Making great games

I started working in the games industry in 2010 and joined Pocket Gems as the first product manager to help us create free to play gaming as a new category on mobile. Mobile phones are personalized, portable computers that are carried around everywhere by people, and it made sense to me that for many people in the world, this would be their primary gaming device.

It was a really interesting time to be in mobile games; Apple had just launched in-app purchases, app discovery/advertising was nascent, and almost all causal developers were focused on Facebook/Web vs. Mobile.  In 2010, for some additional perspective, King.com (Candy Crush) which now has an annual revenue of >$2BN (95% mobile) had zero mobile revenues and Supercell (Hay Day and Clash of Clans), which is now valued at >$3BN, did not even exist.

In 2010, in order to succeed we had to create products that had mass appeal and were first to market. People played our games because they were casual and fun at a time where few free to play games existed on mobile. Our design was simple, and often inelegant, and we did an excellent job with merchandising and tactics but often lacked insight into player behavior beyond what our (fairly sophisticated) analytics told us. We lacked empathy for our players and designed products which were inauthentic to us, and over the long term I think this became evident to our players as well.

We have since realized that we will never be a creator of really great products and games if we continue to develop them in this manner. I was responsible for the design and development of one of the simulation games in our last cohort, Animal Voyage, which will end up making a small profit but we don’t consider it a success because we didn’t create a lasting franchise. I was never a player of sim games, and struggled to get into the mindset of the player. It resulted in a product that was inelegantly designed, with too many disjointed mechanics and a lack of attention to player experience. Over time, our players realized this and long term retention was poor despite really strong early metrics (which we used to determine the game’s viability). In the end, lack of empathy for our players and lack of focus on making the game really fun (measured by long term retention) led to the downfall of the product. 

I’m now working on a new title, and the emotions I experience while playing the game remind me of games that I loved growing up. I’m excited to tell my friends about it, I’m excited for our daily throwdowns and I’m really excited about how energetic our team is about the product and the vision. I have come to the realisation that to even have a shot at creating something great you have to have great passion for the product, care greatly for your players and make design decisions that are consistent with your mission and objectives. I have also realized how important it is that your team cares about the product, is deeply invested in the outcome, and makes every decision, no matter how small, with the player in mind. I think that even a team with all the right skills and talents needs this mindset to be able to create something amazing, and I’m personally really excited to be developing new games with this philosophy.

I hope it leads to a game that has many loyal fans and becomes a lasting franchise but even if it does not, we’ll feel much better about the path because it at least gives us a shot at achieving this goal.

Why are people with MBAs called ‘MBAs’ forever?

I don’t really get why people who have MBAs are pigeon holed with an ‘MBA’ as their primary tagline for the rest of their careers. It’s a short part of your career and half the length of your undergraduate degree. Why am I more of an MBA than an engineer?

I think people probably get a few things out of doing an MBA:

  1. Branding: Much like working at a recognised company, going to a recognised business school helps open doors

  2. Friendships/Network: You make great friends and people at business school are at the same stage of life and in the same mindset, so you make lots of lasting friendships in a short period of time

  3. Lifestyle: Business school is fun. You travel, you play sports, you party and live in a new city/country

  4. Content: You learn from your courses, classmates and professors

I spent 2 years of my life doing my MBA and it was a lot of fun.  I made great friends, travelled to cool places and learned some interesting things through the case method. But by no means do I think it defines me, my aspirations, the way I think or what I value.

I love thinking about what new products and platforms will shape our future and how I can contribute. I love building things and get satisfaction from people deriving utility/joy from the things I build. I feel energised by geeking out about solving analytical problems at work, discussing gameplay strategies in League of Legends or Hearthstone, or just the act of shipping something before a weekend. I’ve spent the last 10 years working in technology and the last 5 in product management. I know I want to spend my career building products and investing in great companies. I feel like my choice of career defines me so much more than whether or not I have an MBA and I’m sure many other ‘MBAs’ feel the same.

