Interview: Synapse Games, Inc. — Go Niche or Go Home

With the Facebook games market heavily dominated by Zynga, EA’s Playfish, and CrowdStar among others, the platform no longer looks like a welcoming place to would-be indie game developers. Synapse Games, however, traveled the indie route starting in 2008 when two longtime friends in Chicago started a game company together. Through two asynchronous massively multiplayer online card games, War Metal and Tyrant, Synapse Games found success by appealing to niche markets. Despite small traffic numbers, the company says it is profitable. Profitable enough, at least, to hire new staff and launch a new game without outside investors.

Inside Social Games: Synapse Games launched War Metal in 2009. The game’s total monthly active users and daily active users peaked awhile back without getting very big, but we can see it has one of the higher DAU/MAU ratios for games, at around 30%. How do you judge War Metal’s success?

Alex Reeve, Synapse Games President and Lead Designer: We base it on a combination of community feedback [channels]. When the game launched, players got really excited about it. They formed groups and were extremely engaged on both the forums and within the game itself. The total number of users was higher than we had had before.

Nick Germain, Synapse Games Vice President: War Metal was really our first game to gain traction and get to critical mass. We didn’t release the game until July 2009. By then, we did have a few other games […] that ran between October 2008 and July 2009, [but they] aren’t really part of our portfolio anymore.

ISG: War Metal is an entirely original intellectual property that you used to build your next game, Tyrant. How did you go about developing the concept for Facebook?

AR: Originally we were just thinking about what would be cool. We come from a traditional gamer background and we really didn’t see anything on Facebook that had a kind of grungy, futuristic feel. I think it fills a gap that’s on Facebook right now. There’s a handful of other [asynchronous MMO] games out there, but they all have pretty different themes than War Metal.

ISG: With core gamers not always immediately embracing Facebook as a gaming platform, do you find yourself sometimes catering to two audiences — one on Facebook and one on the web? We observe that Tyrant (pictured above) is featured on retailer GameStop’s game portal site, Kongregate.

AR: Yeah, what we’re seeing is a trend for those markets to merge. I think it’s still early in that [process], but the overlap between the two is growing.

NG: I think the market’s telling us a little something. Having put Tyrant on Kongregate, the way the [audience] is reacting to it there seems to come from a more traditional gamer background. We realize that there is crossover with the Facebook [audience], but Kongregate seems to us to be where the two are bridged.

ISG: Do you think games have a harder time finding an audience on Facebook because of the restrictions on viral channels?

AR: I think that’s probably been one of the biggest difficulties that we’ve had to overcome. The hardest hit was around mid 2009 when the majority of the channels started closing. We’ve kind of worked around that and the biggest opportunity we have for that is Kongregate. [The audience] is actually monetizing better than what we’ve seen on Facebook. So that’s going to be a key part of our future strategy.

ISG: Why do you think Tyrant is monetizing better on Kongregate than Facebook?

AR: I think it’s a better fit in terms of the market. They’re real gamers.

ISG: What is your growth strategy going forward? Will you expand on Tyrant for both Facebook and Kongregate?

AR: Yes, we are working on an expansion for Tyrant. When we make a game, we want it to have an extremely long lifespan. We expect Tyrant to last at least a couple of years. We’re hoping five years. We want to release expansions for it every two months. We’re also working on a new game [set outside] the War Metal universe. We’re branching out a little bit. At this point, I think most of our growth is going to be through Facebook marketing, more traditional ad spend.

ISG: Do you think Facebook is still a viable platform for indie game developers?

AR: It definitely is harder than it used to be to get in. I think looking at other platforms off of Facebook is probably going to be the easiest way to get a foot in. I think the important strategy for a small developer at this point is that you really have to go niche.

You can track Synapse Games’ War Metal and Tyrant on AppData, our traffic tracking service for Facebook games.