Insider Q&A: Creative Mobile CEO Vladimir Funtikov
Sometimes, the best thing that can happen for your career is getting laid off.
In the case of Creative Mobile CEO Vladimir Funtikov, losing his job led to the formation of a mobile games company that now boasts over two million daily users thanks to games that have now been downloaded onto over 100 million devices worldwide.
How did he do it?
Inside Mobile Apps sat down with the Estonian developer over Skype to find out.
Inside Mobile Apps: How did Creative Mobile originally form?
Vladimir Funtikov: We were founded about three years ago, just me and two of my former colleagues. We used to work as Java mobile developers, but eventually, the company we used to work for decided to shutdown their offices in Estonia, and we lost our jobs. We were out of work for a while, but then we decided to start making games for Android. There were already so many games in the App store, we didn’t think we could compete there, so we focused on Android development instead. We had a very small team with no budget, no connections, and no experience making games as an independent studio. So we decided to focus on the new platform hoping it would take off. We thought we might be able to win some fans in a niche market, and then go from there. We made a couple of games, but they didn’t work at first, so we explored different business models and tried to figure out how to make games that would be downloaded without any marketing budget. After a year and a half, we finally made something that did well enough to pay our bills. We hired two guys very cheaply, so our team became five people, and we developed a concept of how we could grow the company making small, simple games that we could put into the market very quickly. Then in April 2011, we made Drag Racing, and it took off almost immediately, and it was quite unexpected.
IMA: What types of numbers were you seeing?
VF: We started seeing $50,000 to $100,000 a day organically. From that point on, we became a different company because we had to support a product that was growing at a crazy pace, and we weren’t ready. We faced lots of technical difficulties and management difficulties, from the servers unable to handle the load to ourselves being unable to support the game, which was quickly exploding beyond our expectations. Eventually we sorted it all out, we fixed all the bugs, we ported the game to other platforms, and we released a couple of spinoffs. Today, the original game and all of the spinoffs have around 150 million lifetime installs. It’s the most downloaded racing game on Android, and the original game is still sitting in the Top 50 Games U.S. in the Google Play store. We had a very successful product made on a very small budget, and it was making us a significant amount of money, but after a while, we figured that the game had its limitations. The design decisions we made just didn’t let us realize the potential of this genre, meanwhile a game called CSR Racing came out, which was very similar to our design, but it was 3-D, and it made a lot of money. Then another game and another game … lots of 3-D drag racing games came out, and at some point we decided that if we really want to develop something special, we needed to start from scratch and develop something truly ambitious. We want to make the ultimate game in the genre. With Nitro Nation Online, we set out to make a game with beautiful visuals, the most sophisticated physics engine, and the most interesting multiplayer component. We’ve been working on it since last summer, and we finally reached the stage where we have something to publish on the Google Play store in a small beta test round.
IMA: How many people work for Creative Mobile now?
VF: We are at 90 people today, and will be over 100 by the end of the year. This is big progress after starting with a three-person team.
IMA: What’s the gaming scene like in Estonia?
VF: There isn’t much going on. We were the first gaming company to find any type of success internationally. There are rival companies around, but they haven’t produced anything even as remotely as big as us. A good example of this is we have a gaming accelerator called GameFounders, which I think is the only accelerator in Europe focused on gaming start-ups. We are involved in that and I’m a mentor there, and we’ve accepted 30 teams from all over the world, but out of those 30 teams, only one was Estonian. And we are based in Estonia and funded by the government, so this kind of describes the scene. When we first started the company, it was actually difficult to convince people to work for us because they thought we were just games, and there’s no money in games. People thought we’d go bust in two months. It’s very much in contrast with what’s going on in Finland, for example, where gaming has been one of the big money makers for the country for years.
IMA: Like you said earlier, there are so many racing games on the market these days. Why should people look out for Nitro Nation Online?
VF: We really invested in the visuals, and we also really invested in the technology. We set the bar for the minimum device that can run this game as the Samsung Galaxy first generation. This is a mainstream device from 2011, and for iOS gamers, it doesn’t make a difference, because most users have a device that is only one year old. For Android, this is a bigger issue, but I think we’ve developed one of the most scalable games out there. Beyond the cool visuals, we have a new physics engine. We developed our own in-house physics engine for the original game and the spin-offs, and it was pretty good, it got the job done, but due to the scale of the game, players got bored with just racing, and they spent a lot of time trying to exploit even the smallest bugs in the engine, and as a result of these hacks, their racing techniques are completely unrealistic. So for this new game, we decided to license a third party vehicle physics engine. And that engine is a high-end one that is used in simulators for education and racer training programs. It’s very sophisticated. The big challenge was optimizing it to run on mobile, but thankfully, we’ve managed that, and now the foundation for the game is very solid. We wanted to develop a much more sophisticated drag racing game. With our audience, we have a hardcore group of loyal drag racing enthusiasts, and these guys demand more than simply pressing a button to improve your engine and get faster. They want complexity. They want to be able to install different parts and test the results. They want to be able to fine tune the engine, tune the suspension, and that’s why we went with this super-sophisticated engine. For most games, it’s overkill, but for our audience, we needed to have all of these features covered in order to have more realistic vehicle behavior. The way the body tilts and the acceleration and the braking and how the wheels are spinning, all of these features are not immediately obvious to someone who is not really into cars, but they all contribute to the big picture of capturing as much realism as possible.
IMA: How is multiplayer handled in Nitro Nation Online?
VF: In Drag Racing, the original game, the community we built was all about racing online. We gave them plenty of online modes and people just enjoyed that. We had no framework for teams in the original game, but people still created teams on Facebook and on the forums. People were creating their own teams, their own challenges, and that was something that became important for community building and creating the fan base. So in the new game, we want to take things a step further, focusing on online multiplayer, and especially team-based multiplayer. We’re giving gamers the framework where they can create teams, compete with other teams for domination in specific regions, and even build cars together. Again, this might not be for every player, but we’re trying to reward our most loyal, most enthusiastic members of our audience. That’s really important to us. Most companies see multiplayer as a monetization tool, but we have a different view. We want to reward our fans.
IMA: What should fans expect in terms of car customization?
VF: We also have the most sophisticated customization engine in any mobile racing game. We let you paint the car, change rims, paint your rims, place and rotate decals … everything you need to do in order to create your own masterpiece. It’s very, very cool.