Last year John Earner, a former head of product at Playfish, raised $2.6 million to launch a new game company called Space Ape, recruiting execs from Playfish (which sold to Electronic Arts for $400 million in 2009), Skype and Mind Candy. B
Based in London, the startup follows the model of super successful Finnish gaming studio Supercell: Space Ape has a small team of 20 and works fast. (Its latest game was released after eight months of development.) Supercell, which shares an investor with Space Ape in Accel Partners, has built quick-and-nimble into its model as it grows into a gaming behemoth.
Space Ape first launched a sports betting game last year but shut it down quickly once Earner saw its engagement stats were middling. Given the hits-driven nature of gaming, he knew his studio needed a blockbuster hit to compete. “In gaming you don’t want to settle on just okay,” he says.
Besides, his team wasn’t passionate about the sports game. Most of their personal gaming hours were spent playing Starcraft 2. So the company dropped sports and began developing a game that resembled Starcraft: A story-driven strategy game for the tablet featuring months worth of content. There’s also a big community piece that features World of Warcraft-style alliances and wars.
Two weeks ago, they released the result in the US: Samurai Siege, a game that is very similar to Supercell’s mega-hit, Clash of the Clans, with a few twists. The biggest is the story-driven single-player campaign. Players must travel through the entire story to unlock content and cannot not skip levels simply by spending money.
Early results are promising. If downloads and engagement continue on the current path, Samurai Siege could very well be the breakout hit Earner and his team need.
Over the weekend, Samurai Siege topped 1.2 million downloads. More than 40 percent of users return the next day after downloading, and 25 percent are still playing two weeks later. The game boasts 300,000 daily active users.
Samurai Siege is making $65,000 a day from in-game purchases of virtual currency. (That equals out to around 35 cents per user day.) With 20 employees, Space Ape is on track to do more than $1 million in profit per month, Earner says. Samurai Siege is currently the number six game in the iTunes Store and number 16 overall.
This week, Samurai Siege launches a new version with six new languages, which will allow it to expand in Latin America and Western Europe.
Earner attributes Samurai Siege’s fast adoption to a couple of things: For one, it was able to launch on Android and iOS simultaneously because it used the Unity multiplatform content tools. That platform allowed the company to use a single codebase for both Android and iOS. One third of Samurai Siege’s revenue is coming from Android.
Second, the company learned a lot about optimizing its game from watching beta users in Australia and New Zealand for the last two months. Players were particularly excited about the community features. Taking a nod from World of Warcraft’s alliances and levels, Samurai Siege players can form alliances of 50 players. The teams can declare war on other alliances every 12 hours, and the game rewards the winning alliances with premium currency. The alliances are a big differentiator from Clash of Clans and the single biggest thing driving the game right now, Earner says.
The next few months will be crucial for Space Ape as the studio attempts to balance the demands of one hit game with the pressure of creating a second hit. The company plans to double its team to 40 employees by January, at which point it will use a “cell division” style of scaling up and releasing new titles pioneered by Supercell. Cell division works as such: Space Ape has hired two people for every role since its start. Once Samurai Siege is fully built with new features, languages and content, half of the Space Ape employees (one from each role) will split off to work on a second title.
“The gaming industry is littered with one-hit wonders. It’s like the 80′s,” Learner says. “By next year, we’ll have another game live and prove we’re not a one-hit wonder.”
Space Ape is backed by Accel Partners, where Earner acted as Entrepreneur in Residence, as well as Initial Capital, Connect Ventures, and angel investor Gigi Levy.
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Space Ape Games is a Mobile / Social Gaming startup founded in 2012. We’re a small, high-performing team with big aspirations to make the highest quality and most successful games on your smart phone and tablet.