A Thinking Ape has been in the game since the infancy of mobile app stores. It was selling in-app purchases for its first title, 2009’s Kingdoms at War, before IAPs were even really a thing.
Now the Vancouver-based studio hosts 65 employees in its minimalist-but-playful office space and has tens of millions of downloads across its titles, which include Party in My Dorm, Casino X, and Kingdoms of Heckfire.
Eric Warsaba, A Thinking Ape’s Director of Engineering, knows the studio inside out, having joined up six-and-a-half years ago straight out of college. He spoke to the Fyber Blog about ATA’s philosophy of building communities through gaming, how being truly social really matters, and how an ad-based economy can also engage paying players.
A Thinking Ape is run like a tech company that just happens to make games, according to Warsaba. Co-founders Wilkins Chung and Kenshi Arasaki both worked for Amazon before breaking out on their own, starting Chatterous—a multi-source chat engine—with the help of Y Combinator funding.
The pair noticed a lot of chat groups forming around social web games like Zynga’s FarmVille. “And they’re like, ‘Why are they talking in [Chatterous] and not in FarmVille?’” Warsaba says. “Well it turns out they didn’t have chat in FarmVille.”
Chung and Arasaki approached developers to see if they’d use Chatterous as an in-game service, but the response wasn’t great. So the pair came up with the first version of Kingdoms at War, originally designed as a proof of concept.
“Kingdoms at War was basically a thinly veiled RPG around a chatroom,” Warsaba explains. “It really wasn’t that complicated of a game to start.”
But Kingdoms of War actually took off, and within a few months it was profitable. “[Chung and Arasaki] were like, “Oh, OK. Maybe we should continue doing this,’” Warsaba says.
They soon got former Facebook developer Eric Diep on board, and together the trio pivoted to focus on mobile game development, while retaining the core principle of building communities.
“Kingdoms at War is still going,” Warsaba says. “It’s nine years old, and a lot of that is because of the communities that we built. [Players] feel like they’ve made real relationships in there. People get married from our games.”
The art of being social
Given A Thinking Ape’s background, it’s no surprise that chat sits front and center in the studio’s games. Chat and related social features are what sets these titles apart from their contemporaries, and it’s what powers the very real communities at their hearts.
“Other games, when they do social, a lot of the social mechanics are very surface level,” Warsaba says. “Like if I log in and Scott logs in, I get extra money. But it’s not really a social interaction.”
ATA places a huge emphasis on communication with its competitive and cooperative game mechanics. “You’re required to interact with players to progress,” Warsaba explains. And that means having systems in place that allow actual communication—group chats, lobby chats, and private messages. ATA moderates these chats with the help of community members.
Chat has also informed new game features over the years, like when Kingdoms at War players started organizing their own wars in the forums. Eventually, co-founder Kenshi Arasaki jumped in to help run these wars, manually doing the matchups and posting updates. “We formalized it to the point where it’s an actual feature,” Warsaba says. “But that came from emergent behavior.”
Going all in
Warsaba acknowledges that truly embracing social elements can be scary for developers, but he also advises against half measures—referencing Mike Ehrmantraut’s sage advice from the Emmy-winning TV series Breaking Bad.
While letting players communicate through emojis and pre-rendered phrases is a safe option, it doesn’t help to build proper relationships. And those relationships can keep players coming back. In fact, a recent Two Hat Security study showed that chat engagement can increase the lifetime value of players by up to 20 times.
“You don’t want a negative community, like a toxic community,” Warsaba says, “but the value in actually establishing that positive community through these tools and through these real relationships and real communication—there’s value in that. That’s something that people try to avoid because they’re scared of it in a way. But there’s ways to do it positively.”
Further testament to the power of community is the pattern Warsaba found when he looked into player behavior in ATA’s social casino title, Casino X.
“I did a bunch of metrics,” he explains. “20% of our daily active user accounts didn’t spin on any machines, or play poker or blackjack,” he says. “They never played any of the games, but they logged in every day. Why? It’s because they were chatting. They were doing real things. They were buying items and stuff like that for other players, trying different stuff. And they would spin every other day. But the real value…was we built this community that they would go back to and form real relationships with.”
Paying users watch ads too
A Thinking Ape first experimented with ad monetization in Casino X. “It was more of an add-on,” Warsaba explains, with players earning soft currency from rewarded ads and offer walls. “It was successful, but it wasn’t necessarily world-beating.”
Then with Party in My Dorm, ATA really went to town, making in-app ads part of the core game experience. It was a huge success.
“We started building this spinner system,” Warsaba says. “You watch videos for these specific tokens. It’s a whole new currency—you can use these tokens to spin a wheel, and you get random items. Players are using it a ton, and that’s because it’s a whole new custom area. The only way they can get this content is through video ads.
“So even players who spend real money will also watch video ads, which wasn’t necessarily true in Casino X. In Casino X, it was one or the other.”
ATA has now added offer walls to both Kingdoms at War and Party in My Dorm. It’s worked out well, according to Warsaba.
“It engages players,” he says. “It keeps them around more. Sometimes they might not want to spend money, or they don’t have the money. But it lets them compete and cooperate with their clans, without spending money that they might not have. It’s a way for us to support a wider variety of players.”
Getting away with being small
Despite their success, A Thinking Ape remains a relatively lean outfit. “Within the gaming industry, especially for our impact and our revenue, we’re very small,” Warsaba says.
But staying small can actually be a big advantage. It lets ATA take risks, experimenting with ideas that other, larger game companies wouldn’t. And it means being OK with failure—learning from it.
“One of the problems with mobile games, and gaming in general, is that if you have a big hit then people will hire up to match that revenue,” Warsaba says. “And then their next game has to be as big or bigger than their last game. We’d rather stay small and be able to swing for the fences.”
Coping with running multiple titles in such a small team means giving individuals more responsibility and ownership than they’d get elsewhere. Early on, Warsaba worked on Casino X, leading both the engineering and product side—dealing with game design, social systems, data metric analysis, and UA campaigns.
“That was a lot of just, ‘Well there’s no one else to do it—I’ll do it,’” Warsaba says. “And ATA’s the sort of place where they give you the autonomy to be able to flex those muscles.”
“The biggest thing that I learned was…there’s nothing that isn’t your job,” he adds. “And that sort of mentality is really good for amplifying and accelerating both your learning and your own growth internally.”
Thinking to the future
A Thinking Ape’s focus right now is building further success with Party in My Dorm and Kingdoms of Heckfire, both of which continue to grow.
A new project is also about to start in earnest, but Warsaba couldn’t share any details. “I can’t even fake-share stuff with you for that,” he says. “We don’t know what it’s going to be yet.”
As for the long-term, the studio would love to be a sort of mobile Disney, says Warsaba, able to leverage their own IP into lots of different areas. For Disney, these extraneous activities all centered around movies, but Warsaba draws a parallel with mobile gaming.
“If Disney started today,” he says, “they wouldn’t start in movies. If they were trying to do the same thing, they would likely start in something like games.”