How to run a profitable startup with two employees? A crash course by Playblazer
Have you spent hours crossing different levels in ‘Hunger Games: Catching Fire’, ‘Panem Run’ or ‘Real Steel’ on your cellphone? Then you have already experienced how Playblazer works. What you perhaps don’t know is this translates to handling 50 million API calls in a single day, which roughly equals to one million daily active users on the platform – on the busiest day. Or about 11 million API calls a day, that’s about 200,000 daily users – on a lean day.
Playblazer is a pre-built game server that helps studios like Reliance Games which released Hunger Games: Catching Fire, or Jump Games that released Real Steel to build their games backend. Playblazer offers 15 pre-built server-side components which can be integrated into games made by studios and help speed up the release time for the games.
For most of us, games are a source of relaxation, and it was no different for co-founders Nikhil Soman and Kunal Gangakedkar, until they decided to make it their source of income as well. “Sometimes I find it difficult to tell my children why I have to play so many games,” laughs Nikhil.
Nikhil and Kunal have known each other since 2005, when they worked together in Dialify Technologies and then at Geodesic. Nikhil also had stints with Indiatimes, Hathway and Reliance. It was at Reliance that Nikhil was introduced to the world of gaming. He was in the startup team that launched Zapak.com and the team that setup base for Reliance’s BigAdda initiative. Playblazer has been modelled on lessons learnt from these organizations and a general observation of what was missing in the space.
YourStory caught up with the co-founders to understand how this young startup has managed to achieve great feats by staying so nimble.
Nikhil says digital gaming in India took birth around the same time as the internet. Generic sites like Rediff, Indiatimes came first, followed by focused verticals like Naukri, matrimony etc, but none of these were big on games. At Reliance, they had a clear strategy of going after verticals -- be it games, maps, search or movies. In line with that vision the first vertical they started was Zapak. Reliance would mostly source games from international studios and release them in India through Zapak.
“Zapak aimed at being a brand, went to many studios, sourced games from there and launched them here. It had a strong community feature, where users could create profiles, accumulate loyalty points, and everything related to the game could be stored in one place. It was very different as nobody was doing this,” says Nikhil. He left Zapak after a year to work with the Big Adda startup team. Nikhil says he has always been part of startup teams even in big organizations that he has worked with. Therefore the experience of building something from scratch is not new. “The only difference when you are in a big company is you are trying to build a brand. At Zapak, you have to build the brand and deliver on the promises. Whereas in a proper startup, you gain momentum and get noticed if you do something right,” he adds.
What Playblazer does?
Nikhil and Kunal came together to start Playblazer in January 2013. Playblazer does not go after titles to work with, instead seeks work with studios which have the capability of building world class games. “Most studios are too focused on the type of games. Game development is a lengthy process, which can take between six and nine months per game. What is missing from their side is the understanding of how a gamer will connect with another gamer, and how a game will connect to a game. Game studios are struggling to come to terms with gamers who are online, these gamers can decide the fate of the game within an hour of its release,” says Nikhil. He says that the scenario today is so ruthless that a game may even die on the first day of its release. The concept is called the ‘D1 cliff’ – which is the Day 1 response to a released game.
When a new game is launched there are many people who rush in -- to play, download and so on. If a game can manage to survive the next day, then it’s a good sign, because only half the people who download a game today will be playing it tomorrow. Because of this ruthless nature, right on Day 1 the studio has to put its best foot forward. It has to work across devices where gamers will play, and as a result a lot of time is spent by studios in testing and getting the game to work right. They continue to grapple with issues like art, characters, UI, graphics, devices, OS and browser compatibility. It is not rare for an OEM manufacturer to demand changes in the game to suit their device at the nth hour.
Because game studios are so busy working with the graphics engine, they do not have the time to invest in building a good backend. “We got thinking on how to develop a product, which can be used by all games. We have never based our decisions on game titles or genres. As of now we cannot be the backend for all kind of games, but for some games we can do the backend really well, for others we are able to give support at a different level,” explains Nikhil. There exists other service providers like Playblazer, but Nikhil claims they are the only platform that offers the widest range of components -- 13 in active use and two which are in use, but yet to be fully completed.
How they were born
The best part about Playblazer though is the team size – they are just two people now – Nikhil and Kunal. “I met Nikhil at Dialify, which he founded and I joined as an employee. He was doing great things back then, which people find difficult to absorb even today. You could play a game by just dialing a number,” says Kunal. When Dialify was sold in 2010, they had 10 active games, and the busiest game had 3.5 lakh monthly paying users, he adds.
Through the course of their association, they realized that many games have a number of things in common -- especially multi-player games – such as ability to connect to people, ability to collect scores, ability to manage sessions. Most games, even multiplayer games, are built around the same set of tools, but the generic service that is required for all games remains more or less the same. Next they built an outline of the number of services that were common, and put it together as a platform (viz Playblazer) where these common services could be used by any game.
Today, Kunal handles coding and operations part of the startup, while Nikhil is actively involved in architecture decisions and business development. Nikhil says they have a list of 15 people whom they have identified to be part of the Playblazer team. But the issue is always the life stages that these people are in. “We both could do it at this point in time and when you decide to get involved in a startup, you are setting aside your life. You are ok at not having much income or getting a fraction of what you earn,” says Nikhil.
“We are looking for two things basically; those who can engage with game developers and the other is someone who can understand device behaviour and can build a platform for use on the new device. Someone has to come in with the capability to build on platforms like Android & iOS -- these skills are extremely tough to find in India,” rues Nikhil.
The maximum use of the Playblazer infrastructure was when the duo handled 50 million API calls in a single day, which roughly equals to one million daily active users on the platform. While the lowest the platform has handled is 11 million API calls a day, that’s about 200,000 daily users. Tuesdays tend to be the lowest in terms of traffic on their platform, while Saturdays and Sundays is the busiest time.
Pricing for the services they offer depends on the capacity utilized per game and Nikhil says they have started making good money now.
The future looks bright
Nikhil knows things will change as they grow. And one of the things they can’t escape is having an office: “We are comfortable working like this and if we ever get into an office, it will be because our customers want us to be in an office,” he says. Though they both live hardly 20 kms apart, they haven’t met each other since a year. Regular phone calls, emails and Skype calls have eliminated the need for any face-to-face interaction.
Another ambition for Playblazer is to be able to work with developers who make games like ‘Angry Birds’ or ‘Clash of Clans’. “We are consciously going to studios which don’t have the capability because with what we have to offer them, they can become very competitive in the market. We are also working with established studios,” says Nikhil. At the same time, Playblazer also wants to be available to individuals and small teams. To do this they are working on building a self service option on their platform which can be used by game developers without participation from Playblazer team.
Have they thought of building a game themselves and not just lending backend support? Nikhil reveals a secret here. Much before Playblazer was formed, Kunal and Nikhil developed a game called Cwicket – a cross platform cricket game which will be available on six platforms. This multiplayer game can be played through audio calls, on iOS, Andriod, BB, Java, Flash version, on Facebook and a physical version where you can buy cards of the game offline, and redeem the benefits of those cards in the virtual game. “We spent about a crore making it, but never launched it. We are looking for some kind of a tie up with ICC or IPL because we think the game deserves something like that. As it is available across so many platforms, we are sure we will reach many people,” says Nikhil ambitiously.