After establishing the billion-dollar studio that teed-up Golf Clash for millions of mobile gamers, Playdemic’s co-founders have set a new course. Richie Shoemaker sets forth to find out more.
Business pairing Paul Gouge and Alex Rigby, who together established BattleMail in 1999, Rockpool Games in 2002 and Playdemic in 2009, insist they thought long and hard before calling their latest enterprise ForthStar Games. Sadly, the name was announced in the same week that Hundred Star Games, another UK start-up studio with similar pedigree, revealed itself to the world.
“It’s the fourth company that Alex and I have started together,” says Gouge “and we thought spelling it that way, (Forth), indicates that as we get older, we have to remind ourselves to keep moving forward. The star is a homage to the Playdemic logo, which has a big place in our hearts. We wanted a nod to that as well.”
Based in Cheshire (literally 50 yards from my house, in fact), Playdemic is by far the duo’s most successful venture. Founded in 2009, the mobile studio was among the first to embrace the App Store with games like Quiz Buddies and Gang Nations. It then hit paydirt with the BAFTA winning Golf Clash in 2017, which has been downloaded more than 100 million times and spurred EA to acquire the studio in 2021 for $1.4 billion. It remains the most expensive buyout of a UK-only developer. (Small beans in comparison to the $68.7 billion Microsoft shelled out for Activision, of course, but EA paid five times more per employee.) Soon after the deal went through, Gouge and Rigby made their exit and have been living a life of gilded leisure, more or less, ever since. So what’s the appeal of getting back in the trenches?
“The real reason is because we love to do it and we think we’re good at it,” says Gouge. “… and we’ve been reasonably successful. We built some companies and we’ve sold some companies and we really love games.” Mass-market, self-published titles especially. “We really felt that we had the energy, the expertise, the knowledge – still relevant and still current – to go for it again. It was really that wanting to build something, to grow something, to use the knowledge and expertise that we’ve got and really go for it.
THE RIGHT TIME
Paul Gouge is adamant that he’s not quite really to put his feet up quite yet, but why pack the slippers and sweatpants away now, with investment being scaled back and companies letting go of thousands of people?
“We definitely recognise the market conditions. The way that I see this is that, having been around and making games now for 24 years, we’ve seen a lot of cycles come and go. Ultimately, if you zoom right in, you could argue that 2023-24 doesn’t look like a good time to be in mobile games. But actually, if you zoom out, it is still the biggest platform in video games. In 2023, $107 billion was spent on playing mobile games. All the data shows us people are spending more time on their mobiles than ever before. There’s still a huge demand out there for mobile entertainment. It’s always been pretty hard. It’s never been easy to bring these things to market. So our view is that, yes, if you focus in on the end of the telescope that makes everything look really big right now, you’d be scared off. We’re in this for the longer term. The markets will do their normal cycles, but what we are convinced of is that mobile is still a really important platform for gaming, and we have some knowledge and expertise that I think narrows our odds on being successful in that market. Also we love doing it, so we want to give it a good old go.”
It’s fair to say that Gouge and Rigby have given things a pretty good go already with Playdemic. Too good a go if the scale of its acquisition is anything to go by. What challenges remain, one wonders. “For any entrepreneur, a lot of the things that get you out of bed in the morning are about creation and doing something new. Building things for the first time, putting in place all the infrastructure and processes that get you to win.
“When you get acquired you move into a different phase that’s much more about growth and stability. It’s a different type of energy. To an extent you do lose yourself in that because it’s no longer your show and you’re part of a much bigger thing. There are definitely some people who are well attuned to being in a big corporate machine, that’s where they can really do their best work. Other people are better at doing things that are more entrepreneurial, more agile, maybe require different types of leadership. I think that probably sums Alex and I up. We were much more interested in that kind of energy and those kinds of spaces.
“I like companies that are reasonably small,” continues Gouge. “I like to work with less than a hundred people. For me, when you make a game, that is a really good number. Below a hundred people you can still communicate effectively. Strong iteration and rapid communication are much more challenging in larger organisations. We want to be big in terms of success. We want to be small in terms of headcount, because I think that is a good thing for this market.
“Playdemic got to about 70, 80 people, but in terms of those that were committed to operating Golf Clash; from development through to user acquisition, to customer support to QA, to community management, etc, that was about 40 people, and that those 40 people generated 100 million in profit a year and over a billion of revenue. That was an incredible success story for a small number of people. That is the kind of team that I love being part of and trying to help shape.
