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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.

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.”

Jelly Button founders from left to right: Ron Rejwan, Mor Shani, Alon Lev, Moti Novo, and Ron Saranga.

Above: Jelly Button founders from left to right: Ron Rejwan, Mor Shani, Alon Lev, Moti Novo, and Ron Saranga.

Image Credit: Jelly Button

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.

Pirate Kings is a "mingleplayer" game, with elements of multiplayer and single player.

Above: Pirate Kings is a “mingleplayer” game, with elements of multiplayer and single player.

Image Credit: Jelly Button

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.

Jelly Button has a staff of 40 in Tel Aviv.

Above: Jelly Button has a staff of 40 in Tel Aviv.

Image Credit: Jelly Button
Jelly Button staff at work.

Above: Jelly Button staff at work.

Image Credit: Jelly Button

GamesBeat: I was interested in your analysis of the different aspects of Pirate Kings’s success. Part of it reminds me of a casino game, with the roulette wheel, and then there’s also the asynchronous attack and defend part, which reminds me of Clash of Clans. What are the different pieces that helped your game take off, do you think?

Shani: It’s a hybrid of new game mechanics, a different experience. We took something from games of luck, but it’s not quite the same here. It’s not gambling, because you’re always winning. The other part is strategy games. We’ve always loved strategy. Fighting with your friends was something we wanted to be a part of the “mingling.” It’s extremely easy to learn. It’s very beautiful to look at. We invested a lot in the design and technology and we improved on it as we went through each market.

If I was to give any tips to developers, first of all, think about bringing a new experience with game mechanics and game design. Invest in the first user experience. We put a lot into our first-time user experience. Second, we invested a lot in the brand. Use your community and your social tools. You can look at our Facebook and Twitter and Instagram pages and see how we talk to our community. A new developer has to use the community in order to grow.

We never compromise on quality — all our users can see that – and that comes from having a talented team. Don’t have your art director under user acquisition. Don’t have them under marketing. They shouldn’t be there to design ads. They should be there to build your game, to build something users are willing to pay for.

Another thing that helped for us is that you have to work closely with the platforms, with Google, Apple, and Facebook. You have to think like the platform, like the business managers at those companies. What are the next features that should be there? How can you implement new technologies? You need to show them. That’s hard, because they have millions of developers wanting to work for them. But if you work hard, listen to the platforms, and are patient with the platforms—This goes back to building a technology company. If you lead in technology, if you’re always showing them new technologies and adapting new technologies, you’ll have more chances to get featured.

Again, I’m talking about an early stage company, a developer with about 30 or 40 or 50 people, a developer that doesn’t have a few million dollars a month to spend on marketing and acquisition. You have to invest in more territories to reach more users. If your product is good and you work closely with the platforms, you’ll be able to lower your risks and start to build your community and your brand. That’s what we’re doing now.

GamesBeat: I know Israel is very strong in marketing technology. Did that help you as you were getting off the ground?

Shani: Absolutely. There are very talented people in the marketing area. It’s about performance and acquiring data. You have many different markets of different sizes with tons of competitors. You have to build the best performance according to your data, and Israeli marketers are the best at that. Our head of marketing is running all our strategy for the U.S., Latin America, southeast Asia, and other regions we’re about to enter.

We believe this should all be done in-house. That’s our strategy. It’s what works for us. Whether it’s social media, acquisition, marketing, data, they all sit together. They’re next to the product people. They’re next to the community people. They’re next to the CRM. They understand the product, the messaging, the audience. Everything works much better that way. We’re finding the most performant networks. CPIs are getting better. We’re doing more volume and building more partnerships. We’re focusing our marketing team.

Israel is very strong in areas like data, performance, monetization, and marketing. It’s a very strong card for the industry here to play.

Jelly Button's staff are all in one place in Tel Aviv.

Above: Jelly Button’s staff are all in one place in Tel Aviv.

Image Credit: Jelly Button

GamesBeat: It’s very promising that you have 50 million downloads without going completely global yet. I know Playtika at some point had to start expanding its business outside Israel. Do you foresee the need for you to do that?

Shani: We really believe, as I said, that designers and developers should sit together and collaborate. We believe in teamwork. Those things are challenging when you’re doing off-site production. I can’t say that we won’t maybe open new studios around the world. We’re definitely considering that. But right now and for the next year, at least, all the teams we’re growing will be located in Israel, and they’ll all be working together in the same offices. That’s worked for us. We’ve seen the results.

GamesBeat: From talking to Startup Nation, I know there are 5,000 startups in Israel and maybe 100 VCs. What was the experience of raising money like for you? Did you have an unusual experience because you’re a pure game company?

Shani: Raising money is challenging for any startup. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of something we talk about frequently in our company, which is belief and trust. If you think back, game companies — especially casual games — weren’t very big around 2011. A lot of investors and VCs didn’t know the industry well. There were a lot of reasons not to invest, a lot of risk. In particular, casual games weren’t big in Israel. They were emerging and getting big elsewhere, but in Israel they weren’t very strong. We had gambling companies, but not so much in casual.

As I said, the important word was trust. We were lucky to find investors who believed in us from the beginning. They saw the team, the vision, the potential. To people who are raising money right now I’d say, just keep on pushing. Find people who trust you and understand your vision, your culture, your strategy. They need to be able to believe in you during harder times. Luckily there’s more openness in the investor and VC community now.

The Jelly Button office in Tel Aviv.

Above: The Jelly Button office in Tel Aviv.

Image Credit: Jelly Button

GamesBeat: You have some investors who are game-savvy in Israel now. Do you feel like the ecosystem is strong enough to support game startups, or would you still rather see that grow more?

Shani: The most important people who can help you grow a company, beyond your own team and founders, are people who’ve seen through game companies at a big scale before. More and more people have that experience now. They have the knowledge to help new developers. But our market is still small. You can’t compare it to the U.S. or Europe.

However, we can definitely see some strong investors here seeing more companies on their way to growth. They’re building experience with making games, taking them to market, scaling up technology-wise, recruiting and managing talent. In the next few years we’re going to see more people with experience in the industry having an impact and helping companies build strong games.

GamesBeat: Some companies do dozens of prototypes before they ship a game. What was the development process like for you, the prototyping?

Shani: We believe in small groups of the best people. With our next game, we had five or seven people working on it at first, starting with the prototype and moving into alpha testing. We measure everything. We’re very oriented around KPIs. But before any of that, it has to be fun. Measuring that is a whole different subject. People forget that, in the beginning, you can’t just think about monetization. First, it’s about creating an experience with strong engagement. That’s what our team is focused on.

Later on you have a prototype, and then an alpha, and then you launch it and see how the experience works and continue gathering data. From there it’s just a matter of adding more layers – virality, retention, monetization. It’s an ongoing process.

GamesBeat: It must feel good to have so many people watching your company now.

Shani: We’re working hard. We’re not calling ourselves any kind of success story yet. We still have so much to prove. The team works 12, 14, 16 hours a day to make the next step. This is just the start of our journey. We have a lot of challenges ahead.

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