Sandy Miller is a general partner at Institutional Venture Partners, a company he joined in 2006. He focuses on later-stage venture and growth equity investments in technology, internet, and digital media companies. He has more than thirty-five years of experience in venture capital and technology investment banking.
A History Of Success
His most successful investments to date have been social gaming companies Supercell, ngmoco and Zynga, where Institutional Venture Partners was an early investor.
In February 2013, Miller co-led the $130 million round for Supercell. In October 2013, Softbank and GungHo, both Japanese firms, partnered to purchase 51 percent of all outstanding equity in Supercell at $3 billion valuation.
In December 2009, Miller led the $25 million round for ngmoco, a leading publisher of social games for the iPhone, founded by experienced former Electronic Arts executives led by Neil Young. ngmoco was acquired by the Japanese social and mobile gaming publisher, DeNA, for $400 million in October 2010. DeNA’s purpose was to strengthen its international presence and extend its capabilities on smartphone platforms.
At Zynga, Miller co-led the $29 million Series B in July 2008 and was active through its IPO in 2011.
He has also led investments in AddThis, Carbonite (IPO 2011), Care.com (IPO 2014), Constant Contact, Data Domain (which was acquired by EMC Corp. for 2.4 billion in 2009), Datalogix, Fleetmatics (IPO 2009), LiveOps, OnDeck, One Kings Lane, Prosper, and Vonage (IPO 2006).
Previously, he opened and ran tech banking in San Francisco for DLJ and Merrill Lynch, ran tech banking at Montgomery Securities and was a co-founder of Thomas Weisel Partners. As an investment banker and venture capitalist, he has handled more than 100 IPOs.
In his time away from his work, he has used his expertise in support of more than twenty-five public, private and philanthropic organizations. Currently, he serves as a board member of the Cantor Art Center at the Stanford University Art Museum and at the Art Museum of the University of Virginia, where he previously served as a college trustee. He has also been a trustee and board member of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, the Stanford Law School, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the American Conservatory Theater and Grace Episcopal Cathedral.
Miller was recognized by Forbes magazine as one of the top 100 venture capitalists in the world; he is one of only nine venture capitalists who have included on all of the Forbes Midas lists since 2007. He is now looking for the next great gaming company to invest in.
“Real money gambling is actually a lot larger than you guys think,” Jonathan Flesher said at Casual Connect Asia 2014. “People say ‘Oh, well, you know, you are limiting your activity to the UK alone.’ Just to be clear, social casino worldwide is approximately $3 billion, $2.9, $3.1, roughly $3 billion dollars. The UK online gambling market alone, just the UK, is $3.5 billion.”
Jonathan Flesher, the executive vice-president at Betable, leads the company’s business development group, which includes commercial partnerships and developer relations. He finds his previous work in similar roles at both Zynga and Electronic Arts an advantage now that he is at a platform for game developers to get into real money gaming. The last deal he signed for Zynga with bwin.party was especially useful, helping him to understand the intersection between virtual currency and real money gaming.
Keep It Authentic
Now that he has worked in both the video games industry and in real money gaming, he has come to respect some of the virtual casino developers who have voluntarily chosen to use real random number generators to determine all play outcomes, even during the first-time player onboarding experience. He states, “Some say it gives their game a more ‘authentic’ casino feel, which I agree with, but I also think it creates a more transparent relationship with the consumer. I’d like to see more F2P developers take similar steps in their games as appropriate to the genre or game mechanic.”
He emphasizes that Betable, as a regulated gambling operator, is required by law to determine play outcomes using certified random number generators. This is the industry standard and something Betable was already doing.
Growth Through Real Money Gaming
Flesher sees real money gaming becoming the next big thing in video games. This is why he joined Betable; it is the first and leading company enabling this intersection. He asserts, “We will see more and more interesting games that incorporate real money play over the next few years. They will bring a whole new level of entertainment to ‘gambling’ as we know it.”
For his personal gaming, Flesher has always preferred FPS on PC. But these days he has little time, so he usually plays on his iPad Mini, feeling,“It is the best blend between a tablet and a smartphone, giving you a decent screen size and better handheld playability.” He hasn’t yet found a decent FPS for touch screen, and actually hates virtual joysticks. So he is now playing a lot of casino games and poker for work, and, in his free time, he enjoys Real Racing 3 and Deer Hunter 2014. And he is very excited to play Hitman GO.
