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Seriously: Taking on the "big guys" of mobile, one step at a time

"I think it's now impossible for anybody, anywhere to have an overnight success" - Andrew Stalbow, CEO

If one were to seek the recipe to breaking a major new mobile IP in 2015, one might well look to a company like Seriously. Founded by high-level Rovio executives in the summer of 2013, this Los Angeles-based startup has grabbed at the headlines with $10 million in funding and a team built around talent from both Hollywood and its founders' illustrious former employer. The goal? To achieve by design what Angry Birds more or less stumbled into: building globally recognised multimedia IP from smartphone games.

"Hanna Barbera, Looney Tunes - I believe that if those people were creating today, they'd be creating on mobile"

Indeed, CEO Andrew Stalbow, formerly the EVP of strategic partnerships at Rovio, has been visiting his native Britain to push that very message to the attendees of London's increasingly diverse array of industry conferences. Seriously may be starting with just one more game in a field of thousands, but its ambitions are as grand as any company in the business.

"You could say we're doing Hollywood backwards," he says, "but my goal is not to end up with a film premiere in Hollywood. The goal is to build a brand and content experience through mobile. Hanna Barbera, Looney Tunes - I believe that if those people were creating today, they'd be creating on mobile. It's where you can reach the biggest audience, it's where you can be really creative, and it's where everybody is."

Stalbow made that call in 2011, when he left his role as SVP of mobile at 20th Century Fox to become general manager of Rovio's North American operations. At Fox, he had some of the biggest brands in entertainment at his fingertips - The Simpsons, Family Guy, Avatar - but as the popularity of smartphones soared the approach of pushing established brands into such a dynamic new market started to seem like missing the point.

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"Those very, very big powerful brands, like The Simpsons and Family Guy, their core content is distributed on third-party platforms," Stalbow says. "So the content creators are never directly connected to their audience, and they don't leverage the network effect. The opportunity for a company like ours on mobile is that constant dialogue with the audience. As long as you're being fair and you're doing things that people find interesting, it's incredibly powerful."

As such, Seriously is placing its bets on two things: creative talent, evident in its string of impressive hires, and creative quality, evident in its debut game, Best Fiends. Based on a story created by Seriously's co-founder and CCO - Petri Järvilehto, formerly EVP of games at Rovio - Best Fiends has amassed 5 million downloads since it launched in October last year, and it now has a community of 900,000 daily active users. That growth, Stalbow says, is down to care and detail and polish; like the game's score, for example, which was composed by Despicable Me's Heitor Pereira. One can only imagine that the services of someone like Pereira don't come cheap, but Stalbow believes that what it adds to the finished product is absolutely worth the cost.

"You need to go and compete with the big guys, and they're spending serious amounts of money. It's hard to compete"

"Even though it's on a phone or a tablet, and everyone told me, 'Don't spend the money there. Don't invest in that', we did," he says. "We believe, greatly, that people notice the really small details. You're not necessarily always aware of them, but you still notice those details.

"I just think that every little thing we do can elevate our product from what is, ultimately, fierce competition out there."

And that is what makes Seriously's ambitions so intriguing. Building a global brand from origins as a smartphone app requires not just downloads but revenue - and plenty of it. But the upper reaches of the top-grossing charts remain inexorably the same from week to week, and month to month. As much as Stalbow's frequent references to quality are very much the rhetoric we wish to hear from the CEO of an aspirant new company in a market saturated by a tiny handful of IP, it's nevertheless easy to believe that mounting a serious challenge to Clash of Clans and Candy Crush will be as much a technical or analytic achievement as a creative one. After all, the reason that the top five earners on iOS and Android seldom change isn't necessarily because the other games aren't as good.

That's the level of success Seriously eventually wants to achieve with Best Fiends. However, Stalbow is keen to avoid talking too far ahead. He reiterates that the key strength of mobile is the direct, reactive relationship it allows between creator and player, and that should be at the very core of any new developer reaching for the top.

