Yes Brainer: Mobile game maker rakes in cash
Shopping isn't the only money spinner on mobile phones during the pandemic.
Smartphone users have been killing time with games, most of which make it easy to spend money on in-app purchases. Brainium Studios is a Portland game company that makes non-copyrighted games such as Solitaire, Sudoku, Mahjong and Freecell, and has flown beneath the radar for a long time. Its founders, two Portlanders who met at tech school, have been too introverted to try to push the company's profile, even as revenues soared from in games ads.
But now Brainium is making a name for itself. It has expanded from 18 people in March 2020 to 30 now, and Chief Operations Officer Scott Willoughby expects to have 50 staff by the end of 2021. The company is moving from its 3,000-square-foot office near Union Station, and in June, is taking the whole sixth floor at a brand new space on the edge of the Pearl District called Tanner Point. The 22,500-square-foot space is being interior designed by local architect company Hacker.
Brainium's user base did not expand much during COVID, but those users did spend longer playing the games. According to company officials, on March 14, 2020, the Daily Session Count jumped almost 20%, and for 2020, net revenue was up 62% over 2019.
2021 is even more extreme. First-quarter 2021 Net Revenue is up 109% versus the same period in 2020.
The company's website is quite basic, which, according to Scott Willoughby, doesn't bother people who play the games but can be a barrier to recruiting good designers. They have recruited a new web designer in the UK and will relaunch the website this spring.
Founders Jake Brownson and Farhad Shakiba met in college in Klamath Falls. They both went to different tech jobs and teamed up in Portland in 2008 to make games as the Apple app store launched.
The company is number 19 on Oregon Business magazine's Top 100 Best Companies to Work for Oregon (#1 Hayden Homes of Redmond). Willoughby's goal is for anyone who works for Brainium to look back on it as the best place they ever worked.
The business is 100% founder-funded, although venture capitalists come calling all the time. "We've entertained several, but it hasn't felt like the right time," Willoughby told the Business Tribune. "It would have to be for the right reasons — to make Brainium stronger and it to be a culture fit."
Games are changing. After a few months of release last year, Brainium's Solitaire was the second most played game in Tesla Arcade, the electric car company's in-car entertainment system. Number 1 is Beach Buggy Racing. (Willoughby foresees huge fleets of rideshare cars with passengers playing mobile games as they go.) Brainium's games strive to have a quality look and feel. The way things on the screen move when touched, the sounds and the colors, are all designed just so. Mahjong tiles have a satisfying click and look three-dimensional. Playing cards seem made of paper.
"Some of these commodity games are often done really poorly, with not a lot of thought to design. The driving philosophy behind it is just that feeling of satisfaction and joy you get when something just looks right, or you interact with a piece of technology, and it just like, feels good."
They call it four-dimensional design.
"We're also thinking about the product as it exists through time, where it came from, into the future of where they're going."
The executives all love the game Clash Royale, but have decided against copying it because it's too hard to imitate. It's the same with games with complex 3D graphics: they can't do it — yet. But that's why they are on a hiring binge for designers — all of whom would need to relocate to Portland.
Willoughby says they get 99% of their revenue from ads rather than in-app purchases or subscriptions. He is not hiring salespeople. "I don't want to have to manage a sales team because we do everything direct through the app store. All of our advertising, everything is through ad networks."
The only in-app purchases Brainium allows are for ad-removing software and old games that still have premium versions.
Mainly these are the Google AdMob and Facebook networks, but they use 10 others such as Fiber, Unity and AppLovin. Brainium provides them with anonymized data about who is playing the games, and advertisers compete to place their ads in the game. It's all done in milliseconds.
Brainium uses a mediation system to pick which ad will be seen, then signs terms with the ad networks, then installs the networks' software tool kits into the game. This system shows who is playing the game, with some high-level demographic information. If they have permitted cookie tracking, that helps. The highest bidding advertiser wins the auction for those eyeballs.
Brainium doesn't allow adult ads, political ads, or "the kind of things you wouldn't talk about at work."
Humans translate the game verbiage. The Solitaire game is big in Holland — probably because it has a good translation.
"Our games are built in a way that's super reliable, so we often see crashing issues before anybody else does, and we are often the canary in the coal mine for ad networks that learn they have a problem with their SDKs. So we are very, very strict about that. We do everything we can to make sure that the experience during an ad is as enjoyable as it can be."
Ads never auto-play with the sound on, and are easy to dismiss. And they spend a lot of energy building games that won't crash.
Apple vs. Facebook
The coming storm in the online ad world is not troubling Brainium's Willoughby. If Apple asks users to opt-in to ad tracking, Facebook won't be able to serve them ads on iOS.
"It's going to create a little bit of hiccup because people have been used to having this really robust targeting for users on mobile. That's going to go away a little bit. We're going to have to adapt, and it's still going to be the most valuable ad real estate on the planet."
Better than TV, magazines, and ballpark billboards. Willoughby explains it in two words, "It's individualized." Few apps keep users reliably glued to their phones and amenable to short ads like games do.
As they expand, they want to stay focused on the user. Willoughby looks for designers and engineers who are creative, offbeat, and have an attention to quality.
"We don't think 'Here's the size of this category and here's how we could make X million dollars a year. We are a product company that happens to make profits, not a profit company that happens to make products."
Brainium will move in in June 2021. Tanner Point started life as 9North under developer Williams & Dame Development and was sold to CBRE or $76.6 million. The food store Coopertiva is at street level.
Hunting for an office was hard work. They looked at Front Office on Naito, and 7 Southeast Stark on the east side. The latter is offices on top of five floors of parking. Willoughby didn't like it because although it was soundproofed against the trains and freeway noise, it was still inconvenient to be cut off by a freight train for 10 minutes when going for coffee or coming to work. "You know when you are running tight for a meeting and then you get stuck behind a 20 minute train. That's kind of problematic."
The there was downtown Portland, scene of last summer's Antifa versus Police match card.
"We looked at a couple buildings downtown, near the courthouse, and then as soon as we walked outside, we were accosted by somebody. We're not comfortable subjecting employees to that, especially some of our younger female employees."
The Pearl seemed quieter and safer. "We also like the idea of getting a view, and we have this whole, huge, private outdoor terrace, which is going to be fantastic." The deck will have aluminum tables with solar canopies on top so people can plug in an work outside.
Since Covid, Brainium staff have been able to work from home. Some of the new hires have never shared a space with their coworkers. The executives come in for face time once a week.
They did a survey in February and found the vast majority staff were keen to come into an office.
"We invested in this new space because we really believe in the power and value of proximity, particularly in creative pursuits. Just have a free exchange of ideas and being able to tap someone on the shoulder and get a have a quick conversation, rather than having to schedule a 30 minute Zoom meeting with them is really important."
People are voting to come back.
"They are really eager to return the physical space and the sense of community and culture that that brings with it."
Privately-held mobile gaming company, making games such as Solitaire, Spider Solitaire, Blackjack and Jumbline 2.
ADDRESS in June 2021: 6th Floor, 1250 NW 9th Ave, Portland
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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