Coming from India, it was natural for us to get started with a game that had origins in the country. Hence, the first game we released on the App Store in Nov 2008 was a Chess game. The initial version was very basic - a simple game where you played against the mobile AI. It eventually progressed into a multiplayer game and had encouraging reviews from end users.
There were three versions - Chess Lite, Chess Pro and Chess Elite that collectively garnered around 50,000 Installs. We were euphoric! 50,000 installs felt huge relative to a small team that worked on the game!
Immediately after the launch of the Chess Lite and Pro, we got around to working on our next title - a Jigsaw Puzzle game. Since Jigsaws were a universal genre, we thought it would be a game that would be well received by players. This game also had two variants, an aqua themed puzzle called Aqua Jigsaw and a wild life based puzzle called Jigsaw Wild released in Nov 2008. Much to our dismay, we barely got 5,000 installs for this game and figured we would have to start understanding the market better to know what theme appealed to gamers before designing and developing it. This was one of the first lessons we learnt during our prime years.
We slowly began to realize that we needed to create a game that was more immersive and challenging. Our marketing research revealed that there was a huge market and opportunity for word games on the App Store. Scrabble was already a legendary word game and since we had a few word veterans within the team, we decided to get around to developing a word game.
Getting the UI for the game was a bit of a challenge, since it was the first time we were attempting to design artwork on our own. We sweated out the details and finally got our first prototype ready. That was just the time when Apple decided to add Bangalore as one of their iPhone Tech Tour destinations. We were incredibly lucky to get some facetime with their team and they were kind enough to give us as much feedback as we could possibly grasp. Some of them were as simple as providing an option to turn off the game music - which just simply conveys how incredibly inexperienced we were with this kind of thing!
We dabbled with a lot of options for the game name and finally settled in for 'WordsWorth', a name that was coined while commuting on a bus - naturally inspired by William Wordsworth!
There's this intoxicating feeling that comes in when you are scouting the charts on the App Store looking for acceptance from Apple and the end users during a new game launch. We were hooked on to our devices and literally did our happy dance when WordsWorth was featured by Apple and broke into the top 100 list in US, UK and Australian store and reaching #2 in the Word Game category in the US. The game went on to bagging the Pocket Gamer's Silver Award, Play Android's Bronze award and a Best App Ever Honorable Mention. We tasted our first success and it was oh so very good! Over its lifetime, WordsWorth garnered around 1,000,000 installs with several updates as the years progressed.
Post the success of WordsWorth, we started developing our next wave of titles to create a diverse portfolio of games and throughout 2009 we tinkered with several small titles - Wordulous, Fish Fun, Christmas Sudoku (later rebranded as Sudoku Seasons) Pocket Clinic and Cupid Strikes none of which worked out well. We invested a lot of time, effort and money in getting these games going with very little thought in defining the depth of the game, target audience, monetization model and lifetime of the game - something we would eventually learn the hard way.
While the intent was to create a great catalogue of casual games, looking at things in hindsight, our lack of focus on one game at a time was probably our biggest blunder. It took us far too long to figure out that we were straying and desperately needed to re-strategize our vision.
All of the above games, with the exception of Sudoku Seasons were eventually killed. These brief stumbles laid the groundwork for our eventual successes. Our persistence and patience paid off.
Failure is a palpable reality. It hit us hard, especially because we were slow to learn from our mistakes. It took us almost a year to start gaining a grip on ourselves. It was now time to be execution focused.
The year 2010 got us off to a fresh start. We rephrased our strategy and started looking at casual games that had done fairly well on the PC and Mac platforms and bought these licenses to re-engineer them for the iPhone and eventually the iPad.
Our first licensed title was a resource management game 'Create a Mall' followed by 'Mystic Emporium', a time management game. These games helped us start gaining some momentum albeit small but worthwhile nevertheless. While this was still in progress, we rallied a small team to start designing what would be our next ambitious title, 'The Jim and Frank Mysteries: The Blood River Files' sometime mid 2009. Codenamed 'Odyssey' since it was literally an odyssey for us - we started putting together this massive puzzle game that had drawn inspiration from Professor Layton. We had an overly zealous 8-member team working on this game day and night for almost 8 months! The game was graphic intensive with over 70 puzzles and 30 characters in all, looked amazing but sized up to 120 MB on the iPhone. This was the time when Apple had a 50 MB ceiling over cellular network, which resulted in a minor setback. But overall, the game had turned out well and we figured we would need help from a notable partner to publish the game. Once we had the first cut of the game ready, we started seeking out potential partners to publish the game for us.