"The way for smaller companies to think about this is to just take it one step at a time"

"You need to go and compete with the big guys, ultimately, and they're spending serious amounts of money. You can see it in the books of King, for example, who are spending anywhere around $3 million or $4 million dollars on marketing a day. You're up against that. It's hard to compete.

"Here's how we approached it: we take it one step at a time. We built the company on a team of 12 or 13 people, we focused on doing just a few things really well, and then we went into soft-launch. We looked at two things on our product: What's the retention like? What's the engagement like? And we were blown away, so it's on to the next step, which is the big launch on iOS and Android. Does it work at scale? We're now on 900,000 DAUs, the retention's really strong, the engagement's great, we're building up our Facebook and Twitter followers, so then it's the next level.

"I think it's now impossible for anybody, anywhere to have an overnight success. So the way for independent, smaller companies to think about this is to just take it one step at a time. Build it up around a core game mechanic that people find fun, be fair in how you set up the game design, and then people will come back.

"I'll say this to anybody: If you've got a product that has the potential to be a brand that can cut through what is an amazing amount of content clutter, then I think anybody's got an opportunity. I don't think any of this is insurmountable at all."

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Latest comments (6)

Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
The main difference in success level between a minor developer and a big name is visibility. In fact it's their level of visibility that determines "major" or "minor" in the first place. Just about anyone can develop games of the complexity that sell astonishingly well, candy crush, etc. and getting them tested for user experience is more about good attention to detail than being big. In short, a small developer can potentially make anything that king.com could, it's not dictated by budget etc.

However, if you want to make something sell big you need a marketing budget, marketing knowhow and a general understanding of all the things that are NOT purely about game development. There are stacks of games made really well that sink without trace - in fact it's the norm from the experience I have seen in others and experienced myself.

So when Andrew says "anyone can do it", I think he should do a bit more thinking about who "anyone" actually is. Things probably look mighty different to a former Rovio exec able to get 10M of other peoples money before even having a product.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Johnson on 27th January 2015 8:22am

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Nick McCrea Gentleman, Pocket Starship4 years ago
Paul, have you ever considered moving to PC? As you often allude, mobile seems absolutely brutal for small developers who don't already have traction, or don't win the lottery of visibility. PC seems a much better bet. Guys like Cliff Harris at Positech, or Spiderweb Software, or the guys at Introversion have success, that, whilst certainly not easy to replicate, at least seems less capricious than some of the mobile stuff, and based on an identifiable strategy.

Develop core games for a PC audience, in genres or styles that are out of fashion or too small for the big guys. Audiences are much smaller, but much more directly addressable and target-able, brand and developer-aware, and loyal.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Nick McCrea on 27th January 2015 11:22am

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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
That comment was more about a general observation than particularly my own experience, but to answer your question - yes we have. Our next installment of our great little war game is getting some love and a big upgrade as a PC game and we'll be starting a greenlight soonish.

If that flies even a little bit, we'll probably go all-in because mobile has gone from indie friendly to indie impossible over the last few years. You can still point at success stories of course, but anything that you don't point at now earns almost nil, it's more polarised than the mainstream AAA stuff albeit at lower numbers.
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Nick McCrea Gentleman, Pocket Starship4 years ago
Cool, good to hear. I know your comment was general, but obviously you've stated a few times about the challenges in mobile, and although I currently work for a reasonably successful mobile studio (just haven't updated the profile), that success was partly driven by first mover advantage, and hasn't blinded us to the recent challenges of the marketplace. In fact we've watched quite a number of aspiring mobile developers near us sink totally with barely a ripple, and all with products that were of good quality; you are literally invisible unless you have serious backing, a prior hit to bootstrap from, or other tangible advantage.

All the best for the move to PC!
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
Thanks Nick, and congrats on being one of the successes too, I know how hard that is to achieve. Guard it well!

Funny you mentioned Introversion earlier. We worked with them in he past and have a fully complete, even localised, version of Defcon for Nintendo DS sat on our server. You'd think we could get something done with that huh. :S
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
Someone just prompted me to what I should've said originally. Much more succinct.

If you have $10M just to start up, you are "the big guys"...

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Johnson on 27th January 2015 10:38pm

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