“I want to tell you an incredible story, not just an indie postmortem with lots of great numbers, pretty pictures, tutorial funnels, core loops, etc. of yet another great game. This should be something different that hopefully you have never read before”, says 99Games‘ business performance manager Filippo De Rose as he shares the story of Star Chef, the game he showcased at Indie Prize USA 2015.
The story of Star Chef is simply one of perseverance, commitment to high quality and humility. It started when most of us were children or teenagers, from a small town in India (where I come from we would call it a city!) called Udupi, where Robosoft Technologies was born when a humble Mac programmer decided to start a company. Sure, if you have worked in a place like the Silicon Valley in California, the Silicon Alley in NYC or even the Silicon Roundabout in London, who isn’t an entrepreneur?
Just pause for a moment and imagine what it would be like to start a company in Udupi, Karnataka, India not in 2015 but in 1996. Most people reading this probably don’t even know where that is; if I say Goa some will recognize it, so let’s just say it’s close to that.
Thanks to daring to dream and never fearing failure, by August 2014 one of Robosoft’s spin-off companies, 99Games, successfully launched Star Chef globally, after 6 years of premium game success, several freemium failures and the passion, love and dedication of 25 people.
If you want to read on and find out more, I would love it if you walk away with three morals to this story: good fun is and should be transgenerational, stay calm and trust the process, and you are never who you think you are but how you are perceived.
Fun is transgenerational
Fads come and go but trends resonate and they do so across the generations, for years to come. The challenge is seeing them before they become such, if you really want to strike the jackpot – do you believe George Lucas imagined Star Wars as it is now, when he started?
There is a trick though, if you hit a trend that is within Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, then it’s a pretty safe bet, it will stick.
Food is a physiological need, food with self-actualization, esteem and belonging is a mobile game called Star Chef. The trend of love for cooking has always been there, since the dawn of television, but doing it while socially helping and competing was recently born with shows like Master Chef. Watched by different generations (now with the junior version), cultures and in many different languages, cuisine is one of the few subjects of the world that you can literally talk about with anyone, young or old, in any place. Not only is it transgenerational, it defies any border or cultural differences.
If you want a practical example of that, just sit in any major global airport and watch and listen. Airports are a great resource of transgenerational pop culture brainstorming. They are the only place in the world where a sushi bar, sits next to a taqueria, followed by a pizzeria, adjacent to a curry house, right beside….a McDonalds! . If you sit by them and listen to the voices passing by, assuming you understand the language, you can hear someone say with a British accent “I would kill for a curry”, or a nice Baaaston dialect “let’s get a burger!”, or maybe someone in French “une pizzzzza?”. However, the most riveting personal experience was sitting on a bench in Jerusalem, watching a gentleman with a long beard chatting to his friend, with long curls dropping from his ears, both chowing away at a halal/kosher kebab.
Targeting a global audience is not just about making games for ubiquitous mobile devices, it’s about focusing on a sentiment, loved or hated, that resonates with daily life and/or personal dreams. Who can admit never crushing candy in their lives? Or dreaming of leading an army into heroic battles? Even become a Hollywood celebrity?
99Games’ Star brand wants to give players of all ages the possibility to exercise their passions while becoming socially famous and having lots of fun! The specific promise in the Star Chef brand is to become a famous chef while exploring the world’s cuisines interacting in a social context, within a freemium game. In order to really go across the generations and leverage the mass popularization of mobile, you have to accept that it is redefining gaming genres. By cross-pollinating them, you don’t just give your team more content to build and your players more things to do to extend session length but you are syndicating (yes I worked in ad tech!) more topics to talk about in your gaming community. No marketing technology or approach will ever be more powerful than word of mouth, in a social network, in a classroom, in a household…in a kitchen!
Stay Calm: Trust the Process
To this day I still hear developers say “my game is finished”, ready to soft launch, rushing to get it tested and throw it globally in the black hole of global distribution, where it won’t be discovered easily and might even crash on some devices. At the same time there are others who say this is a “game as a service” and have taken the notion of freemium gaming to such extremes that the game is essentially a skeleton with limited playability, albeit a very pretty skeleton. Either way, they are putting their freshly minted cars into mass distribution with three wheels and half an engine to see how it drives, and maybe someone will even learn a new driving technique.
None of this could be further from the truth at 99Games. Most successful premium developers have struggled the transition to freemium because their legacy quality bar is very high. That applies to all elements: UX, assets, code, backend, etc. While the app store ecosystem and the freemium model have lowered tremendously the barriers to entry, the quality bar to be recognized and successful is and should be high. Humans are the only species on the planet born incomplete, and achieving that miracle takes 9 months. Star Chef took eight for concept and development, then came the infamous soft launch. How long should it last? What are the KPIs?
Just over 10 years ago, a company was born with one driving mantra “leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers” – today millions around the world shop for anything with that company: Amazon. Nothing could be more true when you are putting consumable entertainment in the hands of millions, so you must be very calm and LISTEN carefully to what your players are telling you. They will decide when you are ready to launch globally, and in the faceless world of the digital consumer they will tell you that in reviews, but most importantly on your KPIs.