This was the time when Chillingo was at its peak with games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope under its wing. We reached out to them along with a few other prominent publishers and were shortlisted by 3. We decided to zero in on Chillingo since we felt that they'd nailed the casual gaming publishing space, which was the right audience for our game.
While Chillingo did their bit to promote the game, we did ours. We attended conferences both National and International, gave postmortem talks (for the very first time), sent out nominations for awards, located (literally stalked) and met up with reviewers pitching our game and our story, spent several hours at the Marriot Lobby in SFO networking - closely watching how other people networked and constantly improved our presentation.
The Jim and Frank Mysteries was our second successful original IP after WordsWorth and incidentally our first game for the iPad. The game won several awards the following year including NASSCOM Emerge AppFame, NASSCOM Super Pitch and a Runner-up for AppStar Awards.
We spent the rest of 2010 getting all our games to the iPad.
The years 2011 and 2012 were lukewarm while we juggled with Premium games - Winemaker Extraordinaire, Empire Builder Ancient Egypt which were licensed resource management games; Prison Mayhem, Nightclub Mayhem - time management games and Tito's Shell a puzzle game designed in-house. While the games were well received by both reviewers and end users alike, they monetized moderately. Empire Builder won the Bronze Award by Pocket Gamer and Nightclub Mayhem won the Silver Award under the Social Media and Innovation Category, UX Awards. We spent the rest of the year getting all our games to the Mac Platform and other 3rd party publishing sites like Big Fish Games, Game House and the Mac Game Store.
Up until now, we hadn't even gotten close to studying player data although we had an analytic tool integrated into our games from 2012 onwards. We were probably too passionate about what we were doing and failed to see the reality of our situation. We dwelled more on thinking of the game bells and whistles and other fringe features which undoubtedly reflected on our production quality. However, we were so far from realizing the importance of studying metrics and user behavior - studying where our customers were coming from, how they interact with our game, who is the target audience and so on. Moreover, Freemium was already gaining momentum and we were yet to adapt to it. It was time to look at the bigger picture.
We knew it was time for us to start thinking Freemium. After bouncing off a series of ideas, we settled in to design a game for young girls as that market was beginning to gain momentum. Dream Star was thus conceived. While every game you work on is challenging, this one was more personal since we were attempting to create a fully freemium game for the first time. We painstakingly designed the game paying close attention to styling the game, balancing the game economy and perfecting the tutorial. Since we were new to this space, we figured it would be best to partner with a publisher who understood this audience and monetization model well. We talked to few publishers and decided to go ahead with 6Waves and for about 3 months worked with them to publish the game. However, things didn't pan out and we had to drop out of the publishing deal, which meant, we had to restart our ordeal of looking for a new publishing partner. It also meant that we lost 3 months of precious time in putting the game out. Finally, in December 2012, we decided to do our first Beta launch of the game in Canada and Australia. Incidentally, Dream Star was the first game from 99Games that we test launched prior to a worldwide release. The beta launch during the holidays was a blessing in disguise and the game started gaining traction both in terms of downloads as well as monetization - so much more than we had done with all our premium titles combined! The game was globally launched in February and collectively garnered around 850,000 installs. This was the beginning of the 'Freemium Era' for us.
Our foray into the Indian gaming space was quite accidental. Since inception, we were always focused on creating games for the global market but at FICCI-FRAMES 2013, Mumbai, we were approached by YRF Movies Studio (one of India's leading and reputed movie production house) with a proposal to build a movie-based game for their upcoming sequel to the popular Dhoom franchise. For those who are not familiar with Bollywood, 'Dhoom' is similar to the 'Fast and Furious' franchise in Hollywood but here, with motorbikes. Dhoom:3 was set for a theatrical release during Christmas 2013, starring Aamir Khan and Katrina Kaif, the leading actors of the day! All the previous movies from the Dhoom franchise was known to push the boundaries in terms of production quality and we were told that Dhoom:3 was no different.
We spent the next few weeks in negotiating the deal and signed off in April that year. We partnered with our friends at Robosoft to build the game for us with production aspects, studio coordination and partnership coordination being managed out of 99Games. We had 6 months to put together a team and build a kick ass game. Besides this incredible urge and excitement, we had little else to back us up. While we had a long pedigree of building global quality games, the task of building one in a 6-month timeframe felt super-daunting. And then we had to worry about making money out of the whole thing!
