"The Instagram of interactive content"
How Zapcoder hopes to democratise mobile development
It's clear that Zapcoder founder Roger Dubar is passionate about two things: getting people to appreciate programming and giving people the tools to be creative. His passion for coding began when he got his hands on a ZX Spectrum, then gathered pace when he got drawn into multi-user dungeons in the university computer labs. In 2012, Roger left his career in media and technology law to build a company with a product that will help impart some of his passion for coding to others with no programming knowledge whatsoever.
For Roger, Zap is very much about dispelling myths about coding and making people appreciate the skill without necessarily forcing them to learn how to do it in depth. "Programming is seen as being a guy - and it's almost always a guy - hacking away at a keyboard in his room. That's not how people use technology though. People want things that are simple, mobile, social, fast and they want fun. None of these things are bad things. Zap is more about getting people to appreciate what programming is rather than getting them doing hardcore programming. It's like a gateway drug to programming. It's about engagement, so people don't run away.
"'I've got an idea for something. I have no idea how to make this happen so I'm not going to do it.' That's the lifespan of the vast majority of ideas that people have. I think Instagram is an incredible product, it allows anyone to take a picture and have it not look terrible," he laughs. "The paradigm with Zap is that whoever has an idea, they should be able to get something working. So, it has to be simple."
One realization has helped get Zapcoder off the ground is that for most people it doesn't matter how technology works as long as it works. "I've spent a year-and-a-half going round to try and get people involved in what we're doing and I realised that, outside a few technologically-minded investors, nobody really cares about technology. That ties in with the initial concept of 'why should users care about what programming is'? Why shouldn't we let the computers to the work, why shouldn't we set things up in a way that a user can pick up their phone, have an idea and get it running? So Zap's about changing people's perceptions of how we get computers to do things.
"Obviously we have incredibly talented developers building the platform, building this SDK that makes it simple to create content for the platform and building the interface that means that anyone can take a Zap game and tweak it. We are not going to be able to provide, with current technology, the ability to make an incredibly fabulous new-powered game, but we can let you get the concept of that working really quickly. I think that is quite special."
"I've spent a year-and-a-half going round to try and get people involved in what we're doing and I realised that, outside a few technologically-minded investors, nobody really cares about technology"
Zap, even in its current state, is powerful. Roger demonstrated an alpha build of the platform running on the iPhone and, using a template based on Flappy Birds, he made a quick game in around a minute using a headshot of me as the main player-sprite. It was impressive just how quickly he could 'remix' another game to do what he wanted it to do, all from an interface that is inspired by the simplicity of apps like Vine and Instagram. Anyone can use Zap to create a game or to pick up another game and change it to suit their own vision, then share it with the world - through Zap itself or on Facebook or Twitter. It has many of the features you'd expect from PSN or Steam as well, with online leaderboards and stats showing how many times a game has been played or 'remixed'. What is unique to Zap is that you can trace an game's lineage back to the person that created the first incarnation so it gives credit to everyone involved in its creation.
He compares what Zapcoder are doing with Zap to the work of another Scottish company, Yoyo Games, and their development tool GameMaker Studio. "Another Scottish company I massively admire, Yoyo Games, have a product called GameMaker. That's a really great tool and people have done amazing things with it but you're only reaching a limited market with a tool like that because no matter how simple they make it, you still require an interest in programming to get beyond the basics.
"They do great work in schools and I heard great line about one of their projects where they said 'we'll teach you to program a game in a week'. I just think most people don't want to wait a week. So, if you want to engage people with the concept of programming you're going to have to introduce it to them very very gently without them realising that what they're doing is actually complicated. Then, as they get more interested, they'll hopefully get into it in more detail.
This leads onto Zapcoder's future plans for Zap and how they can use the platform to draw people into coding. "Down the line we want to introduce more complex stuff. We're focused on just getting it right to start with and the complexity will come later. The simplicity is the hard part. We're focusing on making it as simple as possible and the users can hopefully take it up and run with it and do incredible things. I'm sure that the users will do stuff with it that we can't even think of."
