Mr. Oliver Jones!
Oliver was one of the earliest foreigners coming to India to work on F2P game development. He also worked as an early employee or co-founder at two of India’s biggest F2P game companies: Zynga and Moonfrog.
One of my pleasant surprises coming to India has been meeting with several wonderful game dev folks like Oliver. You really can’t beat the camaraderie here in Bangalore!
In an interview with Oliver, I touched upon a wide range of topics about Oliver and the Indian gaming industry. I also asked him about his new company Bombay Play and this new category of “hyper-social” games.
- When did you come to India, and why?
- What was the early F2P games industry like at Zynga and Moonfrog?
- How has the Indian gaming industry evolved from the early days to today?
- What are the positives and negatives of the Indian gaming industry?
- Why did you start Bombay Play? What was the origin story?
- What is hyper-social gaming?
Getting into gaming:
- “It’s been a lifelong journey in gaming. Since a very young age using early tools such as Gamemaker and making the games that I wanted, but didn’t exist. The first game I wanted, but didn’t exist was Quidditch. I was a big Potter-head and I really wanted to make that game.”
- “Turns out JK Rowling is a terrible game designer because the rules don’t make sense.”
Early days of Zynga:
- “We didn’t know how to run live ops. We needed a lot of help, and thankfully, there were leaders in Zynga, India, who had a lot of trust from Pincus and were left to run these games independently.”
- “There were a whole lot of mistakes. Games went down, bad releases went out.”
- “The grind was real, like keeping those games alive and keeping the reputation of that team going was a hard slog.”
- “I wouldn’t say that we entirely mastered the art of live ops. But, what we learned really was we learned live ops the Zynga way. Which was driving revenue every week. What are you doing? What is the feature this week that will give you that extra 5, 10% that you can show in your product review next week? That was the frequency of releases we were doing. And that’s the pace we learned to run at.”
- “We didn’t really have much time to think of the long term. We did start building out bold beats. But, I feel that that’s where our inexperience started to show. When you start trying to innovate in a live ops scenario and you misread your audience. I mean, your audience is halfway around the world, right?How are you supposed to know what they like? We didn’t really have the player council set up properly. I mean, Zynga today obviously has sorted out a lot of these problems, but back then it was very raw and we just did what we thought was best and ended up spending a whole lot of time on features that went nowhere. Or releasing very janky features.”
- “Some of our best successes were actually like sales popups where the exit button wasn’t working for some reason. Where we are today though, I think we have more people with actual building, like from scratch experience.”
On the many startups formed from ex-Zynga employees:
- “So the reason for these companies sort of splintering out from Zynga was really that we just grew enough comfort. We grew enough confidence inside of Zynga. And we didn’t see there was anything that they were doing that we could not do ourselves. Right? I’m sure we’ve all been in that situation where your boss is kind of halfway around the world and telling you can’t do things and sooner or later you get disgruntled.”
- “It was a matter of just getting the confidence and taking the plunge.”
Biggest lessons learned from Zynga:
- “The speed. I think back in the day, I’m not sure if it’s still a mantra of Zynga, but it’s ‘Zynga speed.’ That was the saying. And we really live by it. Like product reviews every week is no joke. That’s a lot of overhead. There’s a lot of work. You’d have typically one or two product managers just doing the reviews and just presenting the work that was done.”
- “What that really helps is give you an entrepreneurial mindset to gaming and what the best practice, what the best in class are doing and what you need to do to get there.”
- “So when we started, of course, product reviews every week is not practical for us. So especially when you have no product out there, but setting that sort of cadence, having something to show, play testing frequently, pushing, pushing arrive at a conclusion, a new direction, every single week or even biweekly.Really allows you to move fast. And I think you see that DNA in a lot of companies here.”
- “The scientific process, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. We learned to mistrust our own instincts and listen to the market. In fact, to say that you have strong conviction about something was often frowned upon. Like how can you have conviction? You need something more than conviction here. So, we really learned to follow the data.”
- “When it came to launching new games, just the ruthlessness and of sort of seeing how that game is doing right from a retention and monetization point of view and arriving at a quick conclusion. Those of us from Zynga who started our companies, that’s the culture you’ll kind of see, very results-driven, very hyper-aggressive in our pace.”
On founding Bombay Play:
- “The objective of Bombay play. Well, also the objective of Moonfrog in some way, it’s to address the red ocean problem in gaming. Even back in 2015 when we started Moonfrog, we felt like we couldn’t compete because there were so many games in pretty much every category. So many great games in each category. We were seeing that marketing channels were getting expensive. So back then we decided to look at the Indian audience and cater content for them. It was on an underserved audience and that worked.”
- “What Bombay Play is trying to do is take some of the lessons that were learned through developing for India to the world. And that’s this idea of making games that focus on network effects. And that’s what we’re calling this genre of ‘hyper-social’ which is just games that focus on network effects, games that are built less like ice cream, which is a great single-player experience, and more like pizza, which is best shared with friends.”
On “hyper-social” network effects:
- “It’s more of a product strategy, right? Every gaming company says that they’ll leverage network effects and it’s important for every company’s success. But when you start asking people, how exactly are they pushing network effects there’s often no answer, right?
- “It’s this ethereal concept that ‘Well with scale, we’ll get more people to play.’ What we’ve seen is that not many people have really thought through how to design their content to become like a social network?”
- “First of all, you need to pick a genre, which is sort of intuitive to play with other people. Social isn’t something that you should slap on top, right? It has to be there from the very core, right? One of our first games is called Card Party. It’s a card game. It’s intuitive that you would sort of invite people to play a card game with you. And during the peak of the pandemic this was a big hit for us. A lot of the people would say like, ‘Oh, I love this game cuz I can play with my kids, play with my mum, play with my grandparents, play with my friends.’ It was the kind of game where the experience is enhanced through invites.”
- “We build our games on HTML5. So sharing a game like sharing any one of Bombay plays games is as simple as copy and pasting a link. So if I’m playing a card game, I can just share that link with my friend on WhatsApp or whatever. And they can just click on that and jump into my game, they can be in the same context as me and play right now.”
- “Hyper-social today is games that are designed to be better with your friends, or you can advance further with them, or the fun is enhanced and they’re much easier to share by leveraging whatever technologies we can find. So that’s also why we’ve been doing a lot of experiments on social networks like Facebook, because if a social game exists on a social network, it removes the barriers to access it.”
On instant gaming:
- “Instant gaming these days, I would catch categorize it as a very advanced ad. It’s an ad which monetizes itself. And it allows you to cross-promote your most engaged users to your apps. It’s an ad that sort of also reengages people for free. So, we try and build these games on instant first to test them out.”
- “The day one is trash, but if you are able to retain people beyond day one… what is your return rate up until day 30? And, what does that look like? Then you can tell whether your game really has a product market fit or not.”
- “You can just market it like normal to a web URL. I mean, that’s not new to promote a website versus [an app install], but also there’s cross-promotion from Facebook instant which is also very effective. The great thing about HTML5 is that you can acquire users at like a 10th of the cost. There’s no install, right? The day one is low so there is a balancing act you need to figure out. But, it’s literally cents you can acquire users for. And it’s also a channel which isn’t as saturated as like app store marketing.”