30 Mar March 30, 2020 – Location Based Game Sami Khan and Experiential Entrepreneur Ed Ruggero
The biggest challenge with making an app successful is retention,
keeping customers coming back. We build location based apps for
on the go and sitting at home. Games based on your surroundings
are going to have an edge.
Sami Khan is the co-founder and CEO of Cerberus Interactive, a mobile games company. They are changing the way the mobile industry creates bold new game with our unique marketing-first demand testing model. Our mission is to de-risk the “hit driven” game industry and bring gamers more fresh titles to play. Prior to this role, he created and executed growth strategies for multiple businesses now worth over $10 billion, including the micro-investing app, Acorns and the money saving browser extension, Honey. He has also been highlighted in multiple case studies for his work with tech giants Facebook and Twitter. Sami also co-founded and now advises for one of the fastest growing Facebook and Instagram consulting firms for start-ups, Staircase Digital.
Ed Ruggero – Founder of Gettysburg Leadership Experience and Author of Blame the Dead
Make your expectations clear so people don’t have to guess.
Ed Ruggero is the founder of Gettysburg Leadership Experience and three other distinct experiential learning programs. His workshops and experiential learning events help clients gain a deep understanding of inspirational leadership as well as practical tools they can use to meet daily challenges. He is a senior advisor to McKinsey & Company and has been a panelist for The Washington Post’s On Leadership series. Ed is the author or co-author of eleven books, including the US Army’s official doctrine, “Army Leadership.” His client list includes the FBI, the New York City Police Department, the CIA, Forbes, and many others.
Highlights from Sami’s Interview
Acorns basically is a financial investment app. The mission is to help over 100 million Americans save and invest for their future effectively, because people find it so hard to actually set aside excess income to put into the stock market. The notion was to round up everyday transactions to the nearest dollar and invest that spare change.
At Cerberus interactive, which is named after that three-headed dog that guards the gates of Hades, we are looking at the opportunity of the world of location-based gaming. I’m sure everybody in the world knows about three years ago when Pokémon GO hit the market because 650 million people around the world downloaded it, and that was really the world’s first exposure at scale to location-based games; which is mobile games that you could play utilizing real world locations. We felt that Pokémon GO and its creators: Niantic, were really just scratching the surface when it came to location-based games. We thought, there’s a lot we can do with this space. For us, what we wanted to do was actually create location-based games that involved the world around you just like the Pokémon GO game did, but on top of that, involve things that you can do on a daily basis from your bed or your couch. If you played Pokémon GO, you may have seen that it’s a type of game where you have to play it pretty much on the go.
As somebody who has marketed for many apps, the biggest challenge with making an app successful; whether it’s a game or a FinTech app, is retention: keeping customers coming back. When you are not only competing with Facebook, Instagram, Candy Crush, but you’re also competing with walking your dog and everything else that you do out and about, and we figured that those kinds of things become an insurmountable list of competition for your app. So, what we wanted to do was create location-based games that take the best of both worlds; both the location-based aspect, and also, the aspect of being able to sit at home and play it while you’re not on the go. The reason we believe in this is because we believe the future of mobility in this country is going to change dramatically over the next five years. If you look at self-driving cars, if you look at Tesla, even Sony is coming up with a car. What we feel like is going to happen is, people are going to have more and more free time in the coming decade than they have ever had in the past, and games that involve your surroundings when you’re on the move and the car is driving itself for you are going to have an edge over the games that don’t utilize the world around you.
We believe that it’s about mixing genres, not being just out and about. As I pointed out, having the ability to be mobile was a key part of these type of games. I’m a 90s kid, and so for me, we’re very inspired by the games that were big in the 90s; so, you look back at Starcraft, at Red Alert, at Age of Empires. The basis of these games was to build an empire and start from scratch which is very little, and be able to scavenge around the map, hunt some sheep or whatever you got to do, and get more rewards and things like that. Now, Atlas empires, which is our first gaming title, it’s a mix of taking your location-based elements, but really, it’s an empire building game. But instead of just building an empire on a random pixel on the computer screen, your empire is actually your home. Many of our gamers are actually claiming their real-world land right where they live, and then you can scavenge things near you in the real world. So, we’re using today’s technology to kind of tap into the nostalgia of these games of the past that were effectively classics. We thought, how do we take the technology that Pokémon GO has brought to the masses, but then modify it to take advantage of these classic game mechanics? For us, strategies, coming together with location-based genres, we’re also thinking about simulation games. What if you can build a zoo and find different things around you? There are all sorts of things you could do with this kind of canvas, and we think it’s an amazing canvas to build upon.
Basically, out in the real world, we have a range of different types of chests you can find; ranging from common chest to legendary chest. Inside these chests, you may find gold, stone, lumber, and in varying amounts. We’ve got a whole team of folks that put in the greatest art and greatest music together for this project. When it comes to things trying to find out there, in the game, you’re trying to upgrade your base and you can look for things like the crystal hammer, or you might need an extra lumber or extra gold, and these are the things you can go find in the real world.
I think everyone’s smart enough to play this game; both outdoors and indoors. I think the issue is, and this kind of goes hand-in-hand with what I love doing, which is building product, as entrepreneurs, we have a habit sometimes of blaming the user instead of blaming ourselves. I’ll drop some stats for you. 60% of people who install a game a day ago are very likely not to even open the game 24 hours later, and by the way, that’s a great game. A great game is one that can potentially bring back 40% of people one day later. The thing is that, for most people, the reason they have a bad reaction to a product; whether it’s a game or an app, is that they don’t get it or they get stuck. As entrepreneurs, we go, “Oh, they just don’t get it.” But I think it’s our job as an entrepreneur to go, “Let’s look at the data. Let’s see where people got stuck.” Because these tools exist now. For us, it’s about onboarding the user in a way that feels flick, that feels easy, that feels not confusing, and that has a psychological follow through. You can’t just say, open this chest and go live your life. “Well, what do I do with this chest? You gave me a bunch of wood, what do I build with it?” These are I think really key things. Every entrepreneur deals with this, which is, how do you optimize your onboarding in a way that the majority of people get it, not just your best users? I think this all extends well beyond gaming.
