Thoughts After JuiceBox Games
After 3.5 years, I am disappointed to share the news that we are shutting down JuiceBox Games. Based in San Francisco, we set out to build mobile games with soul to deliver the best entertainment experiences. Wonderful investors — Initial Capital (Kristian Segerstrale joined our board), Index Ventures, General Catalyst, Maveron, Scott Dale, John Riccitiello, and others — supported us with a $2.54M seed round. We’ve had some great successes and setbacks during our journey. In the end, we couldn’t make the business work.
I wanted to share a few of my thoughts along the way. No doubt I will contradict myself a few times below, but balancing the conflicting views and making a decision is a primary challenge of building a business.
I’m extremely proud of our accomplishments during JuiceBox Games’ run:
- 2 shipped games: HonorBound and StormBorn
- Community of 5 Million players
- Players spent $8 Million on our games
- HonorBound peaked at #31 grossing iPhone game in US
- #1 grossing RPG/card game in 28 countries
- Major featuring by Apple and Google
- 4.5 ratings on both App Stores
- Built a team of 36 focused on our mission
What We Did Well
Committed To Success
From the very beginning, we were all-in on JuiceBox Games. We didn’t have investors, we didn’t have a team, but we were committed to making it work. We showed up in Jason’s dining room for a few weeks then quickly leased a small office. We never treated this like a side project. Our goal throughout was to build something great and valuable rather than focus on all the things that could go wrong. Confidence and going all-in are musts to build a company from scratch.
Asked What’s Next?
I was surprised how quickly we asked, “What’s next?” after successes. Seemingly unreachable milestones immediately became old news after hitting them. First investor, closing our seed round, key hires, game soft launches, Apple featuring, $50k revenue days — they were all big moments and milestones, but there was always more to do. There are so many steps to build a sustainable and growing business, you can never rest on your laurels.
Did What We Said We Would Do
Sounds pretty simple, but doing what you say you’ll do is actually pretty hard. Our goal was clear communication of goals and then following through. And I think we lived up to that for our players, employees, and investors. In my first meeting with Kristian Segerstrale, our eventual lead investor and board member, he liked the pitch, but wanted to see more. He asked to see the next demo’s goals and play it in 6 weeks. After playing the demo six weeks later, he made his decision (he did what he said he would do!) and led our $2.5M Seed Round.
I’m especially proud of our focus and execution on the product side. We shipped 2 games: deep games with loads of content and complex, interlocking systems. That is a major accomplishment across all major disciplines: engineering, art, and design. Everybody’s mission at JuiceBox was quite simple: make our games better — and we accomplished that only when something shipped and players reacted positively. A new feature wasn’t done until we could play it on device. Our players didn’t care about cool, new features until they could play it on theirs.
Why We Failed, Or Mistakes We Made
Background On Market
Gaming is an incredibly difficult business. In 2012, when we started, the top grossing games were Simpsons: Tapped Out; DragonVale, and Kingdoms of the North. We soon entered the current world of stasis at the top of the charts with Supercell, King, and Machine Zone dominating for the last 3 years. By the time we released our second game in November 2015, we were competing not only against the classic games from 2012 that had solidified their position in top grossing and on people’s devices, but also the very best winners over the last 3 years (sequels, slots games, Contest of Champions, Hearthstone, Summoners War, etc.). The stakes and resources required for a successful game had raised considerably.
I’ve heard the common VC-complaint over the last few years that games is a hits business. It absolutely is. But when a game IS a hit!?! Wow! Hits are massive $Billions/yr businesses (which seems in-line with company outliers defining VC portfolios). Paths to success include:
- Taking advantage of new distribution channel (i.e. Zynga with Facebook games)
- Early to market and use early success to cement your position as leader either through marketing or R&D for future games
- Hit game (extremely difficult)
I do believe our fundamental approach of focusing on high-quality midcore games was a good strategy. Investors placed that bet on us because of our past experience building games and they saw a realistic path to success. The strategy of mobile midcore games was on point. We achieved our initial goals with HonorBound of building a differentiated product and that was recognized by our audiences. Leveraging our learnings from the first title and focusing on RPG after our first game was the right move.
Our second game, StormBorn, had better per-user KPI’s than the first title, but discovery had changed dramatically and StormBorn received 10% of HonorBound’s downloads. (An impossible (and unhelpful) comment, if we had launched StormBorn in 2014 and received HonorBound’s downloads — JuiceBox would be a company with a totally different trajectory.)
Our company essentially bet itself on each game launch. The first game was successful enough to fund the development of a second game. The second game did not generate enough revenue for a third game, so we folded.