Immediate Consumer Feedback
F2P has really opened up the market and made it far more accessible and social to a large number of people, in Flesher’s opinion. Previously, there was always a price barrier that was a limiting factor in audience size in all but the largest franchises. F2P also dramatically expanded games-as-service, giving developers live feedback on content as they grow their games. These developers no longer had to rely only on experience, gut instinct, and play tests to find the right formula for success.
F2P has really opened up the market and made it far more accessible and social to a large number of people, in Flesher’s opinion.
However, he has also seen that F2P is typically supported by a very small set of payers who spend outsized amounts of money in the game. He says, “While it may be fine for a wealthy person to spend six or seven figures in a game, we all know the stories of players spending beyond their means or falling prey to other unhealthy behaviors.” He also states that he can easily see the entertainment value in a $60 console game such as FIFA or GTA, but it is hard to see the average F2P player getting similar entertainment value for that amount of money.
Flesher finds great satisfaction in working in an industry that he really loves and that brings smiles to the faces of so many people. He claims the proudest moment of his career came the first time his children visited him at work, saying, “I’m not sure I would have gotten the same response from my kids if I had still been working in financial services.”
When not working or gaming, Flesher is an auto/go-kart racer and advanced scuba diver, both activities he loves. To keep in shape, he wrestles with his kids, works out at a CrossFit gym, and takes occasional yoga classes.
One word for it is “miraculous” – it’s miraculous how such a team came together in the right place at the right time. “It was as though someone had dropped a bag of scrabble letters, and amongst the resulting alphabetical catastrophe on the floor, one sentence lay there fully formed, ‘Start Company, Make Bingo’,” Oliver Jones, the director and co-founder of Moonfrog Labs recalls as he tells the story of their first game Bingo Club. The game was in made in six months by a team of four that grew to eleven.
A Gamedev Startup – a Crazy Idea for Indian Business
This story is as much about game design as it is about India. Bingo Club and Moonfrog would not exist if Zynga did not open up a shop in India and hire the best talents they could find in all competencies. At the Zynga shop, our team saw the potentials of a fast-moving mobile company in an emerging market, and made the jump into founderhood. It was a bold move! Generally, Indian entrepreneurs like to start traditional buy/sell businesses. As a result, this startup idea of a gamedev company seemed far too risky for some of our family and friends, who asked us to slow down and think twice. We did neither.
We knew that our team’s combination of development skills essential for games is quite rare in this part of the world. In India, it’s tough to find design, product, and game programming professionals able to handle these big 1M+ player bases. It’s also challenging to find creative people who will push for awesome player experiences, and even more difficult to bring all these people together. In the hard times when Bingo Club was finding its feet on the marketplace and players riled about bugs, we would remind ourselves that we could be making a part of history. We could become the first Indian gaming startup to actually execute on both scalability and high quality. It was the idea that kept us polishing and pushing our standards higher.
Math is King in a Bingo Game
The “spit and polish” approach, however, can only be applied to a smooth, solid object. For Bingo Club, this meant some solid, smooth math. Believe it or not, the average number of Bingo balls called in a game dictates absolutely everything else! From session length to level curve, even the cost of power ups could be calculated from that single number. In order to find that number, we had to define a set of rules and simulate bingo games a couple of thousand times. While the company was still inchoate, I quickly realized this fact and knocked together a simple Bingo simulator in Flash, that you can play around with on my website. Simply input the number of players and hit play!
This simulator allows you to define a set of rules, such as player/Bingo ratio, XP per daub, and run it thousands of times. It outputs values such as how many bingo numbers are drawn before a game is over, and even what quantities of XP and coins you would earn per game. These numbers became my constants, my guiding star in the sea of shifting XP requirements and jackpot payouts. Of course later, we started being more creative with our game mechanics and made more sophisticated simulations with no designer-friendly UI.
Casual Means Usable, Not Easy
It may come as unfortunate news for developers and designers that you can’t launch a spreadsheet on the app store. Bingo Club only existed for a while as a glorious mashup of formulas and calculations, while our UI remained a blank canvas. As we started drafting screens, it dawned on us that perhaps we didn’t really know what would resonate with our target audience. Who were the players of Bingo? What semiotics and game patterns are they familiar with?
To get rid of this problem, we started iterating. Above is a sample of what we greyboxed for the lobby screen before we came up with our final result. Each screen was tested, scrutinized in detail, and compared with our closest competitors. Along the rocky road to a clean interface, we also experimented with meta-games trying bizarre stuff like a Candy Crush Saga-inspired story and zoo animal collection. Along the way, we created hundreds of wireframe configurations.
