Gaming is a visual medium, and that has helped video sites like YouTube and Twitch build huge audiences of people seeking game-related content. But as more of the world shifts its game time to mobile, a new company is trying to establish itself as the leader there.
Kamcord is a startup based in San Francisco with offices in New York and Japan, and it’s all about enabling gamers on mobile to make and share videos. This started exclusively on iPhone and iPad way back in 2012, but the company has since expanded to Android. It even recently introduced an app on the Google Play store that can record any game where, previously, developers had to integrate Kamcord’s SDK. This has the company, its technology, and its social network on the verge of growing into a huge destination for people who love mobile gaming, and GamesBeat wanted to look back at how it got to here.
“[Cofounders Matt Zitzmann, Kevin Wang, and I all knew each other from school,” Kamcord engineer Aditya Rathnam told GamesBeat. “We did computer science at MIT together.”
The group got together in early 2012, and — at that point — the idea wasn’t to make a solution for sharing videos from mobile games. It was simply just to come up with any startup at all.
They started brainstorming ideas because they knew they wanted to work together. During one of the sessions, Wang was playing Battlefield and watching a lot of videos of the game on YouTube.
“Why doesn’t this exist for mobile games,” asked Wang.
And when none of them had an answer for that, they all realized that they could probably build it.
“There has to be a place you can go watch mobile games all day,” said Rathnam. “Similar to how people were watching so much PC and console gaming on YouTube and Twitch. It felt like one of those ideas that would exist. We weren’t sure how to make it happen or whether there was a business model or whether it would even be feasible, but it felt like one of those things that, in four or five years, there would be a destination you could go to to watch mobile gameplay and interact with other gamers.”
The three students really started exploring the space. At that time of 2012, Twitch was really starting to come on strong. And YouTube was turning into a powerful means to get the attention of gamers. So Kamcord started talking to developers about whether they would want a new toolkit that could enable game recording.
Rathnam met with a developer friend of his who was super skeptical. The friend explained that game makers already have too many tools to select from, and no one wants more. But when Rathnam explained exactly what they were thinking, the friend gave an endorsement by saying: “I don’t hate this idea.”
“That’s literally what he said,” Rathnam relayed. “This is an idea I don’t hate, so maybe you should pursue this. That was encouraging.”
So, Wang, Zitzmann, and Rathnam decided to form Kamcord. They knew all along that they wanted to build the destination where people would find their favorite content. They wanted to build an alternative to YouTube for mobile gamers. But, first, Kamcord had to figure out the tech.
“We realized pretty quickly — within the first couple days — that we couldn’t go build the destination directly,” said Rathnam. “We needed to have actual content in order to build the destination. Kevin began exploring ways to record what was happening on the screen without slowing down the game. The general consensus was, if you started recording the screen you would slow down the game to 1/6th its original speed, making the game unplayable.”
Thank you, Apple
But Kamcord’s timing was fortuitous. Apple had just released iOS 5, which came bundled with a new low-level OpenGL-based path to enable recording.
“It wasn’t the entire solution. Just a part of it,” said Rathnam. “But it was a way to record the screen without slowing down the game. Kevin discovered this new piece of technology that had just come out and used that, adding a bunch of other optimizations, to eventually get a working prototype of recording the screen without slowing down the game.”
But built-in iOS technologies and Wang’s magical optimizations still didn’t make things easy.
“We’d underestimated how much work it would be to record the screen in a performance-minded way,” said Rathnam. “‘Oh, yeah, we’ll build this in a couple of months and get it out there, this is going to be awesome.’ It turns out it actually took — we did get something working in a couple of months, but we’re still working on it today.”
Once Kamcord had the technology, it still didn’t have anything it could really provide to gamers. So, it started pitching its SDK to developers. Wang had a demo where he had a spinning box playing on his phone, and he was able to record and share that. It was by no means a completely solution, but it was a start. And it was something that could get people who make mobile games — the kinds of people who stay up nights trying to figure out ways to make their products more discoverable — excited.
And Rathnam thinks it was great that the Kamcord team didn’t just sit around in a room trying to solve every riddle mobile-gaming videos could throw at them.
“It would have been overwhelming, the amount of work we’d have to do,” he said. “But we were able to get some quick wins every one or two months. That kept the ball rolling. Before we knew it we were neck-deep in it. ‘Okay, I guess now we have to build a way to record audio as well.'”
Naturally, that was way harder than Kamcord expected. It’s actually something it still struggles with.
“Three years in and we’re still focusing on low-level audio capture for Android devices,” said Rathnam.
The real challenge
And while the technology is hard, Kamcord’s true difficulty was establishing a rapport with developers.
It’s one thing to have a super skeptical friend say that he doesn’t hate it, but it’s another to get strangers to put your code in their game. But again, Kamcord was making the right deal at the right time.
