Driven by a desire to create games that come alive and resonate with players, Vladimir Funtikov co-founded Tallinn-based Creative Mobile, and after only four years, it became one of the largest mobile gaming companies in Northern Europe. His passion for games began with his first PC, and almost immediately, he started creating games, beginning with basic Warcraft and SimCity scenarios, then moving to single-player levels for Duke Nukem 3D, and eventually making multi-player maps for Counter-Strike.
When speaking on the potential of and best practices for the Android games market during Casual Connect in San Francisco, Estonian games studio founder Vlad Funtikov commented, “The players’ attention span is milliseconds, so you have to come up with an icon and a title that sells a game immediately.”
An Awesome Company
Vladimir Funtikov’s feelings about Creative Mobile, the company he co-founded, are clear. He says, “My company is awesome!” As Co-Founder of a startup, he has had to be involved in every aspect of the business. Although his experience as a game programmer saved some time in the beginning, everything else had to be learned along the way.
Funtikov’s hobbies are playing video games and traveling. Since these things are also important parts of his job, he claims he has solved the problem of not having free time.
Early Experience with User Generated Content
At the age of 12, he was browsing in the games folder on his family’s PC, and launched a program called “build”. It turned out to be a level builder for the shooter game he was playing. He was excited by the ability to create game content, and quickly became addicted. For the next five or six years, he spent at least half an hour every day making game levels, usually for Counter-Strike or CS: Source. After he finished school, he stopped, thinking it was time to grow up and get a real job. But the first real job he found happened to be with a company porting J2ME games. And only two years later, he co-founded Creative Mobile. He says he stays with the games industry because he has never found a single reason to quit.
Wasting their Lives on [Making] Games
The first year and a half after starting the company were quite difficult. Funtikov admits, “We struggled to make any money and explain to our families what we were wasting our lives on.” But the period of growth following their breakthrough games was an even greater challenge. Scaling production and bringing in top talent proved very difficult. He asserts, “I believe we managed to make it this far through dedication, focus and a healthy financial situation which allowed us to recover from mistakes we made.”
The result of this dedication and focus was what Funtikov feels was the greatest moment of his career, when Creative Mobile won the award for national “Startup of the Year.”
Funtikov believes that mobile apps will continue to be the hottest thing in the games industry for the next few years. But he finds it more exciting to consider what may come within the next five to fifteen years. He foresees possibilities such as an elegant way to get rid of the “screen size vs mobility” trade-off (perhaps Oculus Rift capabilities in Google Glass or even contact lens form factor), and revolutionary portable energy sources.
Creative Mobile Games, located in Tallinn, Estonia…about as far from the global “centers” of the game business as one is likely to get.
Despite that, Creative Mobile Games might be the most successful mobile game development studio that you’ve never heard of. CMG develops and publishes social and mobile games, including the Android and iOS hit,Drag Racing. They are ranked in PocketGamer’s Top 50 game developers, worldwide. Vladimir Funtikov, the CEO and founding member of this enormously successful Android-first studio, sat down with us to discuss this studio and its success.
What Makes Creative Mobile Games Special?
CMG made the commitment to Android in 2009, earlier than most. Their reasons for doing this illustrate the power of perception in shaping our view of the world. Although Apple devices were available in Eastern Europe, they were difficult to get, expensive, and out of reach for all but the wealthy. “In contrast, there were a number of inexpensive and easily available Android devices,” Vladimir explains, “so this led us to believe that Android’s open platform would eventually be the mobile platform winner.” Vladimir, joined by partners Sergey, Sehriy, and Marianna, pivoted their business from porting Java games to making their own games for Android-based devices. Their experience in porting gave them both the skills and the perspective needed to support multiple devices, and made supporting Android a less daunting leap than it might have been for studios used to less fragmented platforms.
Today, CMG enjoys nearly 100,000,000 installs for their games, and a solid presence on iOS as well as Android…a huge success by the measure of any indie game studio, anywhere.
A Bumpy Start
Creative Mobile did not experience immediate success; in fact, the early years were a difficult climb. For a year and a half, they experimented with a variety of approaches. Vladimir remembers, “We began with very simple games at a low price point of 99 cents. The games just didn’t sell at all.” We thought our games might not be good enough, so we worked hard to improve the games,” He continues, “They still didn’t sell.” Not ones to give up, CMG tried free games with ads next, and finally started seeing some signs-of-life. with enough revenue to support themselves. They continued using this model of simple, easy to create, free games with ad monetization on Android. The results were okay, but definitely not spectacular.
One day, Creative Mobile noticed Google had a racing category in Google Play, but there were no racing games there. This type of game appealed to them, since the company is filled with car nuts. “I only drive an Audi Q5,” Vlad admits sheepishly, “The roads in Estonia are too bad to drive a Pagini or Hennessy or even a Corvette, but someday I might own such a machine.” CMG created Drag Racing in six weeks to try to capitalize on this obvious hole in the market. To their surprise, the game was an huge, nearly-immediate success. Suddenly, the game had 80,000 downloads per day. Were they excited? “Stunned” would be more accurate. “We knew the game had lots of bugs and problems.” Vlad worried, “All of a sudden, we were five guys desperately trying to figure out how to deal with overwhelming success.”
They started growing, hiring, and growing again. They began learning how to run a big, successful, free-to-play game. After six months of extremely hard work, the game began to stabilize. Now CMG had developed a fairly large group of experienced team members. “Once the fixes slowed down,” said Vlad, “we saw an opportunity to expand their portfolio and create more games.” CMG decided to try to split into two teams: one concentrating on evolving the Drag Racing Franchise and the other would explore other games and new IP.
The first team did quite well. The franchise continued growing, and a new product, Motorcycle Drag Racing, extended the franchise.
The second team, however, was an abject failure, with no successful games.
Where Are They Today?
“We pulled the two separate teams and doubled-down on Drag Racing,” said Vladimir, describing their current position,“We committed ourselves to really taking the franchise to the next level with team-based multi-player action, groundbreaking physics, and heavy social and community aspects.” CMG has felt since the beginning that game community is critical, so they designed better embedded tools for managing large communities. They developed much greater support for a variety of car performance envelopes and different kinds of racing, with improvements in real physics such as torque steer, advanced weight distribution, wheel grip, suspension, and weight transfer modeling. “Of course, we had some experience with branded OEM and aftermarket performance from Drag Racing, and we wanted more support for that – to give players a more ‘real’ experience,” Vladimir brags, “Last May, we launched our next-generation game closed beta, with Android first, of course.”
The company now consists of more than seventy employees and has also become a boutique publisher for select external studios.