We never built the game that could serve as JuiceBox’s revenue engine — funding infrastructure build out and development of more games. Quite simply, we didn’t build good enough games. Which begs the question, why didn’t we build good enough games? That’s because game making is incredibly hard! It’s a devilishly challenging problem: a creative act that needs to work as a business. There’s nothing like making a new game from scratch. The amount of decisions and polish required is staggering.
There are two ways for a game to become a business.
- Huge number of installs (either IP or viral) — make enough money with okay metrics
- Great core metrics enables profitable growth (either organic or paid)
Truthfully, our titles failed on both fronts. Not a ton of installs and not great core metrics. We attempted to improve core metrics to make it a winner (follow path #2), but we couldn’t improve metrics and revenue performance enough (either because of poor resource allocation, direction, or execution) to enable growth.
At one point after HonorBound’s launch in 2014, I received feedback from two investors with incredible game experience and massive prior successes. The feedback was contradictory:
- [2 months after global launch] This game is not a hit. When do you divert resources to game #2?
- Focus on HonorBound with all your energy. Do not distract yourself with a second game or anything else.
How do you reconcile that feedback? Although HonorBound didn’t have the metrics of a blockbuster game, we believed it had the potential to fund the company (it did so for a while). So we chose to pursue the second path and improve the game’s performance. As stated above, we weren’t successful in turning it into a long-term revenue engine (though HonorBound has real ongoing revenue (>$1.2M net in last 12 months), unfortunately not enough to fund development of viable future games). Additionally, our goal was to build a big and growing business, not an enterprise that merely sustained (also very difficult to do!). When we realized HonorBound wouldn’t become that big business, we pushed resources to title #2.
What I Learned
Distribution Is Key
“Building a great product” is NOT the best answer for “what’s your distribution strategy?” Building a great product is a requirement and it can work, but make it easier on yourself with a great distribution strategy. My failure to address this (whether through IP, marketing budget/expertise, unique take on community/YouTube/Twitch, or eSports) is the largest reason for our failure. Hoping for considerable Apple/Google featuring isn’t sufficient (though we were featured, its impact has lessened).
Invariably there will be difficult decisions with good reasons and passionate people on each side. It can be a lonely job as CEO, but you have to embrace the decision-making. Our emphasis was on moving forward, so I preferred to make a decision so we could quickly find out if we were wrong.
Additionally, there will be moments of doubt when developing a product. Of course you need to evaluate new information, but I think it’s important to trust the decisions you made previously. You made them for a reason.
Force Of Will
It is the founders’ job to make the company happen and that requires an incredible and consistent force of will to always push. You are the expert and the one that cares the most. I had this fantasy that once we raised a VC round, I’d be working shoulder to shoulder with these VC titans (and I suppose they would take some of the burden of helping the company succeed). The burden, and responsibility, is the founders’. The most helpful investor conversations were around framing problems and how to think about solutions/opportunities.
And some clichés I learned to be true:
It’s Really Hard
Everybody says that building a company is really hard. It is really hard. There is SO much you have to do right: build a product, build a team, build the right team, hire the right people, get an office, get a lawyer, set up the printer, set up the wifi, set up the trash, etc.
I thought, “Of course we’ll succeed. I’m a smart guy working with other smart people. How hard can this be? We’ll figure it out.” Turns out there’s a lot to figure out.
People Matter Most
Of course they do! The value of great talent cannot be overstated. I’m pleased that we assembled a team with some truly phenomenal people that I would work with again in a heartbeat. But building a great team is incredibly difficult. How do you attract the best talent? How does anyone find out about JuiceBox Games?
Related to people, the cliché is to get rid of underperformers as soon as possible. If you think someone is not a fit, they probably aren’t. You cannot act soon enough. The rest of the team most likely agrees and will be happy (and wonder what took so long).
Timing Is Everything
We didn’t take advantage of unique moments with advantageous distribution (Facebook channels on web; newness of App Stores; cheap user acquisition costs on Facebook in 2012). We used a playbook that would have worked for a game released in 2013. By the time of our second game’s release in late 2015, we didn’t have a new distribution strategy for the new reality.
Thank you to my co-founders, all of our employees, our friends and family, our investors, our business partners, and our 5 million players for everyone’s support over the last 3.5 years. We attempted to build something great and valuable in a complicated and challenging environment. Despite our best efforts, we did not succeed.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve heard amazing feedback from our employees and players that’s been humbling and gratifying. Several employees shared how much they loved working at JuiceBox. It’s been their favorite job; the best team they’ve been a part of; the job where they learned the most; a fun and challenging environment; and they loved working with all these great people on a personal level. And players have shared how much they love the the worlds we created, that our games are a part of their lives.
On a personal note, the last 3.5 years have been the most professionally rewarding and challenging of my career and I thank you for the opportunity and trust to pursue this venture. It’s been a great privilege and honor to serve as the CEO of JuiceBox Games.
CEO & Founder, JuiceBox Games