“There are very few markets where you can actually do that, and it’s very hard to do that in other areas of the games industry; to say, ‘I’m going to build a billion dollar company with 30, 40 people. That just doesn’t make sense if you’re thinking about triple-A console or other areas of the market. Whereas in mobile, you can potentially operate every aspect of the service of that game in terms of bringing it to market. So, yeah, for me that’s really that’s a really big part of the attraction of wanting to be in this space and at that size.”
ForthStar’s founders have been fortunate to have been around at the right time to capitalise on the many innovations that mobile gaming has brought to (some might say wrought on) the industry. BattleMail for example was dabbling in free-to-play and live service ops before many knew what either term meant. Later on, Rockpool Games was knocking out early mobile games based on such established IP as Sonic the Hedgehog, Tomb Raider, WWE, Worms and SpongeBob SquarePants, most if not all screeching into the pre-touchscreen top 10. Then there was Playdemic of course, which was founded in the midst of Facebook’s ascension as a gaming destination and in the wake of the App Store coming online. Which begs the question, is that hunger for innovation still there and how might it be manifested in the months ahead?
“I do see ForthStar as an innovative company and I think the innovation is based on our approach to game development, and also our approach to publishing. We’ve seen the emergence of free-to-play and games-as-a-service really take hold of the platform and there’s been a lot of new skills and technologies developed along the way. I think that whilst we’re not launching into a new platform as we historically have done, what we are trying to do is really utilise the knowledge and experience we’ve got so far to to iterate and improve other things.
“One example of that is AI. I know AI is on everyone’s lips, but AI is something that we started using at Playdemic quite a long time ago. We were calling it machine learning at the time, which doesn’t sound quite as sexy as some of the things that are around at the moment, but we were using it to do elements of really important work. Part of that was dedicated to our user acquisition efforts. Part was understanding and getting better data on insights from players. Part of that was based on our economies and trying to understand how to do that better.”
So important to ForthStar is AI that Playdemic’s Head of AI has joined the team. “We were very fortunate to hire many people from Playdemic,” says Gouge. “Our Head of AI was at Playdemic with us and what his job is now is to look at the much broader suite of tools that are coming to market and say, ‘How can I point these tools to every aspect of our game development to improve our ability to succeed?’” He adds quickly: “That’s not because we believe that AI will replace people – because we don’t, but we do believe that AI can rapidly speed up and enhance processes that we think are important, whether that’s focus testing, economy creation, customer support, community management… We’ve done quite a lot of work on that already in ForthStar’s short life and I’m pretty excited.”
“The other area of innovation, of course, has to be in game design and gameplay,” says Gouge. “You can’t bring something to market in this incredibly competitive space that is exactly the same as something else. I know that sounds counter to some data points and people can point to eight different match-3 games that are all the same and that all make money, but I think what is missed sometimes is the nuance of innovation. We have a phrase that we always apply to mass market endeavours, which is ‘If you’re going to create something surprising, make it familiar. If you’re going to create something familiar, make it surprising.’
“What we’re trying to do at ForthStar, as we did at Playdemic, is to unashamedly make products that will resonate with the mass market. We want to entertain millions of people. But to do that, yes, it’s got to be familiar and accessible, but it’s got to be genuinely surprising. With Golf Clash we did something a little bit different. We had an interesting control mechanic. We changed the way you played to just single holes of golf. We changed the way that the courses were structured, and we changed the way that the clubs were put together from many other video games and from traditional golf. Small innovations, that when they come together, actually make something that, yes, is familiar, but is surprising enough to be entertaining on a daily basis. That’s a mantra that we’re trying to bring to our game design in ForthStar as well.”
Right now the ForthStar team is relatively small, numbering less than 20, most of whom are familiar with one another having moved over from Playdemic. It’s a number that both allows for rapid prototyping of ideas, and the simultaneous setting up and tools and processes that will allow ForthStar to exist as a full-service publisher.
“We’ve got five or six people working on making sure that back-end infrastructure is there, from an analytics perspective, from a UA perspective and customer support perspective. At the same time we’re very committed to a test-and-kill philosophy. Because of the nature of the market, because it is so competitive, there’s really little point bringing anything to market that you’re not absolutely convinced is highly engaging.”