Future of wearables

I don’t really like the current set of wearable offerings. I’ve used the Nike Fuel Band, Jawbone Up and the Basis. Initially, the novelty is cool, but in the end they all fall short as none of them are really accurate enough or fully featured enough to be anything more than a gimmick.

In the future, I think wearables should make the assumption that you already have a smartphone in your pocket, and so they can communicate with the smartphone directly for the majority of the day. This way, design of the wearable can focus on capturing information that a smartphone can’t capture as well (like movement or heart rate). The wearable can then send this data to the phone to do the number crunching and get increased accuracy by combining similar data that is captured by the phone or other wearables. If you combine multiple sources capturing similar things, you can vastly increase the accuracy of the data. It’s how mobile location data become so much more precise – gps, cell tower and wifi data all combined together.

The one health tracking tool I actually really like is the Withings scale. I like having a historical view of my weight and how it wirelessly syncs to a server somewhere so I never have to think about inputting the data, but can access it and use it in conjunction with other apps such as Lose It as I find useful. I think it does a good job of focusing on being a sensor and a display for weight without trying to do too much.

Once we improve the quality of the data from wearables and increase the number of types of sensors (breathing, heart rate, sleep, movement, weight, food intake etc) then we’ll be able to draw really awesome insight by combining information from lots of different sources to get a better picture of overall health and track changes over time.

It could be interesting if my doctor had a dashboard with all the inputs from my wearables and can see long term trends as well as use this information to help diagnose current or future conditions based on what’s happened in between visits.

Mobile software technology (primarily OS)

I spent some time writing down some of the things that bother me about using my mobile phone, and thought I would share some improvements that I think would make using my phone even better. Apple’s IOS 8 and Google’s Kit Kat are addressing much of it.

  • Web links over email and text – There should be a way for the OS or browser to detect whether or not an app is installed and try to open up the app (deep linked), resorting to the web view only if opening up the app fails. This would provide a better experience for user as well as an opportunity to increase app engagement, and should become standard very quickly. I think this could work by the browser going to the website and the website creating a custom deep linked url that it tries to open through the app; if it fails, then it goes to the web view. There might be a cleverer way to do it though. It’s surprising to me that apps like LinkedIn don’t work this way – I often get a link to someone’s profile and it’ll never redirect to the app – this should be the defacto, not a crappy mobile web view that requires login, etc.

  • Method of for applications to talk to each other – IOS and Android need to define an app API with a common set of things as well as custom calls that can allow apps to talk to each other in real time and share data. This would allow aggregators to become much more powerful on mobile and other apps that pull in data from multiple apps in real time, and will open up a whole new class of application. This may currently be solvable by creating server APIs, but it’s less easy than apple or google creating a common format that can be shared locally.  An example of a use case would be getting transport from A->B and an aggregator showing me the best option from uber, lyft, taxi, bus etc.

  • Search in-app content – I should be able to search on my home screen for content embedded within apps / over search. I.e., Searching on my phone should be much more powerful and personalized than it is now. It’ll be a little complicated to figure out the balance of showing content that is local vs. online or layering in additional data (e.g. what apps I use most) in the ranking system, but these are likely solvable problems. e.g. I should be able to search for ski trip and the results are a combination of texts, email, evernote, etc. Google is far ahead of Apple here but IOS 8 is starting to bridge the gap

  • Wearables as an input/sensor – The future of wearables is collecting data that your phone is ill suited to collect and then either having its own ability to transmit data to a server or using the phone/internet connection on the phone to crunch the data and transmit data to the user through the wearable in a format that makes sense. The synergy between the 2 devices (phone + wearable) is where I think things get very interesting because then the size of wearables can go vastly down (lower power consumption, less high tech, smaller size).

  • Seamless transfer from web<=>mobile Products that have websites and apps should have a common backend that allows you to pick up on your app where you left off on your computer and vice versa. Examples are yelp or google maps. Again I think android is far ahead of iOS if you’re a power user of google products.

