Play Now, Pay Later

From February, 2014, Business London magazine...

            It’s 3:00 in the afternoon at Big Viking Games. From alcoves and shared workspaces scattered around the circumference of the office emerge two dozen or more casually dressed computer, math and design savants. Most are men, but there’s a respectable female contingent as well. They gather near a large table in the hub of the office where snacks are being served.

In his office adjacent to the hub, company co-owner Albert Lai is suddenly distracted. At 2:59 he was talking expansively about Big Viking – how its creation lured him early from a self-imposed 12-month sabbatical; how the culture he and his partner, Greg Thomson, have created not only generates profits but attracts talent from all over North America; how their early decisions about the language in which they write their games sets the company apart from its competitors by delivering a huge strategic advantage.

            But at 3:00, when the snacks arrive, he loses his train of thought and looks over the shoulder of the person he’s speaking to. In a tone that is only slightly sheepish, he excuses himself and heads for the snack table. “It’s 3:00 snack time,” he says, just as a kindergarten student might. “And I didn’t have any lunch.”

            He returns with a cup full of chocolate and continues his story.

It’s the story of a video game company based in downtown London with millions of fans around the world, fans who interact with many of the people gathered around the snack table, who pay in tiny increments for game enhancements some of which they might have suggested. It’s the story of two friends, both of whom had built and sold high-tech companies and decided to start a company together just to see if they could do it. And it’s the story of the new economy, taking root in downtown London, even as the city huffs and puffs and crosses its fingers, hoping traditional manufacturers will stick around and maybe stop laying people off.

            It’s all those things, but on a weekday at 3:00, it’s about the snacks, one of many perks Big Viking offers to make its collection of uniquely skilled employees happy.

            Big Viking’s office looks just about like you would expect. Work spaces are dominated by giant screens, on which people do their work in clusters of six or eight. There’s a storage room of silly prizes, given to employees who distinguish themselves. There’s a giant Viking, in keeping with the company name. And there’s a large white Apple logo, the very kind that hangs in Apple stores lit up bright white. It’s a prized possession, liberated from an Apple store that was changing locations not so long ago.

            The hub of the office, however, looks like a cross between a cafeteria and a frat house. There’s a restaurant with stools arranged at a lunch counter. There are giant TV screens, old-school video arcade games and, of course, a foosball table. The atmosphere is, in a word, casual.

            “Our mission statement boils down to this,” Lai, 35, says. “Make fans. Make fans of our company and our products. We want to make fans externally and internally – people who love what we build for them, and also the people who work here, the incredible talent that we attract.”

            Big Viking makes games that are designed for play on mobile devices. They can be accessed through Facebook, an app store, or a web browser, but – and here is the key – they look just as good, just as rich, fluid and detailed, as games that operate only as dedicated apps. Hello Candy Crush. If that doesn’t sound like a big deal to you, get comfortable for a moment while Lai, nibbling on his chocolate snacks, explains why it matters so much:

            Early on, he says, he and Thomson decided to create their games using HTML5, the language of the Internet. “We knew it would take 10 times, maybe 50 times, longer to build the games, but we wanted to write them in an open standard so they could be completely cross platform. That way, they can be played on any mobile device, from a browser. And we can update the game whenever we want, once a day or more.”

            When Apple launches an update to its operating system, it’s almost a national holiday. People salivate for weeks about what it will include and when it will be available. But they have to take action to update, and it only happens once or year or less. Same thing goes when Android unveils its latest candy-coded OS.

            Yes, you can update your game apps regularly, but again, the onus is on the user.

            “We can iterate constantly, without requiring users to download an update,” Lai explains. “We can push changes and upgrades as often as we want. We can respond to customer suggestions and make changes almost instantly.”

            That’s important to make and keep fans, but it’s more important to the company’s revenue stream. Big Viking gives its games away for free. It makes money when a devotee of Fish World or Dark Heroes or Tiny Kingdoms (the newest, arriving this month at iTunes) buys some kind of upgrade – lives, stars, weapons or whatever. They pay and keep playing.