Lesson Learned: Launch, Adjust, and Update
Despite the fact that we haven’t spent a single marketing dollar over the last few weeks, Bingo Club is naturally climbing its way into the top 100 in various countries, including the USA, UK, Canada, France, Italy, Germany, and Spain. Our reviews are averaging 4.5 stars. The future looks bright! However, we can say that we launched too late! Bingo Club could have been launched three months earlier. But instead of that, we decided to push to become more feature-complete. This was a bad idea, as our app would have become far more polished had we received precious feedback and suggestions from the players sooner.
One could argue that Bingo Club has already completed its mission. It has gone a long way to prove that both Moonfrog and the entire Indian indie game scene is capable of competing against the best developers in the global arena. We saw the bar of quality exhibited in current bingo games, ran, and jumped right over it. You could say that Moonfrog hopped as high as you would expect a frog would on the moon. But our journey was not entirely frictionless, and certainly had no shortage of lessons along the way. Our plan for Bingo Club however, does not end here! With continued support, we intend to see how big our little game can grow. Expect us to add fresh ideas, new levels, and more. For now, its only one small step for Bingo, but one giant leap for Moonfrog.
At the time of writing Bingo Club is available worldwide on Android, but they are still waiting to see whether or not their efforts will be fruitful and rewards, more than intrinsic. Regardless of the outcome, they feel they have proven themselves as a team.
Nick Thomas, CEO and Co-Founder of SomaTone, Inc., is a video games industry veteran and thought leader with 10+ years of proven executive leadership results with a focus on developing strategic industry partnerships, innovating creative outsourcing solutions and managing talented teams that contribute to more than 100 games annually from nearly all major publishers and developers, as well as independent developers. He discusses the transformation occurring in the industry in this article.
It’s happening again, right before our eyes; we’re in the midst of yet another era of redefinition and reinvention in the ever-evolving gaming industry. While the landscape is changing dramatically, history shows us that something new and good will invariably emerge. After all, (and despite many attempts), you cannot own or control creativity, or predict the future of gaming.
We at SomaTone are ten years deep as a leading provider of creative content for mobile, social, and casual games, working at the forefront of gaming over the last decade’s explosive growth. Having produced audio content on hundreds of games for many of the top publishers as well as for the indies, our vantage point gives us a sweeping perspective across the landscape of the games industry– from AAA console games, to MMO’s, to Social/Mobile, to Casual, and beyond.
We’re seeing the cyclical pendulum swing of innovation, homogenization, and reinvention continuing to keep the publishers of gaming content guessing as the smaller, faster, and more creative start-ups are yet again redefining the gaming industry.
The Ripple Effects of Converting Players into Users in Mobile Gaming
Casual games continue to go through a familiar pattern, and we are currently emerging from a decline of the smaller “Mom and Pop” game developers, who have been squeezed out by the realities of mobile publishing and the dominance of Free-to-Play (F2P) games. This economic model has sought to systematically convert game “users” into a currency that has been hoarded, sold, and traded in an effort to control access to “game players.”
As a consequence, the industry was stratified into large game publishers–who controlled the access to “users” and thus the majority of the market–and new start-ups and Indies, who were either being gobbled up by these same publishers, or self-publishing and hoping for a Flappy Bird-style anomalous hit.
The middle-class of game development–studios of 20-50 working on games that were sold via standard pay-to-play standards with supportive publishing partners–has suffered. With limited access to users, who are carefully controlled by game publishers, it was nearly impossible for mid-sized independent game developers to make and sell their own games and support their teams. The result was a polarized and stratified industry in which a small fraction of game publishers own the vast majority of market, making it extremely difficult for small game developers to independently make and sell their games without yielding to the requirements of the publishers, who will own the IP, take the lion’s share of the revenue, with no clear obligation to bring “users” to their game.
“Every time the industry has homogenized itself by the few having control of the many, a new era of gaming has invented itself.”
Now while all publisher models attempt to control access and distribution to customers (this is in fact what publishers are supposed to do), there is a dramatic new variable at play, with the F2P economy. This “race to the bottom” business model, which has led to disruptive game-play mechanics designed to extract fees from “users”, in their efforts to enjoy a fully featured game-play experience and be “players”, is highly dependent on publishers’ access to users, and their ability to monetize these users. Those “old school” game designers, who sought to develop great games, that offered fully featured immersive game-play experiences at the outrageously expensive price of $.99, never stood a chance against “free” games, which are developed by game publishers and promoted to their “users”, requiring players to pay for the features included in a 1-dollar competing title.