At this point, thoughts that come to mind might be “where do I get these consumers, which KPIs” and so on. Do not lose focus, stay calm or you immediately fall into analysis-paralysis, and obsess over the product rather than your players. It’s very simple really, since you run a business. Sure, it’s a business of fun but you have to make money and to do that you need money. You don’t need incredible amounts of it at this point, just enough to spot the right customer in the right place. How? Again, KISS: pick any starting point and follow your customers – assume best customers own iPads, they come from wealthy nations and they can play a game in English. From that starting point, you refine the experience, product and acquisition. And this is not a brief process. Star Chef spent six months in soft launch, so be prepared for the long haul: yes you cannot do this without money – just like you never play in a casino on a borrowed bankroll. If the very high-level starting point is an absolute failure, then nothing is wrong with your customers or acquisition strategy, it’s the first signs of a slowly dying game: keep at it if you want, but the earlier you eat humble pie, the better the next title will be.
However, if you start seeing plots that go like this, then your players are telling you something. But how long did they take to tell us? Look at the x-axis. You might argue that we improved our acquisition to find better segments that engage more. Well then, why would it take them this long to see the social elements of the game?
Star Chef’s food truck speaks to the most basic form of communication since the dawn of time: barter – it took humans about 500 years to move from that to currency. Today, just like for a tourist in a new nation, it might take us days to figure out the buying power and usage of currency. Your players enter a new world, with a new economy, and you expect them to monetize overnight?
Tutorials can accelerate the education process but the psychological benefits (Maslow again!) of financial empowerment and consuming goods take time. So STAY CALM and give your customers the time to talk to you through your KPIs, gaming actions, reviews, but most importantly your customer support system. Remember: if they pay they are ALWAYS right.
How you are perceived
It happens, you started a company, maybe raised some money while also made a fun game, and all of this while raising a family, working at a full-time job. You deserve to feel proud of yourself, pat yourself on the shoulder and think you are the next Steve Jobs. Clearly, you have made the next big disruptive innovation and your game is really the next Tetris. In the meantime, you show your creation to your friends and family who support you blindly because they love you, and with an uncomfortable smile they tell you “yeah, it rocks!” – in this depiction the worst thing that could happen to you is that the first people you should trust about how they perceive you, actually completely deceive you.
We set out with a Star Chef aimed at foodies, cooking lovers and Master Chef fans ,and ended up with 90% female from 25 to 50 globally, with the number one whale spending over $5000. It cannot be just women who love food and cooking?! Rarely an accessory in the kitchen would cost that much! Clearly the answer is no. But this is how we are perceived. Fail to accept that, and your game is doomed. We could try to cast a wider net but why should we do that if we can conquer a niche this big, that is clearly underserved with entertaining content if they were the early adopters? Unless you presume you are the next Candy Crush, your early adopters should drive your game development roadmap and acquisition strategy. Focus on them. Admittedly, we couldn’t have figured this out without Facebook’s data. Thankfully, over a billion people globally voluntarily decided to give up their lives’ information to one giant database, for free.
What next? The game is enjoyed, data plots are trending positively, reviews are strong, star ratings are high and now? While we all have the same basic human needs, we do also have different cultural nuances, not just different alphabets. Many developers still believe that localization is just Google Translate on steroids. Actually, it requires, above all else, a cultural understanding of the practices and norms of the country for which you are localizing. A famous historical example would be JFK’s memorable Berlin speech where he began by stating “Ich bin ein Berliner,” which didn’t announce him as a native of the city as he intended, but rather as a brand of popular German doughnuts.
99Games is from India, a country with 2 official national languages, 22 regional ones and 212 recognized regional tribes – culturalisation of Star Chef was never questioned. In a recent study by Stanford many successful entrepreneurs and VCs were asked what is the most important element for success, and while many agreed on common themes like execution, the one that stood out the most was timing. Presenting different cuisines to different countries and being perceived culturally sensitive required exactly that. First came the famous Chinese New Year. Then, the Russian Carnival, the last days of feasting before Lent: Maslenitsa.
So we got featured? Was it worth the extra effort to culturalize? Below the top grossing chart in Taiwan.
Great, you think, the game is doing well, I am converting more than 3% of my players, and all I have to do is scale. You could consider that leaving 97% not converted is fine, but if you can build a new revenue stream – then you must. Most of us come to this defining moment where we feel awful because we have to show ads. Is that what your players think?
This is an old bronze plate for printing an ad that says: “Jinan Liu’s Fine Needle Shop” and “We buy high quality steel rods and make fine quality needles, to be ready for use at home in no time”. Sounds interesting, let’s go and visit Mr. Liu’s store, maybe his grandchildren are still around? Probably not, because Mr. Liu was advertising his store in China during the Song dynasty from 960 – 1279 AD. He made money from this ad, and so did the people who showed it. If he showed just this bronze plate, maybe people would have perceived the depicted animal as a demonized dog. While on a beautiful sheet of paper, hanging on a very stylish wall, it showed his famous rabbit logo.
In mobile games, the bronze plate experience is banner ads thrown all over the place all the time, interfering with the UX, while the attractive sheet of paper is strategized placement and timing of ads. Without digressing further into an enormous subject, a great ad strategy is “ads as a service”; if we do games as a service why not ads?
There shouldn’t be any question about it, ad monetization MUST be a thriving revenue stream alongside your IAPs, not an optional surplus of pocket change. If ever in doubt, tell me something that you enjoy doing possibly every hour (or even minute!) and you would stop doing it because it has ads; I dare you to stop using your Facebook feed as of today.
In the meantime, download Star Chef for iOS and become the next Culinary Master! For Android – please be patient till November 2015!