In 2009 a team of young developers ran a startup in an attempt to disrupt the browser game market. It was an interesting and life changing experience that lasted for 3 years and ended due to some unfortunate events; personal dilemmas and a lack of commitment.
In this article I have concluded some of the key lessons I have learned. I hope it can benefit entrepreneurs who are running a startup today; not to make the same mistakes as we did!
So it was back in 2009, two friends of mine (game developers) reached out to me saying they had this really interesting project for a startup and were looking for a third owner who was more user experience and design-savvy to join the cause. It was great timing and I was the perfect match for the job, and as they told me about the project I got immediately hooked. I quit my job and committed full-time along with the others, we set up a company; with a game idea that was going to disrupt the browser game industry.
To make a long story short, with funding from investors we developed the game for several years until we decided to quit. During that time we launched both alpha and beta versions until we finally went live in late 2010. At its peak we had around thousand active players on a daily basis, and a game that was loved by many. The game was generating income but not enough to make a sustainable business.
We had a thriving community and great support from our raving fans. Early on we employed a graphic designer who created incredible artwork and later on a SEO specialist who managed to rank our website high on Google with the keyword “browser game”; generating organic traffic to the website that continued for years.
1. Resources vs ambition
With a team of 4 passionate creatives, a bold game idea and a list of never-ending game features; development continued for over 2.5 years with extensive beta testing for over a year.
We never considered the concept of MVP (most viable product) at the time; to us all ideas were equally important and part of the whole that made it so unique. Feedback and requests from the community kept coming in and we even had a stage in beta that was really loved by many players and quite extensive but considered too “hard core” to make it to the final release.
1. Getting to the market as quickly as possible
The team’s highest priority should have been taking the game to the market as quickly as possible. As developers and designers we were caught up in the process of creation and continuous improvement to a degree that the community kept us engaged but blind to what matters the most in business; to make profit.
2. Being adaptable to market change
From a business perspective if we had focused on delivering multiple game ideas instead of one massive “market disruptor”-type of game; it would have made us more adaptable to market change (such as the disruption of the mobile market that happened during the time with the release of the iphone and ipad). In a span of a couple of months the world turned mobile in front of our blind eyes and all of a sudden everyone was playing mobile games; thus the interest for browser games decreased drastically.
During one of our board meetings we had one of the investors who thought we should keep an eye on the mobile market and instead put our focus there; but we were too caught up in our idea that we wouldn’t listen.
2. Clear responsibilities
When running a startup together with others it is crucial to clarify responsibilities early on and then live up to the roles to avoid disputes that may arise. Especially when it involves money. Apart from our creative roles we had as a team; I was assigned CFO and the other owners CEO and CMO.
This meant I had the final word on the budget, our expenses and the communication with our accountant for our bookkeeping. A role that would have suited me really well if only I had followed my intuition. The problem was that we all had a joint decision-making to how the money was going to be spent; which then led to many disagreements that could have been avoided. We spent a fair amount of money on marketing at the wrong time. For instance we went to Dreamhack - the world’s largest gaming expo - paying a fair amount of money to be an exhibitor at the event.
The problem was we went to the event too early in the process before we had launched our final version. Even though we handed out over 8000 flyers to players around the tables over the weekend - and it was a great experience - it was not worth the money at the time.
Visuals play an important role to the overall gaming experience; therefore we should have waited until we launched our final designs.
- Be very clear on who is in charge of what, especially on the topic of money. Create a budget based on well discussed key points and stick to it but don’t be afraid to make continuous amends; as new priorities and market changes arise.
Don’t get carried away too early and start spending your marketing budget on things that are not well thought-through. It would have been a game changer if we had just waited to go to the Dreamhack event when the game was fully ready.
3. Social engagement + Raving fans = Priceless
During our testing phases we implemented a bulletin board (aka a forum); which together with our in-game chat handled all the communication with the community. As we monetized our game, we created in-game credits that were of great value to the community members. People were willing to contribute a lot to the community in exchange for these credits; and they did so voluntarily.
As a startup it was priceless to get all this community support. Without our raving fans supporting us - it would not have been possible to handle such a fast growing community. 💖
- Give free value and you shall receive back tenfold.