This Latest Cycle Will Induce a Painful Rebirth
This cycle of innovation, homogenization and reinvention is not a new trend. We have seen this same cycle in gaming in the past, with Big Fish Games‘ consolidation of the PC Downloadable market and subsequently, Zynga‘s dominance of browser-based Facebook, and in both cases, there was a painful rebirth of the industry. Those fastest to adapt to the new ecosystems survived, and those who could not evolve, died away.
However, it is also true that every time the industry has homogenized itself by the few having control of the many, a new era of gaming has invented itself. Just after Big Fish unequivocally took control of PC downloadable, Facebook came along and completely disrupted their reign. A few short years later, the kings of Facebook (Zynga, Playdom, Wooga) have been dethroned, only to be replaced by the current leaders of the mobile industry. With each successive attempt to control and “own” the industry, new life has begun.
“You cannot control game players or ‘own’ creativity. A new era is currently percolating under the thin crust of the mobile/casual games ecosystem, and by my observations, we are onto a new dawn of gaming.”
This reminds me of Jurassic Park. Life finds a way. In this case, creativity finds a way, and despite the attempts of the current reign of publishers to own and control this inherently creative marketplace, they are discovering, just as all others before them have, that you cannot control game players or “own” creativity.
A new era is currently percolating under the thin crust of the mobile/casual games ecosystem, and by my observations, we are onto a new dawn of gaming. One in which King.com, and Kabam, or perhaps even the Apple Store and Google Play store, will soon find themselves trying to catch up, and wondering what happened as the world they felt so sure of has shifted beneath their feet.
“Mom and Pop” developers, take heart. The pendulum swings both ways. And from our vantage point, which reaches from the largest publishers to the smallest indies, the playing field is leveling.
2014 will be a year of reorganization and consolidation, as the bubble of Mobile/Social games refocuses its efforts, and quality will retake its place as the leading factor in a company’s success, rather than simply a publisher’s control of access to users. And developing innovative and high-quality games has always been what the “Mom and Pop” game studios have done best and are continuing to do.
Look forward to the next installment of this series next month, a case study on Zynga’s Puzzle Charms!
Kumakore, the self-funded gaming backend as a service based in Dallas, Texas, was founded in 2012 by ex-Zynga With Friends product managers to help expedite the process of making games that need a server-component. Kumakore is a tool made for game developers, by game developers, so that people building the next mobile hit can focus on crafting a great game. Eric Shen, Vice President of Business Development, tells us how they went from a game studio to a service studio.
The Start of Kumakore
The idea of Kumakore was not always to be a gaming backend as a service, but to create our own games. Having been a part of the Zynga With Friends studio, and originally part of Newtoy, Grant Yang was the product manager that worked on and launched some of the most notable With Friends titles, including the classic Words With Friends on Android, Hanging With Friends on iOS and Android, and Matching with Friends. Having seen the power of With Friends-style games, it was clear to our mind to try and replicate that success. Based on what we learned from the success of Words With Friends as an indie, and then from launching more hits for Zynga, we knew that we wanted to do two things: First, hit as many platforms as possible; Second, get our game out as quickly as possible.
For a self-funded and cash-strapped business, we did what many indie studios have probably done: resort to contract work. This is often an extremely valuable learning tool for developers. Our first endeavor was to ensure that we could develop a game that would essentially be our “pipe cleaner” in our development cycle. As the original idea of the studio was to make turn-based, asynchronous, With Friends-styled games, we wanted to create an engine to do this. However, we soon realized this was a foolish proposition. We wanted to make games, not build tech. So we proceeded to evaluate many of the cross-platform game engines, such as Unity, Corona, and Marmalade.
It was around the time we chose Unity as our game engine that we obtained a contract to make our “pipe cleaner.” This game was Makkhi, based on the Bollywood movie of the same name. It was a quick game to make, particularly with our budget, but we were able to prove that we could build a game that we could quickly launch cross-platform.
