40% of MouseHunt Users Return Every Day – Q&A with fbFund Winner Joel Auge

To gain more perspective on the strategies employed by successful Facebook application developers, Inside Facebook has recently interviewed the winners of the fbFund’s $250k prize. So far, we’ve spoken with WildFire, a brand marketing tool, GroupCards, a collaborative e-greeting company, and Weddingbook, an wedding and events management tool.

This time around, we talked with Joel Auge, one of the founders of HitGrab and creator of MouseHunt, a Facebook game that is not only included in the list of fbFund grant winners but is also one of the most popular and engaging games on the Facebook platform.  Read below to hear some of the unique perspectives of an indie game developer on the Facebook Platform.

Q: What does MouseHunt bring to Facebook, and what inspired you to start this business?

A: HitGrab was started 2 years before we decided to develop on the Facebook platform. We decided to do so when one of our clients needed a content management system for their website and were using Facebook very proactively to connect to their client base. We saw an opportunity to try something different and designed a simple CMS for their customer relationships and web content through Facebook. They loved it and use it to this day.

Facebook is just that; a great way to develop, maintain and increase your social presence. We fell in love with that idea. To that end, we decided to build a game. Games are inherently social in nature. So to develop MouseHunt on a naturally relational platform seemed like a good idea at the time… and it just really took off. Facebook allows the relationships in the game to happen, while MouseHunt allows those relationships to grow into a team-based, time-based, pass-time that is unlike any other social game.

Q: MouseHunt has become incredibly popular, with nearly a quarter million devoted monthly players. How did you reach this point in less than a year? What methods did you employ to gain traction among Facebook users and to market your app? Is this what you would recommend to the next generation of fbFund applicants?

A: MouseHunt will be 1 year old on March 7th, 2009. Our users (on their own) are organizing anniversary meets all over the world on that day. Australia, England, Israel, the U.S.A., and Singapore are among the countries where MouseHunters will unite to celebrate the anniversary.

I think the main reason MouseHunt has become such a deeply engaging game is because we’ve included our users in the development of the game. We’ve done everything possible, used every method to get them to interact directly with us. The users have access to the development team (and each other) through the forums, videos, and a built-in chat system. We’ve decided to share a large slice of our office lives with them.

MouseHunters have responded by participating in a more engaged way than perhaps any other application on Facebook (our daily engagement rates continue to hover around the 30% to 40% of total MAUs daily). I’d highly recommend that anyone who develops an app wholly involve themselves in their burgeoning communities. It’s done wonders for us.

Q: Can you offer any advice to game developers out there on how to create a really engaging game (that actually makes money)?

A: Coming from a PPC/SEO and web marketing background, we knew from the get-go that we couldn’t rely on advertising to make money from the game. There’s no way the initial traffic would have covered development costs. So our plan involved selling a digital product in-game. We feel it was the best decision for us. The trick was trying to get users engaged enough to come back over and over again… and that’s been our focus ever since the very beginning.

We hired great talent to not only develop the game, but to illustrate the characters/user-interface and participate creatively in the expansion of the game. We really try to focus on quality and creativity. We’ve discovered along the way, that some people play competitively (to sound the horn, or beat their friends’ scores) while others play to collect the artwork. It’s great to give users more than one reason to play.

Q: Among the fbFund winners, there were 3 teams, including yours, based in Canada – and one team based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. What insights can you offer to future fbFund applicants that aren’t based in Silicon Valley?

A: First off, I tip my hat to the teams at the Founders Fund, Accel Partners, and Facebook themselves for opening up their coffers to developers all over the world (okay, suck-up time over…). But truly, non-recourse funding is a great way to attract developers to the platform, if nothing else. And once developers see the beauty of creating engaging apps that take into account “relationship” rather than a one-off user experience, I don’t think they’d go back.

So really, I think the geography of the teams working on the Facebook platform has little bearing on their successes. I think the Facebook platform tears down geographical boundaries better than any other distributed information system in the world. Quality will prevail. The MouseHunt social graph expands to players in over 180 countries. And each one of them could develop for the platform themselves if they wanted to. It’s undoubtedly a bonus that 40% of Canadians are on Facebook, because as business owners, Bryan [co-founder of HitGrab] and I are keenly aware of the automatic strength of the people we know in our daily lives who are also Facebook users – but I’m convinced that awareness isn’t necessary to understand the value of this still-growing platform.

Q: What do you think made your app successful in the fbFund competition?

A: Gosh. That’s a tough one. There were countless solid applications I’m sure. Perhaps the difference was in the business model, user engagement numbers, and outright fanaticism of our players. Our users are an undeniable force when it comes to voting for anything. So there’s no doubt that helped. We really do owe a lot of this to MouseHinters globally.

Q: Do you have any specific plans for the $250k from fbFund yet?

A: The money is intended to help continued development on the Facebook platform. We’re using it as such. We’ve hired a few new people to bolster our future plans… and I’ll leave it there… 😉

Q: Where do you guys see the company going in the future, especially with respect to Facebook? What is the next step?

A: We exist currently as a one-hit wonder… and we’re aware of that. Our goal is to keep developing MouseHunt for Facebook, to support our users, and at the same time, develop a solid pack of games in an attempt to go from win to win. We’ve really only scratched the surface of the 140 million users on the platform.

I’ll state it boldly so as to keep myself accountable to my team and to the people I’ve already said this to… I want HitGrab to be the Blizzard entertainment of Social games. Those are hard words to say… But I’d rather aim for the sun and hit the moon, then never have the guts to try. Blizzard has done such a great job in their space. We love how they’ve focused their efforts on long-term user engagement. On making quality rather than quantity. On focusing their craft to a handful of solid titles.

It won’t be easy, but we think we’re onto something stunning with the next game and we’re confident we can bring something new and exciting to social games again. We plan to continue developing on Facebook for many years to come. And as they grow, we intend to as well.

Thanks Joel for some honest and bold answers about what you did to make your company a success.  Best of luck this year!