Founding a Company – When?

I don’t think that I am a born entrepreneur. I think that I can see opportunity and potential, and have some ideas but I’ve not yet taken the plunge to start my own business. The truth is that I am pretty risk averse. I have been interested in technology for a while now, but only been considering the entrepreneurial path for the past 2-3 years.

There are lots of schools of thought about what stage in your personal and professional career to start a venture but I think that the two most important things are:

  • Market Opportunity – You need to have spent some time with your target market and understand where significant gaps lie. Finding a solution for these gaps is the next step, but it’s likely that your original idea will evolve significantly as your try and address these gaps. The balance of having a strong vision for your product yet knowing when you need to change direction is a key skill for successful entrepreneurs.
  • Being Ready – You have got to feel like you are ready to start your own company and have faith in your skills and and abilities. And whatever you lack, you need to have the faith that you’ll be able to figure it out or surround yourself with people you trust that can figure it out for you..
I have really not felt ready yet, and it’s a function of not finding the right market opportunity but also not having enough faith in myself yet. I feel that I need to build a successful product under the guidance of someone who has proven themselves before I do it on my own. 
In the end everyone has their own threshold for risk and when to start a company is a very personal call, but I hope to build some awesome products at my current company (Pocket Gems) which are profitable businesses too. I really hope it works out, but regardless, I’m super excited about the journey.

Socially responsible & For profit capital for emerging markets – a better model?

The inspiration for this post was my Business at the Base of the Pyramid class at Harvard Business School and it’s something that I have been pondering as I consider being an early stage investor in East African technology businesses.

There are two main kinds of capital deployed to emerging markets to stimulate economic activity for small businesses:
  •  Social(Not for Profit) Capital – This kind of capital is usually issued by governments, charitable foundations or entities like the World Bank/IFC and makes up the majority of investment capital to small businesses from abroad
  • For Profit Capital – Investors looking for returns which are as high as possible from emerging markets to compensate them for the high risk of their investments
I think the best model for emerging markets is a hybrid form of for profit capital from socially responsible investors. i.e. Investors who are looking to make a reasonable return on their investment without exploiting the recipients of their capital. 

One of the key problems of investing in social (not for profit) enterprises is that it does not create the incentives for these businesses to scale into self-sustaining entities. If businesses are accountable to their investors to yield positive unit economics and positive returns they are less likely to operate in a lean and efficient manner. Commerical enterprises are just better designed to create long term value for their shareholders, employees and (hopefully) customers provided they are ethically run.
I think that initiatives such as Root Capital and the Grass Roots Business Fund are trying some extremely interesting innovative models and hopefully we’ll see some positive results from them.

Figuring out a more effective way to deploy capital to emerging markets is a huge problem and I really hope that such innovations make strides towards solving it.

Alleviating poverty through education and entrepreneurship

I’m a believer in two key methods to alleviate poverty and stimulate long-term economic growth for developing countries:
  •  Education – Out of all children in Kenya about 85% of children attend primary school (but <50% finish), 24% of children attend secondary school, and 2% attend higher institutions. At this level of attrition more than half the population has not even completed primary school, which is typical of developing African countries. Access to knowledge and information is a critical part of opportunity creation for people in Africa.
  • Entrepreneurship – This is Africa’s (and Kenya in particular) ticket to stimulating the economy from the ground up. Governments are corrupt and policy is extremely slow and ineffective. Creating and facilitating an entrepreneurial mindset and ecosystem for people in these countries with the drive to create businesses which solve fundamental issues has got to be the way to sustainably get these countries out of poverty.
This is such huge topic and my paragraph above does not really even scratch the surface, but I want to write more often, in bite sized chunks going forward. For each of these issues, work needs to be done at both an infrastructural/country level and at a grass roots level. I believe that we will see quicker more effective results through bottom up initiatives so long as we are able to find and fund the scaleable and effective solutions at this level.

Next post will be about what type of investment could work for developing countries at this level.