Creating fast-action multiplayer games on mobile is one of the Holy Grails of gaming, given the slow data transfer speeds of mobile networks in the U.S. But Jawfish Games, a mobile gaming startup, has figured out how to do it. This is one of those secret sauce technologies that could distinguish Jawfish from hundreds of thousands of other game makers in the app stores.
Seattle-based Jawfish has launched the technology into the market in a couple of ways. It created an iOS game, Match-Up! by Big Fish, in conjunction with major casual game publisher Big Fish Games. That game launched in the Apple iTunes App Store and was recently featured by Apple. In creating the game and its technology, Jawfish has done something that big game publishers would love to do but haven’t.
In the game, you can play live tournaments with up to 16 friends within the app’s Word, Match-3, or Mahjong mini-games. Hundreds of thousands of players have played 6 million tournaments since the launch. The average play time for returning users is 35 minutes. That’s more like the amount of time that someone spends playing a game like Call of Duty: Black Ops II.
“The simplest games are more fun with real-time multiplayer tournaments,” said Phil Gordon, chief executive of Jawfish. “It’s great to see people having fun in multiplayer tournaments like they thought they would.”
Jawfish is also moving to publish its own games. It has quietly beta-tested Jawfish Poker and Jawfish Words, and it will launch those titles shortly on the Amazon Kindle Fire tablet. It plans to bring those titles out under its own brand name on iOS soon.
Gordon is known worldwide as one of the best professional poker players. His team includes the engineers who built the hit title Full Tilt Poker, which was a hugely popular online poker game until it got shut down by the federal government in a regulatory battle in April 2011. A big legal battle ensued, and eventually the government changed its attitude about real-money online gambling. The app finally reopened last November, after rival PokerStars bought Full Tilt Poker. The team, however, moved on.
“This team had built scalable, lightweight messaging systems before with Full Tilt Poker and they set out to do it again, optimized for mobile game play,” Gordon said.
The company started in January 2012 with eight co-founders, including Gordon, who is famous as a poker player. He finished fourth in a worldwide tournament, the World Series Main Event, in 2001. He was also the lead commentator in Bravo’s TV show, Celebrity Poker Showdown. And he was the poker analyst for ESPN.com for five years. Gordon has written four books on poker, and they’ve sold more than 500,000 copies. His earliest accomplishment: he entered college at age 15.
But mobile games are his next big thing. Gordon believes that real-time, multiplayer tournaments are far more compelling than other kinds of titles. Its platform works on both iOS and Facebook. Jawfish has figured out the complexities around bracket-style competition.
“We thought we were going to be a platform company, but we quickly realized we really loved to market games,” Gordon said.
Gordon said the technology wasn’t possible 18 months ago, but with faster 4G data networking speeds on smartphones, it is quite doable now. The platform sits upon Amazon Web Services. With more than a million tournaments, the entire bandwidth cost has been less than $20, Gordon said.
Some years ago, the technology would have cost $5 million to configure the racks. Cloud computing has made it a lot easier.
“The turn-by-turn model for games is flawed, and it has played itself out,” Gordon said. “Sitting around and waiting for your opponent to make a move is not fun. Real-time is an obvious idea, but no one has done it. We’re the only ones doing it.”
The company cut the deal with Big Fish Games, but Jawfish then decided to embark on its own as a publisher. Big Fish Games is happy with Match-Up! by Big Fish.
“Match-Up by Big Fish off to a very strong start, having hit No. 1 Free Casino game in the US iPad charts when it launched,” said Chris Williams, vice president at Big Fish Games. “Engagement is outstanding with players averaging over 30 minutes of real-time tournament play per day. We have seen over 5 million tournament entries in a just a few weeks and have high expectations for this new synchronous way of playing casual competitive games.”
Jawfish has $3.59 million in funding from Right Side Capital and Founders Fund. The company has 25 employees and is in the midst of hiring 25 more engineers. Jon Mittelhauser, one of the founders of Netscape (creator of the commercial web browser) and a member of the board, said, “ This is a technology company which already knows how to build a scalable real-time platform and is using that knowledge to enable social gaming…. With thousands of mobile games, it is extreme difficult to come up with something unique. Jawfish didn’t only come up with something unique, they came up with a platform which enables a whole new category of real-time multiplayer gaming on mobile.”
Interestingly, Zynga announced last year that it would release real-time multiplayer game tournaments. But it hasn’t actually launched those games just yet.
“It’s been a really interesting 15 months so far,” Gordon said. “We’re on a trajectory for something special in games.”
Check out the trailer for Match-Up! by Big Fish below.