Luckily for us, Microsoft came in as a primary sponsor for the game, agreed to do on ground promotions in over 100 colleges across India and also assisted in launch marketing activities. We decided to launch the game only on MS Windows Phone platform for a full 30-day period hoping that this would create a lot of demand by the time we reached the cross platform release stage. To our sheer luck, this worked! Thanks to prominent featuring on the store, the game garnered close to a million downloads during the first month only on Windows Phone, becoming one of the fastest games to do that globally. This created incredible word of mouth publicity by the cross platform launch date that was still a good 45 days from the theatrical release of the movie. Aamir Khan and Katrina Kaif played the game on stage during the game launch event and the Bollywood media went berserk! The game got prominent featuring from both Apple and Google and quickly rose up the charts. The number of downloads on the day the movie was released was an incredible 385,000! By then, we had already crossed 5m downloads across platforms. The game went on to do well and crossed 10m downloads within 3 months of its launch. No other game had hit that landmark until then and this record stands till date. We released a sequel to the game, 'Dhoom: 3 Jet Speed' to coincide with the satellite launch of the movie and this game was downloaded close to 3.5m times. Interestingly, the download numbers for the sequel game is more than the main games associated with any other Bollywood movie! And this is how our love affair with Bollywood began!
Post the success of Dhoom: 3 The Game, we got an opportunity to work with Seven Figures Management to create games based on the Million Dollar Arm Franchise. We jumped at the opportunity since this was our window to Hollywood gaming. Unfortunately, we were not ready for it since we just had a 2-month time frame to develop, launch and promote the game on 3 platforms. This was another big lesson for us and since then we take a very conservative approach and ensure that we have at least a 6-month time frame to conceptualize and plan marketing activities surrounding the launch of a movie based game.
In mid 2013, while we were still working on Dhoom: 3 The Game, a small team was assigned to work on conceptualizing a new cooking themed freemium game. Codenamed 'Gusteau', our goal with this game was simple - we wanted to build the most lovable cooking and restaurant management game on mobile and we wanted this to be ROI positive for us from day one. While the destiny of most games on platform stores are largely at the hands of the platform owners, we wanted to build a game where we controlled its destiny. Star Chef was pilot launched in Australia in Dec 2013 but it was such a crude version, we did not do any paid promotions till later in Feb 2014.
The stakes as well as expectations are always higher when you have a successful game at your hands. It was overwhelming for us when we sought out to work on our next game. Over the course of time, we had learnt that demonstrating remarkable quality and building emotion was vital in determining a game's success. We knew that if we wanted to succeed, we would need to have a game that made a stunning first impression. With that in mind, we took on to working on our next game codenamed 'Cipher'. To even think of designing another word game, in an already fiercely competitive genre is nerve wracking but we were determined to create one that stood out from the rest. The name 'Cipher' had a good ring to it and we decided to beta launch the game with the same name in Canada and Australia. We reached out to a few of our WordsWorth loyalists to gather feedback while we continued to work on creating new levels.
Our initial observation was that not many people were downloading the game despite it being prominently featured. It was obvious that the name 'Cipher' was way too cryptic and was not conveying the nature of the game to consumers. Identifying the right name for the game felt like a staggering task and we finally locked in the name 'SpellUp' after turning down over a dozen strong contenders. This change helped the game garner momentum, defying the statement 'What's in a name'.
SpellUp was featured by Apple as the Editor's Choice on launch along with being prominently featured in the New Games category. Google prominently featured it in the New Games category. Since launch, the game has received a lot of critical acclaim from end users and this has been incredibly encouraging.
It's not the destination but the journey that has been rewarding. So many ups and downs, learnings and experiences. We had to start breaking down barriers, pushing immovable boundaries, attracting the right talent and remain undeterred in the face of failure. It's been a long haul for us from the early days of the App Store to being one of the notable game developers from India.
Having the right people is what mattered the most. Experience is often overvalued. When we started off with our first game, not one person in the team was a hardcore gamer, or from a gaming school, or had any experience designing games. They were just a bunch of really smart, talented and motivated people who were open to taking up a new challenge. These were our farm team almost all of them with homegrown talent.
While we are immensely proud of the kind of work we've been able to do in the past few years, we are more proud of having the perfect team of 90 each of whom have been instrumental in getting us this far and we are looking to add likeminded people to the team who are would be just as fiercely passionate about making awesome games.
Our dream is to create lasting brands out of the games we make and we've already laid the foundation for it.