Andrew Stalbow, CEO of Seriously, knows that the stakes are getting high in the $48 billion mobile game business. Every company is zeroing in on keeping players engaged with fewer, better, and stronger titles.
Stalbow’s biggest hit is Best Fiends, and the Helsinki-based Seriously has gone the way of Angry Birds maker Rovio by launching animated video shorts to promote the game and deepen fan interest in its characters and stories.
It’s a young game, launched in 2016. But it has dedicated fans and it is generating about $150,000 a day in revenues — plenty to sustain the 75-person Seriously. I talked with Stalbow at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) last week in San Francisco about the game and the company’s hopes for turning its title into a sustainable brand.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Looking at some of your competitors that are narrowing down and getting very focused, do you see that as a common trend or something you’re doing too?
Andrew Stalbow: I see it across the industry. People are focusing on products they have that have established a connection with an audience. If you look at titles that are still performing really well, often they got their start two or three or four years ago. The market wasn’t quite as competitive. You didn’t have Netflix becoming what it is now. You didn’t have Spotify becoming what it is now. You didn’t have Apple Music or Snapchat. Right now, the mobile market is the most vibrant ecosystem in the world, but it’s also the most competitive media platform in the world.
GamesBeat: All those things you pointed out are competing for your time, and so, it’s even more precious.
Stalbow: There’s really only one area that everyone is focused on, and that’s engagement. We all have to create brands and experiences that are more compelling than answering your email or watching the Ozarks. It’s a great opportunity for people to lean in, understand what their audience is attracted to, and double down on that. We’re seeing a lot of companies succeed by focusing on core propositions that they know will work, whether that’s a Zynga or a Glu.
We see the evolution of Supercell products like Clash Royale or games like Candy Crush. Many of those products are unrecognizable compared to where they were three years ago. They’re so much more compelling now with all the improvements they’ve made. There are lessons for all of us there.
GamesBeat: There’s a pattern where everyone fishes around and spreads out and tries a lot of things until they find what works, and once they find that, they get rid of everything else and focus on the one thing.
Stalbow: If you’ve managed to build a product that’s attracted an audience that you can build a business on, you need to lean in to that. Clearly some of the biggest mobile games companies in the world didn’t release new titles in 2017. One reason is they’re leaning in to their existing products so they can grow.
An example of what we achieved last year with our original Best Fiends game, we took it from 11 or 12 cents [average revenue per daily active user (ARPDAU)] at the beginning of 2017 to a 22 to 25 cent ARPDAU by the end of 2017 just by making it more fun. We’re learning from different things that our players and our audience enjoy. That’s a great opportunity for everyone.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like you’re getting some good momentum from brand value? Is it already [a] brand, even as such a young game in the scheme of things?
Stalbow: We definitely think we’re at the beginning. The way we look at our brand is, we’re three years into something we’re building out over the next 20 to 30 years. We try to value, in both our product and our marketing, the creative elements that, compounded, can make a difference to create something super special. We’ve always valued brand building and character creation a bit more than short-term revenue goals. We feel like if you focus on the brand, the revenue follows.
Right now, we’re at the beginning. We have two Best Fiends games on the market. We just kicked off our first animated shorts last year. Those seem to have really connected with our audience. We tied the stories to in-game events and content. That helped enhance our performance and helped increase our retention and helped keep our community feeling engaged. We don’t feel like we’ve arrived anywhere yet, but we have the basis and foundations for a strong IP.
GamesBeat: Do you also have confidence to, say, do more of it, double down on it? Rather than go exploring somewhere else and come up with more things?
Stalbow: We’re just at the beginning of the journey with Best Fiends. Last year, we did two animated shorts. This year, we’re working on four. Next year, we’ll do six. We’ve also just kicked off working on a deal for a lead writer on our television series that we’re looking to pitch to subscription VOD players later in the year. We have a new game, Best Fiends Rivals, in early soft launch, and it’s showing very encouraging signs.
Our core game is going from strength to strength. Q1 2018 will be the biggest quarter for it yet. We end March at around $150,000 a day in revenue, but we really think the potential is so much bigger based on the level of engagement we see.
