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Israel is creating a new generation of game startups. One of the promising new companies is Jelly Button Games, whose Pirate Kings mobile game has generated more than 50 million downloads since 2012, even though it hasn’t been aggressively marketed on a global basis yet.
The $30 billion mobile gaming business has made it possible for new regions to compete in games on a level playing field. And while Israel had few roots in traditional video games, it has come on strong in mobile. Israel has more than 200 game startups, not counting a bunch of real-money gambling and marketing tech companies, that are generating an estimated $1 billion in sales in 2015.
While Israel’s advantage has typically been in technology, Jelly Button is one of the rare successes that has focused in creativity. Founded by five game creators in 2011, the team has grown to 40 people, all in one headquarters in Tel Aviv.
Its Pirate Kings is a fusion of casino games — you start out by spinning a roulette wheel — and island-building with a bit of Clash of Clans-inspired asynchronous combat. By spinning the roulette wheel, you can defend or attack your friends’ islands in what Mor Shani, chief executive calls “mingleplayer,” or multiplayer games combined with single-player games. If you want more spins, you can purchase them via microtransactions. Its success is a marriage of creativity, the merging of multiple genres and game mechanics, and monetization. Jelly Button Games raised $1.5 million in seed funding from investors including Kaedan Capital.
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In the wake of Israel’s successful Casual Connect Tel Aviv conference, I caught up recently with Shani for an interview. Here’s an edited transcript of our talk about “taking Jelly to the next level.”
GamesBeat: I’d like to hear more about how you got start with the company and in games.
Mor Shani: We have five founders. Each of us have their own territory or specialty — design, art, creative technology. In 2011 we founded Jelly. Our vision was always to create beautiful and well-designed games. We’re all gamers ourselves. We love game companies. We were inspired by a lot of companies from way back, like Blizzard and Popcap, as well as today’s companies like Supercell and King that are making a strong impact in mobile games. We’re also inspired by console games, especially Nintendo.
We’ve always loved multiplayer games, the way they connect people. We’re all friends from back home and we’re used to playing against each other in shooters and strategy games. It connected us and the people around us. We wanted to bring that experience to the mobile world.
Mobile is a different medium. We understood that we needed to do something different. We saw how successful single-player casual games were and we wanted to create something in between. It’s a combination of single-player and multiplayer. We call it mingle-player. People can play on their own and they can play with each other, but they don’t necessarily need to be online.
Pirate Kings is the first game we all made together. We really got started around 2012. The game first launched on Facebook, on Canvas, and then we moved it to mobile, first on iOS and Android. We also finished our first round of funding at that time.
Pirate Kings started in Israel and then we spread it to other territories. It was a huge success in southeast Asia – Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia. Then we started our U.K. strategy, and now we’re aiming for more and more territories. Today we’re around 50 million downloads. We’re aiming for a global hit game as more people see it and the community grows. We have a huge community on social media. That’s very exciting for us. We’re here for our users. It’s exciting to see the reactions and impact we have.
We believe in the power of brands in games. The way Blizzard and Nintendo excited us, that’s what we want to create. That’s Pirate Kings. All our games are original IP and they’re all in-house productions. It’s very important for us that designers and developers and marketing people all sit next to each other.
GamesBeat: What’s the schedule like for your second game?
Shani: It’s coming out around five months from now. It’s in production at the moment. Jelly is now 40 people, all in Tel Aviv. There aren’t a lot of casual game companies around us. We’re aiming for a different territory, a different market. We’re family-oriented, doing casual games for everybody, and we’re doing original games.
In Israel the game industry is evolving and growing. We don’t have a huge amount of knowledge. We don’t have game companies with years and years of history.
GamesBeat: That was one of the interesting things to me about Casual Connect Tel Aviv. Your company is a pretty rare case there, starting successfully from the ground up. It seems like this more creative part of the game industry is very strategically important for the industry in Israel. This might be the next level up for the Israeli technology, making a move into the creative realm.
Shani: I agree. The next game companies are media and entertainment companies above all. To attract a massive audience you need a strong brand, and that only comes with an amazing experience and product. Building this beautiful and strong brand comes only from strong people, people who are deeply passionate about design and art. Israeli companies are also very good at technology — big scale, big data, making products that can reach millions of users.
I talked a bit about mingle-player. We had a lot of challenges there technology-wise. Technology is extremely important. If you’re a developer thinking about the long run, thinking about building a big company, you have to combine a strong creative product and strong technology and push it with the right marketing. That’s my vision for Israel’s game companies.
We’re starting to see things happen. A lot of small studios are raising for casual games. That’s exciting. For us, one of the most important things was to lay the ground in casual games. Seeing other people building on that in Israel is exciting.
GamesBeat: Did you get some inspiration from other big game companies here, like Plarium and Playtika?
Shani: We have a very good relationship with them. We’re inspired by any company that builds something strong. Both of those have more than 200 people in Israel. They have very strong teams. I know Robert at Playtika very well.
They’re in a different field, though. We’re in casual games. They’re in gambling or casual casino. (Plarium is in mid-core strategy games). We’re aiming for different territories. We’re bringing a different aspect of the mobile world.