            “We monitor everything,” Lai says. “We can see how long it takes to reach certain levels, if players are giving up because a level is too difficult, what players spend their money on. And we can adapt the games instantly.”

            Instead of charging an upfront price for their game and never receiving more revenue from it, Big Viking draws revenue from players for years, as they explore an ever-evolving game. That is possible partially because the games are written in HTML5 but also because Lai and Thomson could afford to build slowly and perfect the tools needed to create games that way.

            “We started down the HTML5 road originally without knowing what was possible,” Thomson, 31, says. “Our first game, Mech Force, wasn’t intended to be graphic intensive, but as we started building it, we wanted to add more and more graphics. HTML5 wasn’t ideal to include graphics, so we had to figure out how to do it, to create tools ourselves to accomplish what we wanted to accomplish,” he says.

            They were trying to write Shakespeare in Klingon – developing rich and fluid games using a language never intended for that purpose. But having done it with Mech Force, they immediately saw the cross-platform advantages. And they never looked back.

            “There are program codes, like Unity, that allow for multiple platforms,” Thomson says. “But you need to download a plug-in to play in a browser.” That’s one too many steps in the Big Viking world. The Vikings do more work behind the scenes so their games are as simple as possible to access.

            Having created tools and techniques for getting HTML5 to support their needs, they’ve got the game development cycle down to “maybe three to 10 times longer than if we used traditional gaming code,” Lai says. That’s a lot faster than the original 10 to 50 times longer, but still longer than competitors. However, the company prides itself on taking the long view.

            Lai and Thomson are the sole owners and have never relied on a big game publisher for support. Thus, their deadlines are their own. They never rush a game to market to meet an artificial deadline.

            And they have similar answers when asked separately about the prospects for the company three to five years from now – an eternity in the digital economy. Both say the best way to build a company that could be bought out by a behemoth like Google is to build a company with no plans to sell.

            “If you build something to sell, you’ll never sell it because you’ll never create value,” Thomson says emphatically. Ironically then, they have a company that very well could attract big buyers any day. It’s hard to believe the duo hasn’t already turned down lucrative offers. Both have bought and sold companies and products in the past. In fact, one such deal is back from the past and represents an opportunity.

            Before Big Viking, Thomson created YoVille, which he later sold to gaming giant Zynga. The San Francisco-based company announced last month that it plans to shut the game down March 31. Big Viking is in talks with Zynga about buying the game back and continuing to support the roughly 100,000 active users.

            Whatever the duo’s intentions and unspoken plans, it’s hard to ignore Google’s purchase last month of Nest, maker of high-tech thermostats, for a cool $3.2-billion (U.S.). Thomson acknowledges there may be some pressure at some point to sell.

            “Our employees have stock options. That’s one of the ways we reward them and attract talent. But the truth is the only way to extract that value is either by being acquired or going public.”

            Whatever its enticements, Big Viking clearly can attract talent. It runs a small Toronto office for those who want to stay in Toronto and work for the company. But most of the 50 employees are in London. Starting this month, that will include Ricky Shum, a highly regarded game producer and product manager who is moving from San Francisco to London to join the company. Most recently at GREE International, a giant maker of free, mobile games, he is a big catch for Big Viking.

            He may not see much of his new bosses though. Lai is single and splits his time between a Toronto condo and a rotating series of hotel rooms when he’s in London, which is the majority of the week.

            Thomson lives in London in a home outfitted with a industrial-quality garage where he likes to spend his spare time building and inventing – Ironman without the mortal enemies and companionship of Gwyneth Paltrow. He is leaning heavily toward running for city council in November, either in his home ward 7 or downtown where his business is located.

            That decision will come soon. As will new Big Viking games and successes. One game transaction at a time.