Moving to Tech
Once we finished Makkhi, we turned towards making our turn-based, asynchronous game. Once again, we went through the exercise of trying to find an “engine” that would suit our needs. We looked at all the big names, like Game Center, Urban Airship, Parse, and Kinvey, and we discovered something interesting. We found that there were no solutions focused on games, not just having basic features, like leaderboards and achievements, but actual logic with retention-driven features, such as push notifications tied to moves, inventory management, and dashboards to balance a game economy. Essentially, we were looking for a Unity for the backend, but didn’t find one. At this point, we decided we were going to do what we were trying to avoid the entire time: build an engine. Bubble Pals was the culmination of this effort.
Bubble Pals and Changing Goals
Bubble Pals combines the fun of a time-tested genre (the bubble shooter) with the best aspects of a With Friends game. While Bubble Pals started off as being a part of the standard bubble popping genre, the creation of the game quickly became the tip of the iceberg. Kumakore’s team took the best practices of social gaming learned from making freemium games while working at Zynga and applied these features to the backend.
The Bubble Pals project was the genesis for the Kumakore Backend Service, a one-stop gaming backend as a service which provides dashboards, inventory management, user management, leaderboards, achievements, and much more to be put in the hands of any game development studio. Now any team, large or small, can tap into the power of Zynga-level product management and the server-side features implemented in the top-grossing freemium games. While the Kumakore team had to ultimately sacrifice being a game studio, it did that so other game studios could live the dream.
The Future and Beyond
Kumakore is now partnering with other game development studios to provide their server backend infrastructures with features that other games will be able to take advantage of. Whether it is creating a With Friends-style hit or the next Candy Crush Saga or Clash of Clans, Kumakore is building the infrastructure developers need so they can focus on what really matters – making their game fun!
Kumakore is currently in private beta and is offering exclusive benefits for its beta developers. Developers interested in participating can contact the Kumakore team at www.kumakore.com.
In the meantime, Kumakore will be looking to launch the backend service by GDC Next and would be happy to meet with developers there. Additionally, anyone who wants to reserve a username or signup to receive info when Bubble Pals officially launches can visit the landing page at www.bubblepals.com.
Zynga’s Chief Creative Officer Tim LeTourneau suggests that there are a few basic questions that every developer should ask before designing a free-to-play game. “Why are we doing this, who are we doing this for, and how are we going to do it?” LeTourneau asks before setting out on a new project. Meaning, what is the business opportunity, who is the audience, and how can the team accomplish its goals with the available resources.
“It’s simple,” LeTourneau said, “I’m constantly surprised that there are companies and teams that don’t answer those three questions. You might know who you’re making something for and how you’re making it, but you’ve never stepped back and said, why are we making it, what specifically do we think this addresses? And sometimes developers make a game because they think it will be awesome, but there’s little consideration for who they’re making it for.”
LeTourneau started his career in the games industry in 1990 working at Electronic Arts’ customer support department. From there, he went on to a 10-year run of producing The Sims games and eventually became VP & GM of The Sims Studio. “I came to Zynga in 2011 because I thought that social gaming was not a fad,” he said. “I watched my wife, who never played games with me, all of a sudden have a daily gaming habit. I wanted to understand how it works.” At Zynga he started learning on the FarmVille team and ended up leading the team that created FarmVille 2, Zynga’s current, biggest hit. As CCO, LeTourneau spends most of his time consulting with all of the different game teams at Zynga, helping them understand what their focus is by following his philosophy.
It’s very much about understanding who the audience is, and understanding that they don’t bring any knowledge of what you’re making into the experience.
LeTourneau explained that the approach to the audience was a key difference between The Sims and The Sims 2. “It’s amazing how many games are taken out of the hands of the gamers they were intended for, mainly because of the people making the games. We get bored with what we’re doing and we continue to make them harder, and we have knowledge that the gamer doesn’t have. Sims 2 is a great example of that. There are so many things that I would go back and do differently. We ended up making the game for people who were still playing The Sims, but the reason The Sims ultimately worked is nobody had proven knowledge of it. It had to be a game that worked for everyone.”
This lesson guided LeTourneau and his team going into development on FarmVille 2. It’s not a game made exclusively for current FarmVille players. It’s a FarmVille game that’s targeted specifically at the players that maybe never played Farmville before. “It’s very much about understanding who the audience is, and understanding that they don’t bring any knowledge of what you’re making into the experience. You have to introduce them to it in a way that they all feel like they belong.”
While his “who, why and how” philosophy is applicable to all projects, there are issues and questions that arise specifically when designing a free-to-play game. During his lecture at Casual Connect, LeTourneau will also discuss how to build a functioning in-game economy, plan for the future of the game and create meaningful social connections between players.
