iMafia’s Charles Ju: How We Launched a Social Game on the iPhone

playmeshlogoThis is a guest post by Charles Ju, co-founder of Playmesh, the developers of iMafia – one of the first “mob” games on the iPhone and iPod Touch. After launching last week, iMafia became so popular that Playmesh had to scramble to upgrade its servers to keep the service alive. We asked Charles to share Playmesh’s experience here on ISG – and go into detail about the company’s virtual goods model.

ISG: What has happened since iMafia went live in the app store?

charlesjuWe built a pretty robust platform that was built to scale to a certain degree but we did not expect the kind of user engagement and enthusiasm from the iPhone community. When we launched we were instantly growing at an exponential rate. Every 4 or 5 hours we would have to reoptimize our code and server configurations to give us another 4 or 5 hours to make the next optimizations. At one point I became so desperate that I had to go into IRC (it’s a chatroom for computer nerds), to beg for someone to come help us, and someone actually drove from Fremont last Sunday within the hour to fix our servers (that gave us 12 hours instead of 4, so I got a little bit of sleep). After 3 restless days of adding indexes, optimizing queries, and learning about memcache we were able to finally stabilize our servers through the help of some awesome gurus at Engine Yard.

This week has been the craziest most exhilarating week of my life, and I know that we have only begun. But now that we have our servers in a position to scale out to 5-10 times the current usage rate we can finally focus on gameplay design choices and looking into other ways to improve the game-flow and overall user experience.

The lesson is this: if there was any doubt in your mind that the iPhone is the next disruptive viral platform, it is.

ISG: What do you think are going to be the biggest channels for viral growth on the iPhone?

imafia1Discovery is a huge problem on the iPhone. There are really only two options for the initial iPhone distribution right now. Press and advertising. Since we’re bootstrapped, we opted out for press.

Being the ambitious and reckless young entrepreneurs that we are, we decided to do a “press release” (I still don’t know what that entails) by contacting a lot of the big press members that we have read and worshipped for the last couple of years. We got into a couple of blogs and I think that really started the exponential growth rate that we have experienced in the last week.

Then as we got onto the Top 100 list for games and then subsequently the Top 100 overall, the app store quickly took over to give that extra order of magnitude push forward. Right now we’re mainly growing from the app store and just casual users finding us through those top 100 lists in free apps and free games.

To alleviate this problem we’re trying a lot of interesting things within iMafia like free SMS text sharing, e-mail, twitter, our virtual goods store, but we still have no idea what works and what doesn’t.

ISG: How are you using your other games to increase transaction volume?

imafia7We had to come up with an interesting twist to what we were doing. While we are one of the first MMORPGs on the iPhone, there are certainly a lot of similar gaming models online. We are not in the business of cloning games, we want to innovate and change landscapes. As such, we created an interesting never-before-seen (still not seen, we’re stabilizing servers first) method to monetize through virtual goods on the iPhone in such a way that is unique to the iPhone.

The difference between our virtual goods store and those traditionally found online is that we encourage players to download fun games with real value instead of coercing them into useless subscriptions or credit cards. So for instance, if you download our Chess game for $0.99 on the iPhone app store we will give you a cool gun in iMafia. This has never been done before and we are excited to show everyone how it works.

ISG: Why and how did you start PlayMesh?

PlayMesh, the parent company of iggyGames, made its debut with the release of Chess Puzzles, a top 25 application with over 200,000 downloads. The company vision is to bring the power of social gaming to the casual iPhone game developer.

As a prepubescent teenager I was enthralled by Everquest (MMORPGs are strangely addicting), and every time my mom would come to tell me to turn off my game I would tell her I’m doing research for my future job as a game developer. So naturally, being a man of my word, I had to start PlayMesh.

Silly antedoctes aside, it comes down to something very simple. The iPhone is a disruptive platform that is going to change the way we think and act. It is the first mobile platform to hit critical mass (I’m guessing around 50 M units with phones + iPods), it is the first platform with an embedded monetization channel (app store), the first platform that is a fashion icon, and all the other cool geeky specifications that make it a really powerful and fun device.

Furthermore, I have to point out that while we are excited about the iPhone itself, what is even more exciting is what the iPhone represents. It represents the dawn of a new era of devices that are going to beg on hands and feet (ie. $150 M Blackberry Fund) for developers to populate their ecosystems, a set of operating systems that will want to be as developer friendly as possible (ie. Palm Pre), and a era where we count revolutions by the months not years. It’s an exciting field and I’m really happy to have caught the wave at such an early stage.

I started PlayMesh with a couple of friends from Jr. High, we all went to engineering schools for college and decided to come back to Silicon Valley afterwards. As you may know the economy is in the gutter and we were not particularly fond of the idea of going out and finding jobs so we decided to make video games instead. It has been one heck of a ride and it was the best decision of my life.