It’s amazing how, as adults, we want to assume that the user does exactly what we want them to do. But the truth is, even if you’re not a little kid, people don’t read. I’ve learned this the hard way; I’ve learned this over and over: people just don’t read. The thing that drives me up the wall is when I see a designer with an app, and then the first thing that happens when you open the app is you get hit with cards of text. It’s like, “Hey, if you want to do this, then read this paragraph”, and it’s like logging into a bank for the first time. My creative director, Chris, has a rule called the Squint Rule. If you can’t tell what’s happening in a squint, then something’s wrong.
Believe it or not, gaming isn’t something I’ve been doing for a long time. Back in 2013, I bought a domain called “iphonegamecreator.com”. One of my business partners was really good at SEO at the time, so he was able to help rank us pretty high up on Google for iPhone game developer. My mission was to always build a game of my own, but because I didn’t know jack squat about gaming, I basically figured maybe I learn from other people’s money. Soon enough, we started having people fill out our contact form and say, I want you to build me a game; and some of our clients ended up being big companies. I thought it was a joke, but we had somebody come in and it turned out to be Cisco; the network company. We had the Santa Barbara Zoo hit us up.
Remember, I co-founded an SEO company back in the day, so we knew how to rank the site to be one of the highest results on Google. I believe that there was a time where if you typed in “iPhone game developer” on Google, we were the first result. And mind you, I’m pretty good at making sites, so the site looked good. Also, I do want to say, my co-founder, Beau, is one of the best engineers I know. So, I always knew that we could build it if we got people asking us to build something. None of it was fake or vaporware, it’s just about what comes first: the demand or the supply. For me, as a marketer, I’ve always maintained that you establish demand before you make supply.
So basically, we started getting a lot of interesting clients. We built a game that allowed the players to recreate the fostering of California contours back to health, because the California condor was almost extinct. This was a partnership with the Santa Barbara Zoo, and we built this game called Condor Country. We just kept adding to our team and learning on the job best practices. Of course, in this day and age, with YouTube and with Unity and all these different tools you have, anyone with the hard work ethic and research ability can build anything. So, we just kept building our team, and then when Pokémon GO came out, I called Beau and I said, “Look, I’ve been wanting to build a game and now’s our chance.” He said, “Hey, there’s no way we’re going to turn away client revenue, just because you have an idea.” I said, fair enough, and this was I think really pivotal for us.
I put together a set of landing pages for the concept of Atlas Empires, and I ran ads on Facebook. Before we knew it, we had hundreds of people a day from the Facebook ads signing up for the game that did not exist, just because the game concept was so cool. Just as you’re thinking and going, this is totally up my alley, people on Facebook were doing that. Now mind you, I have years of experience marketing on Facebook, so this is not like I just slapped an ad together and it worked; obviously, I used my expertise. But the challenge was that I was actually spending money out of my own credit card, that I didn’t really had, to prove an idea that people wanted. Because my co-founder Beau said, “We need proof that people want this game before we basically shuffle our entire business and throw away client revenue to chase this game as a dream.” Because we were spending money on marketing, I thought to myself, it’d be really nice not to lose money on marketing.
What we did was we asked gamers if they’d be willing to contribute $5, $15, $30, or $60 to be part of what we call our Alpha Developer Group, and talk to us as we build the game about the game, and be able to contribute any thoughts and ideas they have, or build on ours; and things like that. To our surprise, we started making more money than we were spending per day on Facebook ads. To give you an idea, there was a day where I spent $750 on Facebook, and I made $1,500 back that same day, from the gamers who decided to contribute money and join our Facebook group. We had no prior games or any track record. We just said, “We want to build this really novel cool game. Here’s the Facebook ad, here’s the trailer. Would you want to be part of this mission to build this game?” I think this speaks to the gaming industry in general.
Just think about this, how many everyday Americans would pay $5 or $10 to be part of the next Pokémon GO? Our answer is, a lot. But the thing is, when you live in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, when you live in LA, when you live in New York, my opinion on this is we get cocky, we think we know best. We think we know our ideas, nobody else knows; we’re the cradle of innovation and nobody else can innovate like us. The truth of the matter is, everyone wants to be part of something like this, it just really comes down to opportunity. I was born and raised in New Orleans, and it wasn’t the same for me as maybe someone who was born in Silicon Valley, but Facebook and digital marketing allows us to reach all these people. Also, we were never dishonest. We never said, “Hey, this game exists, and it’s a bait and switch.” We were up front, and we said, “Hey, this game doesn’t exist. We’re about to start coding, but you can be part of this group and the development process from the very beginning”, and people ate it up. I think, again, it speaks to the larger entertainment industry, where we’re not able to be part of the creative process. We just get handed the product we’re expected to like, and here comes this little company Cerberus Interactive saying, “Hey, we’re building this product that we think is going to be cool. If you want to pay $15, you get your name in the credits, and you get to talk to us as we’re building it.” A lot of people paid 15 bucks to have their name in the credits; I think over 2000 people.
Check out our website “cerberusinteractive.com”, or our games company’s website: “atlasempires.com”. Feel free to follow me on Instagram @Samik224, or you can add me on LinkedIn and I’m happy to connect.