The conversation turns to the monetization issue. It's a crucial question that every new startup faces with monotonous regularity. "You speak to potential investors and the first thing they ask is 'how do I get my money back?' The traditional method is to sell it. That might work but you're limiting yourself to who can get involved and we want Zap to be a mass-market product. We'd love to be the Instagram of interactive content. We want to be the place you go when you think 'rather than watching this cat video I'm going to make my own cat game'.
"We would love to have our user community be able to participate in that monetization process by uploading cool content to revenue-share down the line"
"So, paying upfront for it is not attractive to us because it's going to limit our user base," he continues. "The Freemium model, when it works, is brilliant. If they have access to a reasonable amount of content and can pay for additional content and services has been very successful for a lot of companies and is model which, when it works, we all quite like I think.
"It's really easy to ruin it though," Dubar adds cautiously, with the spectre of EA's 'free-to-play' version of Dungeon Keeper in mind. "There's quite a lot of games out there that are literally designed by teams of psychologists sitting in a room saying 'we can't implant electrodes into the brains of consumer's and get them to press a button to stimulate pleasure centres but we can almost do that by creating a game that's so addictive that we get money off them'. I don't think that it's good business. It's not a good user experience. In the long run it doesn't work. We do think Freemium is a great model for us down the line, that we can provide a range of cool very simple templates to use and very simple graphics but people will quite happily pay for more additional content if we can find great graphics packs or provide great templates."
The future for this side of Zap does seem to have taken a leaf out of Steam's book as they are hoping to offer users the chance to upload their own content and templates and Roger even mentions the possibility of revenue sharing with users that are adding their own content to the platform.
"We would love to have our user community be able to participate in that monetization process by uploading cool content to revenue-share down the line. We'll provide a platform for people to upload their content and sell it through our platform. That has a range of issues largely to do with quality control for us. There's also no point in having a marketplace if there's no buyers. So we need to build a user community first before we can do the revenue share model. But, for us, Freemium we think is a good way forward. Then again Freemium only works if we have a user base. So the primary focus for us right now is let's get the product working and get it out there and prove that people want to create the quick content that we're talking about."
With a platform like Zap there's more than one option for monetization and Dubar is quite open to exploring a Facebook-style advertising model, so that Zap isn't just chained to Freemium in order to make money. "We think that Zap provides a great opportunity for brands to engage with consumers by providing content that users can make their own games and apps with or by providing fun content that they can maybe personalize by sticking their face in. We think that is going to be big.
"For us, we're starting small and, because we're a new entry in the market, we're going to have to provide an innovative and better service for advertisers than Facebook does and we think we can do that. We think we can provide better engagement. Facebook advertising is becoming less valuable to advertisers and it's becoming much harder to get people to see your posts. We think that by providing interactive content that users can actually personalise and share then they are much more likely to share it. So we think we can provide brands a much better platform than Facebook and Google.
"we're starting small and because we're a new entry in the market we're going to have to provide an innovative and better service for advertisers than Facebook does"
"But, we're not primarily a brand oriented platform," Dubar stresses. "If you don't want to use Acme Beans' content on Zap you don't have to. If you don't want to buy Freemium content you're still going be able to make great stuff and you can still upload your own assets. We're not tied to one particular model but we are open to lots of different ways of looking at making money on the platform and, down the line, making money for our users uploading their own content on the platform."
He is very conscious that the most important thing for any venture is the user experience and it shouldn't be sacrificed on the altar of monetization. "Ultimately the reason why I think things like 'Dungeon Keeper' experience will fall away because it offers a very bad user experience. I think the users will give us a bit of slack if we provide a beta that doesn't quite do what they want it to do. It's not all or nothing but if you don't provide a good user experience over a period of time then you're doomed."
Zap will be heading into beta very soon and Zapcoder are looking for brave beta-testers to jump on and start creating. Zap will fully later in the summer.