Chris DeWolfe first entered the popular consciousness as the co-founder and CEO of MySpace, the pioneering social network launched in 2003 and sold to News Corp. two years later for $580 million. At the peak of its influence MySpace was the most visited social networking site in the world, and in mid-2006 even surpassed Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) as the most visited website in the U.S. But, faced with mounting competition from Facebook and Twitter, MySpace traffic soon began to decline, and in April 2009, DeWolfe relinquished the CEO reins to former Facebook executive Owen Van Natta. (News Corp. ultimately sold MySpace in 2011 to Specific Media and pop star Justin Timberlake for approximately $35 million.)
DeWolfe resurfaced in 2010 when he teamed with Austin Ventures to acquire social gaming firm MindJolt--the following year, MindJolt expanded into mobile with the purchase of Social Game Network, the developer behind iOS and Android titles like Mini Tycoon Casino and Skies of Glory. Now branded MindJolt SGN, the company boasts more 35 million monthly active users, 45 million mobile downloads and 80 million installs on social platforms; its new Fluff Friends Rescue, an interactive iOS title created with assistance from the Humane Society of the United States, challenges gamers to nurse pets back to health while running their own animal shelter, promoting animal welfare and educating users against the atrocities of puppy mills in the process. MindJolt SGN also will donate 100 percent of net proceeds from branded Humane Society items purchased within Fluff Friends Rescue to the animal protection organization.
FierceDeveloper spoke to DeWolfe about the social gaming opportunity, the growing economic viability of the Android platform and the importance of real-world interaction to virtual-world success.
Chris DeWolfe on his entrance into the social gaming segment: There were a couple of inspirations. I was working up close with companies like Zynga and Playdom and seeing the engagement they were driving. I also saw a bubble in the market and believed the large gaming networks would continue to prosper.
I knew I wanted to build a rollup in the social gaming space. Whenever you start a company from scratch, there are so many headaches, and more opportunities for failure. I wanted to bring together a lot of companies that worked well together--companies with similar philosophies and similar goals. And, I knew that distribution on Facebook was the first variable I wanted to attack.
MindJolt was the first company we acquired. They had a critical mass of users and branded games. They were not a great developer of games, but they had aggregated and published thousands of fun casual games with massive traffic and massive pageviews. From there we wanted to develop own games, and we wanted to be on mobile and on the web. We didn't want to be beholden to Facebook--there are so many different directions they could go in, and you never want to be beholden to one platform. End users don't want that, either.
DeWolfe on the mobile gaming opportunity: An old friend of mine, Shervin Pishevar, founded SGN, and he was ready to move on, so we acquired that company. That gave us a huge mobile imprint, and now we have about 45 million installs on iOS. Buying SGN also brought us a 30-person development shop in Buenos Aires, and that was the first big push into developing our own games.
It's amazing how everything in mobile changes every few months. Look at the evolution of Amazon [Appstore for Android] and Google's Android store. Nine months ago, the mindset on Android was ‘You can't make money there.' Now everything we think about involves all three platforms--Facebook, iOS and Android. When we have a hit game on one, we look at the others. Before that, everything was only about iOS.
Fluffy Friends Rescue donates money from in-game purchase to the Humane Society.
DeWolfe on Fluff Friends Rescue: I've rescued two dogs and two cats. I've gotten fairly smart with what's going on with puppy mills. I've seen every pet store in L.A. close down as the truth comes out about where the pets are coming from and the inhumane conditions there. So you can say that this is an issue that's near and dear to my heart.
We wanted to make a great pet game coupled with a very important international cause. When we got about two thirds of the way through, we reached out to the Humane Society--we thought they would be a great marketing partner. But we also wanted the game to be authentic, and we tried to make pet rescue as real as possible.
It's a two-fold win for [the Humane Society]--they get money donated based on in-game purchases, and get their cause internalized by millions of users. Right now, Fluff Friends Rescue is number 8 on the App Store charts--we're hanging out in the Top Ten, and we're being seen by a lot of people. That's bringing a lot of attention to an important cause. Everyone here loves pets, and everyone wants to make sure they're treated in a humane way.
DeWolfe on the freemium model: We utilize both [paid and free] models--we usually charge 99 cents or $1.99. But, to make a successful game you need to sell multi-millions of downloads, and that's difficult to do. You have to come out with sequel after sequel--Angry Birds is a great example of that.
MindJolt SGM offers free and premnium titles.
If you want to make big money, your game has to be freemium. It prolongs the life of user. That model is proven out on games like FarmVille and CityVille. Fluff Friends Rescue is based on self-expression--all of your work goes into one creative product. You run a pet rescue, medical facilities and play centers, you rescue and adopt animals, and you put a lot of work into that.
We think millions of people will be playing this game, and we're going to make it bigger and more interesting, with more places to adopt dogs or cats. We also want to make it more interesting to visit friends' pet rescues and leave donations. We plan to expand to Android, then to Facebook. We're also talking to other pet rescue organizations and tossing around idea of allowing people to adopt real-world pets directly from the game by showing animal shelters within 10 miles of your zip code.
We think this is one of those cool games that lends itself to every platform--it meshes with a real-world analogue, and it offers opportunities to partner with a lot of companies. That way of thinking comes from my experience at MySpace--with everything we did, we thought about how it could interact with the real world.
DeWolfe's advice for aspiring developers: My best advice is to see what's been successful in past, and then figure out how to take it next level. Find something that worked in the past, but add a twist and innovation to it. Pets are nothing new, but rescuing pets is innovative and interesting. Everyone wants to do something good for humanity.
You also need to make sure you have distribution--you can create an amazing game, but it can get lost in the clutter, so you need a good partner to distribute it through. That's something I thought about from day one--when we started rolling up these companies, we knew we wanted a big footprint. It's worth the revenue share deal to make sure your game gets seen by a lot of different people.
Developer Workshop is a series of profiles exploring the current state of the mobile marketplace from the point of view of the software developers mapping out its future. Each profile focuses on a developer with a compelling story to tell, and offers their perspective on what the industry's doing right, what it's doing wrong and how to make it better. Check out our previous workshops on Shazam, InfoMedia, Viigo, Meet Now Live, Shortcovers, Pint Sized Mobile, Geodelic, Spark of Blue Software, Tarver Games, People Operating Technology, Booyah, Bolt Creative, Thwapr, Monkeyland Industries, Rocket Racing League, Vlingo, Advanced Mobile Protection, PapayaMobile, Taptu, GameHouse, Avatron, aisle411, Crowdstory, Outfit7, ADP, Locai, The PlayForge ,Universal Mind and Khush.