platform. Built upon these four presented methods, EMERGENCY HQ has become a resounding international success, witnessing a surge in user base, revenues, and team expansion.

Interestingly, the main audience is now in the USA, not Germany anymore, which is a healthy development, as the US are the main mobile games market in the western hemisphere. This confirms that the game has transcended its German origins and is, truely an international game now.

The studio’s goal is still to enrich the EMERGENCY universe. Following the  enormous success with EMERGENCY HQ, the developers have introduced a new project for mobile devices – a location-based game called EMERGENCY Operator. This fresh take on the topic of rescue missions is set right in the players’ local areas. Reflecting the audiences’ own neighborhoods, the game marks the next step in not only expanding the IP but also bridging EMERGENCY with the real world, thereby elevating the authenticity of the gaming experience.

But that’s not all. Armed with the insights from the development of EMERGENCY HQ, the studio and Phoenix Games are moreover well set up for the next era: a PC game, simply named EMERGENCY, which is available now as a free-to-play experience on Steam. Just released on August 15, thousands players worldwide have already played the game. The team is hard at work to provide updates and enhance EMERGENCY further for the player community.

EMERGENCY’s evolution from a niche German IP to a global success showcases the power of innovation and adaptation. With its 25-year history, EMERGENCY stands as an inspiring example of how a gaming franchise can transcend borders and fascinate players around the world.