“We were fortunate,” said Rathnam. “As part of that market research phase, we got connected with a couple of guys who were the owners and maintainers of the Cocos2D [game development] platform. We put a form on the Cocos2D blog that said ‘we’re building this recording and sharing solution, here’s a video of how it works in this particular game, who wants to sign up?'”
Kamcord didn’t expect that to have a big impact. They were anticipating to get around five signups before the blog fell off of the Cocos2D page. They ended up getting 75 on the first day.
“We immediately started talking to all these people and getting as many of them on board as possible, even just sharing a test video,” said Rathnam. “The feedback they gave was invaluable.”
Of the 75 who reached out to Kamcord, the startup was able to get recording working in about 10 of their games. With that under its belt, the company went back to Cocos2D and asked if they could do a new blog about the success they’ve had. Cocos put it up on their blog and didn’t post anything new for a month, so every developer that checked out that page saw Kamcord’s tech first.
“We used that to get another 600 sign-ups,” said Rathnam. “Those 600 very quickly translated into about 20 to 30 live games. That was the initial momentum for us.”
Those were all tiny games, but Kamcord now had around two dozen working examples of its technology. It had a record it could rely on in its discussions with bigger studios or in talks with investors.
Getting that money
Later in 2012, after the early success with Cocos2D developers, Kamcord got accepted into the seed-funding investment group Y-Combinator.
Kamcord had 20 games ready to show off for its demo day at Y-Combinator, and that helped the company stand out. It’s technology wasn’t just an idea.
Y-Combinator backed the company, and Kamcord has since raised a total of around $25 million from investors like Yahoo chief executive officer Marissa Mayer, Chinese gaming behemoth Tencent, and Japanese megadeveloper GungHo Online Entertainment.
A history of good timing
We’ve already talked about how Kamcord was able to capitalize on several key moments throughout its history because it was doing the right thing at the right time.
It was trying to figure mobile recording as Apple released its new technology to make that easier. It was able to work with Cocos2D at a time when developers were looking for exactly something like Kamcord. The company was then able to turn that into funding.
Moving forward into the future, the company is now well positioned to once again take advantage of good timing. That’s because the aforementioned updates to Google’s Android — along with another change coming to iOS — have blown the market wide open.
On Google’s platform, you no longer need to implement recording on a game-by-game basis. You can, but the Google Play store already has a few dozen apps capable of recording or even livestreaming your games or everything you do on your phone.
That would maybe make Kamcord concerned — if it hadn’t planned all along to end up as the destination for mobile gamers everywhere.
“On the competition side, we feel like we’re in a strong place in the U.S. and Europe,” said Rathnam. “Everyplay is the other big company in the space, but we’ve taken a big lead over them.”
Kamcord has shifted a lot of its focus to China and Japan where it has competition that caters specifically to those markets. Rathnam claims his company still has better tech, but he admits that isn’t enough.
“That’s a big part of why we’ve opened up a Japanese office,” said Rathnam. “We have five people at Kamcord Japan now. We’re making our experience as localized for the Japanese market as possible. Similarly, we opened a two-person office in Korea, and we’re opening an office in China as soon as possible.”
Kamcord wants to win this space and have a share of the market similar to what YouTube has for gaming on the Web.
And it could get that simply because it has always had that clear goal of building a social network for mobile game-video sharing in place.
“We think of ourselves as similar to Instagram,” said Rathnam. “Instagram lets you share videos and pictures to Facebook and Twitter and so on, but Instagram is the authoritative version of all the content they have. We’d like to build a similar experience and be that destination for mobile gamers using our app and our website.”
And that’s already starting to happen.
Kamcord users have already shared 45 million videos, and more than 1.3 million people make videos using Kamcord every month. That’s more than Twitch, which claims to have over 1 million content creators. And Kamcord says it has not even spent any money on acquiring gamers.
“Things are going well on that front,” said Rathnam. “But we obviously want to reach more and get more content.”
With its community side growing, the new competition might not matter. People want to share their videos where the audience is, and right now, on mobile, that’s the Kamcord app.
Getting ahead; staying ahead
“For this year, we have two big focuses for us as a company,” said Rathnam. “One is Asian expansion and the second is growing the community in our app.”
For Asia, Kamcord is going to keep doing its best to localize the experience for the three biggest markets of China, Japan, and Korea. It will also keep hiring in those regions to boost its relationships with developers.
“On the community side, in the U.S., we’re laser-focused on retention in the app right now,” said Rathnam. “Toward the end of this year the plan will be to get more users into the app and to build a vibrant community in the app around some of the features we have there, like chat and group chat and so on. People are taking to that.”
Finally, the company is looking into livestreaming, and it expects to have something that can enable gamers to share their videos as they play them in the near future.