GamesBeat: How many people are on the team now?
Stalbow: Right now, we have two offices. In Los Angeles, we have business development, marketing, data science, finance, and community. It’s about 15 people. In Helsinki, where we do content creation, product development, technology, and data science, that’s 60 people right now. We keep the teams super small. We think that small teams can make a big difference. As a company, we’re an interesting mix between creative IP builders, marrying that with understanding and learning from the data.
GamesBeat: It seems like the environment in Helsinki is still pretty healthy. Lots of activity, lots of companies getting bigger.
Stalbow: It’s always been a good development ecosystem. Ever since the ‘90s, there have been interesting game companies emerging. My co-founder, Petri [Järvilehto], the chief creative officer at Seriously, he was a co-founder at Remedy. That got built up in the ‘90s on the back of games like Max Payne. Companies like Rovio, Supercell, Fingersoft, Future Play — it’s a very compelling development environment.
GamesBeat: The stock market seems to think so, too.
Stalbow: You know, I think what the stock market is recognizing and what the industry is recognizing, is a lot of these titles have longer-term revenue streams attached to them than people perhaps envisioned a few years ago. In our first game, we have 2,000 levels in the game now and about 850 or so on the main map. We have, on the main map, 170,000 people who’ve finished all of those levels, played all of them, and are waiting for new content at the end of each update cycle.
What the Nordic stock market and the content community are starting to realize is, with mobile content, it’s free to play, but it behaves more like a subscription business model in terms of the recurring revenue stream nature of the business. Obviously, that’s wholly subject to the industry’s ability to have interesting different mechanics, create new and engaging content, but if you can do that, there’s an opportunity to create more of a subscription-like business model around it.
GamesBeat: The expansion in Los Angeles, what is that achieving for you?
Stalbow: What’s nice about the mix of Helsinki and L.A. is, we get the benefit of the great Nordic design, technology, brilliant product development, creative flair, and we marry that with a lot of great creators and marketers here in California. For example, the guy who composed our music, Heitor Pereira, he also composed the music for Despicable Me. He loves our world and is really thinking about the audio branding of the music he creates for our games and our animation. We’ve managed to attract voice-over talent for our animated shorts like Mark Hamill and Kate Walsh, again because of our proximity to that L.A. community.
One of the great challenges that Hollywood’s had over the past few years is adapting to the audience shift to mobile devices. But there are amazing artists, illustrators, and creators here that want to be on those mobile devices. Hollywood business models traditionally didn’t allow for that. It’s good for us to try and build a Hollywood-grade entertainment brand but do it with the humility of a Finnish and American startup.
GamesBeat: What platforms are you liking right now?
Stalbow: In terms of our main audience, that’s through iOS and Google Play. What we do well as a company that differentiates us is connecting the dots between your game experience, the video we create for our community on YouTube, and our community on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram that we work hard to serve. We recently launched our YouTube channel inside the game, so now, you can watch our animated shorts or community video inside the game experience. We can really tie that together.
Our community is amazing. We often get emails or tweets from people that say the game and the world have had a really interesting impact on their lives. One lady wrote to us and said, “Hey, I’m writing from Paris. I got married because of Best Fiends.” She was sitting in a café in Paris, a guy walks in, and they see each other both playing the game. They start going out, and they get married. We made a video about that and posted it in our community. What’s special about having a brand is you can really try to tie the different platforms together and make a unified experience. That’s a great video that exemplifies that kind of thing.
GamesBeat: Are you looking at anything in the future — like augmented reality — or changes coming to iOS or Android that you’re interested in?
Stalbow: This is a bit of a joke comment, but there’s a platform we really like. It’s built on paper. It allows us to distribute images around the world. It’s called a book. But yeah, we just built a brand book that shows off all the work we’ve done to get to the place where we are with Best Fiends.