Find out more about Casual Connect’s lectures and sessions here.
As soon as a few developers begin making considerably more money than those who are monetizing solely through virtual currency, real money revenues will become essential as acquisitions costs rise.
Jonathan Flesher is the Executive Vice President for Business Development at Betable, a company that is changing entertainment by merging the worlds of gaming and casino-based entertainment. For developers who want to offer real-money play in their games and apps, Betable legally enables them to do so without having to acquire their own licenses.
Jonathan runs Betable’s business development and partnerships. Because Betable is an early stage start-up, he is involved in many aspects of the business, from signing development partners, to working to obtain licenses in new jurisdictions, to signing vendor contracts. His previous work with Zynga and Electronic Arts has given him valuable perspective in this new company, which is a platform that partners with game developers. He came with a set of contacts and friends in the industry, as well as an understanding of what it is like to be in their shoes and what issues are important to them.
He joined Betable when he realized how deeply the social and mobile gaming ecosystems would be affected by real-money gaming. As soon as a few developers begin making considerably more money than those who are monetizing solely through virtual currency, real money revenues will become essential as acquisitions costs rise. He has already seen the signs of this happening in the UK as online gambling companies start to view virtual as an attractive customer acquisition channel. Betable offers developers a new and complementary way to significantly monetize their user base through real money play. The worlds of real money play and virtual currency are now starting to converge and Betable provides developers with the tools to succeed in this new landscape.
Asia’s Role in the Industry
Asia, as a leader in online and mobile gaming, as well as home to some of the top development talent in the world, is a key component in the game industry as it moves to include real money play. Jonathan believes these outstanding developers will play an important role in making real money content for the global market place. Since online real money play is a regulated industry and not currently allowed in most Asian markets, conferences such as Casual Connect are essential to make connections with local developers that have been successful on a global scale.
Jonathan emphasizes that establishing strong connections in Asia is crucial to Betable’s business, with the ability to partner with developers in this part of the world a major success factor in their real money platform. He says, ”We hope to catch up with existing partners and meet developers interested in learning more about how Betable can help them grow their businesses and offer consumers the best possible real money play experiences.”
What’s the Best Deal?
One of the most significant points in Jonathan’s career came when he learned that the product has to drive the deal or partnership that a company enters into, rather than the reverse. He tells us, “A very smart mentor of mine once said to me that he didn’t care how good the deal was if he didn’t believe in the product. Start with the product first and the deal will naturally follow.” And, Jonathan maintains, your engineering and product teams will thank you.
The best advice Jonathan has for making a better product is to make games fun.
The best advice Jonathan has for making a better product is to make games fun. He claims that, although this idea is simple enough, we often lose sight of the intangible quality that makes a game entertaining. He quotes a great game developer, Mark Skaggs, who told him, “I wasn’t successful in game development until I stopped making games I wanted to play and started making games other people wanted to play.” Jonathan adds, “Once you have that essential element of fun, then you can leverage all the great analytical tools to make it even better.”
Jonathan came from financial services before joining the video gaming world. But it took him a long time to understand that the “best” deal was not necessarily the “right” deal. He insists, “In many ways, getting the best deal terms on either side of the table can be counterproductive to a long-term partnership. It’s not a zero sum game.” He feels the best deal is a “balanced deal”, one which each partner can lean into and invest in the relationship. But there is an art to figuring out this balanced deal and it often requires considerable creativity.
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.
Hi5’s CEO Alex St. John hopes to change the world a third time. Once would be enough for most people, but St. John is boisterous, larger than life, sometimes outrageous, but always gregarious. We sat down with him to talk about his thoughts on game technology, avoiding becoming an accidental game platform and figuring out how to make the most of social games.
Technology at play
The St. John Philosophy: “The thing that’s great about the game industry is that really talented, highly educated, creative people who could make a lot more money doing something boring for a living instead decide to make games for a living because it’s a lot more fun.”
He claims a certain influence on game graphics, working on the first five versions of DirectX whilst at Microsoft. And he claims that WildTangent, the publisher he founded, reached the top of its game.
And now, he wants to have a real impact on the social networking boom. Last November, St. John joined a social network, hi5, confident that he had created gaming platforms twice before and could do it again.
“You have these companies that are accidental gaming platforms,” he begins. Facebook makes a great target, but St. John adds: “To be fair, Yahoo a decade ago is another example of an accidental gaming platform.”
