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

This 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?

We 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?

Discovery 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?

We 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.