I’m joking there, but the reality is, with a brand, we want to be on good platforms that allow us to treat the content like a live service where we can engage our audience and introduce them to different elements of the world. I think AR is going to be interesting for us in time. It’s not a big focus for us right now. Our newest platforms really are — we’re super early on video. We’re thinking about how to build that out. We’ll launch a consumer products store featuring a few high quality collectible products that show off our artistic side from within the game later this year.
Those are three areas we’re focused on: games, animation, collectibility. Where we’re investing is building out our world and characters. This year, we have more than 500 characters in our game. There are more collectible characters for people to get. We see that as — our own IP is a platform itself. We continue to invest in that.
GamesBeat: Given the choice, it makes sense to give players more depth in the existing games?
Stalbow: I think people are really interested in the world. The game’s a brilliant way for us to introduce the world to people. But we’ve been blown away by the reception we got for our first two animated shorts, which is why we’re leaning on more of them.
The intersection of our IP and the game is a natural fit. You solve puzzles, win more characters, level them up. That allows you to fight the battle against the slugs as well as solve future puzzles and make progress. We think the gameplay mechanics offer a thoughtful way to introduce that. It’s been a good marriage of IP and game for us to start. We’re lucky it came together so well. But as I say, we feel like it’s just the beginning. The revenues are a good sign that we’re making progress, but there’s a lot more to come.
GamesBeat: If you have good gameplay, how good does the story have to be?
Stalbow: When we started the company, the first thing we did was — we knew we felt like the next generation of entertainment brands would get built on mobile. We felt it was a great way to connect directly to the audience, as opposed to being distributed through someone else’s platform. We felt that we could treat the content like a live service. People are expecting their brands to be more like a service than a stand-alone product. We felt like the two-way connection was powerful because we’re able to build a network.
But we didn’t start with a game. We started with a story. For Petri and I, when we looked at the worlds and the entertainment brands we loved — my son’s middle name is Indiana. I loved Indiana Jones. Petri loves [J.R.R.] Tolkien. When we looked at the IP we loved, it was clear that great worlds are built because someone has a story that is authentic to them, and they really want to tell it.
For Petri, he always used to tell this story to his kids. He didn’t like reading books to his kids because he liked the interactive nature of telling stories and responding to questions from his two girls. He used to tell this story about these little slugs that had invaded his garden. There are these invasive Spanish slugs in Finland. He’d clear his garden of these slugs, and then, he’d tell a story about these little creatures in the garden that would have to fight back against them. When we started, that was a story he wanted to tell that felt very personal to him. We started there with it all.
Once we had that story in mind, the gameplay design just appealed to us because we felt it was a great way to introduce characters. Characters really differentiate your IP. What’s becoming clearer is, there’s value to original IP in the market, and we’re trying to stay true to ourselves and focus on building that.
GamesBeat: In more and more places I look, it seems that storytelling is coming up as the common thread of how to do live operations, how to keep people engaged, how to drive them to become better customers.
Stalbow: We’re certainly not the first to come up with the idea. But I think that if I had to characterize where we think the market increasingly goes, there’s a lot of content choices out there. It’s the brands that cut through. I wouldn’t say we’ve built a brand yet, but we have the early foundations and positive signs. What a brand and a world give you, they give you the ability to do fun events, do fun community stuff.
People get very intrigued about the story. If you asked Best Fiends players what they love about the game, they’re going on a journey to Mount Boom where everything really began and collecting characters and seeing little snippets of the story along the way. It keeps the engagement up for your game, but also, it’s a good platform as you try to build out your business.
I think everyone knows IP is important. As we all try to do more and more, the story and the world and characters become more important. But it’s always a balance as well. There’s a good opportunity for lots of different players in the space. Some games don’t necessarily tell as much of a story like we do, and they’ll also go on to be very successful. You have to do what works well for you. But brand and creativity is definitely an area we’re intrigued by.
The wonderful thing about it is, the whole team knows that it’s all the small details that make the difference. It’s all those little elements that, compounded, make a great brand and world. I love Seriously being a place where everyone can contribute to the building of that world. It’s a fun and interesting project. I’m proud of the start we’ve made, but it’s still early.