“As a result of entering the search business, they woke up – overnight – with a huge number of people who wanted to play online games,” recalls St. John.
But that’s only natural: whenever people get some new technology, they want to play a game with it. Or, as St. John says, “Interactivity is the native media of computing.” People have the urge to fiddle with things, and when things react, “that’s amazingly compelling.”
Brave new market
There’s a notion that social gaming has created a whole new market. But St. John is ready to refute: “No, it didn’t, not a single one.” He remembers Microsoft in 1992. “Microsoft adamantly believed…that spreadsheets and word processors were the dominant use of the PC, because every time they did a survey, that’s what people said they used them for.”
People are definitely not aware of how much play they’re engaging in.
“I said, ‘You know what, we should do a survey where we don’t ask people, we measure it, find out what they really spend their time on,’” remembers St. John. “And when that survey came back, the number one use of the PC, in terms of time spent, was playing games. Everybody. It was the usually dominant use case.”
“But when you asked people what their dominant use case was for the PC, they said, ‘Oh, I use it for work.’” The conclusion that St. John draws is that people love playing games. “But they’re not eager to admit it — or weren’t, in that era.”
If you look back a decade ago, companies like RealNetworks and Big Fish Games and WildTangent were the Zyngas of that era to Yahoo’s social networking, says St. John. “We were the first companies making casual downloadable games for Yahoo when they were the dominant game destination. We were pulling those audiences away, until we ourselves became the publishers, the game audiences came to us and left those sites, and we became very advanced – not just at producing games, but monetizing them effectively.”
“They’ll fail at it. They will screw it up. Because it’s not their native business.”
“So when you see a phenomenon like Facebook come along and form an accidental game platform,” St. John says, “One of the surest bets I’ve seen over the years, is that they’ll fail at it. They will screw it up. Because it’s not their native business. It’s not in their DNA.”
“So as valuable as that business is — companies that aren’t native to gaming usually aren’t very successful at it over the long run,” emphasizes St. John. “And that means they’ve created an opportunity they themselves can’t take advantage of fully.”
The power of purpose
But that’s looking at accidental platforms. What would a platform-on-purpose be worth? As ever, St. John has opinions on the subject. “At Yahoo’s peak in online game publishing they were maybe – with the world’s biggest gaming audience – doing $32 million a year,” he estimates.
He refers to the financials of three companies that used to publish their games on Yahoo, saying they “represent $500 million in revenue, from a fraction of that audience.”
“So the leaps in monetization and efficiency over the years from selling games to the same audience were dramatic.” Yet many people speak of Zynga’s success as unimaginable, unattainable, and unchallengeable. But St. John has no difficulty thinking big. “You know,” he responds, “Online gambling in the United States is illegal. But it’ll be $6 billion in revenue this year.”
Online gambling is illegal in the United States, but will make $6 billion in revenue this year.
St. John estimates those illicit online gambling revenues are five times the revenues of World of Warcraft, which he says does $1.2 billion in revenue a year, and is the most profitable game in history.
“I know that half-a-billion sounds impressive,” he says of the growth casual games experienced in the post-Yahoo world. “But we know there’s a market six-to-twelve times larger.”
There’s enormous demand for gameplay, says St. John, and social gaming is, relatively speaking, just a tiny blip. “So I think there’s potential for tremendous growth.”
When you see an accidental platform, St. John says it’s very useful to recognize that some of it is secret sauce, and the rest was thrown in for other purposes. “And what people always do is confuse those,” he says. “They can’t tell the difference between the thing that made it successful and the thing that’s in the way.”
If you look at social networks, you might agree with St. John when he states, “Real identities are actually a burden to gaming.” He continues by saying that spamming your friends, business contacts, and co-workers with news that you got a new cow is annoying. “That’s why Facebook cracked down on it. If you look at very successful MMOs, virtual identities work great.”
Taking the socio-path
Now that St. John is responsible for a social network of his own at hi5, those observations led to the creation of their Sociopath Platform aimed squarely at developers. “It’s our anti-social network architecture,” he says, only half joking.
It lets people play on the hi5 network without login, account, or registration. “You can go play the same social networking games you find on Facebook on hi5 with no registration,” says St. John.
What’s fascinating about social network games, says St. John, is that a segment of games no one wanted to play on Miniclip or Kongregate, magically become successful inside Facebook. “What that tells you is that there’s some pixie dust that the social network is adding to games that make bad games good all of the sudden.”