- Treat your customers like your babies.
We spent a significant amount of time with the community and really listened to their opinions and change requests, especially during our testing phases. Many of the ideas implemented came from our community even before we monetized the game. We valued their feedback and contribution to the highest degree and it felt like we were one big family. In exchange we had many players blogging about our game worldwide (even in chinese!), creating videos and community sites to help us grow organically.
4. Building for the right audience
One of our biggest challenges we encountered during our journey was the entry level phase; and for a game - it’s the most important by far. We spent a lot of time on user experience trying to make people understand the fundamentals that made the game exciting, engaging and fun. Because our game had so much depth it attracted more hardcore gamers rather than the mainstream. We needed to reach a broader audience to make a profitable business.
In the game there was a threshold all players needed to cross, once they got over that line they were hooked and that was a very promising sign; this meant we had something that attracted people on a deeper level. Our statistics told us we had a positive number of returning customers. After a while the numbers started declining and our banner campaigns that used to work really well - stopped performing.
So, what happened? Why did this remain a problem?
Three possible reasons:
- We had stopped attracting key players from the sites we were marketing on.
- It required a lot of effort and support from the community to help the non-hardcore newcomers to get started.
- The entry-level was too complicated to appeal to a broader audience.
What we should have done, is probably overlook our targeted audience. We really thought that we needed to reach the mainstream to be profitable, but in fact there should be enough hardcore players in the world if only we had just focused on them - instead of trying to please everyone.
5. Timing is crucial.
When we planned our game we saw an opportunity to disrupt the browser game industry.
Web based strategy games at the time were mostly text based and lacked interactivity. New web technologies had just emerged such as html5 and canvas that made it possible for us to build a game in the browser that looked more like Warcraft 2 or Age of empires.
This was huge because we knew how much the community loved those games. Adding on our own unique concepts and ideas to our game created an exciting and promising mix.
We had a unique opportunity on a booming web market to create something that people had never seen or experienced before.
Or so we thought. Little did we know that mobile gaming was on the rise and playing browser games on the computer was on its way out. This was during a time it was pretty rare to actually own an ipad.
We were tricked into thinking we were going to disrupt the browser game industry; in fact the iphones and tablets were just around the corner and it came with the real disruption of the gaming industry.
Obviously it can be hard to predict the market. But here’s the thing: if we just stopped what we were doing at some point, took a step back, tapped into our intuition, and started paying attention to the obvious signs that were thrown in our lap; then we could have made more firm decisions along the way that would have repainted our story for the better.
Apart from one of our board members mentioned earlier in the post who opted for a mobile focus; we also got some early clues from some of our players during our beta phase. One member who kept on telling us we should build mobile support because he wanted to play on his ipad. We thought, who wants to play on these “stupid” ipads! Very few people are using them anyway!
In fact we were avoiding a problem that was hitting us in our face; because we needed to rethink some of the interactions that made our game unique; and it was painful!
Little did we know that the days of playing browser games on computers was coming to an end and a new era with mobile gaming was entering the stage.
Timing is everything, or so they said! Pay attention to the market at all times and do not fall into the same trap that we did.
Thanks for reading this article; I hope you enjoyed it and learned something from our experiences that can help you in your startup!
Here are some last key takeaways that may sum up the article.
Look at the resources you have. Have a powerful idea but make sure that you can bring it to the market within a reasonable amount of time.
Be adaptable to change and pay attention to market changes at all times. They are crucial for your survival, especially if you have planned a couple of years of development for your startup in advance.
Always keep an eye on your competition. We discovered that some of the biggest names out there in the browser gaming industry; that were already extremely successful - were starting to steal our ideas after some time. This was a sign that they recognized us as a threat on the market. Obviously we were taking inspiration from them too but it was still painful to us as a startup trying to get that aircraft off the ground.
To build a profitable game in 2022 make sure a three year old can play it! The span to catch people’s attention these days is very short. Most people just don’t have the patience to learn a lot of stuff to get going. That’s the truth. If you don’t capture their attention immediately - it’s game-over. In the end time is the most valuable asset after all. Never forget that and always be respectful of other people’s time and of course your own.