“One thing to look at and maybe to help focus your efforts is look at your D1 (Day 1) retention and D7 (Day 7) retention,” Amitt Mahajan said during Casual Connect USA. “I can’t stress those numbers enough because those are very good proxies of whether or not your game is fun.”
Amitt Mahajan, Founder and CEO of Red Hot Labs, keeps a watchful eye on emerging trends in the games industry. The most influential developments Mahajan sees at this point are the saturation of app stores and the rise of alternative methods of distribution channels on mobile.
Red Hot Labs will respond to these changes by exploring new distribution channels thoroughly in a controlled, analytical manner. Because Mahajan and his partner Joel Poloney worked for so long on Facebook games, they were able to see how channels became either more or less effective over time. Their experience leads them to believe the same will happen on mobile with the app stores.
“We’re hedging our bets and are willing to try different forms of user acquisition as they come up,” Mahajan said.
Success Through Shared Tech at Zynga
Red Hot Labs builds mobile games and the technology to develop and grow these games. Mahajan’s experience in creating both is grounded in his work at MyMiniLife Inc, which was acquired by Zynga where he later served as Director of Engineering. There, he and Poloney worked on full stack game engines and created the core technology that other game teams could use.
Proud of his Epic History
Mahajan claims there have been many great moments in his career, and each team he has worked on and every product launched has been a unique experience offering valuable insights. One of these experiences was shipping Gears of War at Epic Games and hearing how well it was doing.
“We knew we were building something special, and the early Gears of War prototype I saw during my interview was the reason I joined the company,” Mahajan said. “The game was one of the first to launch on the Unreal Engine 3, so it was the first time a game had that sophisticated level of graphic quality. The response from consumers was phenomenal, and the game ended up being a massive success.”
“We knew we were building something special, and the early Gears of War prototype I saw during my interview was the reason I joined the company.”
With global sales in the range of 6,000,000 units, even the phrase “massive success” is a bit of an understatement.
Matrix Math Fail
One of the biggest learning experiences Mahajan remembers is bombing a job interview for an internship at a games company while in college.
“I thought I knew my stuff — in this case Matrix Algebra — better than I actually did, so I didn’t bother studying or mentally preparing myself for the interview,” he said. But, Mahajan claims it taught him an important lesson: Always bring your best.
Amitt Mahajan is on a mission, and it’s a dangerous one at that. You see Mahajan, and his partner Joel Poloney, are tight-rope walkers. They’ve strung their wire between the once lofty tower of social gaming on Facebook and the rapidly rising rocket ship of social-mobile. They’re walking that very narrow line between art and science as they attempt to leave one world behind, building on their early success at Zynga, to stake a claim in the new world beyond.
But Red Hot Labs, newly founded by Mahajan and Poloney, is well-funded and well-poised to make such a crossing. After all, Poloney and Mahajan are the brains behind the Ville-games that provided Zynga with so much of its early zing. The question now is, just how hot is Red Hot? Building blockbuster franchises like Farmville and Castleville is incredibly difficult. But building a company that can create them is Sisyphean. Can its two young founders roll that huge boulder back up the hill? All signs point to Yes.
The lightbulb moment came for Mahajan during his stint as Zynga’s CTO in Japan. It was there, immersed in a society thoroughly inundated with mobile devices, that he saw the future.
“It made sense that when I came back to the US, we would try to get ahead of that curve here.”
“In Japan, I got a chance to see what a mobile first society looks like,” Mahajan said. “Everywhere you looked, people were utilizing their phones as their primary means of communication and entertainment. Every other TV commercial was for a social game, so I knew that it was only a matter of time before that phenomenon spread to the US… It made sense that when I came back to the US, we would try to get ahead of that curve here.”
Mahajan and Poloney knew they wanted to start a company, but their general thrust didn’t gel until they left Zynga. They saw promising potential in what was then still a nascent and evolving mobile landscape and formed Red Hot Labs as a sort of technology and know-how bridge between what worked in the old world of web-based social games and the new frontier of always-on, always-connected handheld devices.
“Our core belief is that the mobile ecosystem is still new and undeveloped,” Mahajan said. “The tools and infrastructure we had available when we were building games for Facebook does not yet exist for mobile and there is an opportunity in applying what we learned building FarmVille and other mass-market games at Zynga to mobile devices.”
Red Hot see gaps in the app development ecosystem. So they’re investing in their own core technology early, and taking their time doing it right, believing that will pay off down the road. Red Hot plans to create their own tools and services to fill those gaps that still exist, and that inhibit growth, in the mobile space as it pertains to app development. And their approach is both wise and humble. Having come off such success at Zynga, one might expect to find arrogance or even cockiness at Red Hot. Not so. Mahajan espouses a cyclical philosophy of perpetual learning that is almost Zen-like in its emphasis on leveraging the skills and talent of its people as both teachers and students.
“I measure our success in that regard by not only how successful we are when people are working with us, but how successful our alumni are even after they have left Red Hot Labs.”
“My aim is for Red Hot Labs to be a place of continuous learning,” Mahajan said. “Everyone here is a teacher and everyone here is a student. We aspire to work with people that inspire us to grow and do our best work. I measure our success in that regard by not only how successful we are when people are working with us, but how successful our alumni are even after they have left Red Hot Labs.”
Mahajan is serious about what he feels sets Red Hot apart. He sounds more like a University Dean than game studio CEO, but such a mindset is not altogether altruistic, it’s also good business. It’s like a brick-and-mortar store that prides itself on customer service except in this case, the employee is the customer. When a person feels respected and taken care of, that person not only works harder and more productively, but moves on with a positive and gracious attitude that yields dividends in the form of referrals, reviews and collaboration in the future.
Bingo Blast™, Red Hot’s first game, released on iOS and Android in March. It was featured on Google Play and, according to Mahajan, is doing very well. But it’s really only the beginning of what Red Hot has up its sleeve. It’s the technology beneath Bingo Blast that’s the real differentiator. Red Hot’s game-agnostic server architecture allows them to run multiple games on the same set of servers by employing some unique trade-offs in how data is stored and updated, enabling them to deploy games very quickly using their unique approach.
Though technology is a key component of Red Hot’s strategy, it’s game-play and brand loyalty they are most focused on. They are building processes around the collaboration between what Mahajan calls ‘intuition-based designers’ and metrics-driven product managers, leveraging what they learned at Zynga – both what did, and what didn’t work.
“We’re a retention-first company,” Mahajan says. “That means respecting the player and building a long-term relationship with them by delivering entertainment first. We’re always looking for win/win experiences where the player constantly experiences new unique types of fun and we are compensated for our efforts. It’s not always easy to do, but searching for those opportunities is what differentiates us and makes this an incredible adventure.”
Balancing the art and science of game development has been the mantra of many studios before them, but Red Hot seems to have the chops to actually pull it off. If they can achieve on mobile what they managed to do with Farmville in the now ancient social-Facebook past, we could be looking at the next Zynga…or perhaps, the next Zynga acquisition target.