It’s tough for a small gaming studio to find worldwide success. But Game Hive—the Canadian team behind breakout franchises Beat the Boss and Tap Titans—has managed to go toe-to-toe with some of the biggest names in mobile gaming, picking up well over 100 million downloads while still remaining amazingly humble.
Co-founder Mark Wang is a perfect example of that humility. He washes the dishes and buys groceries at the Toronto-based developer, alongside his responsibilities for product design, project management, user acquisition, publishing, and human resources. “With all the success we have, we’re still just scrambling every day trying to figure things out,” Wang says. “It’s pretty wild.”
Luckily, he managed to find a little time to share Game Hive’s story in an exclusive interview with the Fyber Blog, from their almost accidental inception to their position as a king of the “clicker” games, and a much-cited example of how to do rewarded video ads right.
An unlikely beginning
When the 2008 financial crisis hit, it hit hard. Mark, his brother Steven, and their good friend Chris Doan were all laid off at the same time, back in 2009. Fortunately, Mark had bought an iPhone 3G—”the coolest thing ever”—shortly before he lost his job, and that phone inspired the trio’s next move.
“The three of us, none of us have any gaming background,” Wang says. “We played games, but everybody played games, right?” But they decided to try their hand at making a mobile game anyway, in a market going through the early stages of a gold rush.
“We’d hear stories about making an app on the platform and you can sell stuff,” Wang says, “and it was like, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool. Why don’t we try it?’”
So with Chris as the main coder and engineers Mark and Steven figuring things out as they went along, Game Hive started work on the point-and-click escape game Antrim Escape.
Image via Game Hive
Those first awkward development steps were really tough, working with no resources and no training. But the three guys stuck at it, learning how to draw and make music—just picking up piano keyboards and pressing some keys—as part of their self-driven crash course in game design. And a year later, they released their creation to the world.
On its first day on the App Store, Antrim Escape—a premium title, as was the trend back then—made a paltry $80. “It was just the most magical $80 I’ve ever earned,” Wang tells Fyber. “You put your game out on the cloud somewhere, and then people get to buy it and they give you money. That was a really cool experience—just like, ‘Wow, we can do this.’”
And with a bit of free promotion (removing the paid price tag)—essentially giving the game away for nothing—Antrim Escape hit the top of the App Store charts, spawning a wave of sequels and giving the trio their first taste of the big time.
It was a huge struggle for Game Hive to compete with the big companies, like Zynga, that rode the first wave of free-to-play gaming in the early 2010s. But the team got a huge break after all their hustling and grinding, as Wang puts it, with the launch of Beat the Boss (then Kick the Boss) in 2012.
Beat the Boss was a goofy rag doll experiment that let Game Hive explore the Unity development platform. But its theme—of attacking your boss with office tools and weapons—resonated with a huge audience. So, with zero marketing spend, the game flew to #1 pretty much worldwide.
Image via Game Hive
Being F2P, Beat the Boss—and its three sequels—allowed Game Hive to build on this huge number of downloads, selling virtual currency via in-app purchases and offering players frequent updates.
“That’s the second time our game hit #1 on the chart,” Wang says, “but this time it felt very different because it’s free-to-play and we can easily make a lot of content to continue to upsell.” It was the start of Game Hive as we know them today, with Wang and his fellow co-founders finally able to hire extra staff and reinvest in the company.
Enter Tap Titans
Game Hive’s experimental ethos continues to run deep today. It hasn’t always paid off, like with the hugely ambitious real-time multiplayer racer Super Battle Racers, which cost a lot of money to make back in 2014 but probably arrived a few years too early, according to Wang.
But when the experiments work, they really work. Just look at Tap Titans.
Wang and his fellow co-founders wanted to create something that drew on the role-playing titles they grew up loving—think Diablo and Final Fantasy—only with an incremental genre twist, inspired by clicker games like Space Inch’s Make It Rain and Bitcoin Billionaire from Noodlecake Studios.
Coming straight off the back of the self-described flop that was Super Battle Racers, the Game Hive team pulled together Tap Titans—originally a hackathon project—in just four months during the lead-up to Christmas. They had very low expectations of the game, but Apple loved it and gave Tap Titans a worldwide App Store feature placement.
“[Apple] felt like it was fresh,” Wang says. “They loved everything about it. The game just blew up. We got five million downloads in a month and a half. Crazy blow up.”
And Game Hive built in a monetization scheme that would make Tap Titans a poster child for rewarded video advertising, keeping both the studio’s development team and the players happy.
Making rewarded video ads work
The Game Hive team thought they hated ads in mobile games, but they really just hadn’t discovered the right ad type yet. Tired of pop-up ads and banners, they turned to rewarded video ads—a still nascent ad format around 2015.
“We thought rewarded video is great because it’s a fair trade,” Wang says. “You watch something and you—give something. Everybody’s happy. But how do we really integrate that into the game?”
So the Game Hive team added a fairy (originally an elf) character who would randomly appear in the game—random events being key (a game mechanic other mobile games later employed such as Outerminds’s PewDiePie: Tuber Simulator), Wang tells us—and give players small amounts of various rewards.
“That little fairy triggered a happy feeling,” Wang says. “You get used to tapping that.” Then after the first fifty levels, the fairy starts offering the option to engage with rewarded videos, which drop even better in-game rewards.
“All you have to do is watch a video, which is 15 seconds, or 30 seconds,” Wang says. “And players love that. They don’t feel that that’s an ad at all. They feel like it’s a reward. I’ve never seen players want more ads, but we were just emptying all the impressions by every single ad provider we have, crazy as that sounds.”
Baking in that mobile ad monetization strategy has really paid off for Game Hive. It’s since taken the idea to another level with Tap Titans 2, with multiple fairy characters helping players grow skill trees and really enhance their gameplay.
“The fairy becomes an essential part of the game,” Wang says, “and it’s also our ad monetization key point. That’s how we have one of the highest engagements for video ads watch, per player, in the industry. I spoke with a lot of our partners, and any eligible players can watch like six, seven ads a day. That’s pretty rare in the mobile game industry. It definitely shows a higher conversion rate, and that definitely contributes to higher eCPM and things like that.”
Image via Game Hive
The road less traveled
Wang learned early on that it’s often more risky to follow conventional wisdom than do your own thing, especially in such a fast-changing industry as mobile game development.
Every step that Game Hive has made has been a leap in the dark, an experiment, a considered risk—even down to setting up in an outskirt of Toronto rather than downtown—but it’s paid off handsomely so far, albeit with the odd hiccup along the way. Perhaps what’s most impressive, though, is that the team still sounds like it did at the start—despite growing in numbers from three to 25. Wang is still loading the dishwasher, still booking the plane tickets, and still trying to treat his team right, including the players.
“It’s really good to listen to the player suggestions,” Wang says, explaining how the dev team is always scouring sites like Reddit for criticism and new ideas. “The community is super strong. There’s no better way to get feedback, because there’s a lot of collective opinions. It’s not just one person’s opinion.
“We’re not building things in a silo, because at the end of the day, this game is for them. I think that was part of this secret sauce of ours. Build a community and really embrace it.”
Looking forward, Wang says that Game Hive plans more incremental games in the future—alongside constant updates to Tap Titans 2—but perhaps unsurprisingly, they have yet another mystery experimental project in the works first.
“It’s something that we’ve been toying with for a long time,” Wang says, “and we decided to make it the actual full-blown project. It’s pretty close. We’re pretty excited about it.”