“It’s not a feature to publicize your personal information to people—just to play a game with them.”
When you add the social graph characteristics, it becomes popular. But that limits the audience. St. John had another revelation: “Why don’t I get my fat social portal out of the way, and let the games do messaging, importing, contacting, inviting, and gifting directly to the users?”
That architecture had been reserved for the social platform, but hi5 hopes to open it up to any game that would use it. And to make things easier on developers, hi5 has cloned compatibility with Facebook APIs, so games developed for his network can be used there, too.
Although it’s too soon to say, St. John hopes that hi5 will prove to be a platform that makes the most of social network games, instead of being an accidental platform.
More people have played FrontierVille than all of Brian Reynolds‘ previous games combined. The man known for his work on Civilization II, Alpha Centauri, and Rise of Nations, has been with social-game publisher Zynga for a year-and-a-half, which is a long time in social games, he jokes.
Speaking at a keynote for GDC Online, Reynolds told mused that “Probably more people have played FarmVille than any other game, at least on a computer. And that’s kind of cool.”
Not everyone wants to work on social-network games, but Reynolds responds by citing their increasing complexity. “The games are getting more interesting, and more fun to work on.” The days of a one-mechanic based game, or two-mechanic based game are over, he says.
“FrontierVille was kind of an experiment,” continues Reynolds, adding that he was lucky that a game he made previously happened to be the only videogame that Zynga’s chief executive officer had ever liked. So he took his design skills, and set to work.
The goals were simple. “We wanted to try another farming game, because FarmVille was the largest thing ever,” Reynolds recalls. They settled on the FrontierVille, because it has the Wild West for males, and has the Little House on the Prairie for females. “We weren’t trying to launch out into some radical direction.”
“You’ve heard of waterfall as a way of managing people, and agile…what we use is JSIRSO,” says a smiling Reynolds. And that means, “jamming stuff in, and ripping shit out.”
You can make them pay to find out what happens at the end of the story. You can make them come back the next day to find out what happens.”
The worst example of JSIRSO, says Reynolds, was Frontier Jack. The developers created the character who’s first appearance was just a tutorial. But he took on a life of his own. “We started talking like him around the office,” Reynolds says in his best Frontier Jack accent. It got the team into the mood. It also showed them the importance of characters. “It all came from this original idea that we jammed in, in a panic, to finish a tutorial for a user-session.”
Then came the idea of adding quests. “This was a desperate attempt to make our tutorial not suck.” Reynolds says you can’t put people on a rail for twenty-five clicks in a row. “Once we put it in, we found you can make stories with quests. Because the players want to know what happens next. You can make them pay to find out what happens at the end of the story. You can make them come back the next day to find out what happens.”
Suddenly, they had a mechanic best-suited to classical game developers. “We know how to make story, we know how to write.” Most of what the team did was taking classic gameplay mechanics and adding them to a social game. Quests, he says, existed before FarmVille. And they were fun. But it takes a game designer to bring them into social-network games.
According to Reynolds, here’s what game designers bring to social:
Balance game systems
Write good stories and text
Deep game design that plays easily
Know how to solve game problems
Know the difference between fun and spam
Ability to adapt game design patterns in new ways
“If you want to get your revenues up, create virtual goods people want to buy.”
“It turns out that fun monetizes well,” Reynolds declares. Social game makers think a good game design will retail players, and keep them in a retention box — but Reynolds says it’s the parts of games that are designed by game designers that monetize well. “The measure of a good design is revenue.”
“Game designers are able to design virtual goods people want to buy,” states Reynolds. “If you want to get your revenues up, create virtual goods people want to buy.” He continues by stressing: “We’re in the entertainment industry.”
In order to entertain, Reynolds advises the social network designer to start with a mass-market concept. “If most of my friends aren’t interested in space aliens, then the social element will never roll for you.”
He also advises developers to “get it running right away. These games are getting longer and longer to make. We’re already seeing the ramp. I’m sure we’ll see social games that take longer than a year.” But, warns Reynolds, “A bad launch will kill you.” And that’s because the first people to play are the most engaged, most likely to send viral updates, most likely to buy items. He encourages developers to ship in top form, warning “You don’t get a second chance — you must make sure that whatever you’re going to put out is fantastic.”
Reynolds sees this new era of social-network games as a golden one for the classical game designer. “It’s like going back to 1980, knowing what you know now.” He concludes, “All of the things we want in AAA games are in here. We’re just talking to people we haven’t talked to before.”