Insider Q&A: Bee Cave Games’ Jeremy Strauser and Erik Bethke
In just over a year, Austin-based Bee Cave Games has become a big-time player in the virtual casino market with their blockbuster app, Blackjack Casino.
Then again, when you look at the company’s roster of employees, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. COO Jeremy Strauser spent 16 years at EA Sports, working on both the Madden and NCAA franchises before heading to Zynga to spearhead Texas Hold‘em, Zynga Elite Slots, and Zynga Bingo. At CEO for BCG, Erik Bethke is another old-school gaming vet, having founded GoPets before moving on to work on games like Mafia Wars and FarmVille.
Inside Mobile Apps sat down with both men during their recent trip to San Francisco to find out more about the studio, their game, and what’s driving their phenomenal blackjack business.
Inside Mobile Apps: How did the two of you end up coming together to form Bee Cave Games?
[contextly_sidebar id="64e152e91cf85e92689975877caa869e"]Jeremy Strauser: After years at EA, I ended up going to Zynga and there was this whole new world of free-to-play and micro transactions. It’s a completely different world from the packaged goods, AAA launch where we’d spend millions and millions on marketing. It was fun and I learned a ton about Facebook and mobile working of Zynga Poker, which was the biggest game on Facebook at the time, with 35 million MAU. I met a bunch of great people out at Zynga, including Erik, and we both ended up moving to Austin to help grow that studio for Zynga. We worked on Bingo, Slots and a few other things, then separately, we both ended up leaving the company for various reasons. We then decided to come together with another former Zynga employee, who is now our CTO, Nimai Malle, and we started up Bee Cave Games. We thought the casino opportunity was just too big to ignore. We were having a lot of fun with it at Zynga, but I think we can be a little bit more nimble with it at Bee Cave Games.
Erik Bethke: I’ve been doing games for almost 20 years. I was the lead designer for the Starfleet Command series that was published by Interplay and Activision, then I moved out to South Korea and I created a company called GoPets. I was really excited about free-to-play, direct-to-the-consumer games. I was just so tired of the third party publishing model. Now, you can go out, you can acquire consumers directly, figure out what they want, and you can keep iterating. It’s exciting to work back and forth like that. It’s not this big long cycle where you’re building something, then you just throw it at the wall and see what happens. Every day, you can push new things live and improve the experience. I learned a ton on GoPets, teaching myself a bunch of metrics and stats, then ended up selling that to Zynga. I had a lot of fun, learned a bunch of things, then landed with Jeremy out in Austin.
IMA: Why start with blackjack?
EB: It’s funny because back in college, I was a pretty strong Blackjack card counter. So I’ve always liked casino games, despite my long history of naval starship games and virtual pet games, I have a long history with casino in there. So I started looking more and more at the casino space, and I didn’t like the way a lot of people were treating the space. There are a lot of mercenary attitudes around casino, where people see it as a cash-flow thing or a monetization thing where they are going to jump into casino, make some money and then go do some other things. So teaming up with Jeremy and Nimai just felt right. We’re not going to do a little bit of casino and then jump out and go do something else. We want to make the very best casino games possible and have them out on the broadest platforms possible. So we started with blackjack because we saw it as an open space. There are a lot of poker apps, there’s a lot of slots and bingo, but blackjack was pretty open territory. We didn’t know how big of a business blackjack could be, but it’s a naturally multiplayer game, so we knew we had something to work with there. So even though we raised some money in our seed rounds, the team put some money in as well. Almost all of the employees have cash in, and we have almost $700K of our own money in this. We went and we just funded blackjack as hard as we could. We didn’t stop with a single-player blackjack and see if it works or not. We went with multi-player, and Jeremy felt very strongly that we needed top-of-class UX controls so you can bet, double down, split and all that, and that was very sound, because now we have the best controls. We have quests and achievements and drinks that you can buy, so we made a really, really rich experience.
IMA: What are the numbers like since you launched the game back in March?
EB: The game grew pretty fast after launch, to the point where now we have 57-percent of the blackjack game market share. We’re the number one blackjack game by yards and bounds. Like I said, we’ve got multi-player, which we’re extremely happy with, we’ve invested heavily in localization, pushing out to 18 languages, making us the most localized of anybody in the casino space. We invested in going cross-platform, so we’re on more platforms than any other casino game, and then we just launched slots a couple of weeks ago, and since slots launched, our retention is up 73-percent.
IMA: Now that you guys signed with Betable, how long before Blackjack Casino is played with real money over in Europe?
EB: We signed with Betable, and we’re going to be releasing our product as a real-money, Betable-powered product sometime by the end of the year. We’re in the Q/A cycle now, but we’re really excited because we even got GLI certification for our number generator and our shuffle for our play money game. We’re also working with Betable on their servers, connecting our real-money clients from the UK to our servers so we can see stats like progression and achievements, and we can use this to inform both sides of our business. We feel very passionately that if we’re doing real-money betting every day and we’re looking at that side of the business and what it takes to acquire and retain players, we can take what we learn there to the play money side of the business and we can make a better play money experience. We’re never sitting around wondering if we really need to spend money on this feature or that. Forget all that. We’re just here to do one thing, and that’s make it awesome.
IMA: What does GLI certification mean to gamers?
JS: GLI is Game Laboratories International, and they certify every slot machine in Vegas, and they also do online certifications in the real-money space. So it was really important for us to get our social game certified, and that’s pretty rare, as there’s only one other poker game that I know across all of mobile and Facebook that’s certified. So you don’t know what they’re doing. The games could be stacking the deck, or they could be bringing you in and having you win early to feel good, then dropping the hammer later. That’s perfectly legal and perfectly acceptable in the non real-money space, but we wanted to make sure everybody had a fair shot from the outset. So we built the game on a casino-grade backend. Every hand that’s played, every slot that spins, we have full stats behind it, and we track every chip that’s in the economy. We know if you’re playing on strategy or off strategy, what cards you hit, and who was playing well at your table. From a customer service perspective, this really helps drive our business. Treating the play-money casino like a real-money casino made for a game of high integrity where chips actually have some value, and I think that’s really done us well. Customers really seem to appreciate that. The addition of slots is really just the first step of expanding as we’re going to take on more games next year and the years to come. We’d love to do roulette, bingo, poker, and have everything to make for a really broad casino offering. We had a great first year, and we accomplished a lot, but we still have a lot ahead of us.