ForthStar are already on their fourth prototype, but at the point an idea makes the grade, the studio will be ready to bring in more people. “From that point forward that will mean game developers, new artists and animators and designers and coders. Then as we grow towards something that we’re confident we can bring to market, we will then start to beef up those other functions of publishing, whether it’s user acquisition, customer support, community management, etc.”
FOUR THE WEEKEND
Starting small isn’t just about the size of the team, but also the working week. As other studios have dabbled, ForthStar has seemingly embraced the four-day week.
“I’m a believer that productivity is a measure of what comes out, not what goes in. We’re mostly interested in people who are highly self motivated, really driven to do something really excellent. And we want to make sure that if we hire those people, we give them the best environment to do that. And so when we were researching, Alex and I, thinking about this business, and all the things we thought we’d done well over the years or things we thought we did really badly, we really tried to say ‘How are we going to write a manifesto for the best company that we can create,’ because it might very well be our swan song. So we really wanted to make sure we put everything into it. We came onto the four-day-week largely because we started to see data points in the market – from video games, but probably more so in other sectors – where people were seeing higher productivity, higher employee happiness, higher ability to attract and retain high quality talent – and I thought, ‘Yeah, this really makes sense.’”
So far it is proving to be a success, which Gouge admits could be difficult going forward as, never having done a five-day-week, means ForthStar doesn’t have a point of comparison. “I was talking to the team about this just yesterday. saying ‘Look, you know, if this works, if this is successful, then this will be a really interesting competitive advantage.’, because we’re really focused on doing a lot of really high quality creative work in four days, and then we know that we have this great three day break. But if it doesn’t work, then we’re doing 80% – and that would be a real problem.”
So far so good, it seems: “At this point. I believe that the four day week is for us. It tends to reward people who are highly creative, who are innovative, you need to have a lot of energy on a particular task, but also then need some downtime to recover, and then go back into something, you know, the following week. I think that that is quite typical of video game creation.
“It definitely sums up who we are and the culture that we’re creating. We don’t like lots of bureaucracy. We don’t like lots of rules. We love the idea of creating an environment where really talented people can do really great work. I think that I’ve found in my journey of being a leader, one of the best ways to do that is just to clear things out of the way so that people can really do their best work.”
It’s been more than a decade since ForthStar’s founders last ventured forth, so to speak, to try to establish an innovative new development studio. Not nearly long enough to suggest that they no longer have what it takes to succeed (assuming that it’s possible to lose such skills), but long enough to be re-entering territory that might have been rendered unfamiliar by the passing of time.
Gouge admits a lot has changed, citing the evolution of the App Store as a prime example, but, he says, on the development side of things, “A lot of the tools and tech are so much easier now than they were then. Historically we chose to always build our own game engine and I think now that is a less sensible move. There are definitely some scenarios where building your own game engine makes sense, but the accessibility of tools and tech and client side game development has improved immeasurably – even more so the back end.
“I remember early on in Playdemic, we were still using three-tier architecture service environments that involved us making big capital commitments to co-locate our servers in ISPs. That world is so far removed from the reality that we’re in now. The ability to scale things up in AWS or Azure or Google is incredible. I marvel at these data factories you can now tap into and just spin things up.”
One of the marvels of Golf Clash, says Gouge, was that a very small group of people who were arguably in the wrong city in the wrong country (Manchester), were able to build such success. “A lot of that was obviously down to the talent and to the people that made it, but another big piece of it was down to the technology, you know? The ability for Apple and Google to let us market a product and to take revenue from the globe, or the ability for AWS to give us this infrastructure for processing 100 million people without any kind of issue or costing a disproportionate amount of money. I think all of that technology has really transformed the access point for video games to come to market. The one thing that has changed for the worse in some respects is the ecosystem for user acquisition. As is well documented, the change that Apple made and Google is making means that the once highly predictable operation of user acquisition is now a much more challenging marketplace and probably more akin to the marketplace of maybe 13 years ago, where you didn’t have all the tools that were that were so powerful during the heyday of user acquisition on mobile.”
ForthStar Games doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to get its first title out, which isn’t surprising given everything that’s been said so far. The team is still being assembled and the ideas are still being worked through.
“We’ve got an idea right now that we currently love and we’re building it and we will then start to test it. We will be absolutely, completely unemotional when we get that feedback. If we don’t get the responses that we think warrant that product continuing, then it will be killed. In that sense, it’s very hard for us to put any kind of date on [a game] but in terms of the energy and endeavour, we will be continuing to prototype ideas that we think are worthy of becoming a full product.” Watch this space, as they say.