Synchronous shooter game High Noon is one of the more original titles to grab a place atop iOS’ highest-grossing lists. And like many of the other mobile gaming companies which have found success in the smartphone era, High Noon’s maker Happylatte comes from an unexpected corner of the world.
In between the skyrises and slums that circle Beijing’s city center, the company is transforming itself from an IT outsourcing firm called Exoweb into a gaming company on the back of High Noon’s success — which is now pulling in more than $1 million a month.
Happylatte’s story is emblematic of the economic changes that have rocked China over the last decade. As wages for local developers have risen, the old outsourcing business model has become less viable with each passing year. At the same time, iOS’ global reach, its seamless payments system and its cheap distribution has made it easier for companies like Happylatte from the developing world to take a direct route to consumers.
“We were feeling the pressure from prices in China,” said Bjorn Stabell, who moved to the country from Norway 15 years ago. “Salaries were going up 20 percent a year. Outsourcing wasn’t a long-term sustainable business so we started a labs program.”
The company started exploring building apps and games for many platforms including Chinese social network RenRen and for handset manufacturing partners like Motorola. “It was sort of a spaghetti-against-the-wall-approach,” he said.
The company’s earlier game ideas were often — let’s say — irreverent. Pee Monkey Toilet Trainer and Pee Monkey Plant Bloom are about getting a monkey to urinate in toilets and on flowers.
Then they started to think about other ideas. One of Happylatte’s other partners Michael Welch, who came to China with plenty of memories of the Midwest and his childhood in Oklahoma, took charge of developing a gunfighting concept. The title took eight or nine months of development time.
It was challenging because unlike many of the other casual simulation games that rule the charts, High Noon requires synchronous play. In the game, players draw their “weapon,” or their phone, and try to shoot a live opponent matched with them based on skill. Because it can be difficult to match live players and deal with latency, synchronous games haven’t historically taken off on social and mobile platforms.
Happylatte also put a great deal of thought into designing the game’s economy. Each player has a bounty or price on their head. If a player shoots a rival, they can earn the bounty. More advanced players obviously have higher prices on their head. Like many freemium games, there’s an earned currency and a premium currency that players can pay for. Paying for the premium currency, called Wampum, lets players customize their avatars. The game has a very natural social layer too with a “Shitlist,” where users can keep track of other players and friends they want to duel. There are also little competitive flourishes too — when you die, your opponent buries you alive and can steal from you.
Since launching in April of last year, High Noon has seen more than 6 million downloads. While that may not be high considering that developers like Rovio and Outfit7 are clocking download numbers in the nine-digit ranges, High Noon pulls in some decent figures in terms of actives and revenue. The game has 250,000 daily active users and had its first $1 million month in July.
The game didn’t become a regular presence on the top-grossing charts in the U.S. until this spring, when Happylatte started acquiring users through incentivized install networks. The one-time push helped the title find sustained momentum. “Our revenue kept going up even as our spend was going down,” Stabell said.
As for what’s next, Happylatte is close to launching a version of the game that’s based on the Unity 3D gaming engine, which will also bring the title to Android. Then after that there will be more original games.
Stabell says he wants the DNA of Happylatte to be about “newfangled” games, not ones that are light skins of old and proven concepts.
“I’m looking for the perfect game,” he said. “I think there will be a category killer with World of Warcraft-level success.”