Despite being a company with a ghost for a logo, stealth isn’t something you’d usually associate with Snap, which hurtled into the global consciousness in 2012. Many have predicted its demise since, but the platform now has a stable and growing user base of over 210m daily active users, while its steadily rising share value is higher than almost any time in the last three years.
It came as something of a surprise to discover that Snap has a sizeable (and lovely) office in the very heart of London’s west end, not that you’d notice it from the outside. The well-known ghost logo and usual bright yellow are nowhere to be seen, in fact even the company’s name is abbreviated in reception to just ‘SC.’ It’s a stealth office.
The company’s entry into the gaming sector has also been somewhat stealthy too. While the company hasn’t hidden its gaming ambitions, there will be many who are unaware of the potential in terms of both reach and reward. So just what is Snap Games and why should developers be keen to get involved?
SNAP IT TOGETHER
At Snap’s offices we sit down with senior engineering manager Will Eastcott and head of EMEA game partnerships Pedro Rodrigues (pictured above from left from left to right, respectively). Rodrigues joined the company last year from Facebook’s gaming team. But it’s Eastcott’s story which is intertwined with the creation of Snap Games.
Having worked and consulted at Criterion, EA, Sony and Activision, Eastcott became co-founder and CEO of PlayCanvas, an HTML5-based game engine inspired by the shift to web and cloud-based technologies.
Eastcott recalls: “I had previously worked with Dave Evans [PlayCanvas CTO and co-founder, now senior software engineering manager at Snap]. And we got together and discussed the possibility of a new type of game engine.
“This was going to be a web-based game engine. And at the time, we were inspired by what we were seeing in terms of these online productivity applications, for example, Google Docs, and were wondering whether we could create an online collaborative game engine where you would build everything through the web browser.”
That coincided with the launch of WebGL, which opened up the possibility of high-fidelity graphics in web browsers. PlayCanvas received investment and started to grow a customer base. Then in 2016, Snap became aware of the engine.
“Snap’s director of product Will Wu came across some of our games and he ran them on a mobile device and he was blown away by the load times, the performance, the quality of the graphics that we could achieve through HTML5,” Eastcott recalls.
“And it seemed to him that PlayCanvas had to be part of the Snap Games story that he was building at the time. So we had a meeting with Snap, and it was a no brainer for us to be part of building a brand new gaming platform that was going to be entirely different, with such a vast audience, and to play a part in that story. It was just too good to be true. So my cofounder Dave and I agreed to join the Snap family and that happened in March 2017.”
A GAME OF SNAP?
For those who aren’t au fait with Snapchat, how do games fit into the platform? Well it’s as simple as tapping a little ‘Rocket Ship’ icon beside the text entry field in the chat interface.
“Our audience of 210m daily active users are extremely engaged on Snap,” says Rodrigues. “Spending on average 30 mins every day using the platform, interacting with their best friends. Snap has grown Snap Games as the perfect extension to these friendships, offering accessible, shared experiences. Snap is really aiming to build a sustainable gaming platform that improves discovery for high-quality games, that empowers social play and inspires shared memories between friends.”
Eastcott continues: “We saw chat as being the launch point for these experiences, because that’s where Snap-chatters hang out digitally together. Where people share these kinds of synchronous moments. So enabling a new type of experience within chat, based around gaming, seemed like the perfect place to start.
“A lot of the early prototypes that we built as part of the Snap Games team, were these kind of little synchronous multiplayer games. We were taking classic, traditionally single player games that were previously seen on the app store, and we were reimagining those as synchronous multiplayer prototypes. And that sowed the seeds for the kind of game ideas that you see today on Snapchat.”
A key point is that games on Snapchat are made for the platform, Eastcott points out: “One thing you’ll notice, if you browse the games on Snapchat is that they’re unique to Snapchat. They’re not ports of other games. It’s important to us that there’s great original content that players can find and play on the platform.”
CHAT IT UP
One of the reasons that Snap Games is still somewhat low profile is that it’s cautiously picking the developers it works with, rather than throwing the platform open.
“Snap Games is a closed platform, at least at the moment,” Eastcott confirms. “And so we’re carefully curating a set of developers to work very closely with us on game content. The team that we have works in very close collaboration with all of our partners. And that includes our internal studio as well, based in Brisbane.”
That internal studio was previously Prettygreat, which was founded by the creator of Fruit Ninja alongside other senior staff from the developer Halfbrick. The focus of its efforts to date has been creating games utilising Snap’s own popular Bitmoji virtual avatars, such as Bitmoji Party and Bitmoji Tennis.
So there’s plenty of internal experience that those new to the platform can lean upon. But diving into a new platform is still a risk for any developer.
“Our large and engaged audience gives our games a head start,” notes Rodrigues. “Still, building and growing sustainable platforms takes time and it requires close collaboration between Snap’s product teams and those of our developers and partners alike; It’s a marathon and not a sprint.
“We had that in mind when committing to building Snap Games and made intentional decisions to ease the life of our partners – we’re not an open platform and have decided to work with few and select devs that share our vision for social gaming.
“This has allowed us to be attentive in listening to our partners’ feedback and adapting our roadmap to their needs. With PlayCanvas and Prettygreat, plus the backend, hosting and services – we continue to equip our partners with the tools they need to bring their projects to life, quickly and more efficiently.”
Snap certainly seems confident that it has its end in order. So what is it looking for from potential partners?
“We’re a very design led company. And we’re always looking for very creative studios who can innovate and really take advantage of our platform in a way that’s quite unique. So we’re pretty picky when it comes to the studios that we work with, but we’ve identified some great partners,” Eastcott responds.
And Rodrigues notes that, despite being a closed platform, they are open to approaches: “We are always available and happy to meet with great developers who want to explore bringing new gaming concepts to Snap. We’re looking to build trusted relationships with devs globally and are confident that either through Snap Games or via other platform integrations we have a lot to offer to established and upcoming developers alike.”
And established developers are encouraged to consider how existing IPs might be reimagined for the platform. Examples to date include Alphabear Hustle and Subway Surfers Airtime. So if you have an Tetris 99-style gem of an idea for your game, then Snap might be a great place to take it.
“The nice thing about Snap Games is that it was monetisable, right from the very beginning”
LIFE UNDER CANVAS
Snap Games wants new games and fresh takes – sounds reasonable, but it also wants them developed on its PlayCanvas engine. Some developers may balk at that, but Eastcott is persuasive in explaining why that’s best for everyone involved.
“PlayCanvas is a really important element to the Snap games platform. It enables developers to build very high fidelity HTML5 games very rapidly and gives those developers an easy route to build games that work well, not just on the latest handsets, but on a broad spectrum of devices. Right down to devices that would have been released say, up to seven years ago.” That’s an iPhone 5S or the original Moto G, depending on what part of the market you’re looking at.
“This way, we can address close to 100% of the audience, especially in developing markets where some of the Android devices have lower power CPUs and GPUs,” Eastcott continues. “It’s really important that we can target our games to every Snapchatter.”
We suggest that many will balk at moving away from established engines such as Unity, to which Eastcott counters: “Developers find they’re immediately at home in PlayCanvas. The workflows that we have in the engine are very similar to other game engines on the market today. So developers tend to be up and running and building their games within 24 hours of using the engine. So that’s actually not been a problem.
“And within a short space of time, most developers see that the performance and load times they can achieve through PlayCanvas are far better than they get with other engines. So in the end, it turns out to be like a huge net win for them to be using PlayCanvas. And it ensures that we’ve got a consistent environment where developers can build games for Snapchat very rapidly.
“So we find that, throughout the whole development process, from that first shaking of hands through to them making their game go live on Snapchat, we’re with them every step of the way. And it’s not like we expect developers to work in isolation and then just contact us when they’re ready to submit, we’re with them right from the beginning.
“They feel loved. And they get all the attention they need. So that’s really important for us that we’ve got these close relationships with our developers, not just on the technology side, but also on the design side.
“And ultimately, developers see the PlayCanvas team as their internal technology team. So rather than being some kind of remote, corporate entity – where if they have a problem, they have to potentially wait a long period of time to get those problems fixed – they can contact us and have fixes turn around and deployed within hours.”
CASH IN A SNAP
Having a small group of developers on the platform also brings dividends, quite literally, when it comes to monetisation on the platform. Which is simultaneously both simple and, apparently, effective.
“We enable developers to monetise their games through an ad unit called Snap Commercials,” says Eastcott. The format is the same six-second, unskippable video that appears elsewhere on the platform, such as during its Snap Originals video content.
Monetisation on new platforms is often tricky, but while Snap Games is still in its fledgling years, Snap as a whole has a huge user base to draw from.
“The nice thing about Snap Games is that it was monetisable, right from the very beginning. So none of the developers found themselves in a situation where they couldn’t generate revenue from their games,” Eastcott explains.
“On Snapchat, you’ve got a vast audience ready made for you right from the very beginning. And we have a lot of levers that we can pull to ensure that everybody gets a fair crack of the whip,” Eastcott continues. Which means your title has a big potential audience and isn’t going to get lost among hundreds of similar-looking apps.
Better still, there aren’t any big marketing costs to cut into your profits, notes Rodrigues: “Additionally, on a social platform like Snapchat, games are mostly discovered organically and through friends’ recommendations, enabling devs to connect with millions of Snapchatters without depending on large marketing budgets. HTML5 games are also cross-platform, meaning that the games our partners develop will be accessible across Android and iOS without requiring platform-specific development.”
The Snap Games team is growing with the platform – with Eastcott recently returning home to the UK in order to build out the team in London.
“I’ve just moved back here from LA. I was working out of the Santa Monica office for maybe around two and-a-half years and I’ve just now moved back to London so that I can spin up an additional PlayCanvas team that’s really tapping into the UK talent pool that we’ve got here.
“I’ve got a long history of working for games industry companies here in the UK. So I’m fully aware of the incredible talent we’ve got here. And I want to draw on some of that to build a new team here in London. I’ve already got a team that’s divided between Santa Monica and London to develop PlayCanvas. Now I’m looking for really strong game engine developers to come and join this team here in central London. We also are looking to build a team that works more on the partnership side as well.
“We’ve already got Pedro [Rodrigues], who leads our partnerships effort here in London, and Pedro is also hiring people who can help him both on the strategic side and the partner engineering side. So these are people that are going to be working with our partners really closely and just giving them the best possible development experience that they can, and they kind of work hand in hand with my team. All of that’s being set up here and in our London studio, so we’re hard at work recruiting for those teams right now.”
The industry is constantly on the lookout for new platforms. Snap’s solution seems well-considered and potentially lucrative. It’s also an opportunity to bring long-standing IP to an entirely new audience, creating intriguing multiplayer spinoffs to established IPs which could turn a profit while also reaching new gamers. It’s certainly worth seeing if you can make a match with Snap.
Rodrigues concludes: “We’ve learned a lot so far through the start Snap Games has made and we’re super excited by both new features in the works, and games that are currently in development.
My team is really committed to ensuring our developers and partners see a strong upside from collaborating with Snap and helping us grow our platform. We’ll keep focus on win-win-win initiatives